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How wrong we get the past

I loved Charlie Stross’ Saturn’s Children (see my incoherent review). Despite the semi-naked robot lady on the cover, it floated around the house for days while I read it, before being returned to the library.

But don’t be fooled by the anti-biological explanation in the book: probably no amount of greenhouse runaway would kill every last cell and spore of Deinococcus radiodurans! I’ll say no more…

And Charlie Stross’ insider notes on the publishing industry, “Common misconceptions about publishing”, will significantly broaden your understanding of all large barely-functional industries, not just publishing.

Lest you think publishing or large industries aren’t interesting: “When you get older you find nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough” (p. 415, Perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track: the letters of Richard P. Feynman). And when someone warm, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic takes you deep, it’s trivially easy to be enstrossed.

So I love both Charlie Stross and at least one of his novels. So my rant that follows, about some parts of a keynote called “Dude, you broke the future!”, are just that, a rant. I hope it’ll get someone to read more, or to think about what they’ve read more, and be critical of this kind of fallacy in the future.

He says, about how Homo sapiens sapiens as a species has been around some three hundred thousand years:

For all but the last three centuries of that span, predicting the future was easy: natural disasters aside, everyday life in fifty years time would resemble everyday life fifty years ago. Let that sink in for a moment: for 99.9% of human existence, the future was static. Then something happened, and the future began to change, increasingly rapidly, until we get to the present day when things are moving so fast that it's barely possible to anticipate trends from month to month.

This is standard, run-of-the-mill Silicon-Valley-level technophilia, not out of place in Wired and certainly not out of place at CCC.

But I think this is a misunderstanding of history.

But I cannot say “Oh, that Charlie is so smart and should know better,” because this neomaniac it’s-so-different-this-time-poor-me modernity-chauvinism a geocentrism-grade, or creationist-grade, misunderstanding: most everyone in society believes it and it probably doesn’t cause that much harm.

Oh, you can see where it comes from: even the most connected and with-it among us fears that they might get left behind, even as they effortlessly decipher the latest mobile operating system, decode the latest Weibo or YouTube meme, or make peace with the latest machine learning breakthrough.

So we all understand that advances in computation, memory, and networking are enabling all kinds of new applications, which in turn fuel everyday change.

But my thesis is that change is not happening faster today than any other time. That the past felt as dynamic to the people who lived then as today feels to us. That we are kindred spirits with each generation of our ancestors, in how we grappled with the dynamism and uncertainty of the future.

Pretty much any place and time you find while groping in History’s handbag serves to illustrate this. Let’s ask ourselves if change is faster today than

  • fifty years ago, with television and radio;
  • hundred years ago, with cars, airplanes, and anesthesia;
  • 150 years ago, with steam engines, canals, and railroads;
  • 200 years ago, marine chronometers (so ships could tell their longitude), textiles;
  • and so on?

This list could be kept going back in time, and you could add many items to each row, but I want to emphasize that each of these items that I off-handedly mentioned was a technological universe that wrought untold change on society.

Note that I’m not just citing earth-shattering inventions in the past. Rather, I seek to emphasize that these breakthroughs clustered together, and collaborated with other breakthroughs around the same time and place, making every generation just as uncertain and wary of the future as we are today.

And furthermore, it turns out that the reason we think we’re the first generation to experience breakneck change is quite informative—plumbing this might prevent us from falling into the same trap later.

We see breakthroughs in Silicon Valley’s apps and conclude that technology has never evolved so fast or influenced so much only after we artificially narrow down the definition of “technology” to what we see right in front of us. We choose to ignore past breakthroughs in transportation, energy, medicine, mass media, materials, etc., fields that see incremental improvement today.

I think if we didn’t unwarrantedly narrow the scope of what we consider technological change, it’d be easier to recall other portions of the vast tapestry of technology, thus making it easier to visualize a living, breathing person at each point in the past, scratching their heads wondering how their lives would change in response to some new contraption or idea whose time had come.

So instead of narrowing the scope of “technology”, consider expanding it. Recall that language is a technology. That trade routes like the Silk Roads are a meta-technology. Louis Leinenberg suggests that tracking animals might have been the very first technology, possibly even predating fire, and the one that started proto-humans down the co-evolutionary path of large brains and high tech.

So that list we threw together above, of successive technological waves that crashed against each generation, can be amended with all kinds of interesting things beyond smartphones and sailing ships that caused worry about the future. Like arguments about “proper language”. About new luxury goods. New foods and ways of preparing them.

Let’s do that—let’s add to the list above, and try to push it past 300 years, beyond which Charlie Stross expected to see static futures:

  • fifty years ago, with television and radio, the Space Age and the Atomic Age;
  • hundred years ago, with cars, airplanes, anesthesia, Air Age;
  • 150 years ago, with steam engines, canals, and railroads;
  • 200 years ago, circa 1800, marine chronometers (so ships could tell their longitude), Morse code;
  • 250 years ago: cotton gin, spinning jenny, mail coaches, but also representative democracy, the Romantic movement;
  • 300 years ago, circa 1700: the piano, calculus, Newcomen atmospheric engine, ring bayonets, Norfolk four-field crop rotation;
  • 350 years ago: the pendulum clock, the slide rule, but also bourses, exchange banks, joint-stock companies;
  • 400 years ago, circa 1600: the compound microscope, the telescope, magnetic north;
  • 450 years ago: hydraulic automata, triangulation, bastion and ravelin fortifications, muskets, Michelangelo;
  • 500 years ago, circa 1500: the Copernican revolution, the Columbian exchange, the Portuguese reach India;
  • 550 years ago: Gutenberg press, all-weather transoceanic shipping, but also the fall of Constantinople triggering European maritime exploration;
  • 600 years ago, circa 1400: longbows, cannon, oil paints;
  • 650 years ago: plate armor, water-powered milling, hourglass;
  • 700 years ago, circa 1300: spectacles, weight-driven clocks, the spinning wheel and horizontal looms, bills of exchange.

As you read each of these developments and breakthroughs, try to imagine the people whose day-to-day and year-to-year rhythms were upended by them, and see if you can’t draw parallels to your own life.

Neophilia, and the way people talk about technology today, verges on fetishism and narcissism. If this made you perceive your forebears as a bit more like you, and their experiences a bit more akin to yours, I’m very happy. The problems we face today aren’t the most momentous our species has ever faced—though they seem to be.

Suggested reading We don’t really have a genre of fiction or specialization of history that investigates incremental changes versus breakthroughs in cultural and technological fields, but I’ve benefitted from the following:

  • Fans of James Burke’s Connections television show and book, from the 1970s, will easily see this article as a poor rehashing of Burke’s theses. It would be heavy-handed to say each episode–chapter traces the evolution of an idea—rather, he takes the hyper-dense web of reality, and highlights a path through it to show the sequence of chance, availability, and necessity that resulted in some aspect of today. Everyone who experiences James Burke comes away wishing for more.
  • Alasdair Nairn wrote Engines that move markets: technology investing from railroads to the Internet and beyond in 2002 as an investment book, but it offers a valuable crash course on the technological and financial history of canals, railroads, telephone, electric lighting, oil, automobiles, radio, and early computers. This list is a treasure trove for people seeking to feel what their forebears felt like.
  • Thomas Kuhn’s The structure of scientific revolutions came out in 1962 and is a landmark study of the history of science and of scientific breakthroughs. This is the book that coined the phrase “paradigm shift”, and it also includes a close look at several paradigm shifts.
  • Joel Mokyr’s The lever of riches: technological creativity and economic progress was the first book I read to force me to confront my received wisdom about Greeks and Romans, medieval monks and renaissance men. His explanations of the facts are not very interesting, but the facts themselves are worth the price of admission.
  • Joseph Tainter’s 1988 tome The collapse of complex societies describes the rise and fall of several civilizations, and notes how technology can help civilizations grow by managing complexity but later can drain its resources through misapplication. Besides the technological vignettes, it helps emphasize that the people living in these collapsing societies were real, living, thinking people who sought to do everything that we’d do to predict and prevent disaster.

In addition to learning more about the history of science and technology (in their broadest senses), it’s incredibly valuable and rewarding to understand the lived experience of people in the past. This goal is even less serviced by writers and historians than the previous one, but there are many excellent examples.

  • Eric Cline (professor of ancient history and archaeology at George Washington University) wrote a book, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, about the Late Bronze Age Collapse. His hour-long talk provides a great description of a time, three thousand years ago, when the future was very cloudy.
  • Two of James C Scott’s books, Against the grain: a deep history of the earliest states from 2017 and The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia from 2010, discuss at length the technological efforts of people seeking to further their goals, technologies as diverse as housing structures, kinship practices, and farming practices.

And I think fiction has a vital role to play by painting graspable portraits of people from the past, including their anxiety about the future.

  • Amitav Ghosh is a xenophile and a most honorable lover of history. His Ibis trilogy, starting with Sea of Poppies is drenched with his acute awareness of how reality can compete with fiction in its improbability. He was spot on when he said that “a novelist can imagine the totality of the experience” of a person who lived in the past, though it’s hard to approach such completeness through history.
  • Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver has also been suggested as ably portraying the dynamism of the past and its future.
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