Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Victorians' Optimistic Future

Modern Vision

Funny Future: In this detail from the “March of Intellect” series, Paul Pry (aka William Heath) ridicules the future and in particular its varied and many modes of transport; 1828.
Photo Credit: SSPL/Getty
Source: Aeon

Many things have been be said  about the Victorians, one being that they were optimistic about the future; this revealed itself in their fiction as much as it did in their scientific writings. This is a point well taken, and the writer of an article  in Aeon magazine, Iwan Rhys Morus, goes as far as saying that the Victorians invented the idea that technological progress was and is social progress.

Morus writes:
For the Victorians, the future, as terra incognita, was ripe for exploration (and colonisation). For someone like me – who grew up reading the science fiction of Robert Heinlein and watching Star Trek – this makes looking at how the Victorians imagined us today just as interesting as looking at the way our imagined futures work now. Just as they invented the future, the Victorians also invented the way we continue to talk about the future. Their prophets created stories about the world to come that blended technoscientific fact with fiction. When we listen to Elon Musk describing his hyperloop high-speed transportation system, or his plans to colonise Mars, we’re listening to a view of the future put together according to a Victorian rulebook. Built into this ‘futurism’ is the Victorian discovery that societies and their technologies evolve together: from this perspective, technology just is social progress.

The assumption was plainly shared by everyone around the table when, in November 1889, the Marquess of Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister of Great Britain, stood up at the Institution of Electrical Engineers’ annual dinner to deliver a speech. He set out a blueprint for an electrical future that pictured technological and social transformation hand in hand. He reminded his fellow banqueteers how the telegraph had already changed the world by working on ‘the moral and intellectual nature and action of mankind’. By making global communication immediate, the telegraph had made everyone part of the global power game. It had ‘assembled all mankind upon one great plane, where they can see everything that is done, and hear everything that is said, and judge of every policy that is pursued at the very moment those events take place’. Styling the telegraph as the great leveller was quite common among the Victorians, though it’s particularly interesting to see it echoed by a Tory prime minister.
Many will argue that there is little to be optimistic about today, given the number of social problems that seem to dominate our planet. Caution seems to be the general tenor of the times. Be this as it may, technology, including communications technologies, has made our lives better; it might well be that our present vision and view of the world has been largely shaped by the counter-culture views of the 1960s and ’70s and equally by its dystopian fiction. Then there are the current realities, including scientific ones that portend a dark and ominous future for planet Earth. A child of this era, I am as guilty as anyone in pointing out these realities. Not to deny these realities, but a healthy dose of optimism does lead not only to technological progress, but also to social progress.

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You can read more at [Aeon]

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