This, the B&O Railroad, was once unfathomable. Image: Library of Congress
Sometime in the 1780s, American inventor John Fitch, best known for creating the steamboat, had a new invention to show President George Washington: The locomotive. Washington and his cabinent members weren't impressed, and the "United States remained primarily an agricultural society unappreciative of machinery and invention," according to the National Parks Service. "Fitch was a man who lived ahead of his time, and his pioneering locomotive, as well as his pioneering steamboat, led to no further development of the invention. Soon both had been forgotten.”
In July of 1798, Fitch, a man “weary of the world, disappointed in all his expectations,” killed himself by swallowing 12 opium pills.
Thirty years later, the Baltimore and Ohio railroad opened. Several decades after that, you could take a train from Washington, DC to San Francisco.
It seems crazy now, but when railroads were first introduced, people were scared to ride on them. They were outright hostile towards the technology. Thinking about that seems especially relevant now, given the results of a PEW poll about future technology released yesterday: 59 percent of Americans think that technological changes will “lead to a future where people’s lives are mostly better.” But drilling down further into the numbers, Americans are distrustful of commercial drones, lab-grown meat, genetic engineering, body hacking, and driverless cars.
So, what, exactly, is everyone so excited for?
Surely iterative changes such as better battery life, higher resolution cell phone screens, and faster processors aren’t going to fundamentally change our lives the way an invention like the computer, train, internet, and cell phone have. Yet, here we are, saying we like the idea of new technology yet rejecting the types of truly game-changing breakthroughs that are on the horizon.
To find out what gives, I called up Jonathan Moreno, a Penn State University bioethicist who, beyond working on our future military cyborgs, spends a lot of time thinking about the cultural implications of new tech.
“I’m not impressed that this tells us very much how people will respond in a real case,” Moreno said. “If you go back and look at historical change, people were terrified of horse and carriages, they were shocked you could go 10 miles per hour on a train. But then, once you get them on it, we got very comfortable going from 10-40 miles an hour.”
The point, Moreno said, is that people adjust to new tech very quickly. So while, right now, people may be more likely to sit at home rather than take a ride in a driverless car, once they actually do it, they’re going to be quickly willing to make the jump from a joyride around the block to a cross-country road trip.
It’s not hard to think of more recent examples. At first, people were horrified that someone could reach them at any time on a cell phone—now, we can’t live without them. By generally trusting that “technology” as a whole is a force that’ll make people’s lives easier, the public doesn’t have to pick and choose which ones to throw their proverbial support behind. And, maybe it doesn’t even matter what people want—innovation is going to happen regardless.
In a Wired article about the PEW poll, Issie Lapowsky argues that “many promising technological developments have died because they were ahead of their times … the risk of pushing new tech on a public that isn’t ready could have real bottom-line consequences.”
That may be true in the short term, but it doesn’t mean the tech that made Google Glass or lab-engineered meat is going away. Google may not print money with its driverless car (though it probably will), but someone is going to, eventually.
“This sentiment is not something that’s going to impair innovation,” Moreno told me. “I don’t think optimism or pessimism has driven technological change—what has driven technological changes are problems. There’s been an itch to scratch, and we’ve made something to scratch it. New technology creates new needs. It’s not obvious now, but you’re going to create new ones once they become integrated.”
Not every new technology is going to work out. For every locomotive, there's a monowheel. For every computer, there's a Smell-O-Vision. And sometimes, people's fears aren't off base. Early worries about nuclear power may have kept down its proliferation and may have perhaps led to safer reactors in the long run.
You don’t need a brain implant now to make yourself remember things better. But if, say, in 50 years, you come down with Alzheimer’s, and a memory implant exists, you might. America wasn’t ready for John Fitch’s train in 1780. It’s hard to argue we even exist today without it.