This is a day in the life of the Shaw family in the summer of 1999 as the Philco-Ford Corporation imagined it from the space-age optimism of 1967. It begins with Karen Shaw and her son, James. They’re at the beach, building a sand castle model of their modular, hexagonal house and discussing life. Ominous music plays as they return in flowing caftans to their car, a Ford Seatte-ite XXI with its doors carelessly left open. You might recognize Karen as Marj Dusay, who would later beam aboard the USS Enterprise and remove Spock’s brain.
The father, Mike Shaw, is an astrophysicist working to colonize Mars and to breed giant, hardy peaches in his spare time. He’s played by iconic American game show host Wink Martindale. Oddly enough, Wink’s first gig was hosting a Memphis-based children’s show called Mars Patrol. He went on to fame with classics such as Tic Tac Dough, Card Sharks, Password Plus, and Trivial Pursuit.
Mike calls up some pictures of the parent trees he’s using on a screen that’s connected to the family computer. While many of today’s families have such a device, this beast is almost sentient. We learn throughout the film that it micromanages the family within an inch of their lives by keeping tabs on their physiology, activities, financial matters, and in James’ case, education.
The computer home-schools him two days a week, mostly through a giant flat screen display. Separate consoles give him recorded lectures and test his recall of the material, which is pretty poor. Meanwhile, his mother engages the kitchen console to conjure a tailored menu for the family’s lunch based on their dietary needs and the health records it keeps. She haggles a bit on Mike’s behalf, and the computer goes to work. It selects the frozen portions and runs them through the microwave. Karen’s only job is to transfer the food to plates and pull beverages from dispensers.
After lunch, Karen does some online shopping and Mike grumbles over her purchases and the family’s other expenses from his office. He can check their bank balance, budget, and remaining car payments. Continuing the theme of having a dedicated monitor for each thing, the office has three of them, each seemingly single-purpose. There’s also an electronic post office where he can write a letter to anyone using a stylus on a tablet.
The Shaw’s home is powered by a fuel cell equipped with blinkenlights. It also provides pure water, burns their waste, heats and cools the air, controls humidity, and removes pollen, dust, and bacteria. What it certainly does not do is periodically release a burst of vapor that keeps them calm and docile, occasionally forgetting what year it is or who ground the first telescope.
We don’t want to spoil the whole thing. Watch as Karen uses up her vast amounts of free time throwing pots, and Mike fulfills the computer’s exercise regimen set out for him in a turtleneck for some reason. Bizarre as this film may be, many of the Philco-Ford Corporation’s dreams came true. The analog controls and cordboard-looking switching is amusing, but the idea of chemical vapor cleaning closets is just scary. Bonus: here’s a short video of Walter Cronkite showing off the very same office.
Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.