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Philosophy

The Curse Of The Inability To Imagine

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A woman uses a Morse code device housed within an oak box.
Chris Price/Getty Images

On June 20, 1840, Samuel Morse received a patent for an early version of the electric telegraph. His ideas for transmitting and recording signals helped revolutionize long-distance communication.

Fast forward 176 years and you're likely to be reading this on a smartphone, in a future Morse couldn't possibly have imagined. Our long-distance signals travel through air. They carry photos and videos. A sophisticated toddler can navigate an iPhone, manipulating more bits of data than a telegraph operator encountered in a lifetime.

But failures of imagination go both ways: not only to the future, but also to the past. How well can most people today imagine the world of the 1840s? Or even a version of their own lives, stripped of modern-day tools for communication?

Years ago, I was struck by a statement from writer Isabel Allende in which she discussed her latest book of historical fiction. Speaking to KQED Forum's Michael Krasny, she said: "People in other times, in earlier times, were not less sophisticated than we are. They were just as we are, with less technology."

Allende was warning against the danger of stripping people of their layers and complexity alongside their cellphones and modern medicines. This is a more subtle failure of imagination than the failure to know what the future will bring, which is a failure we more readily acknowledge.

In imagining the future, we suffer from a curse of ignorance. Morse couldn't possibly have foreseen the precise course of technological innovation. But in imagining the past, we additionally face a curse of knowledge: We can't entirely remove the future possibilities that we know are yet to come. This failure can make the experience of living in the past seem more impoverished than it was, because our familiar technology isn't just absent, but missing. (I recently had to explain our rarely-used home phone to my young daughter: "It's kind of like Skype, only without the video.")

Given the rapid pace of technological innovation, we don't need to consider Allende's novel of the 16th century, or Morse's 19th century existence, to encounter this curse of knowledge — and to appreciate that the past wasn't populated by simple people living flat lives. For today's children, today's adults were those people. We are those people.

In a funny video of children responding to rotary phones, one child sympathizes with adults: "This [pointing to a rotary phone] was your only mode of talking to people...I'm sorry." Another video shows contemporary teenagers disparaging the cellphone technology that inaugurated the century (It's so big! And there's no screen! And texting is so slow!).

But we know that people who grew up using rotary phones didn't experience them as defective cellphones. They were simply phones. And the first flip-phones were admired for their slenderness, not rejected for the additional diminution they had failed to achieve.

This isn't to deny the possibility of visionaries — people with the creativity and daring to imagine how things could be different. Nor is it to ignore the real advantages and pleasures modern-day technologies can provide. But recognizing our limitations in imagining the past brings an important lesson in humility and in humanity: "They were just as we are, with less technology."

And in most respects that matter, future people will be also — but with more.


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo