Sarah Churchwell: Making a new year prediction? Here are some words of wisdom from 1922

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The Independent Online

The start of a new year always brings predictions and lamentations.

Today we are preoccupied by our economic problems and by the cultural transformations wrought by new technologies, which seem set to transform, drastically, our relations with each other and the world.

I recently read an article called "What Our Grandchildren Will Know", speculating about life in 50 years. The author reflected: "So far as material prospects go, inventions, improvement of machines and contrivance of new ones, the increase of knowledge and enlargement of the powers of man, our grandchildren ought to be in for a good time. There will be all those things. Go back a mere century and see what transportation and communication were in the world at that time, and see what they are now. We may think we have found out about everything. Not so. We have only nibbled at what there is to know, and the more knowledge we get, the better our position is to get more. The accumulation of control of material things goes on faster and faster all the time."

This observation may not seem remarkable-but it was written in November 1922. Edward S Martin predicted that his grandchildren would regularly fly in aeroplanes, that the atom would be split and men would cease to work in coalmines, and that, because women statistically live longer than men, his granddaughters had a good chance of surviving into the 21st-century. About mankind's accelerating control of material goods, he added: "If it keeps on going – if it is not checked by some great collapse – our grandchildren's future fairly flunks imagination."

There was indeed a great collapse, of course, in just seven years, but it didn't check technological acceleration much. Still, Martin was surely correct that he could never have imagined our future: he couldn't have envisioned the mobile phone, or watching movies on trains, or the Kindle, could he? On the contrary: if he read The New York Times, he would have had no trouble doing just that. Stories in 1922 reported that engineers were predicting wireless movies on trains; a French inventor created a mobile radio device to fit in parasols so that women could phone home and listen to music while "promenading in the Bois de Boulogne"; another inventor patented a "reading machine" designed to "enable anybody to carry with him many copies of books without even bulging out his pockets".

All of these ideas were inspired by the explosion of radio, which in the 12 months between 1921 and 1922 went from a military gadget to a device found in virtually every American home. The invention of radio truly shrank the globe for the first time: throughout 1922, papers reported the startling news that concerts being played in New York could be heard in London, or that the Americans and the British had gone to Shanghai to discuss sharing radio technology with the Chinese.

And people in the early 1920s were as dazzled and frightened by the transformative potential of radio as we are by the internet and digital media. Liberals rhapsodised about radio's egalitarian potential for sharing knowledge, facilitating communication and transparency; conservatives wrote jeremiads deploring the way radio and films created a generation of ignorant, apathetic idlers who were interested only in fame, entertainment and wealth. Sound familiar? And yet, here we still are: an increasingly materialistic society, to be sure; and accelerating technological innovation has certainly changed the way we communicate with each other. My point is that it hasn't much changed what we say.

Take the film The Social Network, for example. It has rightly been hailed as a parable for our times, a prescient, trenchant analysis of the human costs of blindly pursuing wealth or ambition. But the point the film makes repeatedly is that Facebook didn't change how people interacted, it just created a new medium for what we have always done: form groups, include and exclude, be dazzled by new toys and then absorb them into the rhythms of our lives or lose interest in them altogether. We still have social networks; we still want to read books and the news and watch films; we just have new tools for pursuing old interests.

I'm not urging complacency – far from it. Essential values are endangered from many sides: not least from the inside, as cupidity threatens to transform our entire world into a marketplace. But we have always needed to protect ourselves from avarice: it is one of the seven deadly sins, after all, suggesting it's been around for a while. Heedless materialism, the belief that everything valuable can be measured, the serious threat to the humanities and higher education on the basis that they don't generate revenue: these are not being driven by digital media or Facebook, but by the ever-increasing consolidation of wealth in the hands of a few (like Zuckerberg) and the shrinking of our fields of vision. The extreme short-termism of our thinking and our galloping historical ignorance merely exacerbate our natural tendency to see anything new as potentially apocalyptic. At the edge of the known world, there be dragons: the world becomes more frightening the more we limit what we know. The solution to our fears about new technologies lies not in the future, but in the past.

In April 1923, an article called The Get-There Sex began with the well-known fact that men refuse to ask for directions when driving, whereas women always will. Cars (another new technology threatening civilisation) had been widely affordable for less than a decade, but people had already figured that out. Call it a metaphor: we're always driving madly forward, but can never tell where we're going, and we refuse to ask for directions from the only people who might be able to help: the ones who've gone before us.

Our friend Edward Martin offered some sound advice: "What then does the future depend upon? Evidently it depends upon the relations of men, of the people in the world, of the nations, of labour and capital, of the different religions and their adherents. If men can only realise how much more wonderful they are than they have been used to think, how vastly greater the possibilities of life are than they have imagined ... if they can learn self-government and self-restraint, if they can learn to work together ... without the necessity of wholesale fighting, they can have everything."

That is as true now as it was in 1922 – and my bold prediction for the future is that it will be just as true in another 100 years.

Sarah Churchwell is writing a book about the events in 1922-1923 that inspired F Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby'.