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Slow Forward

13 August 2007

Slow Forward

By Gwynne Dyer

William Gibson invented the word “cyberspace” (in his debut novel “Neuromancer” in 1984), which gives him the right to pontificate about the future. He has been right about bits of the future, too, in the way that science-fiction writers often are, especially about the ways that new technologies interact with human beings. But he can be very wrong about the present.

In a recent interview by Tim Adams, published in “The Observer”, Gibson confessed that he had stopped writing about the future because new technologies were happening too fast. “What I grew up with as science fiction is now a historical category,” he said. “Previous practitioners, HP Lovecraft, say, or HG Wells, had these huge, leisurely ‘here and nows’ from which to contemplate what might happen. Wells knew exactly where he was and knew he was at the centre of things.”

Whereas we, poor orphans, are adrift on a heaving ocean of constant change, living our jump-cut lives in a state of constant uncertainty. Etc., etc. If you haven’t heard this line of argument before, you are presumably a cave-dwelling hermit. Every generation dramatises its own experience of the world, and talking about how hard it is to live with endless, unpredictable, high-speed change is the favourite indoor sport of the Western intelligentsia. It is, of course, nonsense.

We do not live in an era of major change, neither in the technologies that shape our environment nor in the social values that shape our lives. That kind of experience is still available in the developing world, when villagers move to the cities, but in the rich countries change has slowed to a crawl.

Between 1825 and 1875, people had to get used to railways, steamships, and the telegraph: the average speed of land travel increased fivefold, and information now passed between continents in minutes, not weeks. Cities of over a million people proliferated, and the deferential social order of the countryside began to give way before the onslaught of egalitarian values. Revolutionary ideas like Darwinism and Marxism changed the whole way that people looked at the world. That really was high-speed change.

In 1875, gas lighting was the big new thing that made the streets safe and the evenings at home several hours longer. By 1925, gaslight was gone and electricity was everywhere. Horses were replaced by cars, aircraft were becoming commonplace, and the richer homes had radios, telephones and fridges. These were genuine mass societies, complete with their own new forms of education, entertainment and politics — but they also developed mass warfare on an unprecedented scale.

H.G. Wells didn’t inhabit a huge, leisurely “here and now” from which to contemplate what might happen when he wrote “War of the Worlds” in 1898. He was recently divorced, living with a former student in a rented flat less than a kilometre (mile) from where I am sitting now, in the midst of a London that had grown tenfold in population in less than a century. What made the book sell was that it echoed all the secret fears of a society that was shocked and dazed by the speed of change.

Between 1925 and 1975, the pace of change was still high, but it was slowing. The major new technologies, like electronics and nuclear fission, provided better radio (it’s called television) and bigger explosions, but it was mostly incremental change that did not transform people’s experience of the world. Antibiotics revolutionised medicine, however, and the gender revolution fundamentally changed the relations between the sexes. If you were born in 1925, the world you lived in when you turned fifty in 1975 was still a very different place.

Whereas if you were born in the developed parts of the world in 1975 — or even in 1955 — you have seen very little fundamental change in your lifetime. You travel in basically the same cars and trains and planes as your parents and even your grandparents did. You have the same domestic appliances and roughly the same social values as the previous generation, and modern medicine has not extended your predicted lifespan by even five years. Even popular music is an unbroken continuum since the 1950s. The only truly major new technology that has permeated the whole society in this whole period is computers.

Which, of course, was precisely the technology that William Gibson fixed on as the basis for his dystopian futures, but despite all the hype the “IT revolution” really isn’t enough to redefine the way we live. We inhabit a period that has seen no more by way of fundamental technological change, and considerably less intellectual and social upheaval, than the latter half of the 18th century.

We should probably be grateful for that, because high-speed change, however exhilarating at the start, really is disorienting and exhausting if it lasts over a whole lifetime. But it’s probably coming back to destabilise the lives of our children and grand-children, who will likely face drastic changes in the climate that affect everything right down to the availability of food for their families.

The cause of those changes, ironically, will not be the high-tech innovations of the 20th century but the dirty old 19th-century technologies that we built this industrial civilisation on. In other words, we are going to get two waves of disruptive change for the price of one. This has just been the island of tranquillity and prosperity in between. Lucky old us.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 12. (“We…crawl”; “HGWells…change”; and “Which…century”)