Electric dreams or electro-nightmare?

By Dr Rebecca J. Wray

The period of 1958-1963 is referred to as the ‘Golden Age of American Futurism’. This was characterised by an optimistic outlook on the future, and in particular a vision of an easier domestic life for housewives made possible via technological wonders. This optimism was epitomised in the Hanna-Barbera animated series The Jetsons (first season’s initial run 23rd September 1962 – 3rd March 1963). The Jetsons was set in an unspecified future period in which people only worked two hours a week, drove flying cars, lived in houses raised on adjustable columns in the sky, had access to many gadgets and appliances around the home, and were served by cheerful robots who not only perform various chores and labour, but are also part of the family.

American Futurism: Flying Postman by Arthur Radebaugh
Vision of the Future: ‘Rocket Mailmen’ (1958) by Arthur Radebaugh

The Jetsons was played for laughs and portrayed the future of domestic life as being much the same as it was in the mid-twentieth century just with more advanced technology. The nuclear family pattern is dominant in this show, with the characters falling into traditional gender roles. George is the breadwinner of the family, while Jane is a housewife and stay-at-home mother. In the very first episode we see Jane feeling overwhelmed by household chores, particularly using a push-button device called the Foodarackacycle to prepare breakfast for the family. Even when cooking food has been reduced to simply pressing a button to select eggs and toast, the responsibility of producing a good meal is still firmly placed on Jane and when standards are lacking it is Jane rather than the machine who gets the blame. This kind of domestic future was similarly represented in animated shorts during this period, as well as at world fairs promising crowds to show them ‘the world of tomorrow’.

While The Jetsons could be said to reflect the post-war optimism and aspiration of the West, more recent science-fiction portrayals of housework could be argued to reflect modern concerns and anxieties. In the Black Mirror episode ‘White Christmas’ (airdate 16th December 2014) the future of housework is envisioned as a nightmare scenario in which a ‘cookie’, a digital clone of a person’s personality is downloaded and placed into a personal assistant device called an ‘egg’. On the surface as far as the customer is concerned, the egg works similarly to a smart speaker: running the house, turning lights on and off, cooking a meal just how the owner likes it. However, unbeknownst to customers, the egg is such a perfect replica of them, their personality, and thoughts, the egg has sentience and psychological torture is used to force the egg to perform domestic duties. It’s a chilling image and raises questions about the rights of Artificial Intelligence, a theme which occurs in other more recent sci-fi examples.

Black Mirror, 'White Christmas' (2014): Customer using his 'egg' to perform household tasks.
Black Mirror, ‘White Christmas’ (2014): Cookie trainer setting up an ‘egg’ to perform household tasks

In the video game Detroit: Become Human (released May 2018) we see a near future in which realistic looking androids are used throughout society for various tasks including domestic work and child-rearing. Similarly to Black Mirror we witness a callous side to humanity in which these androids are treated as property and subject to mistreatment, segregation, and domestic violence. The moment the androids begin showing any sign of sentience and autonomy they are shut down, factory reset, and/or destroyed. These more modern representations of housework in science fiction tend to slant more pessimistic, portraying future society as at best indifferent, and at worst callous and cruel in attitude towards AI.

In the years following World War II, Western countries such as the US and UK had an optimistic outlook on the future. Economic growth, reform in welfare, health, and employment provided the average person with more time and money to invest in the home and in leisure. This was also an era of rapid scientific and technological progress so the future shown in The Jetsons seems a plausible prediction from that standpoint. In contrast, in the 2010s, awareness of how the West take advantage (and even exploit) of immigrants from the Global South performing domestic work (including child care) for well-off families. These concerns seem to be feeding into modern science fiction with fears of the human capacity for cruelty and callousness possibly extending towards artificial lifeforms. Like most developers of new technologies, I’d like to think that human society will be able to use new technology responsibly and to the benefit of people, but do think we need to learn from these warnings and take time to debate how we’re using new technologies, especially AI and consider whether regulation is needed.

About the author

Dr Rebecca Wray is a Mental Health Mentor at University of Leeds and an Associate Lecturer in psychology and qualitative research at Leeds Beckett University. Rebecca’s research interests include feminism, gender, and social media.

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