What Can We Learn From Past Visions of the Technological Future?

In 1968, the Foreign Policy Association published “Toward the Year 2018,” an edited volume of predictions about what technology would look like in fifty years. At the close of 2018, Jill Lepore has revisited those predictions in a short piece for the New Yorker.

Her general conclusion: “First, most of the machines that people expected would be invented have, in fact, been invented. Second, most of those machines have had consequences wildly different from those anticipated in 1968.”

Along the way, Lepore highlights some of the more interesting entries. For example, here’s her summary of what J. R. Pierce of Bell Labs had to say:

“The transmission of pictures and texts and the distant manipulation of computers and other machines will be added to the transmission of the human voice on a scale that will eventually approach the universality of telephony.” True! “What all this will do to the world I cannot guess,” Pierce admitted, with becoming modesty. “It seems bound to affect us all.”

Among the more prescient contributors, according to Lepore, was the M.I.T. political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool, who believed that by 2018 “it will be cheaper to store information in a computer bank than on paper.” From this fact de Sola Pool further elaborated. In Lepore’s words,

“Tax returns, social security records, census forms, military records, perhaps a criminal record, hospital records, security clearance files, school transcripts . . . bank statements, credit ratings, job records,” and more would, by 2018, be stored on computers that could communicate with one another over a vast international network. You could find out anything about anyone, without ever leaving your desk. “By 2018 the researcher sitting at his console will be able to compile a cross-tabulation of consumer purchases (from store records) by people of low IQ (from school records) who have an unemployed member of the family (from social security records). That is, he will have the technological capability to do this. Will he have the legal right?”

“Pool declined to answer that question,” Lepore observed. “This is not the place to speculate how society will achieve a balance between its desire for knowledge and its desire for privacy,” he wrote.

Lepore doesn’t want to be too hard on those who hazard a guess at what the future will look like, but she finds in this refusal to think or accept responsibility the critical failure of all such visions of the future: “And that was the problem with 1968. People went ahead and built those things without worrying much about the consequences, because they figured that, by 2018, we’d have come up with all the answers.”

Lepore’s piece reminded me that at the conclusion of The Technological Society,  Jacques Ellul also commented critically on certain visions of the future from the 1960s. Writing about five years or so prior to the 1968 prognosticators, Ellul concluded a revised edition of The Technological Society by considering what some Russian and American scientists had, in 1960, predicted about technology in the year 2000.

“If we take a hard, unromantic look at the [predicted] golden age itself,” Ellul wrote, “we are struck with the incredible naiveté of these scientists.”

I wanted to pull some excerpts from the following, but found it hard to do without diminishing the force of Ellul’s prose. So here is a rather long passage for you to consider. I find that it holds up rather well and continues to resonate.

“They say, for example, that they will be able to shape and reshape at will human emotions, desires, and thoughts and arrive scientifically at certain efficient, pre-established collective decisions. They claim they will be in a position to develop certain collective desires, to constitute certain homogeneous social units out of aggregates of individuals, to forbid men to raise their children, and even to persuade them to renounce having any. At the same time, they speak of assuring the triumph of freedom and of the necessity of avoiding dictatorship at any price. They seem incapable of grasping the contradiction involved, or of understanding that what they are proposing, even after the intermediary period, is in fact the harshest of dictatorships. In comparison, Hitler’s was a trifling affair.

When our savants characterize their golden age in any but scientific terms, they emit a quantity of down-at-the-heel platitudes that would gladden the heart of the pettiest politician. Let’s take a few samples. ‘To render human nature nobler, more beautiful, and more harmonious.’ What on earth can this mean? What criteria, what content, do they propose? Not many, I fear, would be able to reply. ‘To assure the triumph of peace, liberty, and reason.’ Fine words with no substance behind them. ‘To eliminate cultural lag.’ What culture? And would the culture they have in mind be able to subsist in this harsh social organization? ‘To conquer outer space.’ For what purpose? The conquest of space seems to be an end in itself, which dispenses with any need for reflection.

We are forced to conclude that our scientists are incapable of any but the emptiest platitudes when they stray from their specialties. It makes one think back on the collection of mediocrities accumulated by Einstein when he spoke of God, the state, peace, and the meaning of life. It is clear that Einstein, extraordinary mathematical genius that he was, was no Pascal; he knew nothing of political or human reality, or, in fact, anything at all outside his mathematical reach. The banality of Einstein’s remarks in matters outside his specialty is as astonishing as his genius within it. It seems as though the specialized application of all one’s faculties in a particular area inhibits the consideration of things in general. Even J. Robert Oppenheimer, who seems receptive to a general culture, is not outside this judgment. His political and social declarations, for example, scarcely go beyond the level of those of the man in the street. And the opinions of the scientists quoted by tExpress are not even on the level of Einstein or Oppenheimer. Their pomposities, in fact, do not rise to the level of the average. They are vague generalities inherited from the nineteenth century, and the fact that they represent the furthest limits of thought of our scientific worthies must be symptomatic of arrested development or of a mental block. Particularly disquieting is the gap between the enormous power they wield and their critical ability, which must be estimated as null. To wield power well entails a certain faculty of criticism, discrimination, judgment, and option. It is impossible to have confidence in men who apparently lack these faculties. Yet it is apparently our fate to be facing a ‘golden age’ in the power of sorcerers who are totally blind to the meaning of the human adventure. When they speak of preserving the seed of outstanding men, whom, pray, do they mean to be the judges. It is clear, alas, that they propose to sit in judgment themselves. It is hardly likely that they will deem a Rimbaud or a Nietszche worthy of posterity. When they announce that they will conserve the genetic mutations which appear to them most favorable, and that they propose to modify the very germ cells in order to produce such and such traits; and when we consider the mediocrity of the scientists themselves outside the confines of their specialties, we can only shudder at the thought of what they will esteem most ‘favorable.'”

After all of this, Ellul adds, “None of our wise men ever pose the question of the end of all their marvels. The ‘wherefore’ is resolutely passed by.”

“But what good is it to pose questions of motives? of Why?” Ellul concludes. “All that must be the work of some miserable intellectual who balks at technical progress. The attitude of the scientists, at any rate, is clear. Technique exists because it is technique. The golden age will be because it will be. Any other answer is superfluous.”

In other words, Ellul already knew in 1964 what Lepore concludes at the end of 2018: “People went ahead and built those things without worrying much about the consequences.”

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