The future isn't what it used to be

Bob Seidensticker. Futurehype: The Myths of Technological Change. Berrett-Koehler, 2006.

We hear it all the time, how we are living in an age of unprecedented technological change, how things have changed more in our life time than any other, that some technology of the moment is going to exponential and transform the world beyond recognition. Technophiles dream of unlimited technological progress, of future technologies indistinguishable from magic and so on.

Bob Seidensticker argues that this just isn’t so, there has always been technological change, and our times are not unprecedented. He points to the many other periods of rapid technological change, and the transforming power of technologies which we either now take for granted, or which have been superseded and forgotten. Technological predictions tend to tell us more about the times in which they were made than about the future they are predicting.

Thus in the 1940s and 50s the future was in atomic energy, there were going to be atomic powered ships and planes and cars, mountains were to be moved and great canals and highways constructed by controlled atomic explosions. By the 1960s there was supersonic flight, I clearly remember as a schoolboy reading of how by the 1970s we would be able to go from Britain to New York for an afternoons shopping, or a day trip to Sydney for the beach. Then with the Apollo programme it was space flight. By the 1980s there would be colonies in space, bases on the moon, and landings on Mars.

Today it is computer hype, with notions that computing power is rising exponentially, and you now here how nano-computers will be worn in your clothes and hair. Of course many computer predictions have also singularly failed to materialise, remember the paperless office, the twenty hour working week, the computer run home all predicted in the mid 1980s.

Seidensticker is particularly harsh on internet hype, arguing that it has had far less of an impact than the development of the printing press or the telegraph. The may be millions, billions, trillions of pages on the internet, but who has the time to read them, and how can they be assessed? Authoritative information sits side by side with kids’ homework and the ravings of every kind of lunatic imaginable. Perhaps Seidensticker is here a little soft on 'authoritative' sources such as the notorious 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' the source of much amusement among sceptics, and now the proud owner of one of the web’s dullest sources of dated information.

Magonia readers will note that these rapidly dating visions of the future resemble the sort of visionary rumours we study. The future in the 1890s was a super airship; by the 1940s and 1950s it was quasi-military superplanes flying in formation and haunting the radar scopes like magical bombers; by the 1960s it was scientific aliens landing to take soil samples, then it was aliens with 'magical' medical procedures, and by the 1990s visionary rumours were concerned with fantastic reproductive technologies and hybrid babies.

The past also is seen as using new technologies to communicate from beyond the grave, the dead tap out messages in Morse like celestial telegraph operators, they live in the luminiferous ether, communicate by means of mental radio, appear as cine recordings, and latterly ring us up in the middle of the night, hide in the static on cassette recordings or appear as orbs in digital photographs. Just as the great technological breakthrough is around the corner so is the great revelation which will make this or that fringe science respectable. None of these things will, of course, ever happen.

By 2050, the world of 2100 will be seen as a projection of whatever technology is in the news at the moment, anomalies will be “explained” by whatever scientific or scientific sounding idea takes the fancy. Nothing will have truly changed. -- Peter Rogerson

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