The future, back then

I am just reading a book about the future. The book is from 1910.

This book was a collection of essays by prominent Germans (of 1910), and it was put together by the journalist Arthur Brehmer. It is called “The world in 100 years” (“Die Welt in 100 Jahren”), and it was recently republished and became the German “Science Book of the Year” 2010.

For all the German readers, this book is highly recommended! It is fascinating on many different levels, both for the predictions it gets right and those which in retrospect sound naive or even highly problematic. In addition, it contains many marvelous illustrations.

The most striking example of what is predicted correctly is the cell-phone. In 1910, wireless communication had just been invented, and it was clear that this would revolutionize many things. In the book, you can read about how they imagined people running around with a small phone in their pocket and being able to call (and maybe even see) their friends across the world.

When they get things wrong, it is often in such a way that even back then one could have identified the problematic assumptions. For example, it is usually very dangerous to extrapolate naively, especially with regard to things that are currently en vogue. Back then, radioactive elements, especially radium, had just been discovered. For the first few years they were seen as a kind of miracle substance, and several authors in the book speculate about all illnesses being conquered in the future by the use of radium.

One can also spot some highly dangerous trends of thinking that would later contribute to disastrous developments.  In several contributions, eugenics is touted as a progressive idea. More generally, there is often the assumption that the state will be able to make sweeping and arbitrary changes to people’s lives, with the majority of the population apparently regarded as nameless masses. As long as it fits the “greater good”, this is considered beneficial without questioning the impact on the individual.

Then there is the typical fallacy of futurist planning: The assumption that cities (or countries etc.) can and will be remade from scratch. Even in 1910 the authors could just have looked back over the centuries and seen that cities rather grow organically and seldom are redone entirely according to some grand new plan. The few exceptions to this rule, artificial cities that were erected in the 20th century, usually are relatively bleak places where people wouldn’t move to unless they have to.

However, one has to say that the 23 authors vary greatly in their opinions, assumptions, ideology, intelligence, wisdom, and consequently in their predictions. One of the best essays (in may mind) is the one by Bertha von Suttner, the peace activist. She describes some of the institutions and ideas that are now established to preserve peace, of course with very incomplete success.

Maybe I will pick some of the essays from the book and comment on them in some more detail in some future blog posts.

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