The Uncertainties of Progress and a History of the Future

H.G. Wells is best known for his pioneering novels of science fiction, including The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Wells also wrote extensively on politics and social matters and was one of the foremost public intellectuals of his day.

He wrote about the new technologies of his time in both fiction and non-fiction and wondered in both about where that technology would lead in the future.

He was not very optimistic. He believed that technology would expand, but he also believed in human folly. That led him to ponder with some trepidation what “progress” might mean for mankind.

In some ways, he is not unlike those who caution us today about where technology, such as artificial intelligence, might lead or leave us.

In an essay by Peter J. Bowler on, he writes about Wells’ uncertainties about progress and the future of humanity.

Though Wells championed technological developments, he worried about where and how they could be used. Technological innovation would require remodeling society. As good as Wells was about looking at the current leading edge of technology and predicting where it might go, he realized that predicting future inventions and their consequences probably would require a new definition of progress.

In The War in the Air, a science fiction novel, progress leads to more effective, and therefore more deadly, warfare. Written in 1907 and published in 1908, it contains another one of Wells’ prophetic ideas: that the technology of aircraft would be not only used for transportation that could unify the planet, mapping, and research, but also for fighting wars.

Remember that the Wright Brothers’s only had their first successful flight in 1903. Wells has a “war in the air” happening in the novel sometime in the late 1910s. World War I did come in that time period but aviation technology did not progress fast enough to make World War I into “war in the air.” There were German airship raids on London, but airplanes of that decade were not capable of the bombings and destruction Wells predicted. That would come with World War II.

Wells even throws some government conspiracy into the plot. He has the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers around the world “disappearing” from public view because they have been pulled into secret military projects to develop aviation weapons. Not that farfetched of an idea, considering how scientists were hidden away to develop rockets and the atomic bomb and still are today in parts of the world.

Illustration from Wells’ The War in the Air via

Wells earlier novel, The Time Machine, sent a time traveler into the future and what he observed was not good. The future was a Darwinian nightmare.  The leisured upper class had devolved due to a less active, less challenging way of life.  (How many people have since predicted that technology would bring us more leisure time?) The descendants of the industrial workers have become brutal rulers.

In the article, Bowler says that the Marxists saw history as climbing a ladder to a kind of utopia. But the Darwinists saw our life history as better represented by a branching tree. Wells saw science and industry’s evolution in the Darwinian way. Look how those originally insignificant mammals developed during the age of the dinosaurs and ended up becoming the rulers.

But he thought that scientific and technological innovation was leaping ahead of society, culture, and politics. We were not ready for the changes.

Another book he wrote in 1914, The World Set Free, predicted that the latest discoveries of atomic physics would give us a new source of power and also an atomic bomb.

The next step in Wells’ fears of progress is displayed in his 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come. The war fought in this story reduces us back to savages. His only optimism in the story was that a few technocrats survive who can recreate society but under new and more rational ideologies.

“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  –  Albert Einstein

Though I really enjoy Wells’ novels and admire his ability to envision the future, I’m not a fan of the future world he hoped would come to pass. His “World State” had technological innovations helping all but those in charge were an elite group, like those who save and transform the world in The Shape of Things to Come. I hope he was wrong in this prediction of things to come.

Peter J. Bowler is Professor emeritus of the History of Science at Queen’s University, Belfast and the author of A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov.

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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