The last Victorian

We are so utterly immersed in our cyber-enhanced world that it can be hard to properly understand the context surrounding the historic event of forty years ago today, so thoroughly does our current world view skew our perception of the word “technology”. To put things in proper perspective, the total computational power involved in the Apollo mission to the Moon was far less than the computing power contained in your cell phone.

When JFK launched his grand challenge to put a man on the Moon and bring him safely back before the decade was out, not even five years had elapsed since the first simple integrated circuit had been demonstrated in a laboratory. Telephones did not have computers in them. Nor did cars, ovens, toys, hotel doors, stereos, or the myriad other objects in one’s daily life.

Yes, there was already a fantasy of a technological future – the Jetsons come to mind – but that was more of a physical fantasy than a cybernetic one. The coolest thing about the Jetsons was their flying car – a natural extension of post-war America’s extended love affair with the automobile, and a collective cultural desire that dates back to Henry Ford in 1908.

Similarly George Jetson’s robotic housekeeper Rosie was not portrayed as a marvel of artificial intelligence, but rather as a thinly disguised gloss on the 1950s TV character Hazel – a smart-alecky blue collar housekeeper engaged in perpetual affectionate class warfare with her boss, the upwardly mobile suburbanite George Baxter. The only thing that really distinguished Rosie from Hazel was the way she managed to zoom around the house while balancing on what looked like a single tiny roller skate. Again, a celebration of mechanical innovation, not cybernetic advancement.

In other words, the world of the 1960s was still focused on the physical world as the ultimate measure of technological advancement – buildings that were the highest ever, weapons more explosive than any ever built before, jet planes and submarines and automobiles that broke all previous speed records. The most celebrated superhero was still Superman – that master of the physical, celebrated for his unparalleled strength, speed, ability to fly, even X-ray vision. The technological focus of the 1960s was, in essential ways, an extension of the Victorian, with its trains running ever faster, huge steamships sailing across the globe, mighty cities built with ever newer and stronger materials and methods of manufacture – not to mention those X-rays (first discovered in 1875).

In an important way, that first footstep on the Moon was the paramount expression of the Victorian dream – a fantasy come true for anyone who grew up reading Jules Verne, H.G. Welles or Hugo Gernsback. Humans could truly say that they had passed the ultimate physical test – they had shown they could break the bonds that tied our species down to mother Earth.

But once having proved this, there was nowhere else to go. In a sense, the Moon landing was a death knell for such Victorian era dreams. What appeal could a mere train or jet plane or tall building hold for a species that had walked upon another heavenly body? What had been mere hopeful fantasy and speculation from the time of the ancient Greeks – and earlier – was now cold hard fact.

Sure, we could go on to Mars and beyond, but there was no longer any mystery as to whether such a feat was possible. Once human footsteps had touched the surface of the Moon, we knew in our heart of hearts that we could find a way to walk upon the planets.

And so in the four decades that have followed, our culture’s yearnings for technological transcendence have gradually turned 180o, from outward to inward. Our technological desire has focused less on extending the body, and more on extending the brain. When Neil Armstrong took his first step upon the Moon, forty years ago today, he became the last Victorian hero – the final iconic expression of a world now gone.

2 Responses to “The last Victorian”

  1. Dan Nielsen says:

    The Jetsons depicts humans having settled Earth to an extreme late in the 21st century, moving up to that deluxe apartment in the sky. Right now air tourism is the domain of the well-to-do, and the Jetsons depicts the settlement of those skies. It’s sort of the happy-but-busied lifestyle alternative to the warning of humanity’s traumatic languishing found in Soylent Green. Settlement in space to the seventies was a stillborn dream, popularly invoked maybe by a Bond villain. Popular science fiction in video was not to reflect something that would actually be reasonably achievable – though it might illustrate something entirely magical. I would rather see a permanent habitat built on the moon than to spend any more time thinking about terraforming Mars or even to land there.

    I don’t know if you read Tom Wolfe’s article “One Giant Leap to Nowher” in the NY Times. He thinks that the US would have been better to spend the late sixties NASA budget on some philosophers over the scientists on hand. He may be right, but I don’t know about laying off scientists at just the time one is trying to achieve such a goal. In addition, he seems to make an a priori assumption that professional paid philosophers would have agreed that a mission to Mars was NASA’s goal – an organization with many other missions, newborn in the Cold War, and barely detached at all from the army.

    Now two cultural generations have passed since such success was had in human space exploration. NASA and the US government still do not know how to communicate their message clearly. Constellation has run into waste and incompetence in guidance and implementation.

    But if, as Eddington thought, it was the original Icarus who showed Daedalus how to get off the ground (if not how to span the ocean) then maybe such a trauma will inspire success.

  2. admin says:

    Yes, I did read Tom Wolfe’s NYT article, and I’m not sure I agree with his recommendations. Once scientists start acting out of any agenda other than an objective-as-possible search for empirical knowledge, they cease to function as scientists. That places NASA in a tough position. To be viable, it needs to position itself as a science organization, which limits its ability to simultaneously advocate any agenda too far removed from scientific activities.

Leave a Reply