When we watch a movie from, say, twenty years ago, it strikes us that both nothing and everything has changed. Apart from their slightly baggier clothes, the people look the same as us. But where are their phones? Compared to the recent past, the look of life today hasn’t changed much, but thanks to the internet and even more so to smartphones, the feel has changed enormously. Most literary and cinematic predictions of the future got this exactly wrong, envisioning flamboyant aesthetic transformations atop completely unchanged forms of human behavior and society.
But more than 70 years ago, J. K. Raymond-Millet’s film Télévision: Oeil de Demain (“Television: Eye of Tomorrow”) seems to have scored the bullseye few other visions of the world ahead even aimed for. “This is one extraordinarily accurate prediction in a work of science fiction,” wrote William Gibson as he tweeted out a four-minute clip of the film that has recently gone viral. Though long regarded as a sci-fi prophet, Gibson is the first to admit how little about technology he’s accurately foreseen: his breakout novel Neuromancer, for instance, features 21st-century hackers making calls from public telephone booths.
Hence the impressiveness, here in the actual 21st century, of this vision of a future in which people stare near-constantly down at the screens of their handheld devices: on the train, at the café (visited, at 0:13, by what appears to be a time-traveling Gibson himself), in the street, on collision courses with fellow screen-watchers on foot and in cars alike. These handheld televisions remind us of our mobile phones in more ways than one, not least in their being scuffed from sheer use. As with every astute prediction of the future, all this may at first strike us denizens of the actual future as mundane — until we remember that the prediction was made in 1947.
Produced as an educational film, Télévision (viewable in full here) first shows and tells how the eponymous, still-novel technology works, then goes on to imagine the forms in which it could potentially saturate modern society. These include not just the aforementioned “miniature-television devices in public places,” as scholar of television Anne-Katrin Weber puts it, but “professional meetings conducted via picture-phones,” “cars equipped with television screens,” and “shops promoting their goods on television.”
We also see that “the small handheld portable devices replace newspapers and air ‘the information broadcast, or the political comment, the fashion show, or the sports bulletin’, while the television set at the travel agency replaces the paper catalogues and invites potential clients to ‘televisually’ visit vacation destinations.” Such technology will also offer more “intimate sights,” as when “the young woman, stepping out of the shower, has forgotten to turn off her telephone-camera and reveals herself naked to the caller.” Yes, of course, “forgotten” — but then, this approaches aspects of the future in which we live that even the boldest technological prophets never dared consider.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.