Journey into the past, and you'll discover the secret history of the future. From the world's first cyberattack in 1834, to 19th-century virtual reality, The Economist's Tom Standage and Slate's Seth Stevenson examine the historical precedents that can transform our understanding of modern technology, predicting how it might evolve and highlighting pitfalls to avoid. Discovering how people reacted to past innovations can also teach us about ourselves.
Radio was originally a social medium, as early radio sets (each of which could transmit as well as receive) turned cities into giant chatrooms, populated by Morse Code-tapping enthusiasts. But the excitement of this democratic, digital platform did not last, and radio was tamed by corporate interests in the 1920s. The utopian dream of platforms that are open and meritocratic has been reborn in the internet era in the form of blogging, and more recently podcasting. But can it ever come true?
The first mechanical clocks were made to summon monks to prayer. Ever since, timekeeping technology has often been about control and obligation. But underneath a mountain in Texas, a new kind of clock is being built that’s meant to alter the way we think about time. Can it force us to connect our distant past with our distant future, tick by tick?
At the dawn of the 20th century, chemists dreamed of extracting nitrogen from the air and turning it into a limitless supply of fertiliser. Sceptics thought they were crazy -- it was possible in theory, but it was unclear if it could be done in practice. What happened next changed the course of 20th-century history, and provides inspiration to innovators pursuing a different dream today: sucking carbon dioxide out of the air to avert climate change. Might they not be quite so crazy after all?
The first ever computer program was written in 1843 by Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who hoped her far-sighted treatise on mechanical computers would lead to a glittering scientific career. Today, as we worry that modern systems suffer from “algorithmic bias” against some groups of people, what can her program tell us about how software, and the people who make it, can go wrong?
In the 19th century, young people wooed each other over the telegraph. But meeting strangers on the wires could lead to confusion, disappointment, and even fraud. Do modern online dating apps have anything to learn from telegraph romances?
Polar exploration was the Victorian equivalent of the space race. Major powers vied to outdo each other, funding expeditions to the most inhospitable parts of the world as demonstrations of their supremacy over nature and each other. Today, the resulting tales of triumph and tragedy hold valuable lessons about what to do—and what not to do—as human explorers plan missions to Mars.Slate Plus members get bonus segments and ad-free podcast feeds. Sign up now.
The potato seemed strange and unappetizing when it first arrived in Europe. But it grew into a wonder food that helped solve the continent’s hunger problems. Can its journey tell us what to expect from current efforts to replace animal meat with societally healthier meat alternatives made from plants, insects, or cells grown in petri dishes? Slate Plus members get bonus segments and ad-free podcast feeds. Sign up now.
In the early 20th century a new forensic technique—fingerprinting—displaced a cruder form of identification based on body measurements. Hailed as modern, scientific, and infallible, fingerprinting was adopted around the world. But in recent years doubts have been cast on its reliability, and a new technique—DNA profiling—has emerged as the forensic gold standard. In assuming it is infallible, are we making the same mistake again?
For thousands of years we sailed our cargo across oceans using zero-emission, 100 percent renewable wind. Then we switched to ships that run on oil, creating a global maritime fleet that pumps greenhouse gases into the sky. Could we go back to wind-powered ships by rediscovering a clever nautical innovation that we abandoned a century ago?
The 19th century invention of the phonograph left composers worried they might not be paid for recordings. The 20th century proliferation of digital sampling outmoded old copyright laws. Can these previous tech disruptions of the music business teach us how to handle a 21st century onslaught of computers that can compose their own songs?
What can 19th century polar exploration teach us as humans plan missions to Mars? Do modern online dating apps have anything to learn from romances over the telegraph wires? Dig into the past, and you’ll find surprising lessons about what’s next for our modern world. Season 2 of The Secret History of The Future drops July 03, 2019. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts.
The Renaissance scholars couldn’t keep up with new information (“Have you read the latest Erasmus book?” “I don’t have time!”) and needed a better way to organize it. Thus came the invention of tables of contents, indexes, book reviews, encyclopedias, and other shortcuts. What kinds of technological solutions might help us cope with the information overload we all experience today? Guests include: Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack; Nathan Jurgenson, Snapchat sociologist.
Some people thought the laying of the transatlantic cable might bring world peace, because connecting humans could only lead to better understanding and empathy. That wasn’t the outcome, and recent utopian ideas about communication (Facebook might bring us together and make us all friends!) have also met with a darker reality (Facebook might polarize us and spread false information!). Should we be scared of technology that promises to connect the world? Guests include: Robin Dunbar, inventor of Dunbar’s Number; Nancy Baym, Microsoft researcher.
In the Victorian era, plaster casts became a way to preserve important artifacts in 3-D. Now, virtual reality promises to preserve places and experiences. But who decides what gets preserved? And is the technology an accurate recreation of the experience, or does it fool us into thinking we’ve encountered the real thing when we’ve done nothing of the sort? Guests include: Jaron Lanier, VR pioneer; Nonny de la Pena, VR artist; Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In 1714, British parliament offered a huge cash prize to anyone who could find a way to determine longitude at sea. And it worked, sort of ... several decades later. Are modern contests (DARPA challenges, the X Prize) offering riches and glory an effective way to spur technological innovation? Guests include: Dava Sobel, author of Longitude.
In 1969, an anthropologist introduced photographs and films to people in Papua New Guinea who’d never seen themselves represented in media before. It changed their conception of the world. In modern society, social media floods us with imagery at a pace we’ve never encountered before, and powerful video manipulation technology threatens to blur the line between real and fake. Are we the new Papuans, about to be overwhelmed by a wholesale media shift? Guests include: Nathan Jurgenson, Snapchat’s in-house sociologist; Hany Farid, Dartmouth computer science professor.
The French telegraph system was hacked in 1834 by a pair of thieves who stole financial market information -- effectively conducting the world’s first cyber attack. What does the incident teach us about network vulnerabilities, human weakness, and modern-day security? Guests include: Bruce Schneier, security expert.
The first pedestrian killed by a car in the western hemisphere was on New York’s Upper West Side in 1899. One newspaper warned that “the automobile has tasted blood.” Today, driverless cars present their own mix of technological promise and potential danger. Can the reaction to that 1899 pedestrian tragedy help us navigate current arguments about safety, blame, commerce, and public space? Guests include: Missy Cummings, Navy fighter pilot and head of the Duke Humans and Autonomy Lab.
It took a long time for the fork to go from weird curiosity to ubiquitous tool. How long will it take for current technologies -- like the Japanese-style bidet toilet, or heads-up displays such as Google Glass -- to go from oddities to everyday necessities? Guests include: Astro Teller, Google’s Captain of Moonshots; Margaret Visser, author of The Rituals of Dinner.
We’ve used electricity to treat our brains for thousands of years, from placing electric fish on our heads to cure migraines to using electroconvulsive therapy to alleviate depression. But over time, our focus has shifted from restoring health to augmenting our abilities. Should we be wearing battery-powered caps to improve our concentration, or implanting electricity-emitting devices to expand our thinking capacity? Guests include: Brian Johnson, CEO of Kernel.
In the 18th century, a device called the Mechanical Turk convinced Europeans that a robot could play winning chess. But there was a trick. It’s a trick that companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook still pull on us today. Guests include: Jaron Lanier, futurist. Luis von Ahn, founder of CAPTCHA and Duolingo.