Techno-Optimism: The World's Transformation Since the Industrial Revolution

When technology arrived in the 1700s, the shape of the world changed dramatically. A feeling of techno-optimism began to grow and has continued to grow since then in the form of new technologies. But is it about to go too far?


| February 2015



Techno-Optimism

Advances in computing and biotechnology are not only transforming objects, but transforming humans, too.

Photo by Fotolia/Dmytro Tolokonov

The idea of transhumanism that once belonged in classic science-fiction novels is now approaching a reality. Transcendence (Disinformation Books, 2015), by R.U. Sirius and Jay Cornell, takes a look at artificial intelligence and cognitive science, genomics, information technology, neuroscience, biology and robotics that are transforming science fiction into science fact with each new invention. This excerpt, which gives a general overview of the rise and transformation of technology since the 1700s, is from the section, “Techno-Optimism: A Brief History.”

To find more books that pique our interest,
visit the
Utne Reader Bookshelf.

The Concept of “Progress” Is Born

Only in the 18th century Enlightenment did the concept of progress become widespread. Earlier, most people thought of history in terms of a fall from a past Golden Age, or perhaps repeating cycles. (If they thought of such things at all. Mostly they just worried about their next meals.) With the Industrial Revolution, progress became almost synonymous with science and technology. By the late 19th and early 20th century, we see the beginnings of modern science fiction (Verne, Wells), and prototypes of today’s hackers and geeks (Edison, Tesla, Tom Swift). Tellingly, we also see early instances of techno-optimistic wishful thinking: the telegraph, dynamite, and airplanes (and later, movies and television) were all heralded, sometimes even by their inventors, as tools that would end war. The First World War was a huge setback for all optimists, but the techno-optimistic spirit soon recovered.

Science Fiction Is Born, Science Fact Triumphs, and Then Gets Scarier

Radio, aviation, medicine, and much more were changing the world, so the prophets of science got more attention. Writer, editor, and radio and television pioneer Hugo Gernsback was that era’s premier techno-optimist, publishing magazines such as Modern Electrics (1908) and The Electrical Experimenter (1913). His science fiction novel Ralph 124C 41+ (1911) included television, radar, solar energy, synthetic food, space travel, and lots more. Even the title is in proto-textspeak: Ralph’s last name means “one to foresee for one another.” In 1926 he launched Amazing Stories, the first magazine dedicated to science fiction. (Heard of the Hugo Awards? That’s our Hugo.) Starting in 1938, John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Astounding Science Fiction took the lead, nurturing such greats as Asimov and Heinlein and ushering in the Golden Age of science fiction.

For many, Soviet “scientific socialism” promised a more efficient and productive future, as did eugenics and (briefly) the Technocracy movement. Science and technology were still largely participatory: if you had an idea for a better automobile or airplane, or wanted a tele­vision, you built one. By 1945, inventions like antibiotics, computers, radar, and the atomic bomb had helped win World War II, making it seem closed-minded to dismiss “that Buck Rogers stuff,” but the future looked darker.

From Utopias To Dystopias

After Hitler and Stalin, eugenics and scientific socialism lost their lus­ter. The threats of nuclear war, Sputnik, and pollution made interwar techno-optimism seem naïve. Science fiction continued to flourish, but “post-apocalypse” was no longer a purely theological concept. Even optimistic futures began to seem plastic and bureaucratic. Science had become Big Science, done in expensive laboratories with mainframes and other tools that only organizations could afford. Progress now came from conformist Organization Men. Lone inventors and independent scientists were obsolete.