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New Nutrition (1933)

The book Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food by Warren Belasco is one of my favorite books ever. So well researched and written, I could devote a thousand posts to its genius. Instead I'll share an insight from page 217 about the 1933 Chicago World's Fair and American attitudes at that time toward meal pills. While I think Belasco is correct in his assessment that meal pills felt inevitable for many people of that generation, it's important to remember that there were indeed skeptics.

Issues of faith and control underlay much of the popular ambivalence about modernism. If, as the slogan at the 1933 Chicago fair proclaimed, "Science Finds -- Industry Applies -- Man Conforms," there is not a lot that Man can do except sit back and try to enjoy the ride. The belief that modernization is both unstoppable and indifferent to individual desires probably explains the persistent popular belief in the inevitability of the meal-in-a-pill, that scary New Nutrition extrapolation. While most people vow and hope that they will never rely on pills for food, they presume future generations will conform to whatever "science finds" -- pills, algae, or other dystopian horrors proposed by the "brave new world of totalitarian technics."

I'm fascinated by trends in futurism, but I must always remind myself that people of a given generation are not of one mind. Thinking about the great number of cultural, political and social divisions present in 2010 helps to keep this in perspective. Futuristic themes we find odd today may appear to have been widely accepted in their time, but the fear of a robot uprising in the 1930s, or the inevitability of an incredibly short work week in the 1960s, or building a roof over an entire city in the 1940s, all had their fair share of skeptics. Accurately getting a feel for the acceptance of these ideas is one of the greatest challenges for historians.

I'm just as interested in how many people really thought we'd have a jetpack by now as I am in why we don't have that jetpack. So if anyone has creative ways of gauging public attitudes toward these futuristic ideas of the past, I'm all ears! Well, not literally. I only have two. But will people in the year 2110 assume that the people of 2010 thought they'd all one day have three ears?


The image above is from the book Exit to Tomorrow: World's Fair Architecture, Design, Fashion 1933-2005.


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"I'm just as interested in how many people really thought we'd have a jetpack by now as I am in why we don't have that jetpack."

But we do have a jetpack nowadays!


December 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristo

It might be possible to judge how accepted an idea is by looking at the secondary effects of a general acceptance. In the example of jetpacks, were there any laws proposed for the regulation of private jetpack ownership? Were there any draft plans for easily installed home landing spaces? Did anybody file patents for jetpack safety systems? Were there any magazine articles about jetpack safety? Did any businesses draft plans of how to deal with all their employees arriving by jetpack? It’s a lot more work, obviously, but I’m afraid it’s the best I can come up with...

December 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDylan Fox

I just found your blog and I'm hooked. I find it extremely interesting how society's come up with fantasies and false realities at the same time. It seems we have throughout history blindly followed each other.

December 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAaron Curl

The short work week is a different sort of beast from robot revolutions and jetpacks; we actively *chose* as a society that it was something we "didn't want" (scare quotes because it was less about us *wanting* it and more about there being a disconnect between the people doing the choosing and the people doing the work). The predictions were right: most jobs could do as much in a three day week today as in a five or six one a century ago. It's just that when companies heard this, they said "hey, let's just double productivity requirements and not pay our employees any more!" We chose decades of economic growth over the shorter work week.

December 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoss

Maybe not 3 ears but there are definite trends from which we can make predictions. For example, when I was in high school (ok that's been a while but ...) I predicted that one day women would be wearing clothes so tight they might as well be painted on. Shortly after, spandex was invented.

December 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Merschat

Meals in a pill... Flying cars... Video phones... The "paperless office"... Ah, the classic ephemera of future ideas that never came to be! To me, most of these future fails fall into at least one of four categories:

1. They are genuinely bad ideas (People have enough trouble driving cars on the ground, let alone ones that can fly)
2. There's no demand for them, not solving any problem or having any intrinsic appeal (We like to eat too much to take our meals in pill form)
3. Something else came along that met the value proposition better, faster or cheaper (we don't have video phones, but we have webcams)
4. The drivers to make them practical haven't arrived yet (we're just now moving toward paperless offices... but demand is driven by environmental and economic concerns as well as technology-based substitutes like laptops, tablets and e-readers)
5. Social, cultural and political barriers conspire to allow change, but only up to a point (Workweeks were shortened to 40 hours early in the 20th century, so futurists then extrapolated the trend to assume that work hours would continue to diminish. Same with ladies' swimwear; it's much skimpier today than say 100 years ago, but anything less than a two-piece swimsuit remains [in the US at least] unacceptable in most cases.)

The quote in this post is spot-on, though it differs from what people assumed about the future in the past. Primarily, there seemed to be an assumption that just because "science" created a solution, it would be universally and immediately embraced. Back then, there was a lot more faith in "progress" and in what "authorities" thought were good ideas. Today, we live in an age of skepticism about sources of authority -- partly the legacy of the baby boomers questioning their elders, and partly the explosion of information that exposes us to different and conflicting ideas.

January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Meant to say five categories instead of four above... sorry!

January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

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