Island of tranquillity in a sea of change

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2007, 12:00am

Science-fiction writer William Gibson invented the word 'cyberspace' (in his debut novel Neuromancer in 1984), which gives him the right to pontificate about the future. He has been right about bits of the future, too, but he can be very wrong about the present.

In a recent interview, published in The Observer, Gibson confessed that he had stopped writing about the future because new technologies were happening too fast.

'What I grew up with as science fiction is now a historical category,' he said. 'Previous practitioners, H. P. Lovecraft, say, or H. G. Wells, had these huge, leisurely 'here and nows' from which to contemplate what might happen. Wells knew exactly where he was and knew he was at the centre of things.'

Whereas we, poor orphans, are adrift on a heaving ocean of constant change.

Every generation dramatises its own experience of the world, talking about how hard it is to live with endless, unpredictable, high-speed change. It is, of course, nonsense.

Between 1825 and 1875, people had to get used to railways, steamships and the telegraph: the average speed of land travel increased fivefold, and information passed between continents in minutes, not weeks. Revolutionary ideas like Darwinism and Marxism changed the whole way that people looked at the world.

That really was high-speed change.

In 1875, gas lighting was the big new thing that made the streets safe and the evenings at home several hours longer.

By 1925, gaslight was gone and electricity was everywhere. Horses were replaced by cars, aircraft were becoming common, and the richer homes had radios, telephones and fridges.

Between 1925 and 1975, the pace of change was still high, but it was slowing. The major new technologies, like electronics and nuclear fission, provided television and bigger explosions, but it was mostly incremental change that did not transform people's experience of the world.

Whereas if you were born in the developed parts of the world in 1975 - or even in 1955 - you have seen very little fundamental change in your lifetime. The only truly major new technology that has permeated the whole society in this period is computers.

We should probably be grateful for that, because high-speed change, however exhilarating at the start, really is disorienting and exhausting if it lasts over a whole lifetime.

But it's probably coming back to destabilise the lives of our children and grandchildren, who will likely face drastic changes in the climate.

The cause of those changes, ironically, will not be the hi-tech innovations of the 20th century, but the dirty old 19th-century technologies on which we built this industrial civilisation.

In other words, we are going to get two waves of disruptive change for the price of one.

This has just been the island of tranquillity and prosperity in between. Lucky old us.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries