Does the name Archibald M. Low ring a bell? The next time you look at your smartphone or watch your television, think of the Professor. He had a role, both speculatively and in actual development, in numerous innovations during the first half of the twentieth century. Low (1888–1956) didn’t invent the lithium battery or wireless telephony, but he foresaw the concepts that serve as the basis for a host of devices, from pocket telephones to television to drones. A prolific author, he wrote more than 40 books on scientific discoveries designed to nurture the public’s interest in science and engineering. The uncredentialed Low, who adopted the moniker “Professor” much to the chagrin of his academic peers, was also an ardent futurist with a social conscience. For example, tormented by London’s noise level, he studied the Tube to find ways to ameliorate its clattering and clanking, hoping to encourage more people to try out this newfangled public transportation. He also believed that residential housing should be modernized and simplified, even be made movable. I admire his panache, his ability to popularize specialized knowledge, and his futurism tempered with social consciousness. His critics labeled him an eccentric and a hack, and they derided his penchant for publicity. But Low’s scientific work was serious: He is considered the father of radio guidance systems, designed a forced induction engine, and wrote about the field that would become known as astronautics. Like his close contemporary H.G. Wells, Low is considered a storyteller first and scientist second, indispensable qualities, one might argue, for a futurist.
Futurists are the topic of a new book, A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov, by Peter Bowler, emeritus professor at Queen’s University in Belfast and a historian of science, whom I recently interviewed. Bowler’s book focuses on thinkers and writers in the decades around the turn of the century who invited the public into the laboratory and research lab. Many of these scientists and authors were, in essence, futurologists whose work revolutionized notions of progress and continues to mark our lives to this day. But, as Bowler reminds us, while prognosticating about the future can be liberating, it is also a cautionary tale. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the West viewed itself as triumphant, superior in culture, politics, economics, and science. The idea that Western society was destined to advance from strength to strength inspired pundits and prognosticators, especially those in science, to demonstrate their progressive nature to the people at home and abroad. (It would take a catastrophic war and depression to prove otherwise.) Bowler observes that the West, especially its futurologists, would have been better served recalling their Shakespeare: “What’s past is prologue.”
In our interview, Bowler spoke about what he refers to as “this huge swell of suspicion and criticism concerning the applications of science.” He calls on the scientific community to remember its obligation not only to the field but also to the public: “I think it’s extremely important because without that sense of outreach, scientists risk allowing wild predictions to hold sway. They need to be invigorated to think about the wider applications of what they do. The best way of doing that is by encouraging them to enter into a dialogue with the people who are going to be affected by what they’re doing.”
I would suggest opening this dialogue by sending today’s new breed of futurologists copies of Bowler’s book. Among the first would be Elon Musk. Who else but the SpaceX maverick would have the wit—and the means—to send his own red Tesla into space with the radio playing David Bowie? His aerospace manufacturing and space transport firm has a list of firsts that has made it the envy of NASA. Musk ascribes to futurology to be sure, but, he would do well to read Bowler’s passage on engineer/physicist Robert Goddard, who moved his lab to Roswell, New Mexico, to escape the liquid fuel explosion prohibitions in his native Massachusetts. (My grandmother, Edubijen Garcia, cooked for Goddard and his wife in the mid-1930s and once had to prepare New England-style baked cod for Goddard’s guests, Charles Lindbergh and Harry Guggenheim.) Goddard had friends in high places, but his work was still subjected to scorn and false reports as when Russian newspapers reported in 1924 that a Goddard rocket had taken a man to the moon, a propaganda story ginned up to stimulate Soviet scientists. Chastened, Goddard tempered his dreams about space travel and even refused to join the American Rocketry Society; like his friend H.G. Wells, he had been stung by public misunderstanding and condemnation. Musk, and even NASA, might take note, realizing that grand schemes can result in spectacular (and expensive) public failures that call into question the wisdom of space exploration in a time of more pressing earthbound problems.
Another person to whom I’d send a copy of Bowler’s book might be Tom Silva, host of Ask This Old House (PBS), a sister show of the popular This Old House. Recently, Silva visited San Francisco’s Autodesk where designers use lasers and sophisticated milling tools to fabricate furniture pieces in wood and metal. Silva seemed impressed by what the laser cutter could do, but knowing of his accomplishments as a master craftsman and builder, I found it uncomfortable to watch his enthusiasm. He may not be a futurist, but he is like many of us, straddling the fence between the past and the future. As Bowler notes, this tension over making things by automation or by human hands has plagued us for over a century and is unlikely to end any time soon. I am reminded of Buckminster Fuller’s caution that “humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.”
As a young man, Bowler told me, he had been an avowed technophile. Now in his seventies, he admits to being wary of social media and the Internet. “You have to ask,” he says, “is this particular technology or pursuit worth my time?” Or, more to the point: Is the Internet really worth it? “I get a sense people are using all this wonderful technology,” Bowler told me, “but they’re also getting enslaved by it because of what they have to do to keep up to date with all the stuff that’s being thrown at them.” Perhaps the historian has it right, especially in light of recent revelations that Facebook allowed a third party to mine its users’ data during the 2016 presidential election, news that caused its stock prices to dive and led prominent members such as Elon Musk to delete his account in protest. Bowler seems to be voicing the growing concern that we have a moral obligation to consider our plunge into the digital abyss.
Today, with the entrance of private entrepreneurs into the field of space exploration—NASA recently announced that it would partner with Musk’s SpaceX to put an international space station in lunar orbit—the space race takes on a new urgency. Who knows what benefits might be enjoyed by future generations because one individual had the means and the vision to join forces with NASA? Thinkers like Bowler might not only applaud the desire for human flourishing, but also caution that the competing interests or diverging aims of those involved in such a partnership could spoil all the best intentions. In order to calculate fully the benefits and the risks, it might be time to consult a historian like Bowler.