The History of the Future

New Statesman

The future has not changed a great deal over the past hundred years. In the late 1920s a book called The Conquest of Life by Dr Serge Voronoff, a Russian émigré based in Paris, became a worldwide success with the claim that the author had found “a remedy for old age” with the aid of which “life can be prolonged, sex intensified, and death delayed”. The New York Times featured Voronoff’s work under the headline “Science promises an amazing future”, and his supposed advances were publicised in the Scientific American.

Voronoff’s techniques included transplanting testicular material obtained from apes, which he believed could rejuvenate human males and cure cancer. In The Conquest of Life, he promoted his transplant methods as a means of enhancing the abilities of children, asking “Why not try creating a race of super-men, endowed with physical and mental attributes very superior to ours?”

Others around the same time were promoting different methods to achieve similar goals. Eugen Steinach (1861-1944), a Viennese physician and endocrinologist, developed a type of vasectomy that aimed to divert seminal fluid into the body, where it would have sexually energising effects. The procedure was eulogised by WB Yeats, who after being “Steinached” in 1934 claimed to have been experienced “a second puberty”. As late as the 1960s, the Swiss physician Paul Niehans was injecting foetal matter from newly killed sheep into the buttocks of clients that included Somerset Maugham, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Thomas Mann, Konrad Adenauer and Pope Pius XII. Niehans also believed his techniques could “cure” gay people of their sexuality.

Though some claimed to have benefited from them, none of these techniques was based on what would now be regarded as sound science. But the goals these therapies pursued have not been abandoned – far from it. Today the conquest of life includes the abolition of death, with figures such as Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, envisioning technologies that would upload human minds into cyberspace, severing them from their biology and making them immortal. Rather than fashioning “a race of super-men”, these visionaries dream of designing a post-human species.

At the same time there are many who fear the human consequences of technological advance. Artificial intelligence might have no interest in the wellbeing or the survival of humans. The march of robots could leave the majority of human beings redundant in the productive process. Genetic engineering could be used not only to eradicate inherited diseases but also to manufacture killers and sex slaves. Virtual reality technology could spawn soulless phantoms that might yet have human-like emotions, and suffer and rebel against their condition. At the heart of both Blade Runner films, such techno-dystopian visions pervade popular entertainment.

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