Picture yourself back in 1911, reading the Sunday-supplements on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Imagine yourself a complacent Babbitt, quite satisfied with your Model T and telephone and daily newspaper. Any fears of world-destruction, of the extinction of all life on Earth? The previous year Halley’s Comet had been an ever-growing spectacle in the nighttime sky, a threat of God’s punishment for some but in fact no threat at all. Only the devoutly fundamentalist feared an apocalyptic Judgment, and you are an enlightened citizen, thrilled by the advances of science in electricity, transportation, communication, even warfare. What would you have made of some itinerant prophet of doom, warning of unbreathable air, “radioactive” waste, aerial incineration of tens of thousands—and possibly even an apocalyptic disruption of the world’s climate?
Of course, even one hundred years ago certain technical advances—such as the 1903 maiden flight of the Wright brothers covering some 800 feet—quickly yielded disastrous applications by the military. By November 1911, Italian warplanes dropped bombs on a Turkish encampment in Libya—initiating an age of fearsome Air Power, from the German terror bombing of a Paris train station in August 1914 to Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Iraq–to now. By October 1962, with rival super-powers ready to launch ICBMs armed with megaton H-bombs, the world itself—humanity, civilization, the evolved web of life—stood at the brink of destruction.
In 1912, E. M Forster wrote “The Machine Stops,” depicting a future techno-dystopia in striking contrast to H. G. Wells’ more sanguine prophecies. The surface of the earth is entirely desolated, unfit as a habitat for humans, who have established densely populated cities underground. Each solitary inhabitant, connected via interactive media with others, rarely ventures out of his compartment—entirely dependent for survival on an all-too-fallible Megatechnology.
Fast-forward to reality, circa 2011: orange alerts of “unhealthy-to-breathe” air; rapid extinctions of tens of thousands of plant and animal species; an age of Perpetual War, with millions of “casualties”; pervasive, possibly deadly, contamination of food and water. Failed world climate conferences. A successfully concluded Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty–predicated on the production of a new-and-improved generation of nuclear weapons. Nuclear power, still promoted by President Obama as a “clean, safe” alternative to the greenhouse gases which are threatening the future existence of life itself.
Technolatry, a failed religion, deserves oblivion in the dustbin of other fallen idols of the 20th century. The uncritical enthusiasm for applied science opened a Pandora’s box of unparalleled calamities inconceivable to the scientific enthusiasts of 1911. But religions, even discredited ones, are clung to by true believers. A technological elite, lavishly funded by its political or corporate patrons, continues to offer its latest “advances” to an all-too-credulous public. “Can Technology Save the Planet?” trumpeted the cover of Sierra Magazine in July 2005. “It’ll take toxic sniffing robot dogs, solar-paneled T-shirts, computers that recycle themselves—and all the brainpower we’ve got!”
After a century of technologically-realized horrors and imminent catastrophes of previously inconceivable magnitude, it is time to bury all remaining illusions—alongside the remains of the at least 100 million people who paid the ultimate price for our modern technological hubris. The 20th century is over; technocrats need not apply.
WILLIAM MANSON previously taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities.