Technology and Innovation

Great collection of essays that capture the wonder of now-ubiquitous technology that was once strange.  Oliver Wendell Holmes on photography in 1859, Mark Twain on telephones in 1880, Philip G. Hubert Jr. on the phonograph in 1889, up to James Fallows on the personal computer in 1982.

These eight excerpts show the attempts of writers, frozen at particular
moments in technological time, to imagine how the gizmos and
breakthroughs they have just seen will matter in the long run. As a
group they illustrate how prescient such assessments can turn out to
be–and how silly. The more detailed a writer becomes about the scale
and impact of an invention, the greater the potential giggle factor in
retrospect. Airplanes that cut the travel time between Vienna and Paris
to a mere ten hours! Word processors that spare you the need to hit
“return” after you type each line! (The source of that last insight
was, um, me, in an article twenty-four years ago. I should probably
note at this point that I’m just writing the introduction–I didn’t
choose the passages.)

But the harder a writer has tried to connect the technology of the
moment to the permanent nature of individual and social life, the more
prescient the assessment is likely to seem. The most famous of these
passages is Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” which in 1945, before
the first transistor existed, imagined the structure and value of the
modern World Wide Web. What Gilbert Seldes wrote in 1937 about
television’s likely effect on styles of thought, what Oliver Wendell
Holmes foresaw in 1859 about how photography would change our view of
the physical world, and most of what the other writers predicted stands
up well now. And what Mark Twain wrote in 1880 applies to a predicament
as fresh and modern as hearing one side of a cell-phone call. —The Atlantic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *