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Kilbarrack, 1973 and the World of Tomorrow… December 7, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Science, Science Fiction, The Left.
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WorldofTomorrow

Get your ticket to that wheel in space
While there’s time
The fix is in
You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky
You know we’ve got to win
Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

I G Y – Donald Fagan.

When I was seven, or perhaps eight, I found a book in the Library of Scoil Lorcáin National School in Kilbarrack. All told it was a pretty good library with a fairly large selection of books. Even today I can remember many of the volumes that were there – a book about BOAC passenger aircraft which had silver Constellations and Viscounts set against improbably azure skies, another about Russian Fairy Tales with strong expressionistic illustrations that simultaneously were attractive and terrifying, another on Irish history with muddy watercolour paintings of round towers and crannógs. But the book which has stayed with me most was a volume entitled The World of Tomorrow. Written by Kenneth Goldstein in the late 1960s it sought to describe developments in technology, science and society in the future.

I can’t quite work out was it the book which sparked my interest in all things futurological or did the interest come earlier? My Dad had had a small selection of science fiction titles he had picked up in the late 60s or early 1970s. I studied the covers first and then later read them. Jack Vance’s superlative The Dying Earth, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. There were others, an Asimov or two… but I don’t remember all of them. And I can’t work out the chronology accurately. I think the books came after The World of Tomorrow.

The most remarkable aspect of it was that in addition to the usual illustrations it was interspersed with photographs of a remarkable installation at the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair entitled – Futurama II. This installation was a model constructed by General Motors of their predictions for the future. Spectators would be brought through it on a ride train. As it happens, and the numerals area clue, there was a Futurama I which was shown at the 1939-40 Worlds Fair. But I knew nothing of the history of this until much much later.

As Wired Magazine commented in an article on the Futurama…

Futurama II looked even further into the future, presenting predictions of a time that most fair visitors won’t live to see. In this world, mankind had dominion over the entire universe. Six-wheeled moon buggies moved easily over the lunar surface, ritzy hotels had been built deep beneath the ocean, tree-devouring machinery carved highways through jungles. The point of view wasn’t quite as distanced as the original Futurama. The far-fetched vehicles were much larger, and they were piloted by tiny human puppets.

Either way I spent hours poring over the photographs of the Futurama. The rest of the book was good, I remember particularly vivid photographs of amoeba, an artificial heart valve, illustrations of interstellar colonists in suspended animation pods in a vast chamber inside a spaceship, full wall screens that would replace television in a truly immersive environment. And these memories were forensic. But the photographs were the gleaming heart of the book.

They depicted lunar bases, undersea colonies and most interestingly – for me at least – the City of the Future. Capital C, Capital F. This gleaming construct looked, well – it looked real. It was clear that the vehicles, gleaming darts, moved along the roadways. There was a weight to the buildings. The parks. The walkways. The windows. This might only be a model, but it was a model of a realisable future. Now I can’t quite be sure the idea that comes to mind looking at the buildings that sliding down the side of some of the more curvilinear ones would be fun is my seven year old self reaching out across the decades or just retrospective nonsense on my part now.

wot030

And I’ll bet that one Gerry Anderson paid close attention. There’s a certain something about the shape of the machines set in jungle (no worries about deforestation here) building roads that is undeniably reminiscent of the plethora of vehicles he had designed for UFO. Wired notes that:

The overall look was strikingly similar to the campy TV show Thunderbirds, which premiered as the 1964-1965 World’s Fair was closing.

You bet. Moreover I’d be almost certain that a very few years later when Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were collaborating on 2001: A Space Odyssey they took visual cues from the designs of this exhibit. It’s not quite as antiseptic in tone, there is earth and sand and dirt, but the city doesn’t have any sense of the grime of reality.

Heady stuff, you might guess for someone in the Library of a school in a northside housing estate, and you’d be right. But then Scoil Lorcáin itself was fairly new and the Community School across the road was in its own way modernist, all exposed vents, electrical trunking and piping, like a Pompidou Centre writ small. Very very small indeed. And what of the flats across the train line? They too were examples of modernity as was the churned earth and mud of the field that I’d cross on my way home pretending I was a lunar rover (I was an oddish kid on occasion, that I’ll admit). That field later became a shopping centre. Because in its odd low level way urban Ireland in the early 1970s had a brief flash of expansion, all too rapidly stifled by the Oil Crisis, and the future was what was happening, right there and then. And although economic contraction, and slightly later adolescent cynicism, saw it become decrepit and dull within a short few years (and not just cynicism, the flats eventually saw more than their fair share of heroin users and were eventually demolished some while back) that environment remained a fading testament to a future that had at least some visionary aspects, stranded in a present of dwindling budgets, unemployment and hyper-taxation.

And I’m not unaware of the probability that it was the model aspect of these which gave them a powerful attractiveness – as well as my age. The Wired article references this:

“Detailed miniatures are always compelling,” says Dan Howland, editor of the Journal of Ride Theory. “It doesn’t matter whether they are doll houses or model trains or it’s Legoland, something about them just sucks you in.

Still, I don’t think that’s the whole story. There were other attempts to show the future. Brian Stableford and David Langford wrote The Third Millennium: A History of the World AD 2000-3000 in the early 1980s. It was interesting, but not quite as convincing (although that’s worth a post of its own). The images seemed to be that which they were, small scale models of spacecraft or machines set in diorama’s of varying degrees of credibility. These were the children of 2001, attempting to appropriate some of its often glum yet pristine magic but not quite succeeding. They didn’t have the feel, that sense of a coherent world worked out in detail and precision.

I’m fairly certain no-one would portray the future in such a way any more. Future cities are now restricted to the identikit imagery of science fiction dust-jacket illustration. I still love that. Chris Moore, Chris Foss and others provide a backdrop to my thoughts on occasion, but it’s a different sort of love from that I have for the World of Tomorrow. The vast world cities sit on the spectrum of the fantastical, Trantor or – if you prefer your pleasures on the cheap – Coruscant.

They may well be built, or may well exist elsewhere, but I’ll never know them. They’re not my future. Or yours. The World of Tomorrow, though, was. It was perhaps 2050, an unimaginable date when sitting cross-legged on the tiled floor of the Library in 1973, but one that, if I did the math, was just about feasible as a time that I’d live to see. I didn’t have any conception of what being 85 might be like, anymore than I knew what 12 would be. But that didn’t matter. It was possible. That’s all I needed to know. And, being 8 I guess I thought that the world changed more quickly than it really did. Who could blame me or legions like me, who had actual memories of seeing a man, no – two men, land at Tranquility Base? I read Speed & Power and Look and Learn. I saw the Hardy illustrations of a future that was – so it seemed – just seconds away.

Lest it seem like a vision of the future with no flaws – and in fairness it did deal with pollution and energy conservation – let me quote you the following from a description of home life:

There are smaller screens in the other rooms of the house but this is the one Mother usually uses.

When she wants to shop, she dials the store or market, and as soon as her call is answered, the store or market appears on the wall screen. She can talk to the assitants, who will show her a range of goods from clothing to the fruit bought in that day from the greenhouses in the Antarctic.

To pay the bills, Mother again uses the telephone which identifies the family’s account. All the money Father earns is automatically credited to his account. he never sees it, but only uses it. Mother signals the bank computer to check the amount in the accounte, just to make sure there is enough money in hand to pay the bills.

The newspapers we mentioned are not the kind you know. they come in over the new facsimile communications channel. Printed electrostatically on paper, they roll out of the machine, giving you an almost instant newspaper day or night. You can dial for a regular daily paper if you wish. But Mother may dial for only the women’s page features of a dozen newspapers, while Father may be more interested in the science, cultural and political news.

Of course.

Even to me, with a “Mother” who worked, and a Gran living at home who had done likewise in her time this seemed a bit odd, even old-fashioned, and even the futurist gloss of ‘Father being a spaceship designer’ toiling away in his ‘workroom’ while Mother prepared lunch appeared in its own way as fantastical – but not in a good way – as some of the other aspects of the book.

And as to why no-one would present us with such predictions any more, well I’m not entirely certain. Perhaps there has been a collective and global loss of faith in the idea that the tomorrow can, or even should, be better than today. In a world where the very shape of the continents will be changed by global warming who would casually predict what the future will hold? That’s understandable, yet I think that if true something has been lost for there was an instructive quality to that future vision.

Did the sense of wonder (natch) that came from viewing this transfer in some way from a belief that the future would be better to a belief that the future could be better? In other words did this become in some respect an element of a broader political belief system that I would then develop? The contrast between “The World of Tomorrow” and Kilbarrack, or Dublin in the 1970s was huge, yet all three were expressions of modernity, and re-reading the book (after finding it on Amazon – tellingly it seemed a lot smaller than I remembered it) the thought struck me that maybe the distinctions between the two ultimately pushed me towards some sort of political engagement, something that literally expressed progress, albeit in a somewhat different way.

It’s a bit self-serving, a bit too neat, isn’t it? Yet I’d still like to think it was so.

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Comments»

1. KevanB - December 7, 2008

Very interesting stuff for a Sunday morning. I think from the fifties onwards there was a sense that all things were possible. Space travel was real and new and exciting.

“We’d never had it so good”, though we roared at the politician who said it we had a feel that he might be right. That pushed us into an attitude that assumed things could be better. And that it was worth trying for in politics or other ways.

We all seem to have got a lot more gloomy of late, and not just in the current economic depression.

Our problems are portrayed as being enormous and in some ways insurmountable.

People like to be able to look forward to better times, which is why Obama’s “yes we can” had such an appeal around the world.

Time to dig out the D H Lawrence and remember that poem,

“Lets make a revolution for Fun”.

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2. alastair - December 7, 2008

I’ve been an anorak in relation to the original Futurama for a good while now – or more accurately the entire ’39 World’s Fair. GM made much out of multi-lane freeways in their vision of the future, and got their way in the 50’s – the odd gyrocopter didn’t really distract from the proscribed transportation network of the future.

There’s some fantastic footage of the (original) Futurama, as well as the rest of the utopian constructs at the World’s Fair in the Prelinger Archives at archive.org. Also some great contrasting footage from the Midway at the Fair – Salvador Dali lending his brand to the topless mermaid aquarium show, naked living dioramas etc. A real sacred and profane vibe about the whole bash.

Gotta say that the ’64 Fair seemed like a wishy-washy redux of the ’39 Fair to me. Less ambitious, and less international in focus. Charles and Ray Eames had a fantastic pavillion/exhibition for IBM – making computational machines seem as entertaining as a victorian vaudeville show. They made a film of it that’s included on the brill Eames film DVD compilation.

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3. Starkadder - December 7, 2008

“Did the sense of wonder (natch) that came from viewing this transfer in some way from a belief that the future would be better to a belief that the future could be better? In other words did this become in some respect an element of a broader political belief system that I would then develop? …. the thought struck me that maybe the distinctions between the two ultimately pushed me towards some sort of political engagement, something that literally expressed progress, albeit in a somewhat different way.”

A very interesting post, WBS. In a similar vein I remember reading a lot of sci-fi and futurology books when I was younger.

Have you ever read “Future Imperfect” by Russell Jacoby? It’s a
discussion and defence of the Utopian tradition in Western political
thought, and emphasises the importance of a vision of a better world for encouraging political action.

Lewis Mumford’s “The Story of Utopias” is an interesting, although
dated, history of Utopias from Plato to William Morris, and worth a
look as well.

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4. ejh - December 7, 2008

which is why Obama’s “yes we can” had such an appeal around the world.

Taking inspiration from the similar success of Bob The Builder.

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5. WorldbyStorm - December 7, 2008

Cheers for that all above. It’s an amazing area and any of us on the left or the progressive end of the spectrum perhaps should analyse this area a bit more deeply.

ejh and KevanB, I have a similar slogan for life myself, but it’s a bit more cynical.

Starkadder, I haven’t read either of them, but I’ll go looking.

Alastair, you wouldn’t like to pen a few words on Futurama I would you? That’s even more interesting as you say, I loved the future world depicted there… but was it ever Metropolis in a way…

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6. Dan Sullivan - December 7, 2008

I remember coming across those images, perhaps in that book or a repackaged version in the mid/late 70s too. I’m a library brat and proud of the fact. The new library in Killorglin was built in a new open plan style that seemed so out of place in a small country town. With loads of space but all divided up into non-linear garden spaces. It has since been replaced with something, well, considerably lesser in my view. Less welcoming, less open, and less possessible by the kids of the area. See once we stepped behind the walls different rules applied, we were slightly better behaved, a tad more grown up, that bit quieter.

I do wonder at our lack of predictions when it comes to the future perhaps it is related to the adoption of laissez faire in so many spheres. We don’t predict the future because we’re not allowed to anymore, we’re supposed to just let it unfold and take what we’re offered.

Of course those models were reused extensively in Logan’s Run (ah, Jenny Agutter) from what I can recall.

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7. WorldbyStorm - December 7, 2008

Were they indeed. Certainly some of them look similar. That’s an interesting point about laissez faire…

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8. Starkadder - December 7, 2008

Linking with Dan’s point about laissez-faire, I wonder if the
popular cant about anyone who harbours any utopian ideas is
a budding totalitarian, has helped discourage attempts to plan a
better future? You certainly get that in modern conservative writers like John Gray and Michael Burleigh-it’s one of the ideas Jacoby wants to
challenge. Just follow “tradition” and the “free market” and don’t try to
imagine “another world is possible”-that seems to be mitigating
against any utopian or even futurological thought in the West.

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9. WorldbyStorm - December 7, 2008

Well that links in with what Ken Macleod mentioned the other day on the Anti-German left strain and their take on how anti-globalisation can feed into a sort of submerged anti-semitic or anti-cosmopolitan approach. I wouldn’t go as far as them in arguing the majority who take that view are functional anti-semites, or anywhere near that, but there are aspects to anti-globalisation which sometimes seem to be in direct contradiction with Marxist internationalism. And Gray and people like that seem to me to actually link into a somewhat reactionary approach on some levels. If ‘no progress is possible’ then we’re all f’d.

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10. Starkadder - December 9, 2008

Actually, I can’t really think of any modern sci-fi writers who have
written Utopian fiction, except Ursula Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany.
Maybe the Utopian structure doesn’t really mesh with the demands
of good storytelling.

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11. WorldbyStorm - December 9, 2008

Yeah, those days are over. Although at a stretch I tend to think Iain Banks Culture series are utopian. I’m re-reading the Player of Games and enjoying it an awful lot more than I’d expected and much of that is by seeing how Banks depicts negative actions and their consequences within the Culture, and how difficult it is to envisage such things in a society where everyone has almost complete autonomy and access to resources – although something that puzzles me is why some of the drones would operate as servitors… I think Ken Macleods first trilogy also has utopian elements although entertainingly these are both libertarian and socialist.

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12. Starkadder - December 9, 2008

I’m sure some of the hippy movement based got their ideas from
Aldous Huxley’s utopia “Island” (Communes,ecology, Eastern Mysticism).

Also, E.P Thompson pointed out that even in the depths of the Depression many a working-class house in the
North of England used to have a well-thumbed cop of
Morris’ “News from Nowhere”. Giving them something better to look forward to?

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13. goodhardrant@wordpress.com - December 13, 2008

Beautiful post and right on time, too. I went to the V&A exhibition ‘Cold War Modern’ last week which has some hauntingly nostalgic examples of sci-fi utopias. The exhibition starts with the competitive rhetoric of progress employed by each side, and the way in which the arts were conscripted to reflect these utopian and political aspirations. The section on ‘Space odysseys’ had great examples of those minitaurised fantasies of the future, screens showing Kubrick’s 2001, and Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’. This was undoubtedly the centrepiece of the exhibition, with huge spinning light and mirror exhibits, giant metal satellites, space suits – great stuff all round. It was followed by a display on ‘revolution’ (their term), which then led onto ‘the last utopians’. It was a great exhibition, especially the way it linked politcal ideology to the plastic arts and architecture, but it was interesting to see how it implied that ‘direct action’ disrupted the binary of communist / capitalist and led to what the catalogue calls an idealism ‘marked by a dark undertone of irony…uncritical celebration of technology was increasingly hard to sustain.’ It’s easy to mock the idealising impetus in utopian fictions, and I think there is a lack of explicitly utopian writing for young people, but hasn’t it got some kind of afterlife in things like (God forgive me) Star Trek? Another question is why contemporary literature for children is so preoccupied with fantasy / magic and why dystopias are so seductive in popular culture?

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14. WorldbyStorm - December 13, 2008

As it happens I bought the David Crowley book on the posters of the Cold War which accompanies that exhibition earlier this year. I really envy you getting to see it, it seems amazing.

That’s an interesting point about Star Trek. I guess that it does, but it seems very attenuated at this remove (and considering how Star Trek has crashed and burned in it’s various iterations since DS9 one would wonder whether it could only function in the 1970 to 1995 period… a sort of proto-contemporary period). That’s another great question. I think that also spreads into adult fiction, consider the SF and Fantasy sections of bookshops and the huge number of works in the latter area (or in Hodges Figgis where they don’t even bother to distinguish between the two).

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15. Bartholomew - December 13, 2008

Starkadder,

“I’m sure some of the hippy movement based got their ideas from Aldous Huxley’s utopia “Island” (Communes,ecology, Eastern Mysticism).”

The only hippie commune in Dublin that I know of was in fact called ‘Island’. It was where the Merrion shopping centre is now, beside Vincent’s Hospital. About 1968, I think.

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16. WorldbyStorm - December 13, 2008

That’s pretty interesting. Any more information about them Bartholomew?

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17. Bartholomew - December 14, 2008

No, it was just a childhood memory. It was in the large abandoned garden of a large abandoned house, with railings and corrugated iron around it, and ‘Island’ painted on the corrugated. You could see in from the top floor of the bus. A subject for a ‘Hidden History’ programme?

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18. WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2008

I’ll bet.

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19. Starkadder - December 18, 2008

I found Mumford’s “Story of Utopias” online:

http://www.sacred-texts.com/utopia/sou/index.htm

It’s in the public domain in the US.

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20. This weekend I’ll mostly be listening to… Ulrich Schnauss « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - June 6, 2009

[…] On my own – again from A Strangely Isolated Place (fan produced video which draws on eclectic sources for the imagery including the Futurama II) […]

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21. Moon: It’s scary out there. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - July 19, 2009

[…] already mentioned how, as a kid, I was fascinated by this book. which also had something of that. And the model work was a large part of it. Anderson, Derek […]

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22. Doug McLeod - December 31, 2011

I have this book too, just got it out to see how right it was 42 years after I got it. It was always my idea of the future, when I saw La Defence in Paris two years ago I thought, it’s just like the book. Except the buildings don’t curve into the ground exactly, what is the deal with that? If you’re going to do a thing, do it right! And the photos defined the book, I thought when rereading the book, those photos must have come from somewhere. Today I had a look for them, and thanks to the wonders of the internet I found in only five minutes they came from Futurama II. I was amazed I could do that so easily, the future really has come to pass just as predicted! It would have taken far more trouble in 1969 and I doubt I could have done it at all even with whatever assistance the local library could offer.

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Doug McLeod - December 31, 2011

Just checked my photos of La Defence again, it really is like the book, right down to the curvy buildings, and funnier still, the plaza is filled with random little matchstick people! Even to the point you’d say it wasn’t a coincidence, shared descent from Le Corbusier perhaps?

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WorldbyStorm - December 31, 2011

Thanks for the point about La Defence. I’m off to have a look at that now. I think you’re absolutely right about how the internet itself is an aspect of the future which in way the book never really engaged with. Or indeed most projections of the future at the time. I’m glad I’m not the only one to have years/decades influenced by it.

There has to be some influence of Le Corbusier. Doesn’t there? Even unconsciously. Those sweeping flat facaded buildings [for the most part] are very modernist.

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Doug McLeod - March 2, 2012

In the Jetsons there is a scene where Elroy (the son) is talking on his computer to a friend out at Uranus, so there were some internet memes in the air in the early 60s. But you are right, the book does not mention the internet, what is implied in the famous ‘father/mother’ passage you quote is more like the original bulletin board services,something like Compuserve, than a global computer network. That goes to the whole question of what is predictable about the future. I take the view that just as the stock market moves randomly, because all available information is already incorporated into the price, so the future moves randomly, because if we know something can be done we are already doing it or at least developing it. Interesting conversation to have sitting in some 60s bean bags, drinking some cognac after dinner and listening to some Elton John or Yes.

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23. Gary Will (@GaryWill) - March 2, 2012

Same book — same age — same impact! And I still have my copy too.

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WorldbyStorm - March 2, 2012

Excellnt, Gary. Great book.

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24. EamonnCork - March 2, 2012

The new Simon Reynolds book Retromania has a very good chapter on nostalgia for the alluring sci-fi future which never happened, as well as lots of good stuff about music I think would be of interest to a few CLR people.

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Doug McLeod - March 2, 2012

CLR? I am guessing you don’t mean Common Language Runtime. Could you please let me know what this means.
The book sounds good. The space stuff may not have happened but that does not mean it never will, although I am guessing not within our lifetime. In the 60s people seriously thought they would be vacationing on the moon by 2000 (see the World of Tomorrow for that). But that reflects the life experience of the 50 yo writers of the time; they had seen aircraft come from one man experimental jobbies to commercial passenger jets, and flying to the moon was a reasonable extrapolation from that. However, computers were still outside most people’s life experience.

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EamonnCork - March 2, 2012

Doug, this site is called the Cedar Lounge Revolution (CLR). Reynolds actually mentions that idea about vacationing on the moon, and the fact that while the advances in computers have been startling, they’re not as impressive as the advances of the previous fifty years because their effect is largely felt in the private rather than the public sphere. He points out that being able to find loads of old music on Youtube lacks the heroic gloss of something like the Space Elevator.

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Doug McLeod - March 2, 2012

Even supposing Reynolds is correct in saying that (the effect of computers is mainly felt in the private sphere), then so what? If that is intended to be a left wing point of view it is a pretty poor excuse for one. Computers have democratized both access to information and our ability to make our voice heard. I would have thought the idea that government per se had anything to do with an egalitarian or socialist society died a long time ago, well before the death of the Soviet Union. Around the time of destalinization actually.

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25. Doug McLeod - March 2, 2012

Sorrry, Cedar Lounge Revolution. Irish injoke I am guessing.

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26. dickcherry - March 11, 2012

i’m sure i had this book as a kid. huge formative influence. lost mine somewhere along the way – any chance of a few more scans from the inside?

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WorldbyStorm - March 12, 2012

Email me using the address in the column in th rt hand side . I’ll see what I can do. I should add its fairly easy to get this very cheap second hand on amazon or if you’re a bit averse to some of their work practices abebooks.

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