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net.wars: Everything new is old again

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 16 May 2008


One of the curiosities about the future as portrayed in too many darned movies is its homogeneity. Everyone wears all white or all black, or they all dress the same and live in houses with a minimum of furniture all designed by someone who is apparently anxious not to waste any of the Earth's resources.

Wendy M Grossman

The bar in Star Wars reminded us that in a universe full of intelligent life there will be lots of different shapes and sizes of aliens sentient enough to drink beer. Terry Gilliam's Brazil similarly established a much more likely look of the future: a junkyard hodge-podge of old and new technologies and styles. Even the most obsessive fashionistas don't throw out all their belongings every couple of years.

The more subtle point about Gilliam's pictures of the future, however, is that the pieces of old technology distributed throughout – the duct work, the weird old teletypes with their magnified son-of-wing-mirror screens – are what make the movie look futuristic instead of dated. By contrast, the then ultra-modern TV and computer screens are, other than the title, the things that have dated about the movie 2001.

I was reminded of these principles this week while reading David Edgerton's The Shock of the Old, newly out in paperback. In it, Edgerton tries something a bit unusual. Most technology histories, as he says, tell the story of innovations: this is how the airplane was invented and now it's everywhere; this is where the Internet came from. Partly, the idea of human past and future history as an orderly succession of inventions displacing each other in turn, is appealing mythology. (Scott Berkun makes a similar point about ideas in this week's other book, The Myths of Innovation. In it, he notes that the most famous moments of insight – Newton's apple, Aristotle's Eureka – were preceded by decades of hard work that promoters and popular culture prefer to ignore in favor of the better story.) And partly, a lot of these histories are written by followers of one particular technology or company, who have an interest in making it seem as important as possible.

A lot of my career has been spent reviewing books like these: biographies of Andy Grove, Steve Jobs, or Carly Fiorina; company histories, pro and con, of IBM, Apple, or Amazon.com; creation tales that follow the development of a single technology or product, like cryptography, pen computing, a new mini-computer, or collaborative software. (Some samples of recent reviews are here. This sort of book is interesting (particularly the latter group, which includes Steven Levy's Crypto, Jerry Kaplan's Go, Tracy Kidder's The Soul of the Machine, and Scott Rosenberg's Dreaming in Code), but they rarely place any of their central subjects into a wider context.

Edgerton, on the other hand, attempts to organize his history by use. This can, of course, lead to some difficult comparisons. Which had more impact on human history, the computer or the screwdriver? Computers have all the publicists, of course, but over time they may, as Donald A. Norman predicted in The Invisible Computer, to become both ubiquitous and ordinary, just part of the landscape's back office. Like electric motors,

Part of Edgerton's point is that quite often when a technology seems to change the world – say, the Pill – it isn't really new. Birth control was available before, in the form of the condom, and given that the condom can prevent disease and the Pill can't, what was the fuss all about? This is one of only a few times that Edgerton just plain missed the point: the huge change the Pill brought was to put women in control of their fertility.

Why do we keep falling for sexy new technologies? Because, as Bruce Sterling writes in his review of Edgerton's book, human hope springs eternal, and every innovation seems like the very one to fulfil all the dreams we've had all along. Those dreams have changed remarkably little in the last century; electricity, radio, telegraphy, computers, television, the Internet were all supposed to bring a new era of democracy, peace, equality, and education. Even more mundane details don't seem to have changed that much: Popular Mechanics' idea of the smart home in 1939 doesn't sound much different from today's. Nearly 70 years later, we can say the technology is almost there to do most of what they had in mind. (Although the use of mood-altering colors arguably reached its peak in about 1968.)

Future hype has quieted down some since the early days of the Internet, when a host of commentators including French economist and scholar Jacques Attali, Wired founder Louis Rossetto, and hyperbolist John Perry Barlow all compared its importance favorably to the discovery of fire. But as nanotechnology begins to seep – or perhaps goo – into the mainstream, we're beginning to hear the same things again. At last summer's Center for Responsible Technology conference predictions were that molecular manufacturing would bring wealth for all, permanent prosperity, and all without having to work for a living.

I sense that shortly a new technology will be needed to pin our hopes on. For sale: one future, slightly used.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).