Charlie Harvey

Tomorrows World 1969: the bleak, lonely, sexist office of the future

I have a strange fascination for digging out old pieces of footage about the future. I don’t know why. Here is a particularly bleak version of how the future was to be, as foreseen in 1969 by BBC Tomorrow’s World presenter James Burke.

A man in a business suit arrives at work. Wanders in to work past row upon row of typists — all women, naturally — the Summer of Love may have been happening outside the studio, but patriarchy wouldn’t be going away any time soon.

He goes in to his office, which is huge. And full of semi-automated ‘futuristic’ help.

There’s a giant plastic desk, a giant robotic tea-trolley thingummy called BJ-39, a crap telly playing static-filled videos of callers, a sort of giant camera for making copies and a tape recorder for dictating messages in to. Not to mention what looks very much like a computer that sits unused in the corner.

We listen to the businessman’s inner dialogue as, starved of human contact and deprived of much of the trivia that made up a 1960s work day he becomes bored. He moans about the inefficiency of his secretary "Miss Smith" who — this being from the days when sexism was not only common on telly but pretty much compulsory — spends her time doing her nails . He plays with his executive prism, I assume this must once have been a thing. You get the impression that this is a guy being driven slowly insane by lonliness.

In almost all technical aspects the vision of the future here was way off the mark. The giant tea trolley, the computer in the corner, the rows of typists — hell, even the suit — are all from a different era.

But the alienation and boredom of the efficient workplace are captured wonderfully and seem relevant to our increasingly technically mediated world. Here is the closing remark of the businessman:

The great thing about machines is that they do what they’re told. They leave you to get on with it. Never late. They’re obedient. They're never sick. They never disturb you. Or argue, or paint their nails, or talk, or smile at you, or say, "Good morning", or keep you company. They just leave you alone. They leave you alone …



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