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14 THE ASCENT OF HUMANITY



steam shovel replaced the pick and spade. Yet in terms of working hours, 

working conditions, danger and monotony, the Industrial Revolution had 

not lived up to the promise encoded in the term “labor-saving device”. 

The Age of Leisure, where coal-powered machines would do the work 

while people looked on and reaped the benefits, was going to arrive later 


than expected.

The futurists did not give up hope though—maybe they had only 

been premature. They hadn’t realized that coal wasn’t enough—it was 

the Age of Electricity that would finally usher in technotopia. Modern 

man would live in a paradise of electrified comfort. The spate of inven- 

tions that followed the harnessing of electricity made it obvious that we 

had the power to eliminate most forms of work (still largely associated 

with physical labor) and bring unprecedented leisure to the masses.

Almost no one doubted the power, the inevitability, and the desir- 

ability of technological transcendence of our natural limitations. The 

slogan of the 1933 World’s Fair exemplified this attitude: Science 

Invents; Industry Applies; Man Conforms. The ascent of technology car- 

ries an aura of inevitability, destiny, and triumph. As John von Neumann 

put it, “Technological possibilities are irresistible to man. If man can go 

to the moon, he will. If he can control the climate, he will.”1 What fool 

would doubt it or stand in the way of progress?

In the decades after World War II, all signs pointed toward the im- 

pending triumph of technology. The 1940s and 1950s witnessed revolu- 

tionary innovations in medicine, including antibiotics and vaccines that 

(apparently) brought an end to the mass killers that had haunted civiliza- 


tion for centuries. Flush with victory, medical researchers confidently 

predicted the imminent end of all disease. Surely cancer, heart disease, 

and arthritis would succumb to modern medicine just as polio, smallpox, 

cholera, and plague already had. In agriculture, chemical fertilizers 

brought record harvests and the seeming promise of an unlimited cornu- 

copia in the future, which would be protected from insect depredation by 

the new classes of pesticides such as DDT, lauded as nothing short of 

miraculous. Soon, it seemed, agriculture would no longer depend on na- 

ture at all,2 as modern chemistry improved on the soil and modern 

breeding improved on the organism. Also around this time, atomic 

power offered the potential of virtually unlimited energy, electricity “too 

cheap to meter.” Just as oil and coal had supplanted animal power, so 

would atomic energy increase our energy supply by several more orders 

of magnitude. And as the 60’s drew to a close, space—the final











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