Brave New Rat Race

How the world of tomorrow looked through yesterday's lens

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Think "future" and "work," and iconic images spring to mind: the belching, subterranean M-Machine in Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis, the disaffected laborers in George Orwell's 1984 (1949). Popular culture has always offered up depictions of what lies in store for us tomorrow—visions both utopian and dystopian, earnest and arch, eerily prescient and hilariously off-base. Here—from movies, media, and World's Fairs—is a sampling of some of the ways we used to think about the future of work.

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Celestial splendor for the brains, a Bosch-like hell for the brawn. Seething in the bowels of 2100 London in H.G. Wells' The Sleeper Awakes (1910), mobs of laborers are barely held in check by a priesthood of technocrats. In RUR (1921), Czech playwright Karel Capek has his Robots, designed for docility, overthrow their human taskmasters. Using elements from both, and borrowing from the grandiose skyscrapers of 1920s architectural artist Hugh Ferriss, Lang constructed his Metropolis.

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Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) satirized Fordism and the cult of efficiency. At the 1939 World's Fair, American optimism found a good fit in the streamlined, labor-saving World of Tomorrow, where such techno wonders as IBM's electric typewriters drew admiring crowds.


A Business Week special report from 1953 on "Tomorrow's Management" weighed in on automation (predicting bigger plants with "a dozen or so workers a shift" by 1980)—at a time when many feared machines would put the masses out of work.


Two views of the Punch-Card Jungle. In the 1964 Twilight Zone episode, "The Brain Center at Whipple's," an automation-mad factory owner purges his work force, exulting, "No more coffee breaks, no more sick leave, no more petty inconveniences like maternity"—until he gets his own pink slip. Over at Spacely Sprockets, George Jetson (The Jetsons, 1962-63) enjoys the perks of a computerized office: A nine-hour work week and limited duties (mostly pushing a single button)..


In Brazil (1985), the workplace is a paranoid superbureaucracy. The satire, directed by Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, features a future office filled with inept bosses, interchangeable workers in identical gray suits, and propaganda posters ("Suspicion Breeds Confidence"). At the Ministry of Information, generically named departments ("information retrieval") generate reams of pink and blue forms, which are duly filed by the worker drones.


At Gattaca Aerospace Corp. (Gattaca, 1997), in the "not-too-distant future," job interviews are nothing more than urine tests that identify genetically superior humans among the regular joes. Typical workdays for those who make the cut: space missions to places such as Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and mandatory exercise sessions at the sleek office complex with fellow elites.

By Elizabeth Woyke

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