When I look at old pictures, I am struck by the differences in fashion and the differences in technology. To my mind, there is no accounting for the tastes of fashion, but old pictures are rich, all-at-once windows on how are lives are shaped by the tools that are available to us.
For example, looking at a progression of pictures of Times Square, there are changes with every era. In an 1891 picture, I can see tracks being laid (presumably for a trolley). I don’t see any powered tools. A cart with wooden wheels is being pulled by a horse or a mule, but no cars are in sight, and I don’t see any electric lights. The tallest building is perhaps five stories.
A 1905 shot still has horses, but there may be one vehicle that is gas-powered. A sign is illuminated by electric light bulbs. Buildings are taller, perhaps ten stories. By the 1930s, there are cars and trucks (and trolleys). A much larger building is in the distance, and a movie marquee is visible. It looks like neon signs have shown up, too. The horses are gone.
I don’t see any technological progress in the 1940 picture, but a 1956 shot is notable for two things: An ad for televisions and appliances and the absence of trolleys (apparently replaced by buses). A 1970s photo, which seems to illustrate the seediest time for Times Square, also advertises videos. I also see the first evidence of large, plate-glass windows. By 2006, there are video signs and an ad for a cable TV station has appeared. A 2010 picture is most notable for an ad that includes a QR (quick response) tag.
If I dug around for more photos (also these), I could find the appearance and disappearance of phone booths. Vending machines would be transformed, and handheld phones would shrink and be remade into handheld computers. In my imagination, the music changes in instrumentation and processing as well as style.
Even with this limited view, it’s easy to see that technology remakes out public lives with every generation. How would a photograph (digital and existing primarily in the cloud) change with the arrival of the popular technologies of 2021? I suspect trolleys will make a partial comeback, with buses (not to mention cars) going electric. Smart management of traffic is likely to reduce the honking of horns, and perhaps the stoplights (which, oddly, don’t appear in any of the pictures I reviewed) will not be needed. Walk/Don’t Walk signs probably will persist, although big pieces of Times Square are pedestrian only now, so who knows?
Signs are likely to become two-way, adjusting in real time to people who pay attention to them. They also are likely to be a bigger part of the entertainment, following a trend toward more light and more movement. Will they project into the street? Will they be 3-D? Will they use focused sound and talk to us directly?
I suspect the biggest street-level change will be largely invisible. Embedded technology will be used for security and, by design, unintrusive. Other embedded technology will be less common, but more life-changing. The evermore cyborg babyboomers will be happily walking the streets with their tiny diabetic pumps, pacemakers, and dozens of other invisible life-extenders. If life continues to get stranger, technology may also come to augment and replace the tattoos and piercings of the younger generations, evolving not into unseen helps, but into the latest fashions enabling them to integrate more directly into the information infrastructure.