The Secret History of the Future: A podcast that enthralls with stories about technology's past and present

Aatish Nath

Nov 28, 2018 16:08:57 IST

The premise of The Secret History of the Future is simple — can the past help us understand not just the present, but point towards what the future holds? Over the course of an episode (each lasts between 30-40 minutes), the narrators, Slate’s Seth Stevenson and The Economist’s Tom Standage work towards drawing parallels between the past and the present, and situate the growth of certain technologies in a historical context. The podcast incidentally is a collaboration between the two media companies.

Episode one delves into a mechanical turk (an early robot), and how its chess playing abilities wowed its 18th-century audience. Except that there was in fact a person inside the robot. Today too, while artificial intelligence is being touted as the kind of technology that will either spur human development or cause large-scale unemployment, Standage and Stevenson remind us that it is actual internet users — you and me and everyone else — who are responsible for helping these machines ‘learn’. During an interview with Luis von Ahn, the founder of CAPTCHA, listeners realise that the addresses they’ve been entering to verify that they are not bots, when trying to download files from the internet or to verify online purchases, were first addresses from Google StreetView. Now, users are asked to identify trees, buses, cars or anything else in a photo — to help artificial intelligence algorithms distinguish between objects.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Subsequent episodes (there are 10 in the season) have focused on what electricity does to the human mind, how photography impacts the human mind, and what cash prizes do to spur innovation. Each uses the past to draw parallels with the present, while presenting listeners with aspects of science, sociology and technology that have been overlooked by the dominant narratives of today.

In an episode that looks at virtual reality (VR), the show contrasts it with the past, when plaster casts were used to bring back details of Mayan carvings in Europe. Decidedly still an artisanal task, this is how museums expanded their collections, and with it, their understanding of fairway civilisations. Today VR, which is being touted as a game changer for everything from pornography to travel, can also spark empathy, as their interview with multimedia artist Nonny de la Pena suggests.

Two narrators allow the show to flow like a conversation, with each challenging the other or then picking up on a thread of information and then adding context to the story. Where possible, the show uses archival recordings or interviews with industry experts. Leveraging their media houses' contacts and prestige, guests on the show include the in-house sociologist at Snapchat, Google’s Captain of Moonshots and the director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

During each show, both Standage and Stevenson bring their breadth of knowledge and years of experience to the service of the listener without sounding preachy or condescending. Instead, the show sounds like two friends with esoteric interests, and a penchant for diving into historical events, having a conversation.

The episodes are best listened to in one sitting, and if there’s one complaint, it is that the stories are not told linearly and so can often circle back to different eras and inventions. It’s not hard to follow, but with podcasting making many strides, music cues or other markers could have been used to delineate the different periods or innovations being discussed.

For those who have been keeping up with the news, and naysayers who warn about information overload because of the internet, it will be fascinating to hear that the book review was ‘invented’ to combat the fact that limited attention spans would have numerous reading options after the invention of the printing press. The episode about the rise of selfies and how we create and consume media is also fascinating for its ability to bring together the rise of photography and what it means from a social point of view.

As a series that sparks the listener’s thoughts, The Secret History of the Future succeeds. With the last episode already out, it’s easy to binge-listen to over successive days. The curious will love it for its ability to give one multiple rabbit holes to Google and fall into, while others will see that humans have always worried about technology’s march, but adapted to it as needed.

Updated Date: Nov 28, 2018 17:02:26 IST