Wednesday, August 9, 2023

The Futurists: CBS News — McGraw Hill Educational Film (1967)

by G. Jack Urso

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

The Futurists, produced by CBS News and distributed by McGraw Hill Educational Films, explores how prominent academics, researchers, and authors of the 1960s saw the future unfolding. With interviews and narration by Walter Cronkite, the documentary is a generally positive, if guarded view of the 21st century imbued with Space Age-era optimism. As an artifact of the past, it fits in with the mission of Aeolus 13 Umbra to explore influences and trends.

Clocking in at 25 minutes, Cronkite includes one breakaway, so the program seems designed for a half-hour block on commercial television, but it’s hard to imagine this wonky look at the future getting much airtime on network television except perhaps to fill an early-hour Sunday morning public affairs network programming hole. Also, the absence of any graphics and headshots-only betrays a low-budget approach. No stock footage of space launches or computers and no images of the technological references made in the interviews grinds the energy of the show to a near–complete halt.

With distribution by the McGraw Hill Educational Film division, it seems that the program was also meant to do double-duty in schools, perhaps for a senior-level high school science class or college students. 

The panel is comprised entirely of White men in high-profile academic, publication, and/or research positions. While fewer in number, there were, of course, also female academics and scholars of other races and creeds the program could have turned to for a broader perspective. In this respect, it reflects the times but demonstrates how these high-profile academic and research positions were still largely segregated in 1967. Nevertheless, one will be hard-pressed to find bias among the individuals interviewed, who, being futurists, have a generally progressive view of society and politics.

Featured in the program in order of appearance:

  • Dr. Olaf Helmer, researcher, Rand Corp.
  • Theodore Gorman, researcher, Rand Corp.
  • R. Buckminster Fuller, architect.
  • Sir Peter Bryan Betteware, biologist.
  • Dennis Gabor, author of Inventing the Future.
  • Daniel Bell, Sociology Dept. Chair, Columbia University.
  • Gerard Piel, editor, Scientific American.
  • Lord Ritchie Calder, Edinburgh University.
  • Herman Kahn, director of The Hudson Institute and author of On Thermonuclear War.
  • Sir Peter Bryan Medewar, Nobel Laureate.
  • Isaac Asimov, author and academic, Boston University.
  • Harrison Brown, author of The Challenge of Man’s Future.
  • Bertrand De Jouvenel, philosopher, political economist, and futurist.
  • Walter Sullivan, science editor, New York Times.

Cronkite sets the stage in the opening which features Helmer and Gordon from the Rand corporation throwing dice to predict the likelihood of possible future outcomes.

A panel of experts has studied a list of possible 21st century developments, from personality-controlled drugs to household robots. They have estimated the numerical probability of each, from zero to 100 percent. The twenty-sided dice are then rolled to simulate these probabilities. A use of random numbers known as the Monte Carlo technique, often used in think tank games. All of this is highly speculative.

Gif created by G. Jack Urso from screen shots from the film.

The program displays a decidedly First-World perspective on the future; however, to pass it off as irrelevant is to miss some buried treasure. Some predictions are spot-on, others much less so, but altogether they provide an insight into then-current academic views as well as the era itself.

R. Buckminster Fuller discusses the technological challenges, and solutions, of human settlement on the Moon. He also predicts automation will results in humans becoming mostly consumers rather than hands-on producers. This was not an unusual concern in the 1960s as criticism of our conspicuous consumer culture rose in the post-war era. Fuller accurately notes that the Chinese, African, and South American markets are crucial and those who can dominate those markets will dominate the future economy. More interestingly, Muller opines on the possibility of teleportation, a burgeoning sci-fi trope more widely used by Star Trek which premiered in 1966.

Isaac Asimov, despite writing on computers and robots in his stories, instead focuses on “the human heart” and our collective desire for improvement. He cautions that the future of humanity needs to be based on global cooperation and that by 2067 we will either have conquered our problems through that cooperation or be destroyed by our inability to work together.

Herman Kahn makes some spot-on predictions about the rise of Japan as an economic power, but misses the mark on China, suggesting it would be unable to emerge as a strong world economic power due to competition from Japan.

Walter Sullivan predicts some of the scientific advances in the next 35-40 years (2002-2007) to involve resolving the question of whether the universe is expanding or static, a greater understanding of the nature of matter, producing clean energy via nuclear fission, fuel cells, and improved batteries for electric vehicles, which could dominate the transportation networks of the future.

Sir Peter Bryan Medewar suggests over-population and population control will become greater concerns as medical advances extend the human lifespan.

Lord Ritchie Calder posits, “Freedom begins with breakfast. You can have all the freedom in the world, but if you’re not fed or taken care of — if society is not taking care of your needs — then you’re not free.” While exemplative of Calder’s socialist beliefs, in all modern Capitalist nations forms of socialist programs like food assistance, disability assistance, and unemployment assistance now exist, and the need growing due to overpopulation and the effects of global pandemics on the economy.

Pop culture’s concerns in the mid-1960s about the future were a bit more mundane
(photo by Donald Silverstein, 1966).
Dr. Olaf Helmer, at the beginning of the program, sums up the conclusions of the Rand Corp. think tank’s experiment:

We wind up with a world which has the following features: fertility control, 100-year lifespan, controlled thermal nuclear power, continued automation, genetic control, man-machine symbiosis, household robots, wideband communications, opinion control, and continued organization.

Does any of that sound familiar? While one can get bogged down with a cynical view of the future based on these scholar’s predictions, there is an underlying optimism, a faith that the inventive ingenuity that has carried civilization thus far will continue to meet its challenges.

One can only wonder what these futurists in 1967 would have thought of 2023 had they been able to see this far into the future.

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