Using Churchill’s Crystal Ball to Anticipate 2080

If I wrote this:

Mixed reality, following naturally upon their present path of development, would enable their users to connect up with any room similarly installed, and hear and take part in the conversation as well as if he or she put his head in through the window. The congregation of people in cities would become superfluous. It would rarely be necessary to call in person on any but the most intimate friends, but if so, excessively rapid means of communication would be at hand. There would be no more object in living in the same city with one’s neighbour than there is today in living with him in the same house. The cities and the countryside would become indistinguishable. Every home would have its garden and its glade.

You would surely say: okay, here comes Jariego again with one (two) of his most recurrent obsessions: That there is still plenty of room to improve communication technologies and that a future sufficiently advanced communication technology will eventually render cities unnecessary.

In fact, it is not me. It is none other than Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill writing in 1931. I have only changed a couple of things: telephone and television by mixed reality, and he/men by he or she/people.) However, yes, I fully agree with him. 90 years later I do foresee the same, which means that, for all the progress around information and communication technologies, we have been under-delivering for more than 50 years.

Let me continue with another couple of pearls in Churchill’s essay:

New strains of microbes will be developed and made to do a great deal of our chemistry for us. With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e. the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth. We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future.

There seems little doubt that it will be possible to carry out in artificial surroundings the entire cycle which now leads to the birth of a child. Interference with the mental development of such beings, expert suggestion and treatment in the earlier years, would produce beings specialized to thought or toil. (…) Our minds recoil from such fearful eventualities, and the laws of a Christian civilization will prevent them. But might not lop-sided creatures of this type fit in well with the Communist doctrines of Russia?

Wow! Reading this, one would think time has been frozen since 1931. I think Churchill was rather overoptimistic here, but interestingly there has not been a significant change in perspective, and today we would anticipate along very similar lines if we looked 50 years more into the future. I wonder whether a future Jariego circa 2080 will still think that we were being rather optimistic (or misguided) in 2018.

Perhaps, being Churchill who he was, the most interesting and worrying reflection in the article is his dark view of the capability of democratic governments to deal with real problems, and the ultimate irrelevance of material progress.

Even now the Parliaments of every country have shown themselves quite inadequate to deal with the economic problems which dominate the affairs of every nation and of the world. (…) Democracy as a guide or motive to progress has long been known to be incompetent. None of the legislative assemblies of the great modern states represents in universal suffrage even a fraction of the strength or wisdom of the community. Great nations are no longer led by their ablest men, or by those who know most about their immediate affairs, or even by those who have a coherent doctrine. Democratic governments drift along the line of least resistance, taking short views, paying their way with sops and doles, and smoothing their path with pleasant-sounding platitudes. (…)

It would be much better to call a halt in material progress and discovery rather than to be mastered by our own apparatus and the forces which it directs. (…) After all, this material progress, in itself so splendid, does not meet any of the real needs of the human race. (…) No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.

At the end of his article, Churchill mentions, without providing explicit reference “Last and first Man,” Olaf Stapledon’s awesome tour the force imagining the history of humanity over 18 human species until the solar system extinction, which has been published a year before, in 1930.

Thinking about these guys, these essays and their anticipations 90 years ago, and when I compare them with our current anticipations, I cannot but have a feeling of déjà vu. After all, our material progress, in itself so splendid, does not change any of the inner yearnings of the human race.

____________________

Churchill, Winston. Fifty Years Hence Originally published in Strand Magazine, December 1931

Featured Image: Graffiti in Shoreditch, London – Churchill by Paul Don Smith, Wikimedia Commons

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