The Technisches Museum Wien invites us to explore our past imaginings of what was to come, and how we dare to dream today
Vienna’s Technical Museum is in the business of making predictions: for instance, that our future will be urban, our vehicles electric and our power more renewable. But they also understand the limits; so much can happen that we don’t expect.
“The future cannot be predicted,” wrote Hungarian-British physicist and Nobel laureate Dennis Gabor, “but futures can be invented.” It’s about the power of imagination amid the enormity of the unknown.
Walking through the Vienna Technical Museum, which opened almost a hundred years ago in May 1918, reveals a world of unhinged times: historical imaginings of what has become our present, and our present visions for the future.
Urban Life, part of the museum’s Future of the City exhibition, is quartered by four walk-in pods, or “thought bubbles”, which each take into consideration a different facet of technology within the everyday. The first begins with the arrival of electricity and the electric light, a miracle hailed as the “artificial sun.” But it also worried people: What if it “leaked”? What if everything became mechanized? What would a world of electric motors be like to live in? The end of the 19th century was a time bursting with possibility, and so too the fevered discussion over the hazards and opportunities – the twin voices of believer and skeptic that can still be heard in discussions of technology today.
The motto “all electric” that ended the century contains that same combination of religious fervor and marketing spin of the latest smartphone or social media app, playing up an almost mythical, unfathomable image of electricity with images of fairies and elves secretly at work.
Anatomy of Automation
On into the 20th century, continuing innovation made electricity available to all as inventions became focused on the easing of everyday life. By 1958, Austrian cyberneticist Claus Scholz announced the first of his Maschinenmenschen (Human Machines), MM6. The intention was to create a robot that was capable of not only housekeeping but also of expressing love – in effect, a partner without all the complications of personality!
Unfortunately, the debut version was a complete monstrosity, all bared metalwork, hydraulic hinges and not so intricate wiring and hosepipes. A gnarled brown pair of brogues and a striped napkin in the place of a grinning mouth were a vain attempt to humanize something that more closely resembled Guinan’s fictional Victorian era Boilerplate robot soldier, than something to get cozy with. Later attempts tweaked the mechanics and cosmetics, but people had moved on.
Fast forward to 1986 in Japan where Honda is creating its first wireless, two-legged robot, an early version of the renowned ASIMO machine on display in the exhibition – some way beyond Scholz’s models.
Whatever Next? Smart!
Our hopes for technology in our everyday lives have changed little over the years. Housework is still inescapable, and we’re still hoping to get a bit more while doing a bit less. During the industrial revolution, people dreamed we might, at last, have time for family and friends, and a life of culture. Today, we still want more leisure, and smart technology is currently our means to that end.
The next part of the exhibition presents a mechanized home, whose electronic sensors flood the rooms with light as you step inside. As gadgets respond to touch and voice, the designers also portray potential pitfalls: A father working on the car smears some oil on his cheek confusing the face recognition at the garage door; or the daughter uses the loo where her urine reveals she is pregnant – information promptly sent on to her mother in the office next door.
The latest home tech is Moley, due on sale this year – an automated cooker from U.K.- based Russian scientist Mark Oleynik, that promises to prepare any dish in the world controlled entirely by your tablet.
While necessity may be the mother of invention, the industry of marketing has made it increasingly harder to discern where a need ends and a want begins. Perhaps we are better being told. Our busy lives lend themselves to automation. But, then again, why are we still so busy?
At the exhibition, the displayed inventions for our future wait in suspended animation for their trial in the real world. Several are features of the envisioned “smart home” with touch sensitive floor coverings that can alert the emergency services if you fall; or the fridge that notifies the grocery store when you’re low on carrots. Some seem disturbingly intrusive, like the slip-on cat ears that respond to electromagnetic signals in the brain, pointing or flapping to communicate whether you’re alert or relaxed in your current company; or the digital cock-ring that stimulates, but also logs performance statistics, to chart your progression.
Above all of these glass screens, a film montage in a continuous loop portrays the comedic failings of technology: Charlie Chaplin grappling with a Murphy bed from his film One A.M., or breakfast in Wallace & Gromit’s house as the porridge machine malfunctions and the bowl is quickly repurposed as a shield to fend off the spray of gloop – a portrait of our fears of rescinding control, and the absurd superfluity of some inventions. Particularly, if all we want is a quiet tea and toast, or a good night’s sleep.
The fourth “thought bubble” reads “Dystopia.” Inside, the glossy seats in alternating green and gold form a circle beneath a loud speaker broadcasting an extract from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – describing a world shattered by nuclear war. While our present day can be seen as a success story, the possibilities of our greatest inventions leading us todisaster pervade all futurists’ thoughts. If at the turn of the 20th Century it was the scope of electricity that sparked fear, the rest of the century was rocked by the consequences of nuclear energy. Likewise today, as the persistent feedback loop between humans and technology brings us closer to a life of technological ubiquity, our nightmare future is dominated by artificial intelligence and the dangers of synthesis between humans and smart tech.
Exhibited between the “thought bubble” pods, the artefacts designed for a stillborn future, time out of joint, seem beautiful, because they no longer belong to that perpetual, inexorable cycle of progress before us. Nor do they claim to be essential to our daily life. Rendered frail in the absence of marketing’s urgency, and absurd in the light of the solutions and visions we chose instead, now they suggest to us an innocence that allows us to look at them fondly.
Today they act as what French philosopher Bernard Stiegler called “memory support.” This is our key to nostalgia, our route back into our own past, like a retrospective periscope, a respite from the pressing future, and a reminder that the future is still soft. What we cannot predict, is ours to invent.
The exhibition ‘Die Zukunft der Stadt’ or ‘Urban Future’ is on now at the technisches museum.