Who participated in the first video date? A good couple for candidacy in this regard are Georges Lorris and Estelle Lacombe, who meet via “téléphonoscope” in Albert Robida’s 1890 novel Le Vingtième siècle: la vie électrique in which he imagines “the electric life” of the future. Adding a visual component to two recent technologies, the telephone (1876) and the phonograph (1877), this device lets scattered families in the year 1956 reunite around a virtual dinner table. For the lovebirds Lorris and Lacombe, the téléphonoscope facilitates their unapproved liaison in an immunologically fraught world. (And, for those without a beau, it also offers a service akin to on-demand streaming.)
This proto Zoom / Netflix hybrid is just one of several prescient predictions in Robida’s novel. Frictionless trains shoot through tubes, anticipating the Hyperloop, and doorknockers have been replaced with a “recording phonograph with photographic lens”, allowing residents to both screen visitors and take messages in the event of their absence: a smart doorbell before its time.
Biological weapons are the preferred means of warfare and have been calibrated to spare “men in the prime of their strength and health” and target, instead, “the valetudinarians, the weak, the infirm organisms unable to stand [its] putrid fumes”. (A good capitalist, Georges Lorris’s father, Philox, later secures the monopolistic right to manufacture and distribute both the weapon and its vaccine.) While marriage still exists unmodified, honeymoons are obsolete — now engaged couples take voyages de fiançailles to assess their compatibility. There are even airborne cars and taxicabs, with landing platforms affixed above the flying buttresses of Notre-Dame — as well as mass aerial transit in the form of aéronefs-omnibus.
Remembered better as an illustrator than a novelist, Robida was best known for his whimsical drawings of the Belle Epoque in Paris’s La Caricature magazine, which he edited, and for writing eighty books in a variety of genres: histories, children’s stories, and travel guides. Inspired by Jules Verne’s scientific novels, The electric life has garnered retrospective praise for successfully anticipating much of modern life and our near future. “He let his imagination run wild”, writes Robert Hendrick, “and in the process more accurately predicted the technological and social developments of our contemporary world than any other forecaster of his time.”
The electric life’s social progress also outpaced history. By the 1950s, according to Robida, women would work as equals in all professions, smoke in public, operate a ladies-only stock exchange (Bourse des dames), and wear trousers or miniskirts. (In a different novel that shares this same world, one of Robida’s characters describes how “the long skirts of our grandmothers were too inconvenient for climbing into aérostats and, furthermore, most forward-thinking women considered them symbols of their former slavery.”) But freedom has come at a cost — the women in Robida’s novel have been satirically “masculinised”, given names with “harsh character” and “forbidding euphony” in order to prove their seriousness. Less progressive than the future it highlights, much of Robida’s humor comes from what Philippe Willems calls “entre nous jokes between the author and his implied readers”, deriving from “the incongruity of juxtaposing nineteenth-century bourgeois values onto an extrapolated social frame”. In other words, it was easier for Robida and his audience to imagine flying cars than the empowerment of women.
While his sexual politics remain disappointingly regressive, Robida anticipated how the scientific, social, and technological progress afforded by capitalism comes at an ecological cost to the planet. His version of the 1950s dissolves effortlessly into the environmental present: “Our air is dirty and polluted. . . Our rivers carry virtual purees of the most dangerous bacilli; our streams swarm with pathogenic ferments.” Technology cannot trump nature: electrical storms sweep across France disrupting the téléphonoscope. Ironically, like in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, the only solution is to cling to the past — that is, Robida’s present. Dotted throughout France are quiet villages, where citizens in the novel have returned to reconstruct nineteenth-century ways of life.
April 15, 2021