Learning and Liberty Science and Technology

We need to talk about Victorian neuro-technology

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 87%
  • Interesting points: 100%
  • Agree with arguments: 84%
8 ratings - view all
We need to talk about Victorian neuro-technology

William Crookes, who discovered Thallium in 1861

The Royal Society has just published a report calling for a ‘national investigation’ into neuro-technology. Within the next couple of decades, it suggests, a whole range of new interactive technologies will have been developed that break down the fundamental barrier between mind and machine. The report envisages a ‘neural revolution’ which will inaugurate a world in which electronic implants interacting with the brain and nervous system will be commonplace – even machine-aided telepathy seems a plausible part of the future now.

I think the Royal Society is right. There is an urgent need for a conversation around these issues. And when it takes place, I think it’s vital that historians be involved. Historians need to be part of the conversation simply because it’s all too easy, when talking about the future, to forget that the future has a past. We may think that the technological opportunities (and dangers) we face in the 21st century are unprecedented, but they have a history, nonetheless. The way we talk about these technologies now remains framed by the ways they were imagined at the end of the 19th century.

Men of science at the close of the Victorian age were fascinated by the possibilities that electricity seemed to offer for expanding the mind. Take the example of William Crookes, discoverer of the element Thallium, president of both the Royal Society and the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), and enthusiastic investigator of spiritualism. In a speech to the Institution in 1891, later published as ‘Some Possibilities of Electricity’ in the Fortnightly Review, Crookes suggested that “in some parts of the human brain may lurk an organ capable of transmitting and receiving other electrical rays of wave-lengths hitherto undetected by instrumental means”. This was the explanation for “recognised cases of thought transference” and similar phenomena. “I will not speculate,” he said, “on the result were we eventually to catch and harness these ‘brain waves’.”

Crookes was far from being alone in this kind of speculation about what electricity would do to minds and bodies in the future. Ever since the invention of the telegraph half a century before Crookes’s after dinner speech at the IEE, comparisons of the nervous system to the telegraph network (and vice versa) had become commonplace. Scientists speculated about which bits of the body most resembled bits of electrical equipment. Oliver Lodge (another fan of spiritualism, radio pioneer, and fellow of the Royal Society) thought that maybe the nerves worked along the same lines as the coherer – an instrument for detecting radio waves. There was a fad for electricity as a tonic for jaded nerves. Maybe the electric fluid could revive tired brains and flagging virility. Nikola Tesla thought that electrifying classrooms would help schoolchildren study – an electrical atmosphere would promote brain activity just as it was supposed to promote plant growth.

This was not Tesla’s only intervention. In a long essay on ‘The problem of Increasing Human Energy’ published in Century Magazine in 1900, he set out his manifesto for the future. What he called the ‘art of telautomatics’ was a central part of his fantastic vision. It was all about merging mind with electrical apparatus. Using newly invented wireless technology to control machines at a distance was just the beginning of the process. A few years earlier Tesla had demonstrated just such a device – a torpedo boat that could be steered wirelessly. But telautomatics was going to be much more than that. Tesla dreamed of machines with “an element corresponding to the mind, which would effect the control of all its movements and operations, and cause it to act, in any unforeseen case that might present itself, with knowledge, reason, judgement, and experience”. The art of telautomatics was going to offer a way of melding mind and machine.

This may sound prescient, but that’s not really the point of the exercise as far as I’m concerned. Looking at past prognostications just so we can pat the winners on the back, or poke fun at the ones who got it wrong, is frankly a bit boring. I’m more interested in what these more-than-a-century-old predictions can tell us about how visions of the future were put together back then – and what that tells us about how we see the future now. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, faced with not just the end of the old century but the beginning of the final century of the millennium, the 1890s were witness to an outpouring of prophecy. Magazines like the Century, or Scribner’s, or the Strand were full of fictional and factual speculations. Fact and fiction about the future each fed off the other – and it was sometimes difficult to tell them apart. Wannabe makers of the future like Tesla or Edison, and writers of scientific romance like HG Wells or George Griffiths, alike populated their tomorrow’s with extrapolations from the technological present around them.

This is why historians need to be active participants now in conversations and debates about the future. The futures we’re talking about now aren’t new – they’re more than a century old. The ways we frame our current speculations about future tech have their origins in that late Victorian explosion of futurism. There’s a direct line linking Crookes’s or Tesla’s visions of electric brains at the end of the 19th century and the ways we imagine the future possibilities of neurotech at the beginning of the 21st century. We often forget this, and act as if the perplexities of contemporary technologies are unique to us – that we’re the first to think about these possibilities. But the sort of problems we expect technologies to solve for us, and the sort of answers we offer to technological problems, remain in many ways Victorian. We make our futures according to the rule-book they invented. When we think about what we want from the kinds of neuro-technological breakthroughs that the Royal Society’s report sees coming, it’s important we remember that the ways we frame our hopes and desires for the future have their own past, and that past still resonates.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 87%
  • Interesting points: 100%
  • Agree with arguments: 84%
8 ratings - view all

You may also like