Thursday, April 27, 2017

The View from 1931

 I have been holding off from quoting Friedell, for there remain about one hundred and fifty pages unread in the third volume of his history. But a passage from the second chapter of the fifth book caught my eye:
Still there remained the theoretical possibility that proceeding in this direction one would someday be in a position to release and make use of the huge, but ordinarily bound resources of energy in the atom. It is estimated that the fission of a single penny's mass would release roughly thirteen and a half billion horsepower. The release of the "interatomic" energy would obviously result in a thoroughgoing revolution of all earthly relations. But here only the naive can suppose that this would also mean the solution of the social question. For since the "normal man", who admittedly is not normal, but who rules our economic life, is born and dies a thoughtless scoundrel, one can expect this sort of development of technology, like all those previous, to lead only to new forms of universal avarice and injustice. One  considers how two hundred years ago someone would have prophesied, knowing that humanity would have succeeded in making use of magnetic energy, electric energy, the solar energy that is stored in black coal, and the hydraulic energy stored in "white coal": what entirely obvious conclusions, and what a sublime social condition he would have inferred. In spite of this, all has become much worse, and Europe is split into capitalistic states, in which the majority are paupers, and Soviet states, in which all are paupers. No: through the use of atomic power, the rulers will simply become greedier, the poor poorer still, and both still hungrier, and war still more bestial. For the solution of the social problem we require a moral emanation, production of rays, and atom-splitting.

Egon Friedell, Cultural History of Modernity.

On the one hand, I agree that technological improvements do not as such imply social improvement. On the other hand, I imagine that if I were a large shareholder in Toshiba, I might laugh bitterly at the thought of nuclear energy enriching those already rich. And considering the course of WW II from September 1939 through August 1945, did the atom bomb make warfare more bestial, or just more efficiently destructive?

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