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Inside the time machine

Updated Friday 25th September 2009

The last 40 years have seen technological advances reshape and revolutionise our world. In a groundbreaking three-part TV project, a typical family will experience these momentous changes in fast-forward, as their comfortable suburban home becomes a constantly changing time machine. OU academic Ian Johnston talks to Ozone magazine about what the family will encounter

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Electric Dreams shows the family's rollercoaster ride through three decades and highlights the profound effects of modern technology on their busy, middle-class lives. As the show compresses 40 years of dramatic change into a few weeks – at a rate of roughly one year per day – their house is flooded with a bewildering array of consumer durables, some recognisable, some long-forgotten.

The OU’s Dr Ian Johnston served as an academic consultant for Electric Dreams, shaping ideas for the show from its inception. And faced with the task of finding and resurrecting long dead retro-tech, the series’ producers turned to this self-confessed ‘geek’ for his expert knowledge.

He advised on what technology should be included and when, even offering a vintage gizmo of his own, “My original 70s boxed Sinclair calculator…if I can find it,” says the staff tutor in technology from the Faculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology at The Open University in Scotland.

Perhaps surprisingly, the oldest technology was not the hardest to source or bring back to life.

“No, the easiest stuff is from the 70s,” says Dr Johnston. “Technology gets a lot harder to do when it communicates with the outside.”

Researchers scoured online auction sites, such as eBay, for months, stockpiling obsolete gadgetry. Where possible, they hunted down mint items in their original packaging, ready for the delivery to the family‘s doorstep.

“The original plan was to rent a house as a set,” he explains. “And then it was decided it would be more fun to do it in the family’s own house. I thought that was a thoroughly good idea; much better to see how they react to their own lifestyle being changed than feeling that they’re living in a set.”

Was it actually nicer when they were huddled around the fire in the living room playing Kerplunk?

Programme makers initially wanted to bring the family’s technology bang up to date, extending the timeline all the way to 2009; but this idea was abandoned at an early stage in development.

“If we ran beyond 2000, it wouldn’t be an adventure, it would just be a more annoying version of the house they know and love,” explains Dr Johnston, “and 2000 is probably the most recent point at which there’s a hint of alien about it. For instance, by the end of this living experiment they still won’t have mp3 players. So they can discuss what they really missed and what they didn’t. Was it actually nicer when they were huddled around the fire in the living room playing Kerplunk? Or could they just not wait to go back to all sitting in their bedrooms?”

The programme begins in virtual 1970, the pre-digital dark ages, when the family step though their familiar front door into a technological timewarp.

“They’re plonked back in their house but it has been stripped of all modern technology and regressed by 40 years,” says Dr Johnston. “At some level I think they’ll be expecting bad taste wallpaper and no computer. And I think they will find there is really quite a lot more to it than that, which will surprise them a bit.”

Which isn’t to say the wallpaper isn’t suitably hideous. “It’s really quite unpleasant,” says Dr Johnston, “the sort of thing that goes with Graeme Garden’s sideburns on the Goodies!”

Perhaps surprisingly, the oldest technology was not the hardest to source or bring back to life.

“What will be in the house in 1970 is, by and large, what a family that had been living in a house until 1970 would expect to be there,” he says, “so it’s not all 1970s stuff, some of it will be older. It makes it easier to source things but also makes the house feel less sterile.

“The 70s is probably going to be the slowest of the three decades because the rate of change isn’t terribly fast. One of the main points of the whole series is that change gets faster and faster.”

The pace of techno change picks up rapidly after the house gets its 1980s period makeover. And the family soon struggle to learn their way around some bafflingly anachronistic kit.

“There’s a real danger that they know what’s coming or by this stage they will be remembering the decades. And if they get a rubbish computer and Dad says, 'We’ll just wait a couple of days and it will be much faster,’ they won’t use the stuff. There’s always the danger that if we make the equipment too difficult to use, too unpleasant or too pointless, they’ll just shrug their shoulders, ignore it and pick up a book – which would make extremely boring television. It’s much better to have awkward but useable stuff than historical curiosities.”

The 90s begin with no internet and no mobile phones, but the innovations come thick and fast. And for the show’s backroom boffins, faced with the challenge of hooking old hardware up to systems that no longer exist, this decade’s numerous communications breakthroughs present the biggest headache so far.

“The technological advances are largely advances in connectivity and you simply can’t simulate connectivity without simulating the person you are connecting with,” says Dr Johnston.

About this article

This article first appeared in the Spring 2009 edition of Ozone.

 

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