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A historian explains how people of the past imagined the future

Technology fit in nicely with the idea of progress

Illustration by William Joel / The Verge

People have always imagined the future, but starting in the 20th century, these visions involved more and more technology. So says science historian Peter Bowler, author of A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov.

The Verge spoke to Bowler about the idea of progress and predictions of the past. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

You write that a lot of the novels and popular science writing during the early 20th century were concerned with the “idea of progress.” Can you expand on that?

During this period, “progress” was increasingly being seen in terms of technology. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, industrial progress was seen as very important and the sense of the future was shaped by the sense of what technology could do: rationally planned cities with your beautiful high-rises and airports on top of airports and helicopters, and all this giving people a better life.

In earlier periods, the utopian future tended to be defined in terms of the social relations put into place. But increasingly, people thought the utopian future (including these better social relations) would depend on the application of technology — which is why it was so easy for narrow-minded technophiles to focus on a particular technology which they see as going to give us all a wonderful new life.

What are some of the predictions that they made? Were the writers all technophiles? Or was there a lot of doom and gloom?

It was both. The newspapers were enthusiastic about Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic, which often led to speculations about when we’ll be able to fly, plus warnings about the dangers of aviation. Rudyard Kipling wrote about a world transformed by a peaceful use of aviation, but there were plenty of doom and gloom novels, too. H.G. Wells wrote about civilization almost wiped out in a great war and gas, and yet in his book it was still the scientists who had the technological skill to build the rationally planned world. So we did see both sides of the equation.

How accurate, or naive, were these predictions?

There were a lot of low-quality novels written by people who really have no idea what was actually likely to be plausible. There were some novelists like Aldous Huxley who knew about science and ectogenesis and his own brother Julian Huxley was an eminent biologist. But in general, the people who knew enough about science to really get to grips with what was going on but yet were far enough removed from it to think quite critically about it, were few and far between.

Scientists and engineers were more optimistic than the writers themselves. Quite a lot of the sort of predictions I was talking about — “we’ll be flying personal planes in 20 years” — were written by people who either have a direct interest in promoting that particular technology or were written by people who tend to think along very narrow lines. It was the writers who were thinking about what it would actually be like if everybody could fly a plane around — and this during a time when there were a lot of automobile road deaths — and mulling over the greater consequences. They were trying to envisage the broader dimensions than the narrow technophiles.

Your book talks about city planning and architecture and aviation. Were there any visions that had to do with inequality of gender or race?

There’s certainly a strong movement to see the potential science and technology has to transform the status of women. Some of the people I write about [and] talk about quite a bit believed women would have more control of their lives as a result of technology, and changes in reproductive technology were seen as giving women more freedom because they would no longer be tied down to the process of childbirth and child-minding and so on. The expectation that the status of women will change is fairly stronger developed.

Obviously racism is a big thing at the time, but I don’t think it was explicitly one of the factors people were looking at in terms of science and technology. If anything, there was exploration of the negative side, like the eugenics movement. People wanting to control reproduction tend to be racists and want to restrict reproduction for any group they regard as inferior.

How did readers react?

Readers were being presented with a fairly wide range of viewpoints in the popular press, on speed records and aviation developments but also threats of warfare and poison gas bombs. I think there was a certain amount of skepticism and downright indifference. Often, people didn’t really believe in this or take it too seriously.