Episode 2

What did the future look like in the past?

We all have theories about what the future might look like. But what did the future look like in the past? And how have the advent of new technologies altered how people viewed the future? We talked with curator of modern sciences and historian of Victorian science Dr Johnua Nall, professor of Digital Humanities and director of Cambridge Digital Humanities Professor Caroline Bassett, and Junior Research Fellow in the history of artificial intelligence Dr Jonnie Penn in our attempt to understand how the future was thought of in the past. Along the way we discussed utopias and dystopias, the long history of science fiction, and how the future might come back to haunt us!

This episode was produced by Nick Saffell, James Dolan and Naomi Clements-Brod. Annie Thwaite and Charlotte Zemmel provide crucial research and production support for Series 2.

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Guest bios

Professor Caroline Bassett is Professor of Digital Humanities and Director of Cambridge Digital Humanities (@CamDigHum). Caroline’s research explores digital technologies in relation to questions of knowledge production and epistemology (how does 'the digital' change scholarship, transform understanding, produce new scales or perspectives?) and in relation to cultural forms, practices, and ways of being (how can we understand the stakes of informational capitalism, what are its symptoms, how can we understand its temporalities, the forms of life it enables, and those it forecloses?). 

Dr Jonnie Penn @jonniepenn is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, technologist, activist, and public speaker. He writes and speaks widely about youth empowerment, the future of work, data governance, and sustainable digital technologies. He explores the Future of Work for Millennial and Post-Millennials in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A Research Fellow at St. Edmund’s College and at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, and as an Associate Fellow at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and an Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University. 

Dr Joshua Nall Is the curator of Modern Sciences at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. His research focuses on mass media and material culture of the physical sciences after 1800. Nall's first book, News from Mars: Mass Media and the Forging of a New Astronomy, 1860–1910, was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in September 2019. It analyses the varied and often close relationships forged between astronomers and new forms of transatlantic mass media at the turn of the 20th century. Its focus is the era's most public astronomical debate, over whether or not there was evidence of life on Mars.

[00:00] - Introductions

[02:15] - How did new science and technology (railways, telegraphic communication, mass printing) transform the 19th Century. 

[03:30] - How these technologies are going to change the future not just for the individual but for society. 

[03:45] - The concept of modernity. How people view change and progress as a society.

[05:00] - Futures and utopias delivered by technology as opposed to magic. 

[07:15] - Science, the idea of progress and moving forward. (The Great Exhibition of 1851)  

[09:30] - Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, computers and the idea of the mind as a factory.  

[10:30] - We also need to think about the imbalances around gender, sex, class and colonality. 

[11:05] - Modernity creates a sense of chaos because of rapid change and new technology. 

[11:45] - The telegraph and the annihilation of space by time. The message being divorced by the carrier. 

[12:40] - The development of telegraphic communication technologies and fantasies about global governance and racial dominance. 

[15:40] - Recap of the first part of the conversation

[21:38] - How are new ideas about the future influencing the way people think about artificial intelligence and sci-fi in the 1900’s?

[23:44] - Ada Lovelace as a contemporary sci-fi iconic figure

[24:45] - Mary Shelley and Frankenstein as an example of fiction grappling with a response to the feeling of chaos resulting from new technologies

[26:45] - Other examples of science fiction dealing with new technologies and new ideas and projecting into the future

[28:58] - Fulfilled and unfulfilled promises of artificial intelligence in recent history

[31:50] - What resistance to ideas of the future has looked like and how technology contributes to ideas of utopia

[33:50] - Dominant beliefs and values in the 19th century that showed up in science fiction and actual scientific theories

[38:20] - How future projections come from the time in which they’re made but sometimes fictional or artistic pursuits can break out of reflecting the dominant viewpoints at the time of their creation

[41:35] - Recap of second part of conversation

[48:15] - Comparing older expectations of artificial intelligence (AI) with more recent expectations of AI

[50:05] - When and why did AI become scary or threatening? And the cyclical nature of unresolved fears around technology.

[54:28] - Current futures of AI and technology and the problematic idea of technology as being free and limitless versus the world ending

[56:10] - What’s coming up in technology in the next 100-ish years?

[1:00:17] - What the guests look forward to when thinking about the future

[1:03:28] - Recap of the last part of the conversation

[1:07:09 ] - Thank you and goodbye

If you’re interested in learning more about how people thought about the future in the past, our guests suggested a fantastic reading list, including a mix of fiction and non-fiction works:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • News from Mars: Mass Media and the Forging of a New Astronomy, 1860-1910 by Joshua Nall
  • Artificial Whiteness by Yarden Katz
  • Dreamworlds of Race: Empire and the Utopian Destiny of Anglo-America by Duncan Bell
  • A history of the future: Prophets of Progress from H.G. Wells to Isaac Assimov by Peter Bowler
  • Body of Glass by Marge Piercy
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • The Culture series by Iain Banks
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical imaginaries and the fabrication of power, edited by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim 

The next episode: What is the future of mental wellbeing?

Our wellbeing is essential to our overall quality of life. But what is wellbeing? Why is it so hard to pin down? How is it different to mental health, and what can we do to understand, measure and improve it? We talked with psychologist and neuroscientist Dr Amy Orben, psychiatrist Dr Tamsin Ford, and welfare economist Dr Mark Fabian to try and get to grips with wellbeing.

About the Podcast

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Mind Over Chatter
Welcome to Mind Over Chatter, the Cambridge University Podcast! One series at a time, we break down complex issues into simple questions.

About your hosts

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Naomi Clements-Brod

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