Beyond neophilia

Updated on Wed, 27 Jun 2018 13:59:43 GMT, tagged with ‘history’.

(Originally published and social-media’d on January 5, 2018. The delay is the time it takes me to become comfortable with the basic accuracy and relevance of a thought.)

I loved Charlie Stross’ Saturn’s Children. The book with the semi-naked robot lady on the cover floated around the house for days while I devoured it, before I returned it to the library and wrote a glowing if incoherent review.

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.

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!” delivered to the Chaos Communication Congress (CCC), 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

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:

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:

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.

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.

(Banner image: from Giuseppe Bertini's 1858 fresco, Galileo Galilei showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope, in Varese (Italy). Wikimedia Commons.)

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