Technology, Speed, and Power

Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book, Future Shock, popularized the title phrase and the concept which it named, that technology was responsible for the disorienting and dizzying quality of the pace of life in late twentieth century industrialized society. Toffler, however, was not the first to observe that technology appeared to accelerate the pace of modern life; he only put a name to an experience people had been reporting since at least the late nineteenth century.

More recently, Tom Vanderbilt framed his essay, “The Pleasure and Pain of Speed,” this way:

“The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa catalogues the increases in speed in his recent book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. In absolute terms, the speed of human movement from the pre-modern period to now has increased by a factor of 100. The speed of communications (a revolution, Rosa points out, that came on the heels of transport) rose by a factor of 10 million in the 20th century. Data transmission has soared by a factor of around 10 billion.

As life has sped up, we humans have not, at least in our core functioning: Your reaction to stimuli is no faster than your great-grandfather’s. What is changing is the amount of things the world can bring to us, in our perpetual now. But is our ever-quickening life an uncontrolled juggernaut, driven by a self-reinforcing cycle of commerce and innovation, and forcing us to cope with a new social and psychological condition? Or is it, instead, a reflection of our intrinsic desire for speed, a transformation of the external world into the rapid-fire stream of events that is closest to the way our consciousness perceives reality to begin with?”

Vanderbilt explores both of these possibilities without arriving at a definitive conclusion. He closes his essay on this ambiguous note: “That we enjoy accelerated time, and pay a price for it, is clear. The ledger of benefits and costs may be impossible to balance, or even to compute.”

He goes on to say that the most important characteristic of accelerated time may be neither pleasure nor pain, but utility. It’s not entirely clear, though, how useful acceleration really is. Earlier, Vanderbilt had noted the following:

“Rosa says the ‘technical’ acceleration of being able to send and receive more emails, at any time, to anyone in the world, is matched by a ‘social’ acceleration in which people are expected to be able to send and receive emails at any time, in any place. The desire to keep up with this acceleration in the pace of life thus begets a call for faster technologies to stem the tide. And faced with a scarcity of time (either real or perceived), we react with a ‘compression of episodes of action’—doing more things, faster, or multitasking. This increasingly dense collection of smaller, decontextualized events bump up against each other, but lack overall connection or meaning.”


At the turn of the twentieth century, not everyone was complaining about the accelerating pace of life. In 1909, F.T. Marinetti published “The Futurist Manifesto,” a bracing call to embrace the accelerated pace of modernity. The Italian Futurists glorified speed and technologies of acceleration. They also glorified war, violence, danger, and chauvinism, of both the male and nationalistic variety. At the Smart Set, Morgan Meis recently reviewed the Guggenheim’s exhibition, “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe.” Early in his review, Meis cited the fourth of Marinetti’s Futurist principles:

“We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

“Speeding Train (Treno in corsa),” Ivo Pannaggi (1922)
“Speeding Train (Treno in corsa),” Ivo Pannaggi (1922)

The Manifesto also included the following cheery principles of action:

8. We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

9. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.

Seis rightly insists that Futurism and Fascism were inextricably bound together despite the efforts of some critics to disentangle the two: “There is no point in denying it. Most of the Italian Futurists, Marinetti most of all, were enthusiastic fascists.” From there, Seis goes on to argue that the Futurist/Fascist embrace of speed, violence, and technology was a form of coping with the horrors of the First World War:

“Sensible persons confronted by the calamity and destruction of WWI felt chastened and depressed in the aftermath of the war. There were civilization-wide feelings of shame and regret. “Let us never,” it was said by most, “do that again. Let the Great War be the war that ends all wars.” The Futurists did not accept this line of thinking. They were among an odd and select group that said, “Let us have more of this. Let us have bigger and more spectacular wars.” […] “How does it make us feel,” they wondered, “to say yes to the bombs and the machines and the explosions?”

In saying “yes,” in asking for more, they discovered a secret source of power. It was a way forward. By choosing to embrace the most terrible aspects of the war and the industrial civilization that had made it possible, the Futurists gave themselves a kind of immunity from the paralysis that European civilization experienced after the war.”

In other words, there was power in embracing the forces that were disordering society and disorienting individuals. There is nothing terribly profound in the realization that embracing new technologies often puts one at an advantage over those who are slower to do so or refuse to altogether. It is only the explicit embrace of violence in the wake of World War I that lends the Futurists the patina of radical action.

In our own day, we hear something like the Futurist bravado in the rhetoric of the posthumanist movement. The future belongs to the brave and the strong, to those who are untroubled by the nebulous ethical qualms of the weak and sentimental. As Gary Marcus recently wrote about the future of bio-technological enhancements, “The augmented among us—those who are willing to avail themselves of the benefits of brain prosthetics and to live with the attendant risks—will outperform others in the everyday contest for jobs and mates, in science, on the athletic field and in armed conflict. These differences will challenge society in new ways—and open up possibilities that we can scarcely imagine.”

If we must speak of inevitability with regards to technology, then we must speak of the inevitability of the human quest for power.


The French philosopher and critic, Paul Virilio, was ten years old when the Nazi war machine overran his home. He went on to devote his academic life to the problems of speed, technology, and modernity. Anyone who voices concerns with the character of technological modernity will eventually be asked if they are against Progress, and, indeed, such was the case for Virilio in a 2010 interview. He responded this way:

“No. I’ve never thought we should go back to the past. But why did the positive aspect of progress get replaced by its propaganda? Propaganda was a tool used by Nazis but also by the Futurists. Look at the Italian Futurists. They were allies with the Fascists. Even Marinetti. I fight against the propaganda of progress, and this propaganda bears the name of never-ending acceleration.”

A little later in the interview, Virilio was asked if he was annoyed by those who insisted that technological progress was an unalloyed good. He responded,

“Yes, it’s very irritating. These people are victims of propaganda. Progress has replaced God. Nietzsche talked about the death of God—I think God was replaced by progress. I believe that you must appreciate technology just like art. You wouldn’t tell an art connoisseur that he can’t prefer abstractionism to expressionism. To love is to choose. And today, we’re losing this. Love has become an obligation. Progress has all the defects of totalitarianism.”

Virilio has long argued that the “accident” is an intrinsic element of technology. Virilio’s use of the word “accident” is meant to encompass more than the unplanned happenstance, he alludes as well to the old philosophical distinction between substance and accidents, but it does take the conventional accident as a point of departure. Virilio does not, however, see the accident as an unfortunate deviation from the norm, but as a necessary component. In a variety of places, he has expressed some variation of the following:

“When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution… Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

Elsewhere, Virilio borrowed a theological concept to further elaborate his theory of the accident:

“Now, this idea of original sin, which materialist philosophy rejects so forcefully, comes back to us through technology: the accident is the original sin of the technical object. Every technical object contains its own negativity. It is impossible to invent a pure, innocent object, just as there is no innocent human being. It is only through acknowledged guilt that progress is possible. Just as it is through the recognized risk of the accident that it is possible to improve the technical object.”

In yet another context, Virilio explained, “Accidents have always fascinated me. It is the intellectual scapegoat of the technological; accident is diagnostic of technology.” This is a provocative idea. It suggests not only that the accident is inseparable from new technology, but also that technological progress needs the accident. Without the accident there may be no progress at all. But we do not acknowledge this because then the happy illusion of clean and inevitable technological progress would take on the bloody aspect of a sacrificial cult.

In the face of the quasi-religious status of the cult of technology, Virilio insists, “It is necessary to be an atheist of technology!”


In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler commended the reading of science-fiction. Against those who held science-fiction in low literary regard, Toffler believed “science fiction has immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of anticipation.” “Our children,” he urged,

“should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.”

Bradbury, for one, marked an obsession with speed as one of the characteristic disorders of the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451. In that world, traveling at immense and reckless speed was the norm; slowness was criminal. In the story, speed is just one more of the thought-stifling conditions of life for most characters. The great danger is not only the risk of physical accidents, but also the risk of thoughtlessness, indifference, and irresponsibility. Mandated speed and the burning of books both worked toward the same end.

Interestingly, these imaginative aspects of Bradbury’s story were already present in the Futurists’ vision. Not only did they glorify speed, violence, and technology, they also called for an incendiary assault on the educational establishment: “It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.”

In Fahrenheit 451, a character named Faber is among the few to remember a time before the present regime of thoughtlessness. When the protagonist, Guy Montag, meets with him, Faber lays out three necessary conditions for the repair of society: quality of information, the time to digest it, and “the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.”

If we credit Bradbury with knowing something about what wisdom and freedom require, then we might conclude that three disastrous substitutions tempt us. We are tempted to mistake quantity of information for quality, speed for time, and consumer choice for the freedom of meaningful action. It seems, too, that a morbid, totemic fascination with the technical accident distracts us from the more general social accident that unfolds around us.

It would be disingenuous to suggest “solutions” to this state of affairs. Bradbury himself steered clear of a happy ending. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, the general, cataclysmic accident is not circumvented. We may hope and work for better. At least, we should not despair.


Another writer of imaginative fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien has his character Gandalf declare, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

Tolkien too lived through the mechanized horrors of the First World War. He would likely sympathize with Virilio’s claim, “War was my university.” But unlike the Futurists and their Fascist heirs, he did not believe that an embrace of power and violence was the only way forward. Interestingly, the counsel against despair cited above is taken from a point in The Fellowship of the Ring when a course of action with regards to the ring of power is being debated. Some of those present urged that the ring of power be used for good. The wiser among them, however, recognized that this was foolishness. The ring was designed for dominance, and the power it yielded it would always bend toward its design and corrupt those who wielded it.

It is worth mentioning that Tolkien once explained to a friend that “all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.” He elaborated on the idea of the “Machine” in this way: “By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills.”

So rather than submit to the logic of power and dominance, Gandalf urges a counterintuitive course of action:

“Let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”

The point, I suggest, is not that we should seek to destroy our technology. It is rather that we should refuse the logic that has animated so much of its history and development: the logic of power, dominance, and thoughtless irresponsibility. That would be a start.

If you’ve appreciated what you’ve read, consider supporting or tipping the writer.

Promethean Shocks

Consider the image below. It was created in 1952 by Alexander Leydenfrost for the 50th anniversary issue of Popular Mechanics.

Alexander Leydenfrost - March of Science 3WifC

I thought of this image as I read Thomas Misa’s brief discussion of the wide-spread perception that the pace of technological change is ever-quickening. “At least since Alvin Toffler’s best-selling Future Shock (1970),” Misa writes, “pundits perennially declare that the pace of technology is somehow quickening and that technology is forcing cultural changes in its wake, that our plunge into the future is driven by technology gone out of control.”

Misa, a historian of technology, is not altogether certain that the pace of technological change has in fact quickened. He is certainly opposed to the “crude technological determinism” inherent in the idea that technology is forcing cultural changes. He does, however, give merit to the experience that is often described using this language. He attributes the perception of quickening to “a split between our normative expectations for technology and what we observe in the world around us.” “It is not so much that our technologies are changing especially quickly,” he explains, “but that our sense of what is ‘normal,’ about technology and society, cannot keep pace.”

According to Misa, developments in cloning, biotechnology, surveillance technologies, and nanotechnology are outstripping regulatory laws and ethical norms. This seems true enough. We might even describe the condition of modernity (and/or post-modernity, or hyper-modernity, or reflexive modernity, or whatever) as one of perpetual Promethean shock. This way of putting it seems more apt than “future shock.” One way of telling the story of modernity, after all, is to order it as a series of startling realizations of what we suddenly acquired the power to do. As Auden wrote of the modern Mind,

“Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.”

Clearly certain technological innovations yield this dizzying experience of Promethean shock more than others. The advent of human flight, the atomic bomb, and putting a man on the moon are just some of the more simultaneously startling, awe-inspiring, disconcerting examples. When these technologies arrived, in rather quick succession, they rattled and unsettled reigning cultural and moral frameworks, tacit as they may have been, for incorporating new technologies into existing society.

These normative cultural expectations for technology were set, Misa suggests, during the “longer-duration ‘eras'” of technology which he identifies in his history of the relationship between technology and culture. These eras included, for example, the age of the Renaissance, when the demands of Renaissance court culture set the agenda for technological change, and the age of imperialism, when the imperatives of empire dictated the dominant agenda. The former era, in Misa’s analysis, spanned nearly two centuries, and the latter the better part of one; but the 20th century is home to at least four different eras, which Misa labels the eras of systems, modernism, war, and global culture respectively.

Misa is on to something here, but he seems to push the question back rather than answering it directly. Why then are these eras, tentative and suggestive as he acknowledges them to be, getting progressively shorter? He is closer to the mark, I think, when he also suggests that the sense of quickening is linked to another “quickening” in  the “self-awareness of societies,” which he further defines as “our capacities to recognize and comprehend change.”

His brief illustration of this development is initially compelling. Two centuries elapsed before the Renaissance was named. Within 50 years of the appearance of factories in Manchester, the phrase industrial revolution was in usage. Just four years after the telephone arrived in Moscow, Chekhov published a short story, “On the Telephone,” about the travails of an early adopter trying to make a restaurant reservation over the phone (fodder for a Seinfeld plot, if you ask me). Most recently, William Gibson gives us the term cyberspace “almost before the fact of cyberspace.” This sequences suggests to Misa that Western society has become increasingly self-aware of technological change and its consequences.

I think this claim has merit. The Modern mind that, according to Auden “cannot understand/what it can clearly do” he described as the “self-observed, observing Mind.”  But, again, we might be tempted to ask why our “self-awareness” is accelerating in this way. Might it not be attributed, at least in part, to an increase in the rapidity of technological development? The two seem inseparable. I’m reminded of Walter Ong’s dictum about writing: “Writing heightens consciousness.” In a slightly different way, might we not argue that technological change heightens societal self-awareness?

Consider again that Leydenfrost image above. It captures an important aspect of how we’ve come to understand our world: we have aligned our reckoning of the passage of time with the development of technology. We have technologies that mark time, but in another sense the advent of new technologies mark time by their appearance, iteration, and obsolescence.

Human beings have long sought markers to organize the experience of time, of course. For a day sunrise and sunset served just fine. The seasons, too, helped order the experience of a year. For longer periods, however, cultural rather than natural markers were needed. Consider, for instance, the common practice in the ancient world of reckoning time by the reigns of monarchs. “In the x year of so-and-so’s reign” is a recurring temporal formula.

Without achieving that sort of verbal formality or precision, I’d suggest that the development of technology–the reign, if you will, of certain technologies and artifacts–now does similar work for modern societies. Records, 8-tracks, tapes, CDs, MP3s. Desktops, laptops, tablets. Landline, portable landline, cellphone, smartphone. Black and white TV, color TV, projection TV, flatscreen TV. Pre-Internet/post-Internet. Dial-up/broadband/wireless. I suspect you can supply similar artifactual chronologies that have structured our recollection of the past. We seem to have synchronized our perception and experience of time to the cycles of technological innovation.

The Leydenfrost image also reminds us that insofar as the notion of progress exists at all today, it is clearly bound up with the advance of technology. All other forms of progress that we might imagine  or aspire to– moral, economic, social–these are subsumed under the notion of technological progress. For that reason, rumors or suggestions that technological innovation might be slowing down unnerve us. We need the next big thing  to keep coming on schedule, however trivial that next big thing might be, to distract us from our economic, political, and personal woes.

This was illustrated nicely by the minor tech-media freakout occasioned recently by a Christopher Mims’ piece at Quartz arguing that 2013 was a lost year for tech. It was received as a heretical claim, and it was promptly and roundly condemned. “I, too, constantly yearn for mind-blowing new tech,” Farhad Manjoo tells us in his reply to Mims before re-assuring us: “I think we’re witnessing the dawn of a new paradigm in machine-human cooperation: Combining machine intelligence with biological intelligence will always trump one or the other. Machines make us better, and we make machines better. There’s still hope for us. Welcome to the bionic future.”

The world may be falling apart around us, but we can bear it so long as we can project our hopes on the amorphous promise of technological advance. The prospect of a host of Promethean shocks that we seemed poised to receive–from drones, robotics, AI, bioengineer, geo-engineering, nanotechnology–makes us nervous, they unsettle our moral frameworks; but their absence would worry us more, I suspect.