A History of the Future

  1. J, Bowler, A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G Wells to Isaac Asimov, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

As Yuval Harari’s Home Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow shows, “histories” of the future are all the rage at the moment. Why that is, and what it means for conventional histories of the past, I shall not try to discuss. Where Prof. Bowler’s volume differs from the rest in that it is real history. Instead of trying to guess what the future may be like, he has produced a history of what people thought it might be like. The outcome is fascinating.

To the reviewer, the book provides so many possible starting points that it is hard to know where to begin. True, there had always been people who envisioned a better society. Most of the time, though, that society was located in the past—as with Plato and Confucius—in the afterworld—as with St. Augustine—or on some remote island (from Thomas More to about 1770). “Prophets of Progress” started making their appearance towards the end of the eighteenth century when the industrial revolution was making itself felt and when idea of progress itself took hold. As technical advances became more frequent and more important during the nineteenth century, their number increased. Starting at least as early as 1880, for any half literate person not to encounter their visions was practically impossible. Even if he (or, for god’s sake, she) only got his impressions from pulp magazines, themselves an invention of the late 1920s. And even if he was a boy (rarely, girl) who got his information from the long defunct Meccano Magazine, as I myself did.

Bowler himself proceeds not author by author, nor chronologically, but thematically. First he discusses the background of some of the authors in question. Quite a few turn out to have been scientists, engineers or technicians, a fact which in Bowler’s view gave them an advantage. Many were moved by personal interests, particularly the need to promote their own inventions. Next he takes us over one field after another; from “How We’ll Live,” through “Where We’ll Live,” “Communicating and Computing,” “Getting around,” “Taking to the Air,” “Space,” “War,” Energy and Environment,” all the way to “Human Nature.” Some predictions, such as the discovery of a method to counter gravity, travel at speeds greater than that of light, and tele-transportation proved totally wrong and have still not come about, if they ever will. Others, such as air travel, TV, helicopters, and megacities—though without the moving people conveyors many visionaries thought they could see coming—were realized rather quickly. Often it was not the technical characteristics of a new invention but its commercial possibilities, or lack of them, which determined the outcome.

Interestingly enough, two major inventions whose role very few people saw coming were radar and computers. The inability to envisage radar helps explain why, between about 1920 and 1939, fictive descriptions of future war almost always included apocalyptic visions of cities totally destroyed and even entire countries annihilated. The initial lack of attention paid to computers was probably linked to the fact that, until 1980 or so, they were only used by government and large corporations as well as the somewhat esoteric nature of the machines themselves. As a result, it was only after the invention of the microchip around 1980 that their full impact on daily life, both that of individuals and that of society as a whole, began to be understood.

William Blake (“black satanic mills”) and the Luddites having gone, until 1914 the reception new inventions got was normally positive. After all, who could argue with cheaper goods, faster travel, electric trams (taking the place of the clumsy, dirty horses of old), better control of many infectious diseases, and a zillion other things that made the lives of those who could afford them better and more comfortable? Next, the wind shifted. World War I with its millions of victims having come and gone, it was hard to remain optimistic. The change is well illustrated by the difference between H. G. Well’s Modern Utopia (1905) and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921). The former is lightly written and not without an occasional bit of humor. It describes a world which, though it may not be to everyone’s taste, is meant to be an improvement on the existing one. The latter is a grim tale of totalitarian government and control that extends right down to the most intimate aspects of life.

From this point on most new inventions have usually met with mixed reactions. Some people looked forward to controls that would reduce the proportion of the “unfit” in society, others feared them. While the former approach seemed to have been finally buried by the Nazi atrocities, later fear of global overpopulation caused it to return. The advent of television for entertainment and education was countered by the fear less it would turn all of us into what, much later, came to be called couch potatoes. Many welcomed continuing industrialization and growing productivity, but others worried about eventual shortages of resources as well as the things pollution might be doing both to the environment and, through it, to our own health. As Bowler points out, most prophecies were based on the relentless advance of technology. However, the arguments pro and contra changed much more slowly. Indeed they displayed a clear tendency to move in cycles, repeating themselves every generation or so.

One particularly fascinating story Bowler does not follow as carefully as he might have concerns nuclear weapons. As he notes, following the discovery of radium and radiation in the 1890s more than one author started speculating about the possibility of one day “liberating” the enormous energy within the atom and using it for military purposes. So much so, indeed, that one World War II American science fiction writer had to put up with visit by the FBI because of his stories’ uncanny resemblance to what, without his knowledge, was going on at Los Alamos. Coming on top of steadily improving “conventional” (the term, of course, is of much later vintage) weapons, this new form of energy threatened to literally destroy the world. Yet after the first “atomic” weapons were used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 there was a tendency to belittle the danger they posed. Especially by way of radiation which some politicians and officers declared to be a “bugaboo” hardly worth taking seriously. More twists and turns followed, culminating in Johnathan Schell’s 1983 dark volume, The Fate of the Earth. What practically all authors Bowler discusses missed was the ability of nuclear weapons to impose what is now known as “the long peace.” An ability due, not to the efforts of well-meaning protesters but precisely to proliferation.

But I am beginning to quibble. Based on a vast array of sources—mostly, it must be admitted, British and American ones—clear and very well written, Bowler’s book is a real eye opener. For anyone interested in the way society and technology have interacted and, presumably will continue to interact, it is a must.

On Balance

At the beginning of 2018 the alarm bells are ringing. Doomsayers are crawling out of their holes, terrifying the rest of us with their predictions. Including, pollution, global warming, anti-biotic-resistant germs, nuclear war (especially in northeast Asia), computers that are more intelligent than we are, and what not. Accordingly, this is as good a time as any to draw up a balance of what we humans have achieved and not achieved on our particular cosmic speck of dust over the last few millennia or so.

Without any further preliminaries, here goes


What we have achieved


By some studies, 70,000 years ago humanity numbered just a few thousand individuals. Today the figure stands at about 7.6 billion. Had something similar applied to any other species, e.g chimpanzees, surely we would have called it an unparalleled triumph. Some ninety percent of the increase, incidentally, took place during the last two centuries or so.

We have extended our life expectancy from less than thirty years during the Neolithic to a little over seventy years today. Most of the increase also took place during the last two centuries or so.

We have reduced women’s perinatal mortality by approximately 95 percent. Ditto.

We have more or less done away with a number of important killer diseases. The last global outbreak of a pandemic that killed tens of millions was the so-called Spanish flu in 1919-20. Since then, all we’ve had is flashes in the pan. Hats off to the medical establishment.

The kind that is self-inflicted apart, we have more or less overcome famine. In many parts of the world today we are more likely to die of overeating than of not eating enough.

We have made life more comfortable. In fact, such are the amenities most of us in the West in particular enjoy as to exceed anything available even to royalty until the middle of the nineteenth century.

We have vastly increased our understanding of the universe, the things it contains, and the laws according to which it works.

Our technological genius has enabled us to set foot on the bottom of the sea as well as the surface of the moon. Also, to explore the planets. It has even enabled us to build machines that think, after a fashion.

We have built weapons capable of more or less putting an end to us. Though whether or not that should be counted as an achievement is hard to say.

What we have not achieved

We have not succeeded in uniting humanity under a single government (not that such a government would necessarily be a blessing).

We have not put an end to war.

We have not surpassed the achievements of, say, the ­ancient Greeks in such fields as sculpture, architecture, literature, drama, rhetoric, philosophy, and historiography.

We have not put an end to misery or to madness.

We have not made life less stressful. Some claim, to the contrary.

We have become no happier.

My grandfather used to say that, while growing old was good, being old was bad. That was almost certainly true during the Paleolithic It remains true today.

We have not put an end to death (though that may very well be a good thing).

Pace Freud and the entire psychological community, we do not understand ourselves any better than we did millennia ago. Did anyone ever understand human nature better than Shakespeare did?

Feminist claptrap to the contrary, the gap that separates men from women has not closed or even narrowed. Men are still from Mars and women, from Venus. Make up your own mind as to whether that is good or bad.

We still have no direct knowledge of the way animals think. Nor improved methods of communicating with them.

We have not become wiser.

Everyone thinks he or she knows about education. So how come we have not yet found a way to make our children better than ourselves?

We have not built a kinder, gentler, more just society. Nor, though everything is relative, is there any question of eliminating poverty.

We have not improved our methods of dealing with evil, when and where it raises its ugly face.

We have not closed the gap between free will and determinism even by one jota.

We have not discovered the secret of life. As a result, we are unable to create it either.

We are unable to control the weather or even forecast it much more than a week in advance.

We are unable to predict earthquakes.

We do not know what the future will bring. That means we are not in charge of our destiny.

We still do not know whether God exists.


Make up your own mind which of those two lists predominates.

On Technology and War (3)

Two weeks ago I tried to answer the question, how to use military-technological superiority when one has attained it. A week ago, to point out the things that technology does not change and will not change and cannot change. Today’s post is the last in the mini-series. I want to use it in order to ask: How is a new military technology received, and what happens to it once it is received?

Many of you will be familiar with the name of Giulio Douhet (1869-30). The Italian general who in 1921, published Il dominio dell’aereo, probably the most famous volume on the topic ever written. His portrait graced this column last week. But it is not this book I want to discuss here. In 1913 Douhet was a major on the general staff. In that capacity he produced an article on the above question, which I have used as my guide.

Stage A. A new technology is introduced. Normally this is done by the inventors and manufacturers who hope to make a profit and turn to the military as a potentially very large client. The idea meets with skepticism on the part of the officers who are sent to examine it. Though ingenious it is a mere toy, or so they declare. Good examples for this argument can be found in the Zeppelin; heavier than air aircraft; the submarine; and the tank. All of which were invented before 1914, and all of which initially met this fate. There is even a story about a British regimental commander, who receiving a couple of machine guns, told his men to take the “bloody things” to the wing and hide them.

Stage B. The manufacturers do not give up. They continue to push, sometimes by offering their invention to an enemy of the country they first approached. Sir Basil Zaharoff, though not an inventor but a merchant, was the undisputed master in this game, selling warships to both Turkey and Greece. Slowly and gradually, the military undergo a limited shift. They are now ready to see whether there is any way in which they can incorporate the new weapon or weapon system into the existing organizations without, however, acknowledging the need to change that organization in any fundamental way. At times indeed, they start adopting a new invention in order to prevent change; as the German Luftwaffe did when it developed the V-1 as a counter to the early ballistic missiles favored by the land army. Other good examples of the attempt to pour new weapons into old organizations are, once again, the heavier-than-air aircraft, and the submarine. And the aircraft carrier, of course.  

Stage C. Quite suddenly, the wind changes. As older officers die or retire, younger ones—those in charge of the new technologies and in favor of them—start shouting their virtues from the rooftops. Military history is making a fresh start! They (the new technologies) are about to take over! Everything else is ripe for the dustbin! And so on and so on. Douhet himself set the example. By the time he wrote his book he had convinced himself that armies and navies were about to disappear and that aviation, like the Jewish God in one of the prayers addressed to him, “all alone would rule in awe.” Similar claims on behalf of aircraft were made in the US by General Billy Mitchel; whereas in Britain another officer, Colonel John Fuller, was doing the same on behalf of tanks. Nowadays they are being made on behalf of artificial intelligence and autonomous killing machines among other things,

Stage D. It becomes evident that, useful as the new technologies are, they do not provide answers to all problems. As the defense becomes stronger, pilots find that their aircraft cannot simply bomb the hell out of whomever they want at any time they want. Submariners discover that, without support from the air (later, satellites), their ability to find their targets is very limited. Tanks are threatened by anti-tank guns and are, moreover, only useful in certain, well-defined, kinds of terrain. Carriers have to be escorted by entire fleets of anti-missile destroyers, anti-submarine destroyers, and supply ships. And autonomous killing machines kill indiscriminately. Briefly, the new technologies must be integrated with everything else: strategy, tactics, command and control, logistics, intelligence, doctrine, training and what not.

Stage E. Following the usual logistic curve, shown above, the process of reorganization has been driven as far as it will ever be and is now flattening out. Advanced, even revolutionary, weapons and weapon systems have become an integral part of the forces. Perhaps, as in the case of carriers from 1941 on, their lynchpin. By this time most of those who initially opposed the changes are gone. A new generation officers has risen and takes things as they now are for granted. And they start asking themselves: What has really changed?

Which, of course, itself is both cause and consequence why, as we have seen, so much does not change.

On Technology and War (2)

In last week’s post I addressed the following question: In view of rapid military-technological development that affects every aspect of war, how to best use military-technological superiority in order to win? Today, while remaining in the same general field, I want to look at the relationship between technology and war from a different point of view. In view of the speed and comprehensiveness of change, are there any aspects of war that remain essentially the same?

  1. The causes of war. Whether war is due to man’s nature (which is inclined towards evil from his youth on, as the Talmud puts it), or to structural problems inside human communities (as Rousseau and Marx, each in his own way, claimed), or to issues that arise between those communities (which seems to be the “realist” position), is moot. Nor is there any shortage of other explanations, including evolutionary ones such as are rooted in our biological nature. Which of them is correct I shall not presume to judge. What I do want to emphasize, though, is that not one of the has anything to do with technology; they are the same now as they were about fifteen thousand years ago when war, to the best of our knowledge, was firs invented.
  2. War requires an enemy. Without an enemy, no war. Many years ago, I had this fact brought home to me by a director general of the Australian ministry of defense with whom I had a conversation. He had succeeded he said, in formulating a strategy for a country that does not, or did not at that time, face any threat. With Papua-New Guinea to the north, Chile to the east, South Africa to the west, and penguins to the south, a difficult feat indeed! War, to put it in a different way, consists of the interaction between two (or more) belligerents. A single blow, delivered without opposition and over before it has even started, is not war.
  3. Strategy. Originating in ancient Greece (stratos means army, or host; strategos means general, strategama means stratagem, and strategia, generalship) strategy has become one of the buzzwords of our age. Definitions vary. The way I understand it, it is the art of waging a conflict between two or more opponents, each of whom has the right and the ability to pursue his objective while actively trying to prevent the other from doing the same. So understood, strategy is the same regardless of the environment in which war is waged (land, sea, air, space, cyberspace); the level at which it is waged, high or low; and the size of the forces that wage it. And also, nota bene, of the kind of technology in use at any particular place and time.
  4. War is the domain of uncertainty, friction, hunger, thirst, fatigue, deprivation, suffering, pain, and death. Also, last not least, sorrow. So it has been, so it is, and so it will remain. Such being the case, the qualities needed for waging war do not change. At the level of the individual they are courage in the face of death, determination, endurance, and perhaps a certain kind of callousness as well; fighting is no business for the soft of heart. At that of the unit or formation they include discipline, cohesion, and sheer fighting power; and at that of the commander, all of these plus the willingness and ability to bear the horrendous responsibility involved. All this was true at the time when Roman legionaries, carrying javelins, swords, helmets, body armor, and greaves conquered the oikoumene (known world). And all this remains true in the face of today’s most advanced and most powerful weapons and weapon systems.
  5. The difficulty of containing escalation. Starting a war may—perhaps—be a rational act. One that those in charge perform with a clear mind on the basis of cool calculation. No sooner does it break out, though, then things change. Whether for hormonal or for psychological reasons, the most elementary and most powerful emotions known to man emerge from deep inside the soul and start playing a major role. Among them are anger, fury, revenge, cruelty, and above all, hatred. Under such conditions making sure that war does not degenerate into a sheer orgy of violence, which is of no use to anyone, but continues to follow the direction of policy is certain to be very difficult, not seldom impossible.


See you next week.