I’ve been watching Electric Dreams over the past three evenings. This fascinating BBC4 series has been presented as a story of how an ordinary family lives with the technology of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, but it was really about a lot more than that. As well as receiving a constant stream of nostalgia-inducing or mystifying gadgets (depending on your age), the family home was altered to reflect living conditions of the time, and an authentic car and vintage clothing procured.
To represent the 1970s, the production team actually blocked off part of the family’s house, to leave them with one living room and one bathroom between five. And, of course, that was what it was like. Comments on the introduction of the shower and the en suite to domestic life weren’t included, but surely that was a change right up there with colour TV, the freezer, computers, mobile phones and the internet.
By the 1980s, the family had been given a formal dining room, in which to hold a dinner party at the end of the ‘decade’. The garish brown and orange patterns of the 1970s were replaced with Laura Ashley chintz and fake 18th century dining suite, which looked even worse than I remember and which, in retrospect, summed up the petit bourgeois pretentiousness of the Thatcher era. The 1990s was back to simplicity and bright colours, and with a bigger kitchen, transformed from isolated workspace in the 1970s to social hub twenty years later.
The technological changes over thirty years were stunning. At the beginning of the 1970s, only half of UK households had a telephone and only 25% had central heating; the programme began with the heating turned off. Televisions were expensive and kept breaking down, so many people rented. Colour TV arrived halfway through the decade, and of course the ‘music centre’ (one per household) on which both vinyl discs and cassette tapes could be played was the height of sophistication. The new ability to record from discs to cassette tapes led to the first debates on breach of copyright, which are still with us today.
By the mid-1980s, such innovations as the microwave oven, telephone extension lines, the answering machine and early computers had appeared, along with video recorders which were no more reliable than TVs had been in the 1970s. It was interesting to be reminded that early computers required programming, which the boy of the family took to instantly. I was surprised that little said about the very popular Amstrad PC which appeared towards the end of the decade, at the same time as the CD player and the video camera. The constant complaint from the family was that 1980s technology didn’t work very well, and indeed it was recommended that video recorders should be serviced every six months to prevent breakdowns. Increased reliability has cost jobs but made life simpler.
However, it was the 1990s which was labelled ‘the decade of the gadget’, and strangely enough was the least interesting episode. Boxes of stuff arrived thick and fast, often to be replaced quickly by later models, especially in the case of computers. A fax machine, computer games, satellite TV (with only five extra channels), pagers, huge and very expensive mobile phones, a digital camera which could only take eight photos, a laptop, a breadmaker and other superfluous kitchen items, the Playstation – and, for the ‘millennium’ party, a karaoke machine. Not all contributed to quality of life, but all made a profit for someone.
The biggest event of the 1990s, and arguably of the whole series, was the arrival of the internet. Watching the family struggle with dial-up, remembering that modem noise, and watching them put together a family web page on a slow connection, highlighted the restrictions of the early days and how far we’ve come with broadband, social networking sites, blogging, and connectivity on the move including through phones and netbooks. But it didn’t recapture the magic of the transition: the sense of having access to so much information and being able to send e-mail rather than write a letter was, I would say, the biggest transformation in communications since the invention of the telephone.
There were many thought-provoking aspects to the series. It was useful in reminding us of the chronology of gadgets, especially for most of us who acquired them late or not at all, and in reminding us how expensive they were: a colour TV cost the equivalent of £3,000 today when first released, and a mobile phone £1,400. It also showed the importance of electronic devices to young people. This was a comfortably off middle class family, but not once did I see any of the children reading a book and in the 1970s programme they complained that there was nothing to do in the evenings.
But the most remarkable point was seeing how the enforced togetherness of the 1970s, with the whole family in the one living room watching the one TV, was gradually replaced by the fragmentation of the family, with children in their bedrooms watching TV and using their computers, and adults downstairs doing the same. And to see the rebellion from the children at the end of the series - they demanded a common space so that the family could spend more time together.
The lessons for the 21st century are to use technology selectively, as sustainably as possible, to enhance quality of life, and to enhance communication rather than to replace it.