Monday, February 17, 2003
As a longtime insomniac, I find that a lot of my thinking (and hence, a lot of my writing, and a lot of the homework that's due tomorrow that I probably should have done weeks ago) in the wee hours of the night. Normally, I spend this time browsing the Interet, or otherwise on the computer. It is actually quite rare that I will be watching TV this late at night. As you've probably figured out by now if you have some sort of uncanny hypersensitivity to caffeine, there just isn't much out there on TV in the dead of night. Most of the airwaves are filled with various infomercials for various weight loss supplements, miracle house cleaners, and videos for faddish exercise programs that for some unknown reason are supposed to be performed barefoot.
Recently, I came across a particulary intriguing infomercial (well, however intriguing an informercial can be anyway) for the Roomba Intellgent Floorvac, ostensibly an automated vacuum cleaner. This type of product is genenrally found at Brookstone, Sharper Image or other purveyors of high-tech stuff you couldn't live without if you could actually afford anything in the store. As can be expected of such infomercials, there was no shortage of incredible demonstrations, dripping superlatives, and proclamations of this product's revolutionary world-changing power. By golly, your life is going to be SO more fullfilled with those extra two hours a week that you aren't spending vacuuming! (Speaking of which, who spends two hours a week vacuuming anyway? As long as things aren't incredibly trashed, it rarely takes more than fifteen minutes or so to get the whole upstairs in this house vacuumed.)
Yet, for all the typical robovac-inspired hype and hyperbole, I seemed to get a sense that maybe someone involved here wasn't quite as hyped up about their product as they should be in the blissful Utopia of automated floor-sweeping. Even in the most optimistic scenario an infomercial writer could come up with, it was still pretty obvious that the Roomba wasn't much more than a glorified Dustbuster with an electronic brain thrown in. You could see it scattering various dust and larger bits as it went along. And no, you can't pick up a pile of bolts with it, and they pretty much admitted this fact. Yuo could see that it also ended up several inches away from the wall at times,leaving portions of the room unvacuumed. But hey, what's a few crumbs in the corner, if it means the future of vacuuming? One notable testimonial came from an owner of this product, who said something to the effect of "Compared to a VCR, the Roomba is so easy to use!" At a time when the VCR is beginning its inexorable journey toward the proverbial wayside, we can still recall a time when being able to set the clock on your VCR was considered some sort of benchmark for one's technological ability. Nowdays, the geeks seem to have better things to do than set VCR clocks all day, like pushing the room size buttons on their Roombas all day to set them on their merry automated way.
Several decades ago, futurists and industrial films spoke of a bright and rosy (well, the color was pretty grainy, but it's still kind of rosy if you look at it just right) future in which household chores are done at the push of a button. This vision of the future has been relegated to the domain of old populuxe films and the occasional History Channel show, but through the wonder of the Internet (something none of the people who made these films ever imagined) we can view these futuristic visions at the touch of a button (and some waiting for a download.) One particularly interesting example of this is Design for Dreaming, a film produced in 1956 by General motors to promote their current models and concept cars of the time, packaged in what now seems like a campy, almost surreal vision of a future long swept to the corner by reality. It is interesting to think of a time when the future was designed in Art Deco, and when we were supposed to have colonized Mars by now. These days, you don't hear a lot about futurism, mostly because even the best informed predictions have this annoying tendency to end up being little more accurate than a wild guess.
Nonetheless, the infomercials of today are, surprisingly enough, based on real products, available now, and in fact being rather agressively promoted. Given the throwaway nature of such things, it is uncertain how much of this material is going to survive decades from now, but it will certainly be interesting to see how today's vision of the future holds up to reality's version of the same. Will we be looking at 30-minute ads for the miraculous power of Orange-Glo as we use Uber-Scrub brand Instant Everything Cleaner ($1.49 a bottle,) cursing the lack of viable alternatives to good old-fashioned elbow grease? Will we be watching commercials for the amazing new robo-vacuum2000 as we press the button for the insta-clean floor? Or will we just be doing things essentially the same way as we are now, without much change?
The future sure ain't what it used to be. (I probably stole that from someone, but have no idea who, and I should probably at least try to sleep sometime tonight)