Glamour And The Future: Why Do We Miss Flying Cars But Not Robot Maids?

Space colony suburbia outside picnic
It looks like suburbia, but it still represents escape.

In my new Bloomberg View column, I criticize the trendy denigration of technological progress that doesn't solve "big problems" like going to Mars. Here's an excerpt:

In speeches, interviews and articles, [Peter] Thiel decries what he sees as the country's lack of significant innovations. "When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains," he wrote last year in National Review. "Consider the most literal instance of non­acceleration: We are no longer moving faster."

Such warnings serve a useful purpose. Political barriers have in fact made it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits. New technologies as diverse as hydraulic fracturing and direct-to-consumer genetic testing (neither mentioned by Thiel) attract instant and predictable opposition. As Thiel writes, "Progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic; it is rare."

But the current funk says less about economic or technological reality than it does about the power of a certain 20th-century technological glamour: all those images of space flight, elevated highways and flying cars, with their promise of escape from mundane existence into a better, more exciting place called The Future. These visions imprinted themselves so vividly on the public's consciousness that they left some of the smartest, most technologically savvy denizens of the 21st century blind to much of the progress we actually enjoy.

Read the full column here.

The column draws directly on ideas I developed in The Future and Its Enemies. But, as I was writing it, I also thought about what my forthcoming book The Power of Glamour might suggest about why some old visions of the future are more compelling than others: Why do we miss space travel and flying cars but not robot maids (or robot dogs), "telesense," meals-in-a-pill, or all those jumpsuits? Why don't we appreciate the microwave ovens, synthetic fibers, or artificial hips?

I think it has to do with the promise of escape and transformation, which is essential to all forms of glamour. Glamour always allows the audience to imagine a different, better self in different, better circumstances.

A robot maid might improve your life but it wouldn't fundamentally change it. You'd still be yourself and the world around you would seem more-or-less the same. Except in a harried housewife, the idea of a robot maid does not excite longing. Transportation, by contrast, always implies movement and transcendence, all the more when it's fast and high. That's why space travel—like cars and trains and planes and ships and horses before it—has such potential for glamour.

I've always been fascinated by the images NASA and others used to sell the idea of space colonies in the 1970s. They always remind me of the San Fernando Valley as you come over the Sepulveda Pass from West L.A. (or, to be more accurate, the first time I saw that view it reminded me of the space colony pictures). They're selling real estate, with the same promise that every house stager uses: This could be your new, better life. ("I could be happy here.") All you have to do is this case, to outer space.

[Cross-posted from]

High Fashion: How Amazon Can Make It Work

Amazon apparel

My latest Bloomberg View column suggests some ways Amazon might overcome fashionista skepticism about its plans to move beyond its traditional apparel offerings into higher-end fashion. Here's the opening:

When I caught Jeff Bezos's eye at the press preview for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new Costume Institute exhibit, which Inc. sponsored, his face burst into an enormous smile. I'd like to think this was because the Amazon chief executive officer likes me so much. (We see each other socially on rare occasions.)

But I suspect he was mostly glad to see anyone he recognized. We were probably the only two people in the room who could tell you who Linus Torvalds is, or Myron Scholes: two nerds, however grown-up and pulled together, in a crowd of fashionistas.

Amazon is an unlikely sponsor for a Costume Institute event, and Bezos an exceedingly unlikely fashion advocate. "Before we got involved, this event wasn't on my radar at all," he said of the museum's celebrity-filled annual gala.

But his company is trying to get into high-end fashion retailing, and sponsoring the Met exhibit and the fashion world's party of the year is a good way to get attention. If nothing else, it gets Bezos and Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour speaking on a first-name basis.

A cultural gap remains, however. "It could never be cool to shop for fashion at Geek cooties will come attached to your clothes," an early commenter said about Monday's New York Times story on Amazon's foray into fine fashion. Another wrote, "Do you want to be cool or pay the lowest price? Your decision." The Times story ended with a jab at Bezos for not knowing the brand of his own shirt or shoes -- and for letting a tacky ID badge dangle from his Prada jeans.

Net-a-Porter has already demonstrated that you don't have to be a flash-sale site to sell high fashion online. So have the websites of department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. In the specialized vintage market, so has 1stDibs. The problems of presentation and fit can be overcome.

The real question is the cultural one: How can a middle- brow company like Amazon become a credible source of fashion rather than merely apparel? Here are a few ideas the company might consider:

Read the rest on Bloomberg View. Shop Amazon Apparel.

Font Glamour

MinionPro Earlier this week Apple released an update to the font rendering part of OS-X 10.6 because there had been a problem with rendering some Open-Type fonts. Adobe’s Minion-Pro has become my favorite text font for music notation, and I had been baffled when Minion Pro had stopped working in Sibelius, the music notation software that I use.

As soon as I saw the notice of the update, I became excited, thinking that this might solve the problem, and “hooray!” it did. At breakfast I began excitedly telling my wife about all this, telling her how beautiful the font is, and how it was designed by the same designer who had designed Arno Pro, and that the designer was named Robert Slimbach. I knew I had gone too far when I recalled the font designer’s name off the top of my head, and, sure enough, my wife gave me an OMG-I’m-married-to-a-geek look. 

I had been using Times New Roman in the meantime, but it is hard to explain how much more beautiful I thought the opera score I was working on looked with the text in Minion Pro. Minion has become one of the most popular book fonts since its release in 1990. It is simply beautiful, if not glamorous—assuming you are into fonts.

And it looks especially nice on the 30-inch backlit LED Apple Cinema Display screen I recently purchased because I was so jealous whenever I saw my wife using hers. It was the only choice that she had when she bought a new Mac Pro, but as soon as I saw it I knew that sooner or later I had to have one too. Ultimately there was no justification for my buying a new display, but I did, and now everytime I bring up a music score, and I look at this beautiful screen (now displaying Minion Pro as the text font in all its glory), it makes me happy. And, I want to compose. In this case a glamorous screen and a glamorous font help motivate me to work. 

[Minion image from Wikimedia Commons.]

Geek Glamour

Sergey-brin Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google and ranked by Forbes as the 26th richest man in the world, recently took part in the announcement of Google’s Chrome OS. A number of internet sites have shown more interest in Brin’s footwear and choice of smart phones than in the Chrome announcement.

John Biggs at CrunchGear labels Brin’s footwear as “crazy monkey shoes,” but he also describes how these shoes solved all kinds of problems he himself had been having as a runner. On the other hand, he writes “They definitely make you look like a freak. However, I suspect the sting of scorn and ridicule is dampened a bit by the fact that the man has billions and billions of dollars. In my case, people just laugh at me when I run, and I cry. The sweat hides the tears.”

Matt Buchanan at Gizmodo is likewise fascinated by Brin’s footwear, but he also notes that he “carries a Motorola Droid, not a super secret phone we’ve never seen before.” His post has a fascinating photo of participants taking notes on their various gizmos. Most are using smart phones, one person is holding two devices, and one is using a Moleskine notebook and a fountain pen. Judging from these photographs, geek glamour is more about owning and using the “right tools” then wearing high-fashion clothing, no matter how rich you are.

Brin does have unusual taste in footwear, having before been photographed in Crocs (his choice to wear at the US Tennis Open). And, speaking pragmatically, when you’re working obsessively on a project, there’s something to be said for clothes that look much the same whether you’ve slept in them or not.

Feline Software Glamour


When Amazon sent me a plug for pre-ordering the new Mac OS—and for encouraging DG readers to order it though us to generate a few expense-paying bucks—I was struck by the  the name. Snow Leopard. The combination of the exotic idea of Himalayan snow with the feline grace and power of the leopard seemed the epitome of glamour. I'm only vaguely aware of what a snow leopard is, and the picture in my mind is even more glamorous and exotic than the real cat.

Code names are standard for software under development, and any glamour they may have generally reflects geek culture. (Microsoft uses a lot that sound like superhero monikers.) But Apple has turned these internal references into brand names, and whoever decided to use the names of big cats definitely has an eye for glamour. 

From this site, here's a list of the Mac OS's feline aliases. Jaguar was the first widely used in public.
ReleaseCodenameRelease Date
10.0CheetahMarch 2001
10.1PumaSeptember 2001
10.2JaguarAugust 2002
10.3PantherOctober 2003
10.4TigerApril 2005
10.5LeopardOctober 2007
10.6Snow Leopard
Big cats represent grace, power, and autonomy—not a bad metaphor for an operating system from a company known for the glamour of its products and the "reality distortion field" (a good definition of glamour) of its CEO. As computer pioneer Alan Kay has said, “Steve understands desire.”

Mac users, pre-order Snow Leopard here:

Why Don't You...Twitter?

Why Didn't We Think of This?

Follow Diana Vreeland on Twitter.

Erin McKean is the clever girl.

Mrs. Vreeland wrote her Why Don't You column while at Harper's Bazaar, where she worked for twenty-six years, before joining Vogue in 1963,  just in time for all hell to break loose, in fashion and elsewhere. has more planned on Mrs. V.,  so in the meantime, Twitter.