There’s almost always this moment when studying anything old when you think “we have come so far.” From the Nintendo 64 to Roman aqueducts we always seem to be measuring progress by the distance between us and our ancestors, very often most importantly in the area of technology. In a world that seems to have a major advance in technology every day, it seems like we are moving at an incredible speed from the world of our grandparents and their grandparents.
And in the face of all that progress stands a bold podcast that wants to remind the world that while our tech has progressed, maybe we haven’t gone all that far. The Secret History of the Future, written and hosted by Tom Standage and Seth Stevenson, is pointing out the ways that people are still responding to new technology the same way they have over the centuries.
This show looks at stories from the history of technology and compares them to things that are happening in tech today,” Seth explained in our interview. “So, a lot of times, you’ll see familiar echoes of the way technology was received in the past, between when something weird came along and it freaked people out, and some of the new technology now and how people are reacting to it.
Tom Standage is the editor for The Economist, which was looking to collaborate with Slate, where Seth works, to make a new show. When Tom had the idea for The Secret History…, Seth was chosen as the writer because of his experience in tech writing.
Despite that experience and Seth’s years spent as a writer, much of the process of making the show was new territory for him.
I had never worked on, kind of, a highly produced narrative podcast before. I’d done sort of chatty podcasts where two people talk about a topic, I’d done interview podcasts, but I’d never done a podcast where we go off, interview people, and the crew tapes, and then I write a script for it and take out the tape I’m gonna use and work on it in the studio…
Seth also loves the subject matter, saying he didn’t know most of the stories that they end up telling on the podcast. From using electric eels to treat migraines (the Romans) to creating computers to beat chess players (1780s Europeans), the stories of technology and people’s responses to it continue to fascinate Seth as he gets to investigate them. What he and his fans find really interesting is what doesn’t change over the centuries they study.
People recognize, ‘wow, technology changes all the time and there’s new technology that seems brand new but people in many ways don’t change. The way we react to new things – our fear, our optimism – all that stuff stays the same over the centuries.’ And I think we need to see that.
The show has been a learning curve, but that is a lot of fun for a guy like Seth, who loves trying new things.
I love finding new challenges, it keeps everything fresh. If I was still doing the same thing I was doing twenty years ago I think I would be pretty bored.
Trying new things has worked out pretty well for Seth and Tom since The Secret History of the Future has been ranked fourth on iTunes’ podcast tech charts and is expecting to stay there throughout their run. So, if you’re wondering how forks and Japanese toilets are connected, or why people have been afraid of cars since they got on the road, The Secret History of the Future is the show for you.
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