Tuesday 18th July 2017

Back to the Future: Is communication a bad thing?

In 1892, William Harben published a short story, rarely anthologised today, called In the Year Ten Thousand, which, you've guessed it, is set in the year 10,000 AD. By writing this story, Harben also wrote himself a tiny footnote in the history of science fiction which blossomed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and was dominated by big names including Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Apart from being nowhere near as good as stories such as Wells' The Time Machine, Harben's story is unusual for the time he wrote in because the future he imagines is utopian, not dystopian.

In the Year Ten Thousand is the tale of one afternoon shared by a father and son in a great museum. The father tells his son the story of humanity, starting from the Dark Ages. Guiding the boy to a display cabinet containing a few moth-eaten books, the father informs his son that, in the past, humanity used books as a way to communicate with one another. The boy is perplexed by this: "I cannot see what people could have wanted with them," he says.

It turns out that the boy, his father and their race communicate through 'thought-telegraphy', an invention which has obviated the need for language, nation states, organised religion and even mouths, which, now redundant, disappear over time in a gradual, natural selection-style process.

Harben imagines 'thought-telegraphy' as a civilising force in the world. Crime, including hate crimes, is choked out of existence by it; fighting between religions doesn't flare up any more; and evil itself is killed off. Men and women at first shun evil for fear of detection, and then grow to love purity. Apparently, by the year 6021, "all countries of the world, being drawn together in brotherly love by constant exchange of thought, agreed to call themselves a union without ruler or rulers".

What makes this futuristic tale more than a curiosity, and the reason for me sharing it with you now, is that the author makes an explicit, causal link between a form of communication and an aspirational state. In other words, the point Harben makes is that a perfect form of communication ('thought-telegraphy') actually leads to the creation of a utopian society.

Now that I think about it, isn't this what we always hope for, even dream about, in real life, too? Alongside alarmist warnings of damage to the young or old or both, the progress of communication and its technologies is usually accompanied by hopes that life will also be changed for the better by it. For example, in 1973, the respected American media theorist and advertising pioneer, Tony Schwartz, wrote that: "The new media come to us as a real hope for the improvement of earth communication, the potential for nothing less than total community communication and the cessation of violence because awareness and understanding ultimately minimise conflict."

You may have noticed that this hasn't happened. In fact, in recent weeks, debate and discussion has reached a crescendo about the urgent need for internet brands such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Google to do more to police and delete inflammatory, degrading, damaging and morally questionable material. Barely a week goes by without a disturbing story of 'sexting', 'body shaming', or 'flaming' making the headlines. It seems that these days, communication is always a force for bad and not for good.

Three decades ago, here in the UK, the national telephone provider, BT, launched what became a famous TV campaign, which was designed to change attitudes to telephonic communication. 'It's good to talk' were the memorable four words that summed up its appeal and call to action. Perhaps a twenty-first century version of this campaign, adapted for the internet age, should be propagated by the internet giants. In such a campaign, we would hear more about the good news and the good deeds that have come about through communicating. How talking has also saved lives, not just blighted them. In the trillions of bits of data collected by the internet brands, there must be millions of examples of communication making the world a better place.

In Harben's In the Year Ten Thousand, the strange mouthless people of the future organise societies for the prevention of evil thought to make their goal of a society free of evil a reality. We don't have to go to those lengths. We already have Google, which famously promises to 'do no evil'. Well, how about doing some good? It would be good to talk about that.

Malcolm White, Co-founder of krow