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Ordering Pizza Online in the Retrofuture

In the 1980s and 90s, there we some really cheesy depictions of ordering food online

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Sandra Bullock’s character in The Net (1995) orders a pizza online

“Internet introverts are socially dysfunctional; they write online, talk online, view the world from online, order books and pizza online.” Ordering pizza… online? Who ever dreamt of such crazy a thing? This warning about our increasingly isolated and dysfunctional lives reads like it could’ve been written today. But it actually comes from the May 3, 1996 edition of the Los Angeles Times, where Michael Shulman assured readers that ordering pizza online was the exclusive domain of the cyberspace hermit.

I like pizza. Like I really like pizza. But it’s difficult being a pizza lover in Los Angeles. Mostly because, as major cities go, L.A. has the worst pizza in the country.

Don’t get me wrong, L.A. has some of the best food around, besting comparably sized cities like New York and Chicago in just about every category. But when it comes to pizza, it’s incredibly hard to find a decent slice here in the City of Bladerunner. So when I found a good “pizza pizza” place (my highly refined distinction for that greasy variety of pizza that doesn’t include flatbreads or any fancy ingredients I wouldn’t have been able to pronounce when I was five years old) I was blown away. I was really excited that I had my new go-to for that staple of the modern American diet. I was excited… until I realized that anytime I wanted good pizza I’d have to pick up the stupid phone. Sadly, this particular pizza place didn’t have online ordering. In the year 2013 making your customers pick up the phone for delivery is roughly the equivalent of showing up at their door with a sack of flour, some tomato paste and a bucket of mushrooms and telling them they’ll have to cook the pizza themselves. It’s just not done. How old fashioned. How unfuture.

Compared with even a decade ago we’re much more comfortable with buying goods online. And businesses that sell things online often find unexpected benefits to the transaction. For instance, a 2006 study found that a customer ordering pizza online typically spent about 15% more per order than those ordering over the phone.

So when I saw this video of a computer ordering pizza in 1974 (via some nifty voice tech, rather than say the ARPANET) I immediately started thinking about all the futuristic visions of pizza ordering from the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Apple’s “Grey Flannel Navigator” (1988)

Screenshot from a 1988 Apple concept video “Grey Flannel Navigator”

Ordering pizza is such a common exercise that it was the perfect foil in future-oriented movies and videos to help place the viewer in a familiar but slightly more technologically advanced setting. The 1988 Apple concept video “Grey Flannel Navigator” used just such a device. The video shows the office of the near future and how one might be able to collaborate and work from home. Midway through the video our protagonist goes to the fridge and apparently doesn’t find anything to his liking. He faithfully returns to his computer and pulls up a window labeled “Pizza-for-One” which guarantees delivery in 30 minutes — or it’s free!

The Net (1995)

Screenshot from the 1995 film The Net starring Sandra Bullock

The 1995 movie (sorry, “cyber thriller”) The Net has a similar sequence, though in the mid-1990s that kind of service was becoming slightly less absurd. Indeed the anachronism of the pizza ordering in The Net is that Sandra Bullock’s character is not paying by credit card and instead paying for it in cash.

ACLU’s Total Surveillance Society (2004)

Screenshot from a 2004 ACLU video with pizza ordering in the dystopic future

But it’s not all sunshine and mushrooms when it comes to ordering pizzas in the future. The ACLU released a video in 2004 that used a pizza order as the backdrop for a dystopian world where everyone’s personal information is kept online — and used against them.

Today, every national pizza chain in the U.S. has online ordering. But it does beg the question: now that we live in “the future” what will ordering a pizza in tomorrow’s future look like? Whatever it looks like, I’m sure only the socially dysfunctional, overworked office drones who are being spied on by Big Brother will do it.

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