Back to the Future

By Allen, Frederick E. | American Heritage, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Back to the Future


Allen, Frederick E., American Heritage


Beyond the myth of ever-faster high-tech change and radical new breaks from the past

"WE HAVE REACHED THE EPOCH OF THE NANOSECOND. THIS is the heyday of speed ... a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind." So writes the science journalist James Gleick in his bestselling book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. It's a theme we keep hearing lately: Technological change just keeps getting faster, and it speeds up everything else in life with it.

Is this really true? Real perspective on technological change comes only from stepping back and taking a larger view--which will be a main theme of "Behind the Cutting Edge." So let's briefly look back a hundred years. What was the pace of change then? In 1900 electrical lighting and manufacturing had transformed both the home and the workplace within two decades, remaking a principally agricultural economy into an urban, industrial one and the household into a place where a flick of a switch made night day. The telegraph and then the telephone had been knitting the world into a web where information traveled instantly and required immediate response, so that the broker in Chicago had to know the day's price of cotton or corn both in New York and in Liverpool. A transportation revolution on rails, first steam and then electric, had been followed by one on bicycles, and now an automobile industry was springing up and entering a decade in which its three competing technologies--steam, electric, and internal combustion--would fight to the death for dominance. Commuting to work and shopping in department stores and over the phone had newly become possible. Travel across the continent had been reduced from deadly months to safe and comfortable days. Indoor plumbing and hot water, which most of us can't imagine life without, were just becoming commonplace. Life had altered unrecognizably from the agrarian existence of a century before--more, in many ways, than it has changed since.

The one way it was most unchanged was in health. Life expectancy in the United States in 1900 was still only forty-seven years; today it is around seventy-seven. Doctors were still coming to accept the germ theory of disease. Anesthesia and vaccination and disinfection had arrived, though in relatively primitive form; beyond that, most treatment of illness was little better than in the Middle Ages. The medical miracles of the century since are too numerous to mention, and the benefits to our health of modern sanitation, clean water, and hygiene are no less important.

It is fair to say that the medical and health revolution over the past century was greater than the information one. After all, the world was already drawn together by instant communication, and if information technology is still changing all of our lives, many of us have our lives only because of what has happened in health and medicine. To put it another way, one of the things we have undeniably gained from our technologies is the very commodity that Gleick sees deserting us--time.

If rapid, unsettling technological change is nothing new, there is another side of the coin too. Much of what we think of as cutting edge, as new and unprecedented, has fundamental elements that reach back surprisingly far. Grasping this fact is essential for appreciating and understanding the way the world changes--and doesn't change--around us. Another of the aims of this column will be to explore that aspect of our new technologies: how the past defines and explains even the most novel and advanced of them.

This was the great irony of the Y2K problem. While editorial writers and commentators everywhere were remarking how at the dawn of a new century everything was new, a computer anachronism from the dark ages of the 1950s and 1960s was waiting to leap from the past and overthrow all the systems that keep tomorrow's world together. It didn't turn out that way, of course; after billions of dollars were spent averting disaster, we all woke up on New Year's morning with an even greater sense of anticlimax than usual.

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