Skepticism can be lethal. Peter Singer

Back to the future

If a time traveler from the 1950s came to visit us today, he wouldn’t be impressed by our so-called technological innovations: they would be all too familiar to him.

A large electronics company introduces a few new products and excites the world. The innovations are celebrated euphorically by some and critically eyed by others because of their dangerous side effects. But they are eagerly discussed by all sides: there are reports on the radio about them, the newspapers put them on the front page, and the online media are already full of opinions, photos, descriptions, and comments.

For decades, we have been celebrating every innovation as a revolution that could potentially change our lives. Some are frightened by that prospect and some warn against it, but many are simply thrilled. The thing that unifies them is that they all believe in a completely new world, one which differs dramatically from that of 20 or 30 years ago.

But are those innovations really that new and radical? Imagine a time traveler coming from the past, say from the 1950s. How quickly would he be able to cope with this new world, what would he have to relearn, and what wouldn’t he be able to understand because he grew up with a different view of the world?

He already knows about everything

We show him a smartphone and explain to him that with this tool he can make calls from virtually everywhere. He already knows how to talk to someone on the phone. What’s new about it is the fact that he always carries the phone with him and doesn’t have to move in order to get to the phone. However, since he already knows about radio transceivers, he isn’t too surprised by it.

We explain to him that this technical device is also a newspaper, and we tell him that the newspapers are updated several times a day. He tells us that newspapers in his time already had morning and evening issues – some even had an afternoon edition. We explain the search engines to him. We show him a tablet which contains all the books he posses and offers the possibility to write letters from everywhere, reaching the receiver within seconds. The device even helps you to find the quickest and easiest way to visit your friends.

He should be impressed, we think. But all the things we praise, he is already acquainted with: writing letters, reading books, using maps. The purpose of a navigation system in the car makes sense to him, as he knows the feeling of traveling in foreign cities by car. The ability to watch movies on the tablet might irritate him, we think, but he is acquainted with movies and does not need to learn anything new about them.

No new cultural technology

A time traveler from the 1950s would be able to cope with the technical achievements of our day and age within a few days. On the one hand, this speaks to the the user-friendliness of the devices; on the other hand, it shows that no new cultural technology has been developed over the last decades. Our world may differ in detail from the one of the mid-20th century, but not in essential ways.

Maybe our time traveler would even be slightly disappointed. We do not fly to the moon for holidays. We have not yet eradicated many diseases – quite the contrary. We still have traffic jams. The trains are still often delayed.

The time traveler would probably be irritated by the vulnerability of our technologies to minor disturbances. He would also be amused by our panic at not having a charger with us or not finding an electrical outlet.

We do not live in revolutionary times, and the world is changing much more slowly than we sometimes believe. This is reassuring because it also means that we can meet the challenges posed by technology without panic: we do not need to find fast-track solutions; rather, we can afford to think before taking decisions.

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