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The Future That Wasn’t
June 7, 2011 11:14 PM   Subscribe

The past century . . . is rich with examples, both poignant and tragic, of technological possibilities not realized. On 1 September 1939, a decision was . . . taken by our species to spend five trillion dollars and expend ~72 million human lives. This decision was followed in 1947, and repeated at intervals until 1991, to expend an additional ~12 trillion dollars, and perhaps another 1-2 million human lives. . . . In the midst of the first of these costly escapades, on 15 March, 1944, the architect of the German V-2 rocket, Wernher von Braun, was arrested by the Gestapo on charges of high treason for having privately expressed regret, after dinner at a colleague’s home one evening the previous October, that he and his team were not working on a spaceship . . .
From a wide-ranging essay by Mike Darwin on the future that wasn’t. (Note: Site doesn't seem to display properly in Internet Explorer)
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear (47 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've seen that trailer....
posted by FatherDagon at 11:17 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I haven't finished RTFA, but the cryonics business gives me a weird vibe... a first hint that he might be crazy.

Still, as a recovering classicist, there's nothing I would rather see than Roman hot air balloons and clockwork computers.

I see room for fiction here. Not steampunk.... gladiuspunk? Aqueductpunk?
posted by Apolon at 11:52 PM on June 7, 2011


I don't think he's crazy, just verbose and meandering. Interesting read, though- I wonder, has this guy never heard of the James Burke TV Series Connections and its sequels? Technology evolution is haphazard and often seems to lag for years, decades, even centuries before making that next seemingly obvious (in hindsight) step.

Regarding a science fiction springboard, this has been well covered; most recently I saw it in the (actually pretty disturbing) "Island in the Sea of Time" series by S.M. Sterling, about Nantucket Island being magically sent back in time to the Bronze Age, and the ongoing user-generated-content universe of the 1632 series. But the technological timeshift story goes back to at last Connecticut Yankee and probably further; many examples can be found here...
posted by hincandenza at 12:09 AM on June 8, 2011 [4 favorites]



I see room for fiction here. Not steampunk.... gladiuspunk? Aqueductpunk?

Hellenepunk! And it needs armies of Talos-Men.
posted by The Whelk at 12:33 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Technological possibilities not realized? The Second World War gave the world a massive technological boost. In six years of war air forces went from still fielding biplane fighters to jet aircraft, atomic weapons were developed from scratch, telecommunications developed apace and a hundred other great strides were made with enormous civilian applications. That doesn't justify the enormous human toll of the world but had it not happened there's no way we'd be as advanced now as we are.
posted by joannemullen at 12:55 AM on June 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


He almost but almost promises a flying car. Alright maybe not really, but almost! I mean, he could have, you know, if
posted by From Bklyn at 1:49 AM on June 8, 2011


(Note: Site doesn't seem to display properly in Internet Explorer)

Internet Explorer: The Future That Wasn’t
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:02 AM on June 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


The Second World War gave the world a massive technological boost.

[citation needed]
posted by mek at 2:07 AM on June 8, 2011


[citation needed]

Is joke, no?

No?

Well, for starters... radar.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:19 AM on June 8, 2011


Oh right... radar citation.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:19 AM on June 8, 2011


But... it was a joke, wasn't it? OK.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:20 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


The real future that wasn't is that we took so long to make changes in social equality. How much more could have been done over just the last couple thousand years if humanity hadn't been working with one hand tied? For every great male genius or leader you can name from history, a potential female counterpart moved from her father's home to her husband's home, bore and raised children, cooked meals, cleaned house, milked goats, and died. That's where your early discovery of flight and atomic power, cure for cancer, and personal jet packs all went. Elizabeth VIII should have been issuing commands to Francis Drake from her command post hovering 50,000 feet above London. In her victory celebration, she and her three daughters ("The Spectaculars") should have raced down the Thames on the backs of leaping mechanical dolphins that shot lasers from their eyes, then all hit the town to carouse for a few days before heading back to their various university and government posts.
posted by pracowity at 2:21 AM on June 8, 2011 [26 favorites]


I don't know how this guy managed to confuse humanity with some untroubled race of Objectivist Skylon people, but on behalf of everyone who doesn't strip mine the past to confirm their present assumptions, please allow me to say


BOOOO HOOOOO.
posted by lazenby at 2:54 AM on June 8, 2011


Frances Drake!
posted by plep at 2:59 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


The real future that wasn't is that we took so long to make changes in social equality.

And of course, there's an argument to be made that WW2 contributed to more rapid changes in social equality, at least here in the US.
posted by me & my monkey at 3:15 AM on June 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


how do: strong artificial intelligence, and quantum computing, to name but... [two], each hold many times the potential for systemic harm to, or destruction of our civilization...?

trialing experimental life-saving devices to save those that are dying: what's the harm in that?

at least the military fraction of spending is something that we can decide immediately to lower, as we've done historically after wars.
posted by dongolier at 3:41 AM on June 8, 2011


The notion that the resources used in war delivered scientific and technological advances at a faster rate than if they had been devoted to peaceful research is staggeringly wrong and shows a complete ignorance of what happens in war, where the money goes to, and how much money we are talking about.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 4:29 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


at least the military fraction of spending is something that we can decide immediately to lower, as we've done historically after wars.

I think we are going to be at "war" forever and that there will be no lowering of the Defense budget or further "peace dividends" for the American people, who also seem to be hostile nowadays to research and development, anyway.
posted by Renoroc at 4:31 AM on June 8, 2011


How much more could have been done over just the last couple thousand years if humanity hadn't been working with one hand tied? For every great male genius or leader you can name from history, a potential female counterpart moved from her father's home to her husband's home, bore and raised children, cooked meals, cleaned house, milked goats, and died.

Every genius inventor had a mother and equality may just have resulted in fewer geniuses since women don't reproduce as much once they get equality so it probably is a wash in the long run whether hand is tied or doesn't exist.
posted by srboisvert at 4:35 AM on June 8, 2011


The real future that wasn't is that we took so long to make changes in social equality.

Umm... what? Social equality wasn't even considered a positive thing until the past half-dozen decades or so. The piece is clear enough that even technological advancement is kind of an ambiguous goal, and what seems obvious to us clearly wasn't, or someone would have done it before then. But giving "social equality" a positive value in terms of the development of human society, indeed, even relating social equality and said development, is a far, far more controversial thing which may not even count as progress in many societies.

I mean, it's pretty clear that a society which has invented hot-air balloons is undeniably more "advanced" than a society which hasn't, if only because that's one more thing that society can now do. But "social equality" wasn't "invented". It's something we've known about forever, but until the mid-twentieth century had decided didn't actually constitute progress. There are a lot of places where it still doesn't. Even more, most of the biggest scientific advances of the past few centuries happened before we changed our collective minds about equality.

It's certainly a future that wasn't, but that's no different than saying that history would look different if Rome hadn't fallen or any other number of hypotheticals. There's absolutely no reason to connect social equality with a lack of technological development in the way that the author of this piece talks about the lack of nuclear power to become a commodity power source.
posted by valkyryn at 5:12 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


But "social equality" wasn't "invented". It's something we've known about forever, but until the mid-twentieth century had decided didn't actually constitute progress. There are a lot of places where it still doesn't.

I disagree, there were plenty of people who 'knew' that they were intellectually, morally and physically superior and that society naturally was structured with them at the top.
posted by biffa at 5:22 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Technological possibilities not realized? The Second World War gave the world a massive technological boost. In six years of war air forces went from still fielding biplane fighters to jet aircraft, atomic weapons were developed from scratch, telecommunications developed apace and a hundred other great strides were made with enormous civilian applications. That doesn't justify the enormous human toll of the world but had it not happened there's no way we'd be as advanced now as we are.

Because the government was pouring money into research, money from the 90% top tax rate. These things didn't happen because of the private market. So, does that mean you're not a free market conservative anymore? You're for high top tax rates and massive government investment in research and development? We agree on something!
posted by stavrogin at 5:25 AM on June 8, 2011


Sounded like a bunch of fantasy and speculation till I got to this

What a wonderful world it would be – except for one small problem: the fundamental inability of most humans to handle such technology responsibly.

Crazy and irresponsible civilizations have no business using such technologies, and that is the primary reason why their use has been restricted, or prohibited altogether, in ours.

The article cuts off for my lame IE, so I don't know what came after that, but after reading previous posts on the blue about WWII atrocities, present atrocities, and more distant atrocities during wars and in peacetime, I sometimes wish my asshole race had never learned to plant crops and smelt iron
posted by Redhush at 5:28 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I disagree, there were plenty of people who 'knew' that they were intellectually, morally and physically superior and that society naturally was structured with them at the top.

You're missing my point. They were aware of the concept of social equality, they just thought it was wrong. They must have been, otherwise the concept of them being superior would have been incoherent. If you had said that all people are and should be equal, they'd have laughed at you (if you were lucky), but they would have understood what you meant.
posted by valkyryn at 5:44 AM on June 8, 2011


The notion that the resources used in war delivered scientific and technological advances at a faster rate than if they had been devoted to peaceful research is staggeringly wrong and shows a complete ignorance of what happens in war, where the money goes to, and how much money we are talking about.

But that's not an accurate assessment of the two possible options. That money wouldn't be spent on peaceful research, because it's not really the government's primary job to perform research. That money would have been available for private industry to spend instead, and it wouldn't have been spent on research there either.
posted by me & my monkey at 5:44 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is, like, kind of interesting, I guess, but it breaks down in a lot of places. For example:
Certainly, the same motivations were present in both cultures at both times: Joseph Montgolfier was contemplating how to successfully assault the British fortress of Gibraltar, which had proved impregnable to the French by both sea and land, when he noticed how floating embers from a fire he was laying next to were carried aloft and over great distances; giving him the idea of lighter than air flight. The Romans, a military people with similar problems, as well as a love of spectacle and a penchant for technological innovation in war, could just as easily have developed lighter than air manned flight – and yet they did not.
Right, the military obstacle keeping the Romans from domination of the Mediterranean basin was the number of impregnable masonry fortresses constructed, uh, within their borders by, uh, somebody. Somebody they could stop with hot air balloons. Similarly, the ancient Greeks would have wanted clocks because... why? It's not like everybody jumped at the thought of buying this expensive thing that gives you information you can just look outside to get even once clocks started to be adopted. You've gotta have some impetus to adopt these gizmos.

Maybe a time-traveling Dick Dastardly?
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 5:48 AM on June 8, 2011


Social equality wasn't even considered a positive thing until the past half-dozen decades or so.

By whom? I'm pretty sure the people on the bottom would have always been fairly in favor of it.
posted by empath at 5:50 AM on June 8, 2011


Similarly, the ancient Greeks would have wanted clocks because... why? It's not like everybody jumped at the thought of buying this expensive thing that gives you information you can just look outside to get even once clocks started to be adopted. You've gotta have some impetus to adopt these gizmos.

We didn't really need accurate clocks until transoceanic travel.
posted by empath at 5:51 AM on June 8, 2011


We didn't really need accurate clocks until transoceanic travel.

And that was just because they were used to solve the longitude problem, right? Accurate, synchronized, time, didn't come to the US until the railroads started going.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:56 AM on June 8, 2011


I'm pretty sure the people on the bottom would have always been fairly in favor of it.

I'm not convinced this is true, to be honest. First of all, calling it the "bottom half" is imputing more equality than probably existed (or currently exists). But second, the idea that there really was some kind of metaphysical difference between people seems to have run pretty deep until the nineteenth century at the earliest. Plato certainly describes it, and Aristotle doesn't seem to have begged to differ all that much, and between the two of them you've got what amounts to all of political philosophy until the Enlightenment. Even the Christian Church, which at least has the philosophical basis for rejecting that position, was depressingly comfortable with adopting its own hierarchies until the Reformation.

It's hard for us to get our heads around, but my readings have found remarkably little evidence that even the common folk would have agreed with you until quite recently, though I'd be interested to see if you've got any evidence to the contrary.
posted by valkyryn at 5:58 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I mean, it's pretty clear that a society which has invented hot-air balloons is undeniably more "advanced" than a society which hasn't, if only because that's one more thing that society can now do.

Men discovering (after years of believing otherwise) that women have the capacity to be more than household workers and romantic partners -- men discovering that they can essentially double the brainpower of their nations just by equalizing women and men within those nations -- that is somehow not clearly a great tool added to that nation's toolbox?
posted by pracowity at 5:59 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


pracowity, I don't know that gender equality is as essential as you claim, but I so want to see the summer block-buster film based on the comic book series "The Spectaculars".
posted by benito.strauss at 5:59 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's hard for us to get our heads around, but my readings have found remarkably little evidence that even the common folk would have agreed with you until quite recently

"When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?"

For some value of "quite recently," I suppose.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:17 AM on June 8, 2011


Interesting read, although a bit meandering as others have mentioned. The section on medical inventions is a bit misleading, though. The heart lung machine was not simply cobbled together from a bunch of parts lying around and it was not first used by Dr. Lillehei. The heart lung machine was first used successfully by Dr. John H Gibbon in 1953 (after first conceiving the idea in 1931). That patient (Cecelia Bavolek) is still alive, nearly 60 years later, but unfortunately all the other patients he performed open heart surgery on died and he lost interest in the technique. At the same time, Lillehei was performing early open-heart surgery using cross-circulation, in which another person (usually a parent) was connected to the patient during surgery and used as a living heart-lung machine. That worked well, but he was forced to reconsider the technique when an error by an anesthesiologist seriously injured the healthy donor in one of these operations. In all of these cases the mortality risk was much higher than would be accepted today, in part because there was no other treatment for these condiitons and children affected with severe heart defects often had very short life expectancy. So this innovation in particular was much more difficult than he seems to think, and if it did advance more rapidly than it would have today it is because there were few other options for treating these patients who would otherwise die.
posted by TedW at 6:18 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Men discovering (after years of believing otherwise) that women have the capacity to be more than household workers and romantic partners -- men discovering that they can essentially double the brainpower of their nations just by equalizing women and men within those nations -- that is somehow not clearly a great tool added to that nation's toolbox?

Because you're imposing an impressively bourgeois perspective on huge swaths of history to which it simply does not apply. Until the nineteenth century or so--and arguably the twentieth in a lot of places--"brainpower" wasn't really all that big of a deal. Almost nobody could read, let alone make a living doing anything but physical labor. Hell, the vast majority of the population was engaged in agriculture barely above the subsistence level, moving to mindless assembly line work once the mills got started during the Industrial Revolution. And I assure you, women were just as fully engaged both of those projects as men, even if there was some division of labor along brute strength lines.

It wasn't until it was possible for any reasonable percentage of the population to do something other than menial labor that what you're talking about is even relevant. And you know what? It was right around the same time that the percentage of the population engaged in agriculture really began to drop that the feminist movement started to get its legs under it.
posted by valkyryn at 6:18 AM on June 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


"When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?"

I'd argue that's a precursor to the huge changes that would sweep European society starting in the sixteenth century. Those ideas didn't come from nowhere. But they didn't really go anywhere until then, and there's little evidence that they represented anything like a dominant ideology.
posted by valkyryn at 6:22 AM on June 8, 2011


Similarly, the ancient Greeks would have wanted clocks because... why? It's not like everybody jumped at the thought of buying this expensive thing that gives you information you can just look outside to get even once clocks started to be adopted. You've gotta have some impetus to adopt these gizmos.

(nods) In Daniel Boorstein's book The Discoverors, one section deals with mankind's relation to "time" - covering everything from the development of calendars to the invention of the atomic clock. And I recall him discussing the ancient Greeks and Romans actually resisting the idea of any kind of hourly clock -- "the sun tells us when to wake up and when to go to sleep, and our bellies tell us when to eat. What more do we need to know?" The idea of knowing "what time it is" didn't really get to be anything people thought about until the Middle Ages, when people wanted to keep track of daily prayers -- when it was time for Matins, when it was time for Vespers, that kind of thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:24 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's hard for us to get our heads around, but my readings have found remarkably little evidence that even the common folk would have agreed with you until quite recently, though I'd be interested to see if you've got any evidence to the contrary.

Here's a completely typical quote from the 1850s, by one Sir Charles Adderly, in charge of government education:

'It is clearly wrong to be ordinary children of the working class at school after the age in which proper work begins" ..which would be about 6 because it 'would be as arbitrary and improper as it would to keep the boys at Eton and Harrow at spade labor."

At every turn people where to regard the other half as separate species, adapted to their way of life and nothing else.

And the poor, from Aesop onwards, where told what horrible, divine-retribution would happen to them to if they attempted to move beyond their place.
posted by The Whelk at 6:32 AM on June 8, 2011


But they didn't really go anywhere until then, and there's little evidence that they represented anything like a dominant ideology.

Well, of course it didn't represent "anything like a dominant ideology." If it had represented a dominant ideology we wouldn't be having this discussion. But it did exist. Waving away that evidence in an effort to suggest that the lowers were always perfectly happy with their lot until very recently is like, I don't know, suggesting that slaves were happy with their lot. It's absurd on the face of it.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:39 AM on June 8, 2011


I don't think they where happy with their lot, there where a bunch of peasant rebellions in the middle ages, it's just they tended to end very quickly with the peasant not being alive anymore, and this kind of mentality can be internalized and was encouraged pretty much non-stop. I'm powerful for a reason, you're not for a reason, and nothing can change that, with the added sting of "and if you try it'll just make things worse."
posted by The Whelk at 6:47 AM on June 8, 2011


The Second World War gave the world a massive technological boost.

I think the article's point is what's quoted at the top here: if all the manpower and money that went into WWII was put entirely and solely towards scientific advancement, we would be much further ahead than we would be now. Sure, WWII resulted in technological advancement, but that was just a lucky perk we got with all the the widespread destruction war wraught upon the planet.

But, then he goes back and says how human ignorance and violence is why technology can't to put little nuclear reactors in our cellphones even if it is able to. The article was rather rambling, yes, but what I got from it is that the utopian ideal of advanced technological societies is difficult to obtain because of us stupid, warlike, selfish, nutzo humans. We could have nice things, but we'd need to stop using those things to blow stuff up, and that's unlikely to happen.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:26 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


A scientific equation is much like a musical phrase, it takes hard work and a fertile envirnomnent to mature, combined with the right amount of ingenuity.

Bombs, borders, and hate have nothing to do with it.
posted by Meatafoecure at 7:33 AM on June 8, 2011


expend an additional ~12 trillion dollars, and perhaps another 1-2 million human lives

Over 2,000,000 people died in the Vietnam War alone.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:47 AM on June 8, 2011


We must also confront the possibility that the civilization we are embedded in will, just as have all those that have come before it, fail and fail catastrophically.

really? - did the roman empire fail and fail catastrophically? - no, half of it morphed into something else, at an admittedly lower level and the other half prospered for centuries

did the chinese civilization fail? - it went through some hard times, but it's still there, in china

one could point to the aztecs, the incas, sumerians, etc etc as civilizations that failed, but they had a lot of help from other people, didn't they?

cretan civilization did fail and fail catastrophically thanks to a natural catastrophe - and there's evidence that the mayan civilization had a similar failure

i don't see that his implication of some kind of historic inevitability for the failure of civilizations is supported by the historical record - of course, there are ways and means that our civilization could fail, but the compulsion of some kind of unavoidable historical process isn't one of them
posted by pyramid termite at 9:54 AM on June 8, 2011


I misread this article and it resulted in a cartoon. (self-link, short, just for fun)
posted by Countess Elena at 6:15 PM on June 8, 2011


flapjax, I was kidding in a sense, but also not. While a great deal of technology has undeniably been invented in furtherance of war, just as much development has been arrested by those same wars, due precisely to the human cost. It's much harder to imagine what all those millions of lives represented in terms of potential creative output, or what a 20th century defined by ongoing peacetime economies would even look like, but it's not hard to see that that future that wasn't would be incomprehensibly different. There are many potential paths for technology to take, and it's impossible to compare them, since we can only see the present we inhabit, barring crappy steampunk stories.
posted by mek at 8:20 PM on June 8, 2011


It's much harder to imagine what all those millions of lives represented in terms of potential creative output,

I'm not sure what you mean by 'creative', but in my interpretation the vast majority of people aren't very creative in their lives. They just follow the tracks laid down by others. (I include myself). I don't think you can say that having more, happier people around leads to more creativity.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:41 AM on June 9, 2011


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