The 19th century invented the future. In a manner of speaking. The 21st century has destroyed it. In a manner of speaking, for it fears the future including that eternal dream of agelessness, immortality and interconnectedness.
That must be the lesson of ‘The Circle’, Dave Eggers’ fearsomely powerful Orwellian prognostication on the age of the internet in contrast to what Iwan Rhys Morus reminds us was the Victorians’ boundless enthusiasm for technologically improved change.
Mr Morus should know. He’s a history professor at Aberystwyth University in Wales, edits the journal ‘History of Science’ and wrote a fascinating essay in ‘Aeon’ magazine deconstructing the way we perceived the future before the beginning of the 19th century and how much it changed after that.
Before the 1800s, the future “was only rarely portrayed as a very different place from the present,” writes Mr Morus. “The social order, like the natural order, was supposed to be static, with everything in its proper place: as it had been, so it would be. When Sir Isaac Newton thought about the future, he worried about the exact date of Armageddon, not about how his science might change the world. Even Enlightenment revolutionaries usually argued that what they were doing was restoring the proper order of things, not creating a new world order.”
Then came the 1800s and new ideas started to take hold, which visualized tomorrow as different from today – possibly – though what it would be, could not definitively be told. Electricity set some of this alight and the Victorians started to think of a future with very changed modes and timelines of travel because of all those electrical engines.
The mood of hope and optimism went right up to the top. The Marquess of Salisbury, Conservative prime minister of Great Britain in the 1880s, writes Professor Morus, believed that the future would “see men and women able to pursue in their own houses many industries which now require the aggregation of the factory”.
The great bubble of hope continued with writers like H G Wells, who deliberately melded social and technological progress. This phase – of seeing scientific change as social progress – lasted till the 1970s.
Mr Morus is right. But as any number of recent books illustrate (not least ‘The Circle’) technological change now seems threatening. The eponoymous social media company, The Circle, believes that people should have “one button for the rest of your life online” and through that would come everything else – the right (and ability) to vote; participate in a referendum; pay taxes; keep our children safe; order pizza; collect trade discounts; stay endlessly connected with the whole world even though you don’t know (can’t know and don’t need to know) all those people. Privacy is theft (of information) it believes. Everyone should have the right to know everything – including your thoughts, habits and unexplored notions.
It’s not a brave new world. Just an exhaustingly, mindlessly, inter-connected wasteland where once there might have been creativity. All of which leads many to consider an off-grid lifestyle rather than remaining engaged with the world in the way of the Victorians.