The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Technology, Time and Space

As 2013 gets underway, many of us are now back at work, or back to searching for work, having spent the previous week with family and friends. No doubt many around the country suffered delays, traffic, and disruptive weather along the way. Via Meadia knows that few things in life are as frustrating as delays, lines, and seeming incompetence keeping us from our loved ones or the place we call home.

On this first Sunday of 2013, however, we think it’s worth remembering where we are and where we’ve come from. Michael Graham Richard at the Mother Nature Network (h/t @pattonp) has uploaded a fascinating series of maps from the 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. The maps show the rates of travel from New York City to a westward destination by steam train, which became faster and more efficient throughout the 19th century. As the maps show, a journey that took weeks in 1800 took a matter of days by mid-century.

The fact that traveling from New York to California is now over a hundred times faster than it was 150 years ago is worth reflecting on. Between the invention of the wheel and that of the wheelbarrow, thousands of years passed; but between da Vinci’s drawings of flying machines and the Wright brothers’ first flight, only four centuries had gone by.

It’s in the nature of technological progress to accelerate, and the rate of acceleration has picked up in recent centuries. In 1900, automobiles weren’t yet being mass-produced, nor had the Wright brothers achieved flight yet. The century wasn’t seven decades in when car ownership reached a quarter-billion people worldwide, and men were traveling safely to and from the moon.

This phenomenon has also, of course, been ugly. Almost 2,000 years passed between the advent of gunpowder and that of the automatic weapon; only five decades stood between the latter and the atomic bomb. Clearly, the heightened pace of human technology has also been terrifying.

The acceleration of technological and social change is one of the biggest stories in the world today. Everything from self-driving carsand telepresence robots to the ability to print weapons from home are closer than we think, and our ability to cope with these changes will determine a lot in the next 100 years.

The Anglo-American culture of forward-looking capitalism has traditionally been able to cope better than most. A look at what our great grandparents had to go through to travel, and what we’ve accomplished since, is a good reminder of that. A lot will depend on our ability to continue that tradition in the years ahead; Via Meadia will do its part in 2013 to show how well we’re doing.

Published on January 6, 2013 10:00 am