In thinking about long-term change, social change is harder to imagine than technological change.

I read an interview the other day with a futurist who said that a traveller from 1910 would find the present world ‘unfathomable’. It was one of those ahistorical things which futurists say to get attention, sometimes adding that everything is speeding up, but it’s not borne out by the briefest review. Quite a lot of the world of 2010 would be familiar to a traveller from a hundred years ago.

I can say this with some confidence because I’ve done a number of 100-year scenarios recently, and in the spirit of Elise Boulding’s ‘200 year present‘ – 100 years back, 100 years forward – we’ve used the notion of the 1910 time traveller arriving in contemporary London to help to stretch people’s thinking.

In this, I’m also influenced by James Dator’s notion (opens pdf) that the long-term future will have three components: elements of the present extending forwards. elements of the past which have become buried or marginalised in the present. and ‘novelties’, or things which are genuinely new. But in thinking about such novelties, people sometimes mistake form and content.

So what might Edwardians find familiar about 21st century London?

  • Much of the built environment would be familiar, including much of the street layout and the public parks. The tall steel and concrete buildings would be new, but they would likely have seen pictures of the American skyscrapers built in the late 19th century.
  • Much of London Underground was already in place (only the Jubilee and Victoria Lines are more recent) along with the suburban and inter-city train network.
  • Most of our national newspaper titles were in existence then, although there are now fewer titles. The magazine market would be more of a mystery.
  • Cars have replaced carts, although cars were already seen in London by 1910. (There are far more of them now). The average speed around London by vehicle is about the same as then; bikes were a common sight (in 1904 they represented 20% of traffic).
  • People assume that the internet would seem revolutionary, but perhaps not. The telegraph had already shortened distances for businesses, governments, and newspapers. The phone was spreading rapidly in a world where the postal service still delivered letters, in cities, four or five times a day. The idea of the rapid exchange of postcards or short letters would not seem strange.
  • The scares caused by migration would seem similar. In the world of 1910 borders were still open, just, and it was generally possible to travel without passport, but the late 19th century had seen a huge migration (larger, proportionally, than the migration we’ve seen in the last quarter of a century). Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) tells the story of a middle European anarchist planting a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory – an operation which has already been utterly compromised by the police.
  • And the early 2oth century century Edwardians would not have been entirely surprised to find the British Army at war in Afghanistan…

What would seem most different? It largely depends on whether you’re interested in their first impressions or their second thoughts.

  • The biggest change – the one they’d notice the moment they materialised – is how much cleaner it is, especially the air, after the Clean Air Acts and the end of coal fires.
  • The frequency and the size of the air traffic would be a surprise – in 1910, Bleriot had only just flown across the channel for the first time.
  • The size of London – in 1910 it had around a million inhabitants – would surprise, but so might the size of everywhere else as well; in 1910 London was still the biggest city in the world.
  • Television and radio are new, but not completely so: for the 1910 time traveller, cinema and some of the 19th century experiments with moving pictures would have pre-figured them.
  • The disappearance of industry from the city. When you look at maps of London from that period, there is light industry everywhere, small factories and warehouses, and almost all gone. Similarly the industry that populated both sides of the Thames has almost all vanished.

The bigger changes, though, would almost certainly be about values.

  • London in the 1910s was a whiter city than it is now, and racist attitudes – of all kinds – were commonplace.
  • The decline of the obvious politics of conflict: the period was dominated both by international tension, by the Suffragette campaign for votes for women, and tough labour disputes and strikes. Our politics would seem genteel by comparison.
  • Women did work, in the factory and the office, but generally only until they married. Usually there were strict social rules about how men and women mixed at work (for example, with separate working and canteen areas). So the prevalence of women in the workplace, and as managers, would seem strange.
  • Casualness of dress and social etiquette generally: both Edwardian men and women tended to travel well covered up, even at the beach. In contrast, our informality of clothing, and the casualness of our language – even rudeness – along with the end of most visible signs of etiquette, would be a profound change.

What do we learn from this? At one level it’s just a bit of fun, to help people change their perspectives as they start to think about the future. At another, without actually constructing the time machine and trying the experiment, we can never know – however we think about this, we are looking at it through the eyes of people who know what happened next.

(As the Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen put it in another context:

“An authentic performance of old music is possible, an authentic experience of it is not. … You cannot change the fact that when I listen to Bach, I have heard Haydn, I have heard Beethoven, I have heard Stravinsky, I have heard Jimi Hendrix, I have heard The Beatles, I have heard John Adams.”)

But there’s perhaps an underlying story here. When we think about long-term change with the benefit of hindsight, the things we think are unfathomable are usually the technology – planes, cars, computers. But it is at least as likely that the things that time travellers would most struggle with are the shifts in social values, which are almost invisible to us because we swim in them constantly and adapt ourselves to them as they change.