This past May I sat down with Joseph Corn, co-author of Yesterday's Tomorrows, to talk about past visions of the future. We chatted over coffee at Brian Horrigan's house (Brian is the other author of Yesterday's Tomorrows) about the paleo-future of transportation, robot servants and the end of the world.
Joe challenged a lot of my assumptions about how to classify different decades and the way in which various generations view the future optimistically or pessimistically. A short excerpt from our conversation appears below.
Matt Novak: Have you ever read Alvin Toffler's Future Shock?
Joseph Corn: I did. I so vividly remember reading it in a campground in the Redwoods in Northern California.
MN: What did you think of it then and what do you think of his ideas now?
JC: [long pause] They deserve re-examination now, the concept of future shock. At the time of his writing . . . I didn't really find it that persuasive. People talk as if future shock is a major syndrome that deserves Medicare treatment today, and I sort of feel that way. The pace at which software changes and technology generally, although it is still filling in . . . Filling in the cracks is not the right metaphor . . . I've had a personal computer now for 25 years and it is so different. The web, plus wireless, plus speed, plus miniaturization in the laptop form makes it something different. As we carry these things around with us when we couldn't with an IBM PC.
MN: Do you think that all this technological change that you've seen recently, is that harming us? Because that seems to be the main thesis of his . . .
JC: I don't buy that. As a historian I'm very skeptical. I think we're trained professionally to be skeptical of . . . you might put it, in terms of the Golden Age fallacy. There was a moment when things were better and everything's been done since. I just can't buy that. One could worry and yet, I don't. I just see it as different. As fascinatingly different. I just don't see civilization going to hell in a handbasket. [long pause] At least I don't want to.