At the elbow of the hockey stick

Imagine taking a time machine back to 1750—a time when the world was in a permanent power outage, long-distance communication meant either yelling loudly or firing a cannon in the air, and all transportation ran on hay. When you get there, you retrieve a dude, bring him to 2015, and then walk him around and watch him react to everything. It’s impossible for us to understand what it would be like for him to see shiny capsules racing by on a highway, talk to people who had been on the other side of the ocean earlier in the day, watch sports that were being played 1,000 miles away, hear a musical performance that happened 50 years ago, and play with my magical wizard rectangle that he could use to capture a real-life image or record a living moment, generate a map with a paranormal moving blue dot that shows him where he is, look at someone’s face and chat with them even though they’re on the other side of the country, and worlds of other inconceivable sorcery. This is all before you show him the internet or explain things like the International Space Station, the Large Hadron Collider, nuclear weapons, or general relativity. – WaitButWhy

Source: WaitButWhy

One way to aid imagination is to look at writings from that period. So, what did it look like to live just before the beginning of the exponential progress coming with the industrial revolution?

Half a century later, Dr. Johnson, writing an essay titled “What Have You Done?” in The Idler in December 1759, expressed the disappointment of the age: “When the Philosophers of the last age were first congregated into the Royal Society, great expectations were raised of the sudden progress of useful arts; the time was supposed to be near wheengines should turn by a perpetual motion, and health be secured by the universal medicine; when learning should be facilitated by a real character, and commerce extended by ships which could reach their ports in defiance of the tempest. But improvement is naturally slow. The society met and parted without any visible diminution of the miseries of life. The [gout] and [stone] were still painful, the ground that was not ploughed brought no harvest. … The truth is, that little had been done compared with what fame had been suffered to promise; and the question [“what have you done?”] could only be answered by general apologies and by new hopes, which, when they were frustrated, gave a new occasion to the same vexatious enquiry” (Johnson, 1759). Steam power, perhaps the most spectacular technological offspring of the scientific breakthroughs of the seventeenth century, was as yet an exciting but economically marginal technique.

Little did he know…

Portrait of Samuel Johnson in 1772 painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Samuel Johnson, author of the pamphlet. He does look like a grumpy techno-pessimist. Source

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