JF Ptak Science Books Post 2340
[This is a version of an article recently published in the Mensa Bulletin.]
The world of possibility is limitless when there are no limits and almost no impossibilities. The history of seeing possibilities in the future, the history of looking into the future, is vast (with exponential growth in publication for each of the last three generations), and organizing it for a limited discussion difficult—there is a general temptation to simply classify all of it according to an alphabet of “ramas” of all possible Futuramas.
How do we sort thousands of people writing about hundreds of thousands of future sightings in human development? Flying cars and people and cities and retrievable/liveable subconscious bits and dream, atomic blast guns, two-way wrist tv/radios, perfect places of nothing but intellect and floating intelligence, horseless cities, Soylent Green, personal computers small enough to fit into the trunk of your car, Edison's anti-grav underwear, buffalo herding from nuclear-powered sports cars, Maginot Line-sized mobile tank-ships, rockets to the Moon, rockets to the Sun, and rockets to tomorrow and to yesterday. We have futures where Manhattan is completely covered by thirty-story skyscrapers by the social warrior Thomas Nast; where George Holmes kills off cities with airplane-filled suburbs in 1912; where electric titan tank monsters with canons instead of cigarettes crushed hopeless opponents in 1918; where atomic-powered dirigible airports free up land in 1946; where a floating NYC is moored above the hole-in-the-ground where it once stood. Where spacecraft of mega-sharp ultra-fins await their cigarette-smoking pilots in 1953 and out-Eiffeled mile-high vertical airport towers, and where an identical duplicate Earth floats serenely in place above a bird's-eye view of Manhattan.
Much of the early technical thinking on the future seems neither utopian (in the traditions of Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Plato, Robert Owen, and such) nor what we would consider today to be dystopian (as with visions of Capek, Bradbury, Orwell, Burgess)--it seems to tend more towards a neutropia. And this does not include the earlier attempts at predicting the near future by looking at frothy bits of entrails or the shades of urine, or the oracles of thrown dice bones or draw of playing cards, or following the implications of human mole maps or seeking guidance in the alignment of stars in the sky.
And at the top and bottom of it all are the religious futures of endless pain and comfort and nothingness and repetitive existences—but that doesn't feed into this topic, though the way time ticks through the reckoning of Brahma is very nicely suited to calculating versions of pieces of infinity.
This effort of looking at the history of the future is easier when there are bookends, and there's no more a convenient end to the future as when it has a date. And in the past that date has often been the year 2000.
Let's look at two very unusual examples of future thought experiments—one of which visualizes life in the year 2000—and both of which entertain what may be one of the ultimate considerations for the evolution of humans.
One aspect of thinking about the future is the opposite of trying to include a sense of the future in the present—instead, it can be about removal. Removal of the present, distancing it from the present and the past. Removal of practices, though not necessarily principles.
And perhaps one of the greatest of these removals is that of the human aspect of humanity: people replaced by created entities. In a way, a sort of 19th century singularity.
A curious example of this can be found in the third edition of Jonathan Swift's tales of Lemuel Gulliver, where we see a Jorge Borgesian library-producing machine, a 20' square instrument made of cranks and cubes and turned by scribes producing an endless stream of knowledge. A wooden miracle replacing the human mind, an intelligent primum mobile with splinters.
A great example of this high removal is found in "The century of invention Anno Domini 2000 or the march of aerostation, steam, rail roads, movable houses & perpetual motion,” a terrific lithograph, made ca. 1834, the handiwork and imagination of Charles Jameson Grant, a satirist and observer of high order. He tried looking into the future 165 years hence, and in some practicable ways he got a lot of it right--the imagery wasn't there, but the iconic sense of what may come to be was.
[British Museum, here.]
We see small and large individual steam-powered four-wheeled vehicles, as well as plenty of balloons (in the spirit of aviation, at this point in its fourth decade and entering a great heyday) passing each other in every which way, off on adventures, or work, or in a race (as with the "out of Sight Club"). There are also numerous people flapping around in the sky ("winging it so early") with their (something)-powered wings, some of whom are ironically hunting birds.
The main sensation here is speed, though I would not say it was democratic--the means to go to Dublin in your balloon "for an appetite" and return later in the day would have been fantastic to the 1834 reader trying to imagine doing such a thing on such a whim, with a newspaper in your lap, but certainly it would be available to the leisurely class.
There was also an idea for balloonic communication, as one man in a balloon shouts to another to "give me a call by the first balloon," meaning perhaps a communication device, or a balloon-delivered letter.
The dialog certainly portrays an attitude of unremarkable observation, conveying how commonplace flight and mobile towns and steam cars would be in the year 2000. That's where one of Grant's the great insights comes into play--at lower left there is a person excitedly remarking about a race, and particularly on the great rarity of the exhibition of a live horse. That Grant would make this an issue is interesting, as it would certainly rub the 1830s consciousness the opposite way of what the brain expected to see in the street, and that was horses. Horses powered almost all transportation at this time—save for the invention of the railroad, some of which were horse-powered—and to imagine a world in which the horse would be gone would've been, well, unimaginable.
Also, too, the great and extensive coal mines fueling the Industrial Revolution going dry, the coal consumed.
[From Christie's auction site, here.]
At the bottom of the print is the prize, a very unusual placard concerning robotics: "a cast iron Parson will preach by steam at Fudge Church.” This is doubly intriguing because it not only invokes a steam-powered person—still fairly rare in the literature in the first third of the 19th century—but also a thinking one, a parson, a mechanical object trusted with the preaching and interpretation of a basic human belief system. This seems a bit on the primitive side in its display, but the intellectual imagery is pretty powerful stuff. I assume that the power of this would've been less so at the time of publication, guessing that Grant was making more of a not-so-subtle satire on the steam-driven puffery of some preachers with the creativity of kettles, and that in the future this would be magnified to the point of steam and smoke. But still the idea of placing the deeply emotional stuff of belief systems in the control of a machine is extraordinary for the time.
A few years earlier William Heath's March of the Intellect series (1825-1829) displayed another robotic entity witha book-driven intellect in its “crown of many towers” (London University) that swept up the great "rubbish" and "dust" of society. The robot was thinking in its way, distilling the promise of data and intelligence in its book-laden head, firing its set of gas-light eyes, iron arms, and legs made of printer's tools, sweeping away useless and insulting lawyers and jurists and their legal wigs and obsolete and repetitive rules, medical quacks, and the dust of other official abuses, "sweeping rubbish from the land.” It was making decisions and acting on them, trumping the humans in its path.
It is a remarkable leap, the consequences of which are difficult to put into perspective. I can think of an example from the novel Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, when its two dimensional characters first encounter a three dimensional figure—superbly incomprehensible at first, understanding following with some difficulty.
Visualizing the assumption of a created intelligence developed enough to supplant or supervise human thought and activity was probably beyond the 19th century sensibility—just as its technical aspects are to us now.