For us, technology faces the future. The question of what-comes-next hovers over every new technology. While technology is ancient – fire, wheel, agriculture, metals – this association of technology with change and progress is a fairly recent development. Today, pundits are blogging about how Google Glass will alter society. When glass was invented there really wasn’t a lot of discussion about the new possibilities. And glass really did have a profound effect on the whole world.
If the first glass blowers were unconcerned with progress it didn’t matter. Eventually historians came along to explain how glass changed things. They even used technology to carve history into periods. In fact, it is hard now to look at ourselves without looking through the lens of technology and progress. So I am not going to try. There is a serious side to our techno-haruspicy. The connection between technology and the future has never seemed so certain. Welcome to The Anthropocene by the way. But before we fire up the kettle and gaze into the tea leaves of tech, let’s look at some successful episodes in the history of the future.
I was delighted to discover that the first person to imagine nuclear weapons was H G Wells. In his 1914 story “The World Set Free”, Wells was the first to coin the term ‘atomic bomb’. This factoid, by itself, is a wonderful testament to imagination, and storytelling. But this is a tale with a twist. Wells didn’t imagine an explosive fission weapon. His atomic bomb was a fusion weapon that ignited a temporary sun on the surface of the earth that, over weeks, incinerated cities. Years later, in 1933 a Hungarian physicist named Leo Szilard was crossing a street in London when he conceived of the possibility of an uncontrolled chain reaction, and the atomic bomb we all know. As Richard Rhodes tells it in The Making of The Atomic Bomb,
“In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilárd waited irritably one grey Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilárd told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilárd stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woes, the shape of things to come.” (pp 292-293)
Szilard said H G Wells’ story was the inspiration for the idea of a fission weapon – along with his knowledge of Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron in 1932. Later, in one of the most touching examples of sentimental optimism in human history, Szilard took out a number of patents in a futile attempt to protect us from the awful secrets of the atomic bomb.
My second example from the prediction record book is more prosaic, but no less insightful. In 1934 one of the founders of information science, Paul Otlet had been thinking about the arrival of technologies like the radio, the telephone and the phonograph. Otlet didn’t look at these and see communications technology. He saw information technology – well before the birth of modern computing. That year he published Traité de Documentation, in which we find the following;
“Here the workspace is no longer cluttered with any books. In their place, a screen, and a telephone within reach. Over there, in an immense edifice, are all the books and information. From there, the page to be read, in order to know the answer to the question asked by telephone, is made to appear on the screen. The screen could be divided in half, by four, or even by ten, if multiple texts and documents had to be consulted simultaneously. There would be a loudspeaker, if the image had to complemented by aural data. And this improvement could continue to the point of automating the call for on-screen data. Cinema, phonographs, radio, television – these instruments taken as substitutes for the book, will in fact become the new book; the most powerful works for the diffusion of human thoughts. This will be the radiated library, and the televised book.”
There is a short YouTube presentation that shows even more clearly that Otlet was, in effect, predicting the internet. He beat Authur C Clark by several decades. And while some claim Mark Twain predicted the internet back in 1898, I think Twain only saw the possibility of a communications network. He didn’t see, in the way Otlet did, the radically new possibility of communication and information converging over a network.
Horseless Carriages and Red Flags
There is difference between the literary and scientific imagination. The writers got there earlier and the scientists were more accurate on the detail. Yet all of them fail to entirely break free of what I call ‘horseless carriage’ thinking.
There is always that time between the arrival of a new thing and the realisation of what is new. In that interregnum it is nearly impossible not to think of the new in terms of the old. It took time for ‘horseless carriages’ to become automobiles, and then just plain cars. And it takes time for people to come to terms with the changes new technologies imply. When the car arrived some places wrote red flag laws that required someone to walk ahead of the car waving a red flag. Horseless carriage thinking, and red-flag errors are common to predictions about technology and its effects. The influence of the familiar over the new can send us along some very fanciful dead ends. I think my all time favourite has to be moon-towers.
The Moon Towers of America
In the late Nineteenth Century the state of the art in electric lighting was the arc lamp. These work the same way an arc welder does, and they are incredibly bright. In fact, at the tip of the electrode an arc lamp is brighter than the sun. Cities at that time were dark at night. Especially on moonless and cloudy nights. The existing networks of gas lamps were extremely dim and insufficient for safe night-time concourse. People were keen to use the new electrical technology to light their cities. And in a classic case of horseless carriage thinking they took the moon as the best example of evening light. As a result they made an equally hilarious red flag mistake. They put clusters of arc lights on very high steel towers to be artificial moons that would radiate light over the city around them. Of course the towers didn’t work in fog. But they also failed psychologically, casting pitch black shadows wherever a building stood and drenching their surrounds in a harsh and unfriendly light. They had their champions. Detroit erected seventy moon-towers. Austin has kept many of theirs. Eventually, however, people stopped thinking of evening light as artificial moonlight and the more practical system we have today prevailed.
The history of the future is littered with failures – and some startling successes. But even those successes struggled to break free of their own present. It’s a cautionary tale for those who spin visions of the future out of the technology of today.