Note — Feb 06, 2022

Back to the Victorian Future

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Here Iwan Rhys Morus looks at the Victorian era’s “idea that inventors and entrepreneurs hold the keys to the utopian future,” and that there’s a firm link between “virtue and technological agency.” According to the author, it’s during that period that utopia went from a place in the world to a place in the future, and where some of the myths of the great inventor were crystallized in our minds.

From that viewpoint, we are basically still Victorian, and that period’s ‘virtue’ has been replaced with productivity and hustle culture. Uncanny. One weird saddening note: all the examples of success are men, and the one distinct failure mentioned comes at the very end, with a woman, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. Her flameout was spectacular, but I’ve also noticed how quickly she has become the example held up as a failure. Can’t help but think that there’s some sexist ‘ah! ah!’ in there.

Finally, Morus also mentions Tesla as a variation on virtue, with “the inventor as an outsider who had no interest in the mundane world around him, a dreamer ‘who thinks too much’ and wanted ‘more than anything else to be left alone.’” And made me think of all the quirky and / or mad inventors I’ve loved in fiction, Professeur Tournesol, Pacôme de Champignac (and Zorglub), even Doctor Doom and a number of characters on this list of fictional scientists and engineers. I’ve always assumed I was recognizing fellow nerds, but now I’m wondering how it relates with these other archetypes.

Woven into the fabric of the story were assumptions about the relationship between personal virtue, technology and the road to a better future that were deeply ingrained in Victorian culture. For the Victorians, the future was — or could be — utopia, and individual personal virtue was instrumental in producing a collective virtuous future. […]

But Smiles was adamant that biographies of great men offered “illustrious examples of the power of self-help, of patient purpose, resolute working and steadfast integrity, issuing in the formation of truly noble and manly character.” […]

They demonstrated “that it is not the man of the greatest natural vigor and capacity who achieves the highest results, but he who employs his powers with the greatest industry and the most carefully disciplined skill — the skill that comes by labor, application and experience.” […]

“When we subscribe to this paradigm about how — and by whom — the future is made, we’re also relinquishing control over that future.”