Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

A History of the Future, by Peter J. Bowler

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The promoters of applied science assumed that eventually the mechanization of industry would give everyone more leisure time (even if the work involved only boring routines). The dirty and unhealthy factories of the first Industrial Revolution would be replaced with new structures that were better to work in as well as more efficient. It was also predicted that there would be more gadgets to make life easier in the home. Popular science magazines routinely printed lists of inventions designed to make life easier or more enjoyable, most of which turned out to be useless and sank into oblivion. Inventors and promoters sang the praises of their products, but they were competing against one another and success for one would block the chances of others. Some promotional material was purely superficial, as with the enthusiasm for streamlined designs applied to objects that didn't move. Even when they were on to a good thing, technical experts and marketing agents were unlikely to foresee the wider consequences of a revolutionary technology. Yet in a few cases — radio broadcasting is a good example — almost everyone could see that their lives could be significantly transformed by what was promised. What couldn't be predicted were the deeper consequences for society, which is why some commentators worried about things that the majority greeted with enthusiasm.
Twenty-five years ago, Peter Bowler was my PhD supervisor in Belfast; I owe him a lot. He had made his reputation a decade earlier with Evolution: The History of an Idea, and had managed to find a rhythm of writing a scholarly book a year, riffing off the general possibilities of the history of evolutionary biology. Recently, in retirement, he's been veering a little bit further from his usual territory. In Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin (2013), he imagined what would have happened in science in an alternate timeline where Darwin had drowned during the voyage of the Beagle, something he had been muttering about doing for years. This year, in A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov, he has surveyed futurology as perpetrated both by science fiction writers and by popular science writers, mainly in the UK but looking also at the USA, in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

People like me who read a fair amount of academic and fannish commentary on sf literature will be a bit thrown by this approach. Peter Bowler has unapologetically put technology and other scientific advances, real or imagined, at the centre of the narrative, and crunches everything down to nine shortish chapters, on How We'll Live, Where We'll Live, Communicating and Computing, Getting Around, Taking to the Air, Journey into Space, War, Energy and Environment, and Human Nature. He makes the point very strongly that the First World War made a much bigger difference to the Zeitgeist than the Second; there is much more continuity in terms of vision and concerns between 1939 and 1945 than between 1914 and 1918.

There are some interesting misses and hits along the way. Lord Birkenhead, writing in 1930 about the world of 2030, expected that “Instead of party politics, our descendants will probably be content with the rule of experts, who will seek popular sanction for each measure they purpose through a referendum.” (Hollow laugh.) On the other hand, A.M. Low correctly saw the potential of telephones:
In his Wireless Possibilities, Low predicted that in a few years’ time it would be possible to talk to a recipient anywhere in the world, even when flying on an aeroplane. Five years later, he made a similar point in one of his regular Armchair Science features: ‘I shall be glad when we have made wireless sufficiently selective to enable me to ring up during every rail journey I make and talk direct to my friends.’ Note that his concern was the problem of interference between transmitters, not miniaturization. He also recognized that there would be a downside to the facility: ‘Why should I inflict a description of my mother’s children to a radius of six yards, until all those around are driven to fury … ?’ Low thus not only predicted the mobile phone – he realized what a nuisance they could become when used in public.
There are lots of good nuggets here, including the frightening irresponsibility of some early supporters of nuclear power, who nonchalantly discussed melting the ice caps and re-engineering coastlines with atomic weapons. There is a tension also between those who thought that women being liberated from housework and reproduction would bring benefits and those who feared the costs to society. (It would be interesting to know the extent to which feminists interacted with these discussions.)

Anyway, first of my Christmas presents; well worth reading.
Tags: bookblog 2017

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