The future, the horse, the car, and the printer

This is a chapter from a forthcoming book examining the future of mankind. If you’d like to start at the beginning, click here to read the first post in the series.

Horse manure

Our journey into the future begins with the past.

That’s not surprising. If one wants to understand the effects of technologies on the future, a good way is to start by looking at how past technologies changed the world. We have a millennia-long history of inventing new and shiny things, letting them loose, and dealing with the results. It’s not like we just started creating technological artefacts yesterday.

When we look at how technologies have shaped our world, one of the first things we’ll notice is that every new technology has two different kids of effects on the world: on the one hand, those anticipated, planned, wanted and obvious effects it was created for. But, on the other hand, every technology also has unanticipated, obscure, unexpected, surprising and sometimes terrible effects that no one had ever dreamt of before the technology came to be widespread.

Private cars are a good example.

Photo by David Alfons on Unsplash

Initially, the idea was that people could travel faster and safer than with horses. And not only that. Horses, by the end of the 19th century, had created a peculiar problem in the cities of Europe and the New World, because they filled the streets with poop. The horse manure problem was so great that in 1894, The Times predicted that 50 years later, every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure. At that time, around 50,000 horses were in use on the streets of London, and 100,000 in New York, producing about 2.5 million pounds of manure each single day [1]. Things didn’t look good. There was no way this was going to be remotely sustainable.

Fortunately, around that time inventors all over the Western world were working on creating the first cars with internal combustion engine. In 1908, the Ford Model T began production. Ford would eventually build around 15 million of them and cars would replace horses in all major cities of the developed world. Only twenty short years after the Times’ dire prediction, the problem of horse manure had been solved for good.

That was the obvious, the intended effect of creating motorised cars.

But what of the non-obvious effects at that time?

The motorised car’s real effects

What nobody cared much about until almost a century later was that cars created their own pollution. Poisonous air instead of horse droppings. Lung cancer in cities: “Close to half of all deaths by transport air pollution caused by diesel on-road vehicles, says new study” [4]. Car accidents caused millions of victims. Death by car is now the 8th most common cause of death globally [5]. The car is one of the major contributors to global warming. Private cars account for about a fifth of the total CO2 emissions of the US [6].

But effects go far beyond the direct harm that cars cause to people.

Photo by Philip Schroeder on Unsplash

Over the course of the 20th century, enormous wealth and power was concentrated in the hands of a few rulers and powerful people in the oil-producing states of the world, completely upsetting the previous distribution of global power.

The traditional structure of cities was destroyed, city centres were slowly overrun by traffic, and were rebuilt in the 50s and 60s as extensive street networks and traffic hubs, displacing neighbourhoods, parks, shopping streets and pedestrian traffic (that’s for the US and the European West; other parts of the world followed the trend a bit later). Businesses relocated out of the expensive and dead city centres into the cheaper countryside, creating giant suburban malls and superstores that were only accessible by private car. Citizens moved out into sprawling suburban residential areas that had no infrastructure for community life, but were dead places, only fit for sleeping until the next workday’s commute drove people back to their workplaces. Large parts of cities became inaccessible or unfriendly to pedestrians, being crisscrossed with wide high-speed car lanes, bridges and overpasses. Often pedestrians were relegated to underground passages and dark, unsafe and dirty tunnels that were the only way to reach parts of the city that had been cut off by the new urban highways.

Long-distance commuting and the loss of two or three hours of daily living time to being stuck in a traffic jam became the new normal expectation of what life was like, dramatically shortening the time that parents had available to devote to family life and to raising their children.

The dissolution of cities and city life was one of the factors that fuelled online shopping in its early days; and today, online shopping, together with depopulated city centres, are the major factors for the final breakdown of inner-city shopping streets, bookshops, cultural centres, theatres, cinemas, town halls, independent public performers and other culture that used to thrive in vibrant city communities.

Since the 1970s, in some places people have begun to realise how far this has gone and fight to reverse these trends with the introduction of pedestrian zones, with car-free weekends, parking labels and diesel bans — but it is a long march towards re-humanising city life, and perhaps it’s already too late to go back.

Yes, we got rid of that horse poop. But at what price?

Gutenberg’s printing press

Around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz created his printing press with moving type. The introduction of this new technology made the printing of books a lot cheaper and easier than it had been before. It was almost immediately a great success. The time was ripe for a cheap printing technology. Books would finally become cheaper. They would become available to a broad segment of the population. People would be better educated. Perhaps the power of the church would decrease and scientific knowledge would finally spread.

Photo by Hannes Wolf on Unsplash

These were the dreams. The anticipated, planned, the wished-for outcomes.

What really happened?

Regional dialects declined and were replaced by uniform languages over whole countries, like France or Italy. It wasn’t economical to produce a book in dialect for a few hundred readers. A book in a common language could find tens of thousands of readers. So the readers themselves, if they wanted access to the new knowledge, had to learn to speak the new, the common languages. In time, these new languages became the sign of the educated, while the dialects were mainly used by villagers, fuelling associations between regional speech and backwardness.

Because printing was cheap, women and outsiders, who had previously been unable to get an audience for their works, were now able to distribute their ideas. But also women, still traditionally  working at home, now had access to education, culture, and research through books that they could obtain and read in private.

In the 16th century, just fifty years after the invention of Gutenberg’s press, Bibles were printed in the national languages people actually spoke (rather than Latin), sparking an interest in reading and literacy. Where before the church alone had access to the Biblical texts, now everyone could own a Bible and check what it said.

One of the consequences of this was that the importance of schooling became obvious. People who could read and write profited from the new technology, while those who couldn’t were left behind. So parents began looking at schools not as something superfluous to real life and only of interest to the rich, but as a necessary basis for a good life for their children.

Scientists could now directly address the public. Previously, science was very much limited to a closed circle of a few learned men, cut off from a country’s population. Now scientists could finally reach that population and scientific ideas could be discussed on the streets, at dinner tables and tea parties and they could develop a social influence that was unheard of before.

Finally, medicine profited from books with correct anatomical images. Before anatomy books could be printed, the only way to really learn what a human body looked like from the inside was to obtain one and cut it open. This was, understandably, difficult — particularly in a Christian Europe where the bodies of the dead were expected to lie undisturbed, waiting for their resurrection at the second coming of the Lord. One couldn’t just go around, pulling corpses out of the soil and cutting them open. So anatomy was often studied from hearsay and was heavily based on a few accepted ancient texts and a lot of false beliefs and superstition. “Arteries,” for example, are called “arteries” because people believed that they carried some form of air or spirit (“airteries”). It was not until the 15th century that it was finally accepted that arteries were transporting normal blood around the body [7].

The written word

As more people became literate, the importance of the written word increased. Governments began keeping written records. In England, records of births and deaths were kept from 1538 on, in France from 1539, in Germany from the 1540s [3]. All in less than 100 years from the initial invention of the printing press!

Photo by Igor Karimov on Unsplash

Now governments could also keep written accounts of inventories, money, taxes, land records. This had not been possible previously, because not many government employees were literate, and so most were not able to keep written records. With the new push towards schooling and basic education, the governments were able to hire employees who could read and write and keep effective records.

Licensing started to be required for inn-keepers, food merchants, doctors and nurses, and records of licensed practitioners were kept by the government and the church [3].

Ultimately, it was the invention of the printing press — that one, single technological invention, that was responsible for the transformation of the whole society: from the illiterate, superstitious, limited, strictly hierarchical societies of the Middle Ages, controlled by the church and an ineffective government, to the modern, highly organised, educated, science-based, egalitarian and democratic societies of the 18th century and beyond.

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[2] Dusek, V. (2006). Philosophy of technology: An introduction. (Vol. 90). Oxford: Blackwell.
[3] Mortimer, I (2015). Human Race: 10 Centuries of Change on Earth. Random House.
[5] CNN, 7.12.2018