Technological hedonism and dated predictions of the future

Clay Shirky sends a provoking line about “first blushes” with new technology, where early adopters are quick to bubble and proclaim the dawn of a new era. [See: index cards, the telegraph, airplanes, or even the Internet.] Shirky makes the point that a fair number of predictions turn out to be accurate but often get lumped together with the more far-out and unrealized techno-determinist dreams. From the vantage point of today’s sleek futurity, we giggle at these old-fashioned and dated visions of the future and declare them silly and na├»vely misplaced at best. But do we really have enough perspective?

Tom Standage did this in The Victorian Internet, in which he held up predictions of the awesome change to be occasioned by the telegraph as faintly ridiculous. To do this, he relied on a kind of technological hedonism — “People in the 1800s said that the telegraph would make the future awesome, but they were describing our past, and the past can’t ever be awesome! Ha ha!”

We have inherited the power to project our thoughts around the world so rapidly that a man on the fastest horse in the world could not chase them. This is a power only dreamt of by the Ancients, and we give it not a moment’s thought. In that forgetfulness, it’s possible to make even correct predictions of revolution look wrong, so that obviously incorrect predictions about world peace breaking out are lumped together with entirely accurate predictions about the re-shaping of the commercial sphere.

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