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October 5, 2016 53 mins

The podcast crew talks about some of their favorite predictions about the future, from evolving language to 20th century French postcards.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places. Welcome to
Forward Thinking. Hey there, and welcome to Forward Thinking, of
the podcast that looks the future and says it's gonna
be the future soon. I'm Jonathan Strickland, I'm Lauren, and

(00:22):
I'm Joe McCormick. And today we thought we would participate
in a quintessential forward Thinking exercise, which is analysis of
the prediction of the future. Yeah, we've done a couple
of episodes where we've talked about projections that current futurists
have about the future. We've even talked about really lousy

(00:43):
predictions that happened in the past. Lauren and I did
an episode when you were out once, Joe and I
remember when you came back you were sad to find
out that you didn't get to participate, where we talked
about really off the mark predictions from the past where
people were just thinking all sorts of crazy things we're
gonna happen by now. So we wanted to talk about
some of our favorites, whether they were completely off track

(01:05):
way back when, or if it's a current prediction about
what the future will be and what our thoughts are
and so what kind of all gout some notes about
the sore of stuff that we want to talk about.
My first one is actually about a series of drawings
postcards really from France, from one in nineteen ten. You know,
I'd seen these things before, and these are great, beautiful

(01:29):
they're like full color beauties that are I don't know
that they're not actually as cartoonish as one might imagine.
Some of them have some interesting detail in them. Yeah,
there's a lot of different, um well, different aspects of
what they thought the future would be like. Uh, and
it's all sort of fantastical. Some of them actually are

(01:52):
are pretty prescient. Uh. They were essentially thinking about what
is the world going to be like in the year
two thousand. Yeah, So one of them, I know, it's
got like a barber shop where people are getting some
gentlemen are leaning back in very cushy looking chairs getting
their necks shaved by robots with razors going all over
the place, crazy robot arms off of off of big

(02:16):
they look like kind of like pneumatic polls that come
up in in intervals out of the floor. Yeah, essentially
like kind of like a column but with some sort
of pneumatic element to it. So that the arms that
are bolted onto the pneumatic part could be raised or lowered.
When I watched those darker robotics challenge fails. The main
thing I think is I want one of these things

(02:36):
shaving me with a straight razor. Well, and and let's
let's also point out that in this particular illustration, there
is a gentleman uh well quoft which would not normally
happen if you happen to be the barber. If you
always know the barber in the town, he's the one
with the worst hair do. Oh I guess, yeah, but
he this guy has a great hair do because it's

(02:57):
all done with these robot arms, although he is currently
operating a system, well at least a giant lever, so
perhaps there is at least some human power in this
in this system, even if it's just to turn it
on or off. I think what I like less than
the idea of robot arms shaving me um is uh

(03:18):
robot arms controlled by a person who's not looking at me.
That's true, that is, to the customers. I think these
are not autonomous shaving robots. These these are in fact
just like multiple extensions. You know you've got those machines
where you press one button and it does like five
things at once. I think that's what's going on here.

(03:39):
The barber is operating a machine and the machine translates
all his actions into actions on five different customers at
the same time. Yeah, it's more. It's a more sophisticated
version of that old This might actually be too old
for you guys. But for for chalkboards, there there were
occasionally these things. It was like just a little board
with little wire holders that you talking about multiple pieces

(04:01):
of chalking. Yeah, it was the way of cheating. If
the teacher told you to stay after school, right, I
will not spit in my neighbor's milk, you know times right.
So so it's it's like that where it's really the
idea is to to make it easier for one person
to do the work of like five all at the
same time. Another image has an arrow cab station. I

(04:24):
love this this picture. This is actually something that's kind
of interesting because, uh, right now, as we record this,
there's talk of Uber looking into creating vt O L
vehicles for taxi cabs. We talked about this. I think
that's a publicity stunt. No, I don't think it's a

(04:44):
publicity stunt. I think it's I think it's a company
that is used to making grandiose proclamations and then not
quite realizing what the consequences are ahead of time. I
don't think that. I don't think it's so much a
publicity stunt as an is them rushing into an area
that's not quite mature. Well, I mean, like when Uber says, oh,

(05:05):
we want to have driver less supercars, I can see
that being a feasible thing not too far in the future.
When they say we want to v t o L.
Uh flying taxi cap you're flying ubers? Yeah? Yeah, whatever? Yeah.
Well the picture, the picture from these postcards shows uh
tiny caps that have wings that apparently can extend or

(05:27):
or can tilt upward so they can doc with a
landing station, and then they have propellers on the front
that allow them to fly. Obviously that would not be
the case with the the Uber approach. They're looking at
vto L and we talked about this when we said
what would it take to have flying cars, and I
think we all agreed vo v t o L would

(05:47):
be absolutely necessary just from a space issue, and that
autonomous operation would be necessary. Because we don't think any
human being should ever operate a flying cars unless they
are like a very accomplished by islet, especially if you're
talking about within a dense urban setting, right. Yeah, if
it's out in the open and there's there's plenty of space,

(06:08):
maybe you could have like some exhibitions or whatever. But
if you're talking about mundane day to day operations, we
want autonomy in that. Yeah. I I never want the
day when, uh, when a car crash results in like
in like fiery parts raining from the sky. That's a
that's not good news. Uh. I just want those people

(06:32):
operating a multi ton lethal weapon they can drive around
on the ground at seventy miles. I've been saying this
whole time that I can't wait for driverless cars. I mean,
I'm just I want to make that clear. Uh. No,
I want to point something out because I've looked at
a bunch of these postcards, these French postcards you're referring to,
and a whole lot of them involve flight. Many of

(06:53):
them do, I would say from my memory, just more
than half of them involved flying humans of one type
or another. Well, and that's the thing, it's always humans,
Like the concept of flying robotics I don't think had
occurred to to anyone doing this postcard series, particularly like
like one of the other images that you that you
added to our show notes here has a fireman with

(07:14):
these like kind of bat looking wings that are that
are putting out of fire. It's essentially like they're all
wearing jet packs, except instead of jets, they are flapping wings. Yeah.
Yeah uh. And and there are several in the series
that are similar to that. I only included the fireman
one because it was such a beautiful picture of these
people who are are are flying through the air using

(07:37):
water hoses to fight fires and to their you know,
flying up to rescue a baby. And can I point
out that in this picture if I'm understanding what the
artists meant correctly, so the firefighters have these bat type wings,
and I believe the wings are secured to their ankles
via some kind of connecting strap. So it looks like
what the artist had in mind is that the firefly

(08:00):
or is held aloft in the air by flapping wings
that are powered by the firefighter's own leg movements. They
could also be pneumatic. It's hard to say that particular
image it's very difficult to say, but you see, I
haven't noticed that before. But yeah, that's that's very well.

(08:20):
If you if you look at some of the other
ones from the series, there's another one where there's a
police officer who's pulling over an aviator who has clearly
done something naughty, and so the police officers wearing wings
that are that extend out from his back, but has
a tail as well, presumably to provide stability. I mean,
we're not crazy and uh that, but the tail is

(08:42):
attached to his ankles, So he's got he's got these
tethers that essentially go from the tail to his ankles,
and he's in an upright position with respect to the
airplane that he's trying to pull over. Not entirely certain
how he's maintaining altitude well in a vertical position with winks,

(09:03):
you would think that would pretty much cause you to plummet.
But in the future, physics will no longer apply. Uh well,
I and I did. I did want to mention that
you know, we're we are this year we've been fighting
fires with drones. Yeah, no, yeah, we're starting to see
and we've also seen issues with drones getting in the
way of firefighters. But it's nice to see them being
used in the in scoping out the the um like

(09:28):
how big a fire is, like how far does it stretch?
And also to get a good look at places that
would obviously be dangerous to send a person into without
first checking out what's going on. But we don't attach
a drone to a person and send a person in
because that's crazy, because that's obviously terrible. Yeah, that would
be not so good. Also, there's another element in some

(09:50):
of these and you know, I didn't include all of them.
I included you know a few, but if you go
to there's a website the public Domain review dot org
who has the entire collection as since Lee of all
the ones that have survived, then they're gorgeous. There's a
collection of them. Also where another big theme was underwater activities. Yeah,

(10:11):
there were there people riding on seahorse, giant seahorse. In
the future there will be giant sea horse. There's giant
sea horses. There's one where they're there, uh, doing the
equivalent of a horse race, except they're all riding very
long eel like fish. Uh. There's another one where they
are fishing for seagulls. So they're throwing hooked lines up

(10:35):
through the surface of the water. Seagulls grabbed them, and
then they dragged the seagulls underwater, presumably to their deaths. Uh.
I don't know why you would want to do it,
drowning birds for fun. I guess that's no more horrifying
than pulling fish, which breathe underwater out into our atmosphere.
Maybe I think it's a little more. And I like

(10:56):
fish better than I like birds, so I'm sort of
okay with it. All right, Well, Lauren the seagull murderer, Sorry,
I'll know that. Speaking of disturbing uses of birds, there's
another one of these images that is just titled intensive breeding,
and it is a picture of a woman who I

(11:17):
think is working on an egg farm with a basket
full of eggs and she's attending this big refrigerator sized
machine that has lots of little yellow chicks coming out
of it on a slide. Yeah. Yeah, you put the
eggs in the top and chicks come out. They get
to write a slide. What's what's so sinister about that?

(11:37):
I don't know what is this machine supposed to be doing.
I think it just hatches eggs faster than a than
a chicken could. Apparently I don't buy magic and technology.
There's one that I think is actually kind of kind
of interesting. There's the electric scrubbing one, where it's a
showing a machine that is used to brush and scrub

(11:57):
the floor. This again is being operated by somebody a
maid at this point off to the side, so it's
not fully autonomous. Who in the year two thousand is
still wearing something that looks strikingly like like Edwardian made attire.
That's something that we wanted to mention too, is that, Joe,
You brought this up earlier today when I was telling
you this was going to be something I was going
to talk about. So while the technology uh seems to

(12:22):
be kind of an advanced version of what they had
available to themselves in these visions, when it comes to
things like costume and uh and and hairstyles, everything remains
exactly of that era. They can imagine the technology changing,
but they can't imagine the culture changing exactly. Yeah, you

(12:43):
don't see any representation of other ethnicities either, Yeah, well,
and and in and in these cases, I mean, it's
it's certainly not as though other other work from about
the same time period didn't portray like like futuristic in
big honking quote marks um quote marks, Yeah, but I
like them, um uh a future futuristic fashioned um in

(13:06):
another another science fiction and science presumptuous materials um but
but yeah in this particular case, it's it's part of
its charm. But but yeah, so so this so this
cleaning device is essentially a very large, manually operated room
by yeah, yeah exactly, and and it's kind of this
also kind of plays into something else I want to

(13:28):
talk about, just in general when it comes to make
predicting the future. Two things. One was that that idea
that we find it very difficult to imagine how people
change along with technology. Right We we sit there and
we look at the technology, say well, here's what the
technology is going to be like in another fifty years,
but it's hard for us to imagine what people will

(13:50):
be like at that time. Can I offer a possible
reason for that? Sure? I would think that that might
have something to do with the fact that technology changes
along a predictable path, in that you don't know exactly
what solutions technology will will represent, what it will come
up with, but you sort of know what problems it

(14:11):
will be trying to solve, unless you're imagining a very
far future where there are new problems that haven't even
emerged yet. But all these problems are things that people
understood at the time and were things that people actually
wanted done. They wanted robots to make work easier, they
wanted the power of flight, they wanted faster transportation, they

(14:33):
wanted automation. All these things are real obvious concerns when
you're trying to predict the future of culture, like what
how clothes will look different? You don't have that same
prompt you You can't say, like, I know what problems
future fashion you know fashion designers will be trying to solve.

(14:53):
It's just not something you can predict. It's not a
linear change pattern. You could probably predict that whatever the
fashion is of that particular era, it would be some
sort of take on the fashion from twenty years previous. Yes,
that's usually a pretty good rule. And furthermore, it's really
difficult to predict how technologies like that could change us,

(15:15):
like like what like how those technologies would be changing
the culture that would lead to those kind of differences
in appearance and uh, and day to day life all
of that sort of thing, like like you can sit
there and imagine that they like, yes, there's going to
be this this cleaning robot, but you're still hiring a
maid to operate it, right, Yeah, And I'm not I

(15:35):
don't really want to call out the artists of that
time period for being particularly silly or whatever. This is
true for every era, right yeah, yeah, like it just
beautiful examples example. Yeah, and I would I would also
say these things are probably made with some sense of
humor about them. Sure, I'm just saying I can't imagine, say,
being in the nineteen eighties and being able to anticipate

(15:58):
like the man Bun. It just wouldn't have occurred to me.
Never would have never would have thought that that would
become a thing. This isn't even me judging. I'm just
saying that in the eighties I never would have huh
that that would have been a big deal. Like it
would have been one of those deals where someone had
shown me a picture and I'm like, well, what, why
is what's the he where did you get this? What

(16:18):
if in the nineteen eighties somebody told you people will
be making multimillion dollar live action transformers movies. I mean
I would have at the time thought that that would
have been brilliant, because it would have been before Michael
Bay got a chance to do that. Wait, how would
you even imagine that the nineteen eighties live action transformers
that didn't even make sense. I be able to imagine

(16:41):
it in the nineteen eighties. I was a kid. I
could imagine that I was a giraffe. Okay, come on,
I mean as an adult it's a lot harder, but
as a kid limitless. So also I wanted to mention
that that the other issue, because I said there were two.
The other issue with predicting the future, especially when it
comes to technology, is that we typically look at what

(17:02):
is available today, we look at the things that we
are currently trying to develop right now, and then we
just sort of project based upon that. Right we sit
there and say, okay, let's extend outward from where we
are now and where we look like we're headed. But
that means we we can't and by definition, we cannot
anticipate any innovations that come out of left field that

(17:24):
changed the game entirely, which means that by the time
we get to that future and maybe that certain things
we thought were promising turned out to be dead ends,
other things we hadn't even considered might be the norm.
A great example of this would be back in the
nineteen fifties when everyone was building electronics with vacuum tubes.
No one at the point that point in the early
fifties was really anticipating the that transistors were going to

(17:48):
one become small enough to really become an important electronic
component and to replace vacuum tubes. And that's why you
get these predictions about giant computers in the future, right
because back then, if you were using vacuum tubes, they
take up a lot more space than transistors do, and
it would mean that if you want a really powerful computer,
you'd have to have a lot more vacuum tube. So
it's the reason that a very very powerful computer would

(18:10):
be enormous the size of a building are bigger. So
because of that, we find it amusing to see some
of these predictions. But we have to keep in mind
that we're doing the same thing, right, We're making predictions
based upon where we are right now. Uh And by again,
by definition, we cannot anticipate something that comes out of
seemingly nowhere. Uh. So I don't want to heap too

(18:34):
much uh jovial uh disdain or anything like that towards
people who have made these predictions. I prefer we heap
saturnine disdain other than all the time. Yes, of course. Well,
the other one I wanted to talk about, which is
a little less less whimsical, I would say, is the

(18:56):
driverless car predictions, because I mentioned us a few minutes ago.
I love the idea of a society that has driverless cars,
especially if driverless cars are the primary vehicles on the road. Yeah.
I try not to be overly sanguine about naive, optimistic
future predictions, but I feel like this is one I've

(19:19):
always been pretty optimistic about and remain pretty optimistic about,
even though even though we've now seen some tragic accidents
with driverless cars. I think, I don't know, I I'm
I'm pretty bullish on this one. Yeah, I think I
think it's completely possible, just there are so many kinks
to work out before it's practical. I think the kinks
are mainly on the political side and social side as well,

(19:41):
and not so much on the technological side there. So yeah, yeah, exactly. No,
I mean because because mostly like like we we technically
have the technology to to have all of these devices
talking to each other. We just need a the rules
and regulations in place that will make companies make their
products talk to each other and and beh uh build it. Yeah. Well,

(20:04):
well we also need to get people on board literally
and figuratively with the idea of driverless cars. Yeah, I
mean you've got you've got an expectations problem in that people. Essentially,
it's like, you're not gonna hold driverless cars to the
same standard that you would hold cars with human drivers

(20:24):
who can take personal responsibility to drive. Human drivers are
already so bad at driving driverless cars. I don't think
you're gonna have a problem of being worse than human drivers.
But the problem is it's not okay for them to
just be better than human drivers. They essentially need to
be perfect well, and when it comes to driverless cars.

(20:45):
So I would say that that the truly, the truly
autonomous cars that are out there, not not like Tesla's autopilot,
but the truly autonomous cars out there have demonstrated that
they based upon the number of my as they've driven
without any uh major accidents, that they are by far

(21:06):
better than human drivers if you look at them, you know,
for a million miles and how many accidents are are represented. Um,
it's pretty cut and dry that they're superior. Uh. When
you get to autopilot, then that's not supposed to be
an autonomous system that's not intended to be. People treated

(21:27):
as if it is, and that's a that's a problem.
We're talking about public opinion. It's all about perceptions, right,
and and also there's this public opinion. So so the
Verge ran a piece recently in which they referenced a
poll where people were asked US drivers were asked about
their opinions on self driving cars. One of the questions
they were asked was that, um, they were given choices

(21:49):
between different levels of autonomy. So a level five autonomous
car would be one that's fully autonomous and has no
no control system for a human. Level four would will
have control systems that humans could use. And everyone's like,
I don't want level five. Not everyone like I don't
want level five, I want level four. Like I absolutely
want to be able to rest control from the system

(22:12):
if I need to. I think they're they're anticipating a
scenario where they really want to be able to run
somebody over with their car on maybe maybe, But the
immediately I realized that that's a terrible problem for people
to say, I want to still be able to take
over a control of this car. I get it that
if you find driving enjoyable and you still want to

(22:32):
have that experience occasionally, I get it. But if you're
talking about taking over control of the car after it's
under autonomous control, what you're really talking about when you
boil it down is two drivers struggling for control of
the same vehicle at the same time. Even if you
have an autonomous vehicle that can very quickly figure out
that a human is trying to take over and switch

(22:53):
over to manual control, it's it's still kind of like
if I were to reach over while Lauren's driving and
just grab the steering wheel and give it a nice
sharp tug to the right, that's not good. That's bad.
For some reason I had stopped paying attention. Was driving
us off a cliff. That would be good. And I
think that's the kind of scenario that people people are

(23:14):
thinking about. Yeah, I guess they're imagining like that. They're
thinking this car is going to have problems or at
least early generations are and I'm going to need to
find it. I'm going to need to have manual override
to get around those problems, Like there's going to be
a life or death situation that it's going to come
up that that I am going to need to be
able to stop the car in case. Yeah, that's that's
what they're imagining, and I think it's um my opinion

(23:37):
is that they are are largely wrong, or maybe they're mistaken,
and they think that the total control means that the
car is also going to tell them what they have
to listen to on the radio. Yeah, well, I mean
they would have issues with that too, especially that radio
or like or like tell them which like coffee shop
to go to, and right, we I should also point

(23:58):
out that I won't take you there. Apparently, this pole
also had people saying the responded saying that they don't
want the car that they owned to be autonomous, and
I think that presupposes the idea that they would own
a car. Um As we've talked about a lot of
the models that would have autonomous cars on the road
suggest that these would not be personal vehicles. You would

(24:19):
not own an autonomous car. It wouldn't make sense. It
would make more sense to have a company operating fleets
of autonomous cars and it's all on demand. And the
reason why it makes sense is that if your car
is sitting idle more than nine percent of the time
you own it, doesn't it make more sense for that
car to go out and do work rather than just

(24:40):
sit there. And if it were doing that, then you
could end up freeing up space that would otherwise be
used for things like parking spots or garages. Uh, anyone
who has a garage would have essentially an extra room
now for storage or whatever you wanted. Um, you wouldn't
You would be able to free up space on streets
where you wouldn't have people parking all up and down streets.

(25:00):
My street, you would actually be able to drive down
because people park on both sides of the street to
the point where if your car is wide enough, you're
gonna reconsider going down that way. Um. So, I mean,
I think the most realistic vision of driverless cars remains
this idea of a fleet that it's like an uber
or a lift where you call a ride when you

(25:22):
need to. And now, obviously that means that the best
use case for This would be in dense urban environments.
If you're out in a rural area, it makes more
sense to have a personally operated vehicle because you're not
going to have enough density of vehicles in those rural
spots to have a reasonable UM response time. If you

(25:43):
need to have a ride, well, I mean, you know
you could. You could say that it would be something
like a like a Netflix subscription and and having different
subscriptions for different needs. Like if you're in a city, Uh,
then you call a car up whenever you need one.
If you're in the country, maybe you have a you
have a car that you essentially like lease out. Maybe
it is autonomous that that that you hang out with

(26:03):
for a certain period of time. I could see that
possibly being the case. Uh, you know, there are obviously
there's a lot of opportunities for different UM business strategy.
So just as I was saying earlier where we were,
you know, taking today and then projecting outward, I was
just doing that right now when let's talking about driverless cars,
and you brought up in a situation Lauren that I

(26:26):
had not really thought about, but it totally makes sense
that could completely be someone's business plan moving forward. So
UM I also think the autonomous cars, they're gonna be
a thing, whether they become the thing and replace uh
personally like manually operated vehicles. I don't know what timeline
we'd be looking at for something like that. I'm guessing

(26:48):
a couple of decades at the earliest to to really
get to a point where you've got enough of the
population saying yeah, I don't care about driving a car.
I just want to have a way of getting to
or I need to go, and then not worry about it. Again. Um,
they may take like a generation or two to get through. Well,
we keep hearing stories about how more younger people have

(27:11):
less of a desire to own a car for for
a variety of reasons, largely economic, but not only economic.
And I imagine if those trends continue, then we'll see
people much more receptive to this idea. But that that
again presupposes that a trend continues and doesn't change. That's
still a possibility. Anyway, those were the two I really

(27:32):
wanted to talk about. One that was more whimsical and
one that was more grounded in reality. Um, but it's
the kind of stuff that, you know, it's hard for
me to pick just a couple of predictions about the
future that I really love, but uh, I decided to
to to just commit to those. So I want to
hear what you guys picked. Well. I wanted to think

(27:55):
about predictions about the social impact of telecommunications. Who uses
their phone nows? Well, no, I would say the Internet
counts as teleki and so does the telegraphy. That's also emoji. Emoji, Yeah,

(28:16):
if you're sending them across an Internet or text message.
You know, we have never done a full episode about
emoji before. Go ahead, Joe cry laughing. It would be
amazing if we came up with never mind. Okay, So, yeah,
I wanted to talk about something that I've actually mentioned.

(28:37):
I know I mentioned once on a Text Stuff episode
that I guessed it on with you, Jonathan. Which is
an article from nineteen twelve from Technical World magazine. I
didn't check to see if this magazine still exists. I
wonder if it does. Probably not, but the article is
by one Ivan Narodney, and it's a profile of Giglielmo Marconi.

(29:03):
Marconi build in this article as the inventor of the
wireless telegraph, but a well known inventor at the time.
Sometimes also credited with the radio right right Tesla fans
hate that. Yes, he often is. So the article is
called Marconi's Plans for the World, and it's got a
bunch of long quotes from from Marconi, and this is

(29:25):
one of the things he says. Quote. I am not
personally a socialist. I have small faith in any political propaganda.
But I do believe that the progress of invention will
create a state which will realize most of the present
dreams of the socialists. The coming of the wireless era
will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.

(29:48):
The inventor is the greatest revolutionist in the world, if
only it's such a nice thought. Now, I think there
is a certain grain of truth to this, because I've
read arguments and I think they're kind of can vincing
that a lot of social changes you see throughout history
that you would see attributed to changes in ideology or

(30:08):
political movements and stuff like that, is actually better understood
as a direct result of technological change rather than ideological
or political change. I think in a lot of cases
that is sort of true. So his comment about the
the inventor being the greatest revolutionist, I think there might
be something to that. But on the other hand, he says,

(30:31):
the wireless era is going to make war impossible, because
it will make war ridiculous. This was right before the
the First Great War, and then of course we got
a few more after that. It was the War to
end all wars, and then the one after that one. Yeah,
another funny thing. Later in the same article, the author

(30:51):
summarizes more of Marconi's comments by saying, quote, a step
further in the progress of wireless stands wireless lighting, heating,
and transmit shon of motor power. Each of these systems
is based on the same principle as wireless tell the
wireless telegraph, only the transmitting and receiving instruments are different
in the vibrations of the etheric waves have a different nature, intensity,

(31:15):
and length. This is also very Tesla issue etheric waves.
That's great, um, and we we have done episodes on
on like wireless lighting. Yeah, we talked about about things
like using inductive coupling and that's right stuff. Yeah. But
he's thinking at the grand scale, so he envisions like
he talks about a Niagara Falls power plant that would

(31:37):
generate hydro power and then wirelessly transmit a hundred and
fifty million horsepower across New York State and that sell
it to other states. It's very, very similar to the
Tesla UH approach. Are the Tesla beliefs of the time
to UH wildly impractical? As it turns out, right, this

(31:57):
this thing about power transmission is sort of to the
But I did want to mention that because two main
principles come up in this article, the wireless telecommunications, the
wireless telegraph, and then wireless power transmission. Of course, now
one is a reality and one the other is not,
at least not at the large scale. And I guess
mar Coney could have been referring to either or both

(32:20):
when he predicted that these conditions would bring about the
end of war. But I tend to think more likely
that he's referring to to the prospect of universal instantaneous
wireless communication as that set of conditions that he thinks
is going to make war ridiculous and bring it to
an end. And I think this because it fits in
with a perennial strain of utopian thinking about the implications

(32:43):
of new telecommunications technology. Yeah, well, I mean I can
I can see that the merit in that kind of
thought process. It's it's tempting to believe that if people
are able to communicate quickly with each other um, then
then they'll be able to reach a better understanding of
each other's motivations and and therefore not have as much

(33:04):
stuff to fight about. Yeah, it's essentially a grander scale
version of telling children just talk it out, will be fine,
very much, And there are people who very very much
bought into this ideology and have throughout history, or at
least throughout the past couple hundred years. So I want
to read you a quote from a couple of authors

(33:25):
named Charles F. Briggs and Augustus Maverick from eighteen fifty eight,
and this is what they wrote. It has been the
result of the great discoveries of the past century to
affect a revolution in political and social life by establishing
a more intimate connection between nations with race and race.
It has been found that the old system of exclusion

(33:48):
and insulation, or stagnation and death national health can only
be maintained by the free and unobstructed interchange of each withal.
How potent a power in is the telegraph destined to
become in the civilization of the world. This binds together
by a vital cord all the nations of the Earth.

(34:10):
It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer
exist while such an instrument has been created for an
exchange of thought between all the nations of the Earth.
So this seems like sort of along the lines of
the Marconi strain of thinking. Right, you get people connected
to each other through instantaneous telecommunication and they just sort

(34:31):
of like become one very harmonious mind. And there was
an American communication theorist I was reading about named James W. Kerry,
who wrote a book called Communication as Culture. This was
in the nineteen eighties, I think, in which there is
a chapter about the impact of the original telegraph. Now

(34:52):
this was the wired telegraph, not the wireless one, but
I think the same principle applies to how people were
thinking about them and carry points out that this was
you know, it's the first major invention to separate the
concepts of communication and transportation. Really, it's the first example
of telecommunication communication without the transport of mass basically. And

(35:14):
I want to read a passage where Kerry summarizes this
historical attitude. He says, quote, there were dissenters, of course,
but the general uniformity of reaction to the telegraph demonstrated
how it was able to fuse the opposite polls of
the electrical sublime, the desire for peace, harmony, and self
sufficiency with the wish for power, profit and productivity. The

(35:38):
presumed annihilation of time and space heralded by the telegraph
promised to bind the country together, just as the portance
of the Civil War, we're threatening to tear it apart.
And he goes on to quote a horrible poem from
eight seventy five by somebody named Martin F. Tipper. Never
read about that guy in my poetry age occasion. But

(36:02):
I've got to read this selection from this poem too,
And then I'll try to stop with all the quotes.
But this is just too good. Yes, this electric chain
from east to west, more than mere metal, more than mammon,
can binds us together, Kinsman, and the best as most
affectionate and frankist Bond brethren as one and looking far

(36:24):
beyond the world in an electric union blessed. I don't
know what you're saying, man, that's awesome. That's some darn
fine poetry. Do you hear the alliteration there. That guy
could have written an old English Okay, okay, so he
maybe he's technically competent that this is a poem about
the telegraph, the electric Union. They all have to be

(36:45):
about clouds and feelings. Joe but Carry has a name
for this mode of talk, which he claims he coined
in conjunction with somebody named John Quirk, which is a game.
And the name for this this whole style of talking
is the rhetoric of the electrical sublime. I loved that. Yeah. Actually,
come to think of it, I like at like a

(37:06):
great deal of poetry that I saw in my poetry classes,
and like the early two thousand's in college would have
fallen under that kind of category. It's like people celebrating
how technology is going to save us all or or not.
Not not like how it will save us all, but like,
oh man, this is magic. Check out this magic. It
relates to feelings. Okay, okay, I'll see that all poetic

(37:32):
elitist is anyway to bring us up to today. I
would say that the Internet is the essentially the ultimate
extension of the telecommunications principle. It's all of the telecommunications
principles switches just flipped onto full And I think the
rhetoric of the electrical sublime absolutely extended to those beautiful, innocent,

(37:56):
naive early days of the Internet, not even the earliest
days into the nineteen nineties. Well, to be fair though,
the nine nineties that's where you get the public u
understanding of the Internet, because before that it was essentially
the domain of researchers and students and mega nerds. Well,
but yeah, there's those first few people who were on

(38:16):
a Prodigy or a o L We're all like, oh, man,
like I can talk to my grandmother or if she
had a computer, understood how it worked. It's something like,
I mean, you know, the guys, there were some savvy
there were some savvy grandmas out there on l uh
and and we hadn't we hadn't seen like the other
side of that connectivity yet, which is, you know, just

(38:38):
like more opportunities to argue about terrible stuff. Well, at
the time when the the Internet was young, in the
early nineteen nineties, when the Web in particular was young,
because that didn't really become a thing till two right,
so when and that was the easiest way to access
the Internet. Otherwise you were accessing elements of the Internet
like email, which you would just realize as like, okay, well,

(38:59):
this is just a super or fast version of mail.
I mean, someone's going to get it as soon as
I hit send. But other than that, it's not it's
not as transformative as some of the other implementations of
the Internet. Once you get the Web there, everyone saw
that this was a thing of a seemingly limitless possibility,
and because it was just such a big opportunity, it

(39:20):
was really hard to get an idea of how would
it actually be used, right, because if you have every
option open to you, you don't know what pathway you're
going to walk down. It may be that you've been
walking for a while before you realize which path you took. Yeah,
And so not to say that there wasn't plenty of
paranoia and dystopian thinking about the Net back then, too,
given things like the movie The Net starring Sandra Bullock

(39:44):
that was phenomenal and it predicted being able to order
pizza online within the first five minutes of the movie.
I might have man that movie. Rachel and I watched
that not too long. It was hilarious. It's so good,
right stands up as being completely terrible. I covered it
on a episode of Tech Stuff about hacking in Hollywood.
I love it. It's great. But anyway, it's those pictures

(40:07):
from the nineties where people didn't realize what computers could
and couldn't control yet, so they'd have you know, like
you get into your office, uh, and you sit down
at your computer and you can control like the fire
alarms in the building you're in. Yeah, okay, but yeah, anyway,
so I'm sure you'll remember this strain of techno utopianism

(40:28):
from the nineties about the about the internet. The Internet
is going to be a global village, right, this Marshal
mccluan concept, uh, the information super Highway. There's the idea
that there's just sort of like all learning, all sharing,
all the world and a kind of mutually informative benign
communion where people around the world connect, do you remember

(40:49):
that word connect all the time, and they collaborate and
learn to understand one another. And I think that's funny now,
not because I would say the Internet has turned out
to be a bad thing, which I certainly don't think,
because if you did, then you'd be like get filled
with self loathing. No, I don't think that at all.
But I do think it's turned out to be a

(41:09):
thing so ubiquitous and so invisible as a substrate for
day to day behavior that it goes beyond categorization is
good or bad? Like saying whether the Internet is good
or bad is kind of like saying society is good
or bad. Sure, I mean, you know, on the one hand,
you could say, look at look at vine, our forums

(41:30):
where people are sharing innovative ideas and collaborating in our
real sense and trying very hard to work through challenges.
It's it's very inspiring. Or look at YouTube comments. Yeah,
and so I wonder is there anything we could say
so obviously Marconi was wrong, Uh, in the specific example

(41:51):
of wireless communication and in the broader idea of just
telecommunications more people connecting instantaneously a cross distances that that
would solve social ills and in wars and stuff. Is
there is there any grain of truth to that? I mean,
is there any way of saying, well, maybe maybe in
some way the Internet or or other forms of telecommunications

(42:13):
around the world have in some way caused social change
for the better. Well, they've clearly caused social change, And
I would argue for the better in many cases. But
I would say that it wasn't uh in the way
that Marconi was necessarily anticipating. So, for example, the Arab
Spring being able to use the Internet in order to

(42:35):
organize protests and to inform people as to what was
going on beyond the boundaries of a country became incredibly
powerful or and and even within the boundaries of a
country wherein these people were not allowed to to organize
in other ways. Right and then if you want to
look at right now, the the Black Lives Matter movement,

(42:56):
I would argue, without the various tools that we have
connected to the Internet, including things like live streaming video,
what what has been a problem for a very long
time in the United States is just now getting the
attention that it deserves because the tools to distribute that
information are now in the hands of the people that

(43:17):
have been UH suffering from this problem for decades. Really,
it's not like this is a new problem. It seems
new to people who were not part of that community
because it wasn't something them. Yeah, similar in the way
to it. How when when television became a thing that
people had in their homes in the nineteen sixties, suddenly

(43:38):
or in the ninete sixties early nineteen seventies, UM, the
the Vietnam War suddenly was thrown into very harsh relief
because when you started getting images from that thing, it
wasn't just like, oh, yeah, let's go. Oh this is
terrible like being able to actually see the results, as
opposed to you get uh an article in the paper

(43:59):
that gives you very relevant information, but it distances you
from the actual results. Yeah. I think I think it's
you can't argue that it hasn't caused some social good,
or at least, uh, it has facilitated some social good.
It hasn't been smooth, It's never going to be, because
we're human beings ultimately, and human beings were messy, right,

(44:22):
But it has opened up opportunities that previously weren't there.
Do you think though, that expanding the power of telecommunications
always just sort of like it causes a change in
human behavior too for the people who have access to
this technology, and then sort of settles into an equilibrium

(44:45):
that was similar to how things were beforehand, except now
you just have some new tools. Or does it lead
to lasting changes? I think again, I don't know that
it leads anywhere. I think What it does is facilitates.
Just like I said earlier, I think that the actual
leading to change is dependent upon whatever force is trying

(45:05):
to enact that change, and they're using the telecommunications tools
as one of the methods to enact that change. Well,
I guess to be more specific that the change I'm
thinking about is is general uh, general increases in harmony,
right what what Marc had? And I think I don't
think that it is magically making people more harmonious. I

(45:27):
think that that was a naive kind of prediction. Yeah,
I think it'll it lets more people hear stories, and
that can ultimately lead to change. But it's not. It's
not as simple, just as it wasn't when you say, hey,
you kids, sit down and have a talk and everything
will be fine. It's rarely that simple. I think that

(45:48):
you can change minds with with telecommunication missives. I mean,
I would hope that you can, because otherwise we've been
spending a whole lot of time sitting in the studio
over the past few years for your friend a thing.
If we're just talking to people who would already agree
with us. Uh. And I have seen in in common
threads on on YouTube and Facebook people say, oh, I

(46:09):
didn't know that before, thank you, thank you for telling
me about it, like, you know, like like I would
have been ignorant and I would have kept on going
doing what turns out to be this harmful behavior if
I had not known about this thing. Um. And also uh,
on a on on again a personal person to person
kind of basis. Um, the Internet has allowed uh, people

(46:31):
who would not have a support group in their local
area to have a support group for um, you know,
if if they if they're gay, and they're in a
in a very anti homosexual, homophobic kind of kind of town,
then then they have that support and maybe they get
to continue living their lives and live happier and get
out of there. Yeah, on a on a much um

(46:53):
less uh impactful scale. I mean, the thing that I
think of is what it was like. See, I I
grew up in the eighties, and uh, the stuff I
was interested in, None of my friends were really particularly
interested in the same sort of things I was interested in,
and so I didn't really have people to chat about
chat with about the things that I was really passionate about. Uh.

(47:15):
And then I would end up going to conventions with
my dad, you know, my science fiction author dad and
run into people groups eventually, But I'm talking about the
early eighties, so you gotta you gotta walk before you
can run. Um running there it was compared to what
was happening before. So but but the point being that

(47:37):
that the conventions gave me a chance to chat with
people who were like minded, who enjoyed the same things
I enjoyed. And then eventually the Internet allowed that on
a much grander scale where I could see like, oh,
they're all these people who share the same interests I have,
but I never had an opportunity to chat with them
because they don't happen to be near me and same
thing with them, they have the same experience. Uh. And obviously,

(48:00):
again that's that's tiny on the scale. Is something like
someone dealing with uh, you know, intense homophobia or racism
or whatever it may be, like some sort of prejudice
against them for whatever reason. It's very different, but um,
it makes it makes a difference in a person's self image.

(48:21):
They stop asking themselves like am I am I weird?
Am I alone? Am I terrible? And that I think
is huge. I mean it's huge on an individual to
individual basis, but collectively you have to say, like, that's
fantastic to take away that burden that some people feel
because they don't fit whatever their community has identified as

(48:44):
the norm. On the flip side, I it can. I mean,
there are still people who are jerks, and they can
also congregate on the internet and and kind of enter
into a positive feedback loop where where they they are
told that that that that racism or whatever it is
is okay and is accepted by their peer group. Yeah,

(49:05):
that is not so good. That's very not good. But yeah,
I mean I'm thinking about so in the broader sense
of creating global harmony. I do think there is some
of what I don't know, the the you know, the
people who spoke the rhetoric of the electrical sublime, what
these people had in mind, connecting brother with brother across

(49:26):
the world. Uh, people people forming bonds they would not
have formed in physical space. I think that's certainly true.
But I also think that there is global antagonism that
would not have existed otherwise. And so I wonder if essentially,
I guess what I'm trying to say is is there
any way to figure out if there has been a

(49:47):
net change or have we just sort of like settled
into a new wider equilibrium that's about the same as
it was before. Well, I think the thing is is that,
I mean, technology certainly changes us, but it isn't It
doesn't change very basic parts or no technology that we've
had yet has been big enough to change extremely broad

(50:09):
parts of the human experience of human nature, like the
fundamental elements of being humans. Yeah, and and unfortunately, like
being a jerk is kind of one of those, it's
on the list. I would also argue that your question
is impossible to answer, and the reason why it's impossible
to answer is because we don't have a separate pathway
that we could judge against. Right if we had, If

(50:29):
we if we could peer into a parallel universe where
telecommunications were never developed, but but human race continued on
to their tween, and we would compare their twenty sixteen
to our sixteen, maybe then we could draw at least
some conclusions, knowing that there's still thousands, millions of other
variables at play. But without that, it's impossible, right because

(50:51):
we live in the world that we forged, and so
we can't really say what it would be like if
we had gone a different route. Uh, that being said,
it is a fascinate anything to think about. I mean,
I also, like you guys, believe in the power of telecommunications.
If I didn't, I would not work here. I would
be doing something else. But I very much believe in

(51:12):
the power to do good with it. I know, and
without denying the fact that you can also do evil
things with it, absolutely you can. But it's such a
powerful tool that if enough people choose to do good
with it, I think you can't help but enact a
positive change in the world. And that's what I strive for.
And uh, I guess to sum it up, as Shakespeare

(51:33):
would say, nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes
it so. Okay, Yeah, I like your I like your
southern Southern hey, to be fair, And in Shakespeare's time,
the accent was closer to Appalachian English than any other accent. Wow. Yeah, Well,
you know that we've been talking a lot already. We

(51:54):
still have a ton more that we want to cover
in this, uh, in this this whole topic, but we're
super chatty, so we're going to end up. No, So
we've got another one from Joe, and then we have
Lauren's favorite kind of futuristic predictions to to talk about,
and we're gonna save that for our next episode. Guys,
if you have any suggestions you would like to give

(52:15):
us for future episodes, you can write us our email
addresses FW thinking at how Stuff Works dot com, or
drop us a line on Twitter or Facebook. We are
FW thinking on Twitter. You can search f W thinking
on Facebook or pop right up. You can leave us
a message and we will talk to you again about
our favorite predictions of the future, like in a couple

(52:36):
of days I predicted. For more on this topic in
the future of technology, visit forward thinking dot com brought

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