Tomorrow's World predicted 'The Office of The Future' in 1969 - how did it do?

In another universe we communicate with our colleagues not by email, but by automated, coffee-dispensing, video-message-broadcasting trolley.

In 1969, Tomorrow’s World ran a segment on ‘The Office of the Future’. These kinds of films are always brilliant to look back at with the benefit of hindsight - not to laugh at, but more as a warning. Predicting stuff is hard.

(Unfortunately the BBC doesn't allow us to embed its videos, but here's the link. Watch until 3:28 - after that, it’s all about capturing neutrinos in deep mines, a very different but fascinating experiment in itself.)

Firstly, our hero arrives at work in a suit and tie, greeting row upon row of female typists. It may be 1969, but the hippies have yet to conquer the office. If you’d explained to someone back then that, half a century later, the most powerful companies in the world would be based in San Francisco and run by people who often come to work in sandals and sweatshirts… well, it’d be a tough sell.

He arrives in his office - his “perfect office” - with a desk made of oh-so-futuristic perspex, and gets to work. In The Office of The Future, that means summoning BJ-39 (a sort of automated aeroplane service trolley) to bring him “anything he wants - even company”. Check out those gadgets!

That’s a video recorder, a TV (for playing fuzzy video calls, of course), a camera for making copies of documents, and a dictaphone. All of those things come as default apps on smartphones these days, though it’s interesting to note that even though we could all go around video calling each other it’s nowhere near as important as, say, having the sum total of humanity’s knowledge only a few finger swipes away.

The idea with BJ-39 seems to be that “he” will take documents around the building, but in the clip we only see it making some rather pointless circuits around the desk. It would be quicker to stand up and walk over to get stuff from it than wait for it trundle over, and for that matter it would be quicker to send documents - hand-written documents, begods, despite the computer in the corner - around the building via something old school like pneumatic tubes, for example.

Now that he doesn’t have to waste time speaking to other people he realises that his actual work doesn’t take up a full day. He becomes bored, and plays with his “executive prism” (really).

 

It’s also not clear if BJ-39 has replaced most of the functions of a secretary - Ms Smith, who is shown showing no care for anything beyond doing her nails (there’s that progressive attitude to gender equality, again), is late for work, and probably lucky to still be in a job.

In fact, it’s remarkable how little has been automated in Tomorrow’s World’s vision. Those typists at the start haven’t been replaced by a photocopier; there’s no corporate intranet on which to share documents; voice memos still have to be transcribed by a human (and ideally a woman, at that). BJ-39 doubles as a coffee machine, not that that's particularly impressive. Imagine how annoying it would be to have a coffee machine rattling between the desks all day, dragging its scent behind it.

Our hero ends the film feeling very lonely. In so much as anything else, this might be better seen as one of those similar predictions of a future where we were all going to work from home when the internet came along and end up lonely and bored. Replace "executive prism" with "Netflix" and it's not too far off when it comes to the distractions of telecommuting.

While you're here, do look at the BBC's collection of clips from other old episodes of Tomorrow's World. Seeing sincerely excited presenters reporting on things like astroturf, laser pens, and snooker-playing robots is a joy.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism