[Humanist] 22.566 no idle vision

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Feb 27 07:50:47 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 566.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 26 Feb 2009 14:04:13 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: no idle vision

Consider the following vision of the world as it appeared to one
anonymous American at the middle of the 19th Century, in "The Spirit of
the Times; or, The Fast Age", United States Democratic Review 33.8
(1853): 259-63:

> We can now do more in a day, than we could in a week twenty years
> ago.... The present discoveries of science are thus bringing us back,
> not the length of years, but what is far better--the ability to
> accomplish as much in our seventy, as [once people] did in their five
> hundred years; and as science progresses, we shall doubtless extend
> our capacity of living even beyond the Methuselah limit.... In
> machinery the improvements are equally rapid.... The human race very
> soon need not toil, but merely direct: hard work will be done by
> steam... Steam itself, with its seventy miles an hour, is voted too
> slow; and electricity is fast superseding the iron horse....and as
> all progression is geometrical, our answer is more likely to be
> understated than exaggerated.... In less than fifty years, we shall
> have electric communication with every place on earth.... Men and
> women will then have no harassing cares, or laborious duties to
> fulfil. Machinery will perform all work--automata will direct them.
> The only task of the human race will be to make love, study, and be
> happy.... Then we shall be present at all ends of the earth at
> once--we shall have omniscience laid on... our newspapers must then
> be issued every hour to keep up with the spread of knowledge--for we
> shall all have the occurrences of the world brought before us as they
> happen.... but the perfection of machinery will render newspapers
> unnecessary-- every man will have a room specially dedicated to
> science. There, upon a tablet on the wall, will a mechanical stylus
> trace down the news flashing over the wires of that wonderful
> machine, which may truly be called the nervous system of Nature....
> This is no idle vision; it is the result of a common rule in
> arithmetic... Rushing back in thought a couple of centuries to the
> spot where New York stands, and thinking of it then, and looking at
> it now, who can doubt the sketch we have drawn of this day next fifty
> years?
One can, of course, rejoice in clarity of vision here, apocalyptic dreaming
there, and so find what was going to be, one might think, amidst poppycock
and balderdash. But it's more interesting to contemplate how that moment in
1853 looked to someone who was willing to imagine the possibilities. Where
he (almost certainly not she) was being hopelessly edenic, it is also
worthwhile, I think, to consider predictions of more immediate relevance to
ourselves, much closer to our own time. Take, for example, his libidinal
vision, in which we do nothing but what we still dream of doing exclusively.
Consider its dark side -- "machinery will perform ALL work"!


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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