MORE ON ACCELERATING TECHNOLOGY

Let’s start with a letter . . .

Hartford, May 24/89
 To Walt Whitman:

You have lived just the seventy years which are greatest in the world’s history & richest in benefit & advancement to its peoples. These seventy years have done much more to widen the interval between man & the other animals than was accomplished by any five centuries which preceded them.

whitman

Walt Whitman

 

What great births you have witnessed! The steam press, the steamship, the steel ship, the railroad, the perfected cotton-gin, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the photograph, photo-gravure, the electrotype, the gaslight, the electric light, the sewing machine, & the amazing, infinitely varied & innumerable products of coal tar, those latest & strangest marvels of a marvelous age. And you have seen even greater births than these; for you have seen the application of anesthesia to surgery-practice, whereby the ancient dominion of pain, which began with the first created life, came to an end in this earth forever; you have seen the slave set free, you have seen the monarchy banished from France, & reduced in England to a machine which makes an imposing show of diligence & attention to business, but isn’t connected with the works. Yes, you have indeed seen much—but tarry yet a while, for the greatest is yet to come. Wait thirty years, & then look out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to these whose nativity you have witnessed; & conspicuous above them you shall see their formidable Result—Man at almost his full stature at last!—& still growing, visibly growing while you look. In that day, who that hath a throne, or a gilded privilege not attainable by his neighbor, let him procure his slippers & get ready to dance, for there is going to be music. Abide, & see these things! Thirty of us who honor & love you, offer the opportunity. We have among us 600 years, good & sound, left in the bank of life. Take 30 of them—the richest birth-day gift ever offered to poet in this world—& sit down & wait. Wait till you see that great figure appear, & catch the far glint of the sun upon his banner; then you may depart satisfied, as knowing you have seen him for whom the earth was made, & that he will proclaim that human wheat is worth more than human tares, & proceed to organize human values on that basis.

Mark Twain

The poet Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, so the seventy years Twain is referring to gets us to 1889. Whitman would live another ten years after that, a decade in which “the interval between man & the other animals” was widened even more, though Twain’s wish that he live another thirty would have shown Mr. Whitman even more.

What would either of these men think of 2014?

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Are we yet at our “full stature”? I don’t think so, but though we have a ways to go, it’s clear that we’re gettin’ there. And if you’re frustrated by the pace, wait a minute . . .

If we were to go back in time to the year 1014, grab some unsuspecting peasant off the streets of, say Paris, and bring him a thousand tears forward in time, what about our world would he recognize?

I’d say pretty much none of it. This would be especially true if we didn’t stay in Paris but brought him to, say, Seattle. In 1014 North America was home to a widespread population of Native Americans who had no idea that such a place as Paris existed, and the Parisians had no idea that a couple other continents were sitting over the horizon to the west.

This guy would have been dragged out of a feudal society—we think the gap between rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, is too big now? This guy would beg to differ. He would be utterly flabbergasted by America’s racial, cultural, and religious diversity. I think its fair to say that 11th century Paris had pretty much none of that. Women running around doing stuff like running companies—wait, what’s a “company?” Let alone having jobs like Secretary of State (Foreign Minister), or, say, Chancellor of Germany or Prime Minister of England, well . . . he might have heard of queens and so on, but women don’t get appointed to jobs like that, hired for jobs like that . . . and what’s this “voting”? He wouldn’t know what that word even means.

How to you explain your smart phone to a guy from 1014? You have no common language, no shared set of experiences. You would literally have to go back to well before the Industrial Revolution and then some. How do you explain electronics to someone who’s never heard of atoms and has no reason to believe such things exist?

Now take that same guy off the streets of Paris is 1014 and instead of bringing him all the way to the present, go only a hundred years later to 1114. The city might have changed a smidge. He’d have to get caught up on who the king is, and so on, but I think he’d find day to day life in the city largely unchanged.

So then, what if we took a guy off the streets of Seattle in 1914 and brought him a hundred years into the future to 2014. Would he be in the same boat—a few different buildings but otherwise, not much has changed?

Except:

  • Jet airplanes.
  • Electronics, again.
  • Women in professional careers and holding public office.
  • Black people, Hispanic people, Native Americans, “Orientals,” and even Jews freely intermingling with white people.
  • This guy has probably seen “moving pictures” in 1914 but I think he’d be pretty freaked out by Netflix streaming on your smart phone.
  • You could show him a picture of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon and if he was particularly well read he might even believe it.
  • This is a guy who will have skipped right over the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the disintegration of the British and French Empires, the polio vaccine and all sorts of medical miracles . . .
  • “Survivable form of cancer” wasn’t something this guy heard said very often if at all in 1914.

There’s more, but it’s clear that though it’s obvious that a hundred years isn’t quite as impenetrable as a thousand years, the sort of acceleration of technology that Mark Twain tried to describe has been happening, and continues to happen—it continues to accelerate. So if the difference between the worlds of 1914 and 2014 far outweigh the differences between 1014 and 1114, what does that mean for the world of 2114? What would surprise us? What might be commonplace that we can’t even begin to understand?

Then go another century from 2114 to 2214 and we’re still accelerating, so where do we get to the point that the difference between 1014 and 2014 happens in a century instead of a millennium? If the growth truly is exponential, that means somewhere between 2314 and 2414.

f a baby alive today will live until 2134 then that baby’s kids, born in, say, 2044 will live until at least 2164, but then wouldn’t life expectancy grow at the same rate, so he’d live until 2284? And if technology in 2134 might just be able to add another hundred years or so to today’s baby’s life span, and then during that hundred years they add another two hundred and so on until that baby born, this year, is immortal.

This is why I found the ending of Interstellar at least reasonably plausible, but not the beginning.

 

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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