This was originally published on Pessimists Archive.

As the second decade of the 21st century ends we’re reminded of a fascinating archival find: a man in 1830 recounting a nightmare about life in the 2000s, triggered by a dystopian poem – Lord Byrons ‘Darkness’ – read to him by a friend.

The nightmare began with the protagonist appearing in his rural childhood home, when suddenly in a flash it is replaced with an industrial hellcape where vegetables were extinct and yet to be invented flying machines glided overhead:

“I looked upon the surrounding country, if country it could be called, where vegetable nature had ceased to exist.”

“As if propelled by some unseen infernal power, monstrous machines flew with inconceivable swiftness.”

Baldness was common in women thanks to modern travel speeds.

“Many were bald, and on asking the reason, I was given to understand that they had been great travelers, and that the rapidity of modern conveyance, literally scalped those who journeyed much in them, sweeping whiskers, eyebrows, eye lashes and in fact everything in any way moveable from their faces.”

Animals were extinct and carriages? Horseless and driverless!

“Animal life appeared to be extinct; carts and carriages came rattling down the highways, horseless and driverless, wheel barrows trundled along without any visible agency. Nature was out of fashion, and the world seemed to get along tolerably well without her.”

(this pre-dates the current official first use of ‘driverless’)

Disposable automaton workmen built skyscrapers. He refers to them as ‘modern prometheuses’ no doubt referencing the subtitle of Mary Shelly’s 1818 ‘Frankenstein’, a novel that still shapes conversations about the future today:

“Here was then at once a new version of the old Greek fable, a modern promotheuses ‘as plentiful as blackberries'”

His reaction to this world of technological progress? Horror.

“These things astonished, but they also perplexed and wearied me. My spirit grew sick, and I longed for the old world again, and its quiet and peaceable modes of enjoyment.”

“All things seemed forced, unnatural, unreal – indeed, little better than barefaced impositions.”

The man entered a hotel, what he found within was a steam powered dystopia:

“The rooms were heated by steam! The beds were made and aired by steam, and instead of a pretty, red lipped, rosey cheeked chambermaid, there was an accursed machine man smoothing down the pillow and bolster with mathematical precision.”

In the hotel he picked up a newspaper littered with new steam related terms he could not understand. So he picked up a dictionary.

I looked into a modern dictionary for some light upon these subjects but got none except hundreds of definitions such as…
Horse, s. an animation of which but little is now known. Old writers affirm there were at one time several thousands in this country.”
“Tree, s. Vegetable production; once plentiful in these parts, and still to be found in remote districts.”
“Tranquility, s. Obsolete; an unnatural state of existence, to which the ancients were very partial.”
In despair I threw down the book and rushed out of the house.

He made his way to a theater production of Hamlet, the cast all being steam powered automatons. He said it was better than any other purpose which he had seen steam applied (until Hamlet exploded) so he fled the theatre.

“I made my escape but on reaching the street, things were ten times worse than ever. I could scarcely breath – there was a blowing, a roaring, a hissing, a fizzing, a whizzing going on all round – fires were blazing, water was bubbling, boilers were bursting – when lo! I awoke and found myself in a state of profuse perspiration.”

He awoke, relieved. Got up and went to his window to see a comforting sight: a horse drawn carriage.

“I started up, ran to the window, and saw several milkmen and bakers’ carts, with horses in them, trotting merily along. I was thankful man, I put on my clothes, and while doing so made up my mind to read no more manuscript poems, and eschew gin and water for time to come.”

As we enter the third decade of the 21st Century let us reflect on how much better life is now than in 1830 and how catastrophizing about new technologies is as silly and shortsighted now as it was 190 years ago.

Happy new year!