Sunday 22 September 2019

Back to the futurologists

Science: A History of the Future, Peter J Bowler, Cambridge ­University Press, hardback, 286 pages, €22.50

Airway to heaven: Bowler is kind to those who were mistaken with predictions - such as air travel for the masses using blimps rather than aeroplanes
Airway to heaven: Bowler is kind to those who were mistaken with predictions - such as air travel for the masses using blimps rather than aeroplanes
A History of the Future by Peter J Bowler

Darragh McManus enjoys a new book that takes a wry look at the rise of technology and how past generations predicted the future would be - from blimp travel for the masses to a society doped up on soma

If the past is a foreign country, as LP Hartley famously wrote, then the future might be regarded as a multiplicity of potential other countries. And this speculative geography - we might playfully term it sociocultural geography, temporal geography, even divination geography - has inspired generations of futurologists to engage in prediction, analysis and guesswork (educated or less so).

Peter Bowler describes A History of the Future as focusing on "the ways in which speculation about the future throws light on public perception of science and technology". In a time-span running from the late Victorian period to the 1960s, he follows two main rivers of exploration: the technological developments which actually happened during this era; and what was predicted about them by science writers, science-fiction novelists and scientists themselves, as well as a smattering of interested public figures (politicians, philosophers and the like).

Emeritus professor at the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics in Queen's University Belfast, Bowler kicks off with some explanatory preliminaries on his aims and methods, followed by a chapter on the "prophets". We encounter legendary names such as HG Wells and Aldous Huxley, whose influence on the field and our culture in general is enormous, and many lesser-known but, in their time, authoritative figures. (Mildly amusing bit of trivia: a large proportion of 20th-century futurologists seem to have had initials and/or double-barrelled names: JN Leonard, CC Furnas, Percy Lockhart-Mummery, and, for a double-whammy, AM Carr-Saunders.)

Bowler then divides his subject into discreet parcels, addressing everything from homes, urban planning, communications and space exploration to warfare, agriculture, the environment, bio-engineering and transport.

Interestingly, that last one is probably the most significant of all.

Bowler mentions that computers - especially their miniaturisation and the online age - have had the most radically transformative effect on human society of possibly any technology. But the digital age, properly formed, only came into being after his time-frame ends (back in the 1960s, computers were still gigantic whirring mainframes requiring huge rooms to house them).

So, in A History of the Future, transportation looms largest. It makes sense, actually, when you think of how modern life is, all around the world: the ubiquity of cars, the easy accessibility of foreign travel, and perhaps most pertinently, the psychological expectation that we're all free to go pretty much anywhere we like, at any time, without too much hassle. If Descartes were around today, he'd perhaps be declaiming that "to be is to move around".

So how did they do, these seers of things to come? William Goldman memorably said of success in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. When it comes to futurology, we might amend that to people know a lot of things, but nobody knows everything - and certainly nobody can say for sure how things will work out.

We have, then, some predictions that came out completely wrong - the fact that hydrogen-filled blimps were for a while considered a viable rival to aeroplanes seems bizarre to me - but not all the time. And Bowler is kind to those who were mistaken: he rightly points out that the future is difficult to forecast because there are so many factors at play. It's a complex business.

He cites more than once a 2009 essay by sci-fi author Gary Westfahl on the most common fallacies of futurology: an assumption, for example, that everyone will eventually be able to afford such-and-such a technology, or that some development will totally supersede its ancestor (eg we still read and write on paper and probably always will, despite screens being so common).

Bowler himself gives further reasons why certain technologies succeeded where others failed. Sometimes the science itself was only feasible in theory, not in practical application. Sometimes the necessary governmental or business backing wasn't there for a widespread and successful launch. Sometimes there was corporate skulduggery. Sometimes random chance scuppered an otherwise sound idea.

And sometimes the prophet simply misunderstood human nature, or at least exaggerated some aspect of it. Thus - to take a very famous example - Huxley's iconic novel Brave New World envisioned a society where everyone is happy and tranquil and doped-up on soma, drifting through a sort of contradictory heavenly hell-on-earth.He correctly identified that this would someday be technically possible. But Huxley was wrong in assuming people would necessarily want it. We're not so far removed from chimps, after all; we're still partly feral and elemental, and we're 100pc awkward and irrational, often acting against what objectively appears to be our best interests.

Soma and orgy-porgies and state hatcheries for babies make sense, our minds assure us; but our guts and hearts reject it. (And thank God for that, say I.)

William Gibson, that uncannily accurate clairvoyant of the modern age, has often argued that all cultural change is, essentially, technologically driven. A History of the Future proves this, I think. Whatever area Bowler examines, we see again and again that science precedes social transformation. Cars made us more individualistic and atomised. Radio and television made the world feel like a much smaller place. Medical and biological developments made us expect to live longer. Plastics made us think of objects - rightly or wrongly - as disposable, cheap and in virtually endless supply.

Nuclear bombs created an entire new sub-stratum of the human psyche, obsessing about not only our own demise but that of the whole race and maybe the world. Satellites and moon-shots simultaneously helped launch the environmental movement, and introduced profound feelings of the futility of human existence, as we were confronted with hard evidence of Planet Earth's place in an incomprehensibly huge cosmos.

Bowler's writing style is a mite more "academic" than what's usually found in popular-science books, but nothing off-putting, and his work is a fascinating sociocultural and technological history. I'd love to see him now take on the last 50 years, when the pace of change has erupted to an exponential - and often fairly terrifying - degree.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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