The Progress of Technology

One of the very curious things about reading literature from the early 1900s is that people were extraordinarily impressed with the rate of technological change. World War I not withstanding, life was generally getting better in ways that would have seemed like magic to people’s grandparents. Walking and horses gave way to motor cars. Telephones allowed people to talk at a distance of hundreds of miles. Radio allowed people to get news from hundreds of miles away within seconds. Indoor plumbing and central heating produced comfort and convenience like never before.

As we come to the 1930s, cars were becoming much faster. Travel by aeroplane was becoming possible and even affordable for upper middle class people. Travel by sea was safe and comfortable thanks to large metal ships. In 1927 Charles Lindbergh had recently crossed the Atlantic ocean from New York to Paris, and who knew how much more would be possible soon?

Less often remarked upon but equally significant, astonishing advances in chemistry were underway. Synthetic rubber was invented in the 1920s which made pneumatic tires vastly more practical and affordable. Bakelite, the first plastic, was invented in 1907 and plastics would take off rapidly. (It would be some time before they came to be used to make cheap junk; at first their amazing insulating and other properties enabled the creation of all sorts of things, including many kinds of electrical inventions.) Steels were getting stronger and more corrosion resistant.

There were many other reasons why people thought about progress, and by no means did everyone think that the world really was getting better. All change comes with loss, even if it sometimes comes with greater gain, and there has never been a time when this wasn’t noticed. Still, the world was changing and even where it was changing for the worse, old ways of life would no longer apply. Women no longer wanted to be mothers; they wanted to get drunk and do drugs at wild parties and slave away at typewriters during the day—this may be a turn for the worse, but teaching girls motherhood was no longer preparing them for the life they would live. Etc. etc. etc.

This theme of change lasted a long time. The flappers who rejected their parents in the 1920s were rejected by their own children in the 1950s, and they were rejected by their children in the 1970s. Society was overthrown and then overthrown and then overthrown again; people who worried about being in advance of their age were always behind the next one when it came.

I grew up in the 1980s and I don’t recall the same level of expectation that I meet in literature earlier in the century. It’s the 1990s, though, that I really remember well since I was a teenager during them, and while there was an expectation of change, it was not at all the same sort of thing as, say, during the 1920s. I think that part of it was that the changes were more of quality than of type.

There really wasn’t anything like the bicycle before it was invented. The horseless carriage had a predecessor, of course, but it was an enormous change from it. There was nothing like an aeroplane before they were invented. Radio and telephone were remarkably unlike shouting very loudly.

By the 1990s, the only thing that was really utterly unlike what came before it was the computer, but there were primitive computers around as far back as I can remember. (If I could remember all the way back to when I was three or four there weren’t, at least in the home.) So while home computers were new in my lifetime, they were new so early on that they were barely noticeable.

There was also the internet, of course, but that was just an extension of how computers could call each other up on the phone—and people could already do that. E-mail was great, but it was just, well, electronic mail. We already had mail. This was just better mail. DVDs were just better VHS tapes. Internet video was just better television.

(Also, it should be noted, not everything even stayed the same. We put a man on the moon in 1969 and then (let’s ignore later apollo missions) never again. By the 1980s, we couldn’t if wanted to. Then the space shuttle started blowing up…)

Fast forward to 2021 and I don’t feel like life has changed all that much since I was a teenager. I will grant that, objectively, very little is exactly the same. People have smartphones and yell at each other on social media; all sorts of businesses are possible because of the internet; craig’s list has killed off newspapers and YouTube is killing off television. (That last one is kind of hard to separate from hollywood writers having become emancipated from decency and almost everything they write is shiny garbage.)

And yet, I don’t get the sense when talking to people my age and younger (or even a little older) that they feel like they’re living in an exciting era of wonderful new things with even more amazement to come. In fact, the idea that change is bad is, if anything, more pervasive now than it was when I was a kid. Organic foods, which to most people’s mind means food grown in older, more traditional ways, is phenomenally popular. Skepticism about vaccines, antibiotics, and most parts of modern medicine seems to be on the rise.

Even apart from that, with change having being constant our whole lives, change is normal. People who grew up in the last fifty years or so never expected the way we do things today to be like how we do them ten years from now, so when they’re not—it’s not amazing, it’s just work to get used to the new way of doing the same basic things. Now instead of emailing our friends, we DM them on discord or telegram or signal or, heaven help us, on Facebook (where we probably won’t have them as friends for long). To quote annoying teenagers from several years ago: amazeballs. (yes, that was actual slang in the late 2010s.)

I think that the era of technological excitement is well and truly over. Technological advancement continues, but it no longer produces a world that we don’t recognize, or discontinuities between the generations. No one suggests that because teenagers have cell phones adults have no right to tell them that they should be honest or that fornication is wrong. We have, of course, the results of decades of people claiming that fornication is, in fact good, but at least the thing is defended on its own merits (“I wanna!”) rather than on the absurdly irrelevant grounds that now the aeroplane exists and who knows whether tomorrow people will travel into space. It’s no longer a whole new world. It’s the same old world, except that instead of having to be patient with the village idiot from your village, you have to be patient with the village idiot from every village on the planet because they all have Facebook accounts. But at least we may start to have parents with the courage to tell their children that twice two is four, or at least if they leave it off it will probably be on the grounds that maybe one of the twos identifies as a three, rather than because radio now has pictures and who knows, perhaps in the future it will be in 3D.

2 thoughts on “The Progress of Technology

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Read a Gothic Novel from the 1970’s recently and a young woman had gotten off a bus but nobody was there to meet her. My first thought was “call them with your cell phone”. Of course, my second thought was “why would she have a cell phone?”. 😀

    I also read an Ellis Peters mystery “Never Pick Up Hitchhikers!” (written in 1976) and noticed how many plot elements would have to be different if cell phones/smart phones were around. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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