Archive№ 3 December 2017
The new old
The horrors of the digital future have been their own distinct subgenre of science fiction for many years. From a robot uprising in the Terminator to the rehousing of the human race in the Matrix, it represents a diverse genre. It seems that human reality is now beginning to resemble these stories for the first time. However, this view is mistaken.
The appearance of the first mechanical looms and steam engines in England in the second half of the 18th century seemed like a true revolution: the human mind appeared to have tamed nature. The world had changed both inexorably and irrevocably, causing both rapture and resistance.
As a result, the Luddite movement arose in England. Its members were workers outraged at the mechanisation of production, who saw these machines as the main reason for the deterioration of their living conditions. They destroyed industrial machinery on such a scale that the British Parliament was forced to pass a law in which causing damage to production equipment carried the death penalty.
By the middle of the nineteenth century – the time of the second industrial revolution – the rage of the Luddites had been replaced by scepticism. This was especially noticeable in relation to the development of routes of communication. Even after the opening of the first railway lines, the public often perceived new technologies as an entertainment, rather than as something practical. For instance, in 1835, the French minister Adolf Thiers did not believe that it would be possible to build five miles of railways per year in his country. The intelligentsia of the time agreed: the characters in Charles Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son were confident that they would “survive all these ridiculous inventions;” and the chimney sweep from the London suburbs publicly promised “on the opening day of the railway – if it ever opens – to order his two boys to welcome the failure by shouting mockingly from their chimneys”.
But, despite a lack of public disbelief, transportation systems continued to develop. Other industries also grew, primarily metallurgy and communications. In the United Kingdom alone, over the decade and a half from 1830, metal production tripled. In 1858, a transatlantic telegraph cable was laid, and on August 16 of that year, Queen Victoria and U.S. President James Buchanan exchanged their first telegrams.
Supporters of technical progress often became cartoon heroes
Fears that social and economic upheavals would impede scientific and technological progress have also proved groundless. And in 1851, the World Exhibition was held in England on an unprecedented scale. In the Crystal Palace, an architectural masterpiece made of glass and iron built specifically for this event in London’s Hyde Park, visitors saw incredible innovations for the time: a fax prototype, an improved Jacquard loom, Colt pistols and many other mechanical devices.
The exhibition was a huge success: in six months it was visited by six million people – a third of the population of Great Britain at the time. This format for presenting scientific and technical advancements proved successful for developing networks between businesses and inventors based in different countries. The forum was held regularly from then on. At one of these exhibitions in Paris, in 1878, visitors saw Yablochkov candles – a prototype of the modern electric bulb – decorating the stand of the Russian Empire.
Pope Leo XIII provided an unusual conclusion to the whirlwind 19th century in his papal address entitled Rerum Novarum or Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour on 15 May 1891, while instructing the congregation: “Everyone should put his hand to the work which falls to his share, and that at once and straightway.” However, mankind’s subsequent history has showed that people did not heed this call, and are still afraid of everything new.