Monday, June 27, 2011

Ten years ago, as seen from one hundred years ago

That's from this collection of French images from 1910, which imagine society in the then-distant year 2000.

My first instinct is to laugh at how silly the pictures are, and a lot of them are very silly.

But I think there's more to them than that.

What strikes me most is the predictions' conservativism. A few of the images include zeppelin-boats or robotic cranes, but in many cases, the technology they depict already existed in 1910. For instance, motorcycles:

Or compare the plane here:

With the plane on this brochure for a 1910 air show:

In many ways, the most dramatic predictions being made were not about the arc of technological development. They're about the broad dispersal of technology. Airplanes existed in 1910, but in 2000, everyone would own one:

In short, this wasn't so much a prediction about scientific advancement as it was a prediction about economic advancement. And in a way, they were right, they just chose the wrong technologies. In the year 2000(ish), hardly anyone owns an airplane. But everyone owns an electronic reading machine -- an accomplishment almost more remarkable than the fact that we invented electronic reading machines in the first place:

And many people have access to video phones:

That last image hints at the prognosticators' other great oversight. In it, video communication is only possible because of the private operator working the cranks and pedals of the phone-device -- private operators being, surely, a luxury of the rich. Attendants and operators and carriage drivers lurk around the edges of many of these pictures. To the 19th century mind, it must have seemed perfectly natural that these wonderful new household technologies would, like 19th century households, require hired help in order to function properly. And it must have seemed perfectly natural that society would provide such a person when necessary.

Whatever foresight inspired these illustrators when imagining the spread and development of new technology, it abandoned them when it came time to predict how that same technology would change social customs. Ironically, among all the pictures of electric trains and flying carriages, the most jarring element is the turn-of-the-century dress and decoration -- and the set of social relationships that those things imply.

I'm sure the illustrators would have been thrilled to learn that the technology they envisioned in this image, called "Phonographic letter," would come to pass -- and then some.

But I wonder what they would say, if they knew everything in it from their world -- the houseservant, the old aristocrat, even the ornate landscape paintings and the fluffy yellow drapes -- would eventually begin to disappear.

(h/t James Fallows)


  1. Household servants are still pretty common outside (and in some cases, inside) the North - if you're rich enough (or in the case of places like mexico, singapore, india, merely middle class). these servants run all of the modern conveniences - the dishwasher, the high-tech water-saving washing machine, the coal belts to power the turbines that create the power to charge the e-reader (to extend the social relationship out a little bit), and so on.

    If anything, the social relationships are more ossified. But they're also more hidden. Mechanization, information technology, and so on - they've just made it so that all these things are out of sight and out of mind.

    I guess my point (to the extent that I have one - I'm mostly trying to process this pretty interesting blog post) is that the more things change, the more they stay the same - the social relationships haven't substantively changed, they've just been moved around some. Technology can fundamentally affect a society by expanding quality of life and access to information, etc., but the leverage allowed the underclasses pales when compared against the societal-change-leverage of rich folk. Marketing is an example of this - more information and access to fact-checking websites, etc. is certainly good for the informed consumer. The average consumer today certainly has information of a quantity and quality far exceeding what they had 100 years ago. But on the other hand, marketing firms are starting to build their campaigns using brain-wave-pattern data to target people subconsciously (here's a short intro

    How technology is used and the way it develops (aids vaccine v viagra) depends very much on the underlying social relations. I think what'd interest the aristocrats in your picture more would be the labor protests, economic depressions, wars, and colonial uprisings that'd shape their lives more than a new videophone ever could.

    welp, that probably didn't make any sense at all.


    nate d.

  2. The thing is, the places where modern technology first and most deeply permeated into daily life are often the places that have in practice most strongly rejected 19th century ideas about social stratification and class servitude (which is not to say completely rejected). And a lot of that is the rise of the middle class as a social category. And, well, I don't think the existence of the middle class is directly attributable to the spread of technology -- more like, the advent the welfare state -- but the spread of technology is certainly part of the story. If nothing else, having access to technology is why being middle class is so darn nice, and without a middle class, there's not really anyone to buy the stuff in the first place. All these things accompany each other to some degree.

    So I think I disagree when you say "the more things change, the more they stay the same." There are certainly places where things have stayed the same, but that's very often in opposition to modern inventions and modern ideas, not because of them. True, some of the changes that accompany modernity -- the existence of airplanes! -- probably have a limited effect on these old social structures. But others put powerful pressure, from within and without, on old, inefficient, inequitable aristocracies. I know you're probably going to disagree here, but bear with me: the spread of consumer technology, and the attendant rise of consumer capitalism, is in the latter group. I'm not saying all of the changes it's wrought are for the better -- far from it -- but it's not a system that's terribly compatible with the ancien régime.

    Which, I think, would have taken the ancien régime quite by surprise.

  3. I mean, if you're saying that the appearance of the modern world would be nearly incomprehensible (at least at first) to the lords, robber barons, and officers of the Raj, then I'd agree. It would be to anybody from that time period - computers, the space shuttle, retroviral genetic engineering had no real analogue back then.

    But to say that they wouldn't recognize the essential pieces of the social order - colonies; oligarchies, non-inclusive decision making at the highest levels; the influence of monied interests on the course of government policy, and so on - well, I'm not sure I buy that.

    What makes being middle-class so darn nice isn't the TV and microwave - some the poor of today (more in the North, and somewhat in the South) have those as well. What makes it nice is the security of knowing where your next paycheck will come from, knowing how you're going to feed your family next week, having at least some say in the way the world changes around you, and so on. Are there more of these people in the developed North than in the early XXth? Certainly. Are there very much less of these people outside of this area? Absolutely (this is another place we disagree, I'm sure).

    I'm digressing. To the point - I don't think you can point to any single technology (or suite of technologies) and say: This is the democratizing technology; this helps the poor challenge the power of the rich. And in any case, even taking into account certain isolated examples (the internet?), the balance weighs in favor of the rich (our modern-day aristocracy, the proverbial 1%). If you can, let's point to specific examples of how technology is a democratizing force.

    Let's also not forget that this rise of consumer capitalism hasn't occurred in a vacuum. Climate change, the global depletion of fish stocks, the systematic desertification of arable land the world over, regional environmental catastrophes (Nigeria), industrial catastrophes (ecuador, bhopal) - these are all the legacies of middle-class consumer capitalism as well, and these have also disproportionately negatively impacted the poor in the South and North while disproportionately positively impacting the rich and middle class of the North. For example - does having ready access to automobile transportation make being middle class super awesome in the US? For sure, at least in the short term. Does the attendant climate change make being poor in nairobi or the maldives (!) really really suck? Again, absolutely.

    I think what you say is true if you take a very narrow view of the consequences of consumer capitalism - for example, how it's affected the middle class in the United States. I think a broader view (geographically as well as topically), however, reveals that in substance, not much has changed. The rich (the oligarchy, and to some extent the new middle class) still benefits, the poor (everyone else) still bear the costs. This is something that, in the end, I think a 19th century robber baron would be most comfortable with.

  4. why can't you edit these posts, these grammatical errors are bullshit.