Journey into the past, and you’ll discover the secret history of the future. From the world’s first cyber-attack 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.
Here's the Latest Episode from The Secret History of the Future:
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.
Examine the history of tech to uncover stories that help us illuminate the present and predict the future.