The Secret History of the Future

The Secret History of the Future

By Slate Podcasts

Journey into the past, and you'll discover the secret history of the future. From the world's first cyberattack in 1834, to 19th-century virtual reality, The Economist's Tom Standage and Slate's Seth Stevenson examine the historical precedents that can transform our understanding of modern technology, predicting how it might evolve and highlighting pitfalls to avoid. Discovering how people reacted to past innovations can also teach us about ourselves.


Introducing: Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism

Hey Secret History listeners! We'd like to introduce a new show from Slate, Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism. Each episode dives into the history of a brand that shapes the way we live and work. This first episode is about The Carnival Corporation, the biggest cruise company in the world. Carnival made headlines at the start of the covid-19 crisis when its ships harbored some of the world’s first coronavirus outbreaks. But it turns out the cruise industry is no stranger to disaster--on the contrary, mishaps have plagued Carnival since its very first voyage. How has cruising remained a popular way to vacation, in the face of one disaster after another? Listen to find out, and if you like it, subscribe to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. Podcast production by Jess Miller and Asha Saluja. Slate Plus members get ad-free podcasts and bonus episodes of shows like Dear Prudence and Slow Burn. Sign up now to listen and support our work. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
27/05/2021m 41s

Introducing Cautionary Tales

Hello, Secret History fans! Here's an episode of another show we think you might like: Cautionary Tales from Pushkin Industries. Learning from our mistakes can be hard. Learning from other people’s mistakes...well, that’s a lot more fun. In Cautionary Tales, from Pushkin Industries, economist and journalist Tim Harford retells true stories of unexpected outcomes, from the development of tanks in modern warfare to the accidental crowning of La La Land at the 2017 Oscars. Some of these tales are tragic, some are comic, but like the great fables and parables, each has a moral. Tim takes you aboard a doomed airship, sits you on a concert stage in front of a broken piano, and puts you in a room with cult members counting down the final seconds before the end of the world. A cast of actors joins him in telling these stories. You’ll hear the famous Alan Cumming, Archie Panjabi, who won an Emmy award for The Good Wife, and Russell Tovey from The History Boys.  Cautionary Tales from Pushkin Industries. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Trust me, it would be a mistake not to. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
16/12/1937m 9s

Introducing What Next: TBD

Hey Secret History of the Future fans! We're excited to introduce you to another show we think you'll like. It's called What Next: TBD, and it's a weekly show about tech, power, and the future. Secret History's very own Seth Stevenson guest hosted this episode. Check it out, and then subscribe here: or wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
26/11/1922m 52s

S2E10: New Media, Old Story

Radio was originally a social medium, as early radio sets (each of which could transmit as well as receive) turned cities into giant chatrooms, populated by Morse Code-tapping enthusiasts. But the excitement of this democratic, digital platform did not last, and radio was tamed by corporate interests in the 1920s. The utopian dream of platforms that are open and meritocratic has been reborn in the internet era in the form of blogging, and more recently podcasting. But can it ever come true? Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
04/09/1942m 0s

S2E9: A Brief History Of Timekeeping

The first mechanical clocks were made to summon monks to prayer. Ever since, timekeeping technology has often been about control and obligation. But underneath a mountain in Texas, a new kind of clock is being built that’s meant to alter the way we think about time. Can it force us to connect our distant past with our distant future, tick by tick? Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
28/08/1936m 41s

S2E8: Salvation In The Air

At the dawn of the 20th century, chemists dreamed of extracting nitrogen from the air and turning it into a limitless supply of fertiliser. Sceptics thought they were crazy -- it was possible in theory, but it was unclear if it could be done in practice. What happened next changed the course of 20th-century history, and provides inspiration to innovators pursuing a different dream today: sucking carbon dioxide out of the air to avert climate change. Might they not be quite so crazy after all? Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
21/08/1937m 6s

S2E7: A Bug In The System

The first ever computer program was written in 1843 by Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who hoped her far-sighted treatise on mechanical computers would lead to a glittering scientific career. Today, as we worry that modern systems suffer from “algorithmic bias” against some groups of people, what can her program tell us about how software, and the people who make it, can go wrong? Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
14/08/1936m 21s

S2E6: Dots, Dashes, and Dating Apps

In the 19th century, young people wooed each other over the telegraph. But meeting strangers on the wires could lead to confusion, disappointment, and even fraud. Do modern online dating apps have anything to learn from telegraph romances? Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
07/08/1936m 49s

S2E5: Mars on Earth

Polar exploration was the Victorian equivalent of the space race. Major powers vied to outdo each other, funding expeditions to the most inhospitable parts of the world as demonstrations of their supremacy over nature and each other. Today, the resulting tales of triumph and tragedy hold valuable lessons about what to do—and what not to do—as human explorers plan missions to Mars. Slate Plus members get bonus segments and ad-free podcast feeds. Sign up now.  Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
31/07/1938m 56s

S2E4: Meat and Potatoes

The potato seemed strange and unappetizing when it first arrived in Europe. But it grew into a wonder food that helped solve the continent’s hunger problems. Can its journey tell us what to expect from current efforts to replace animal meat with societally healthier meat alternatives made from plants, insects, or cells grown in petri dishes? Slate Plus members get bonus segments and ad-free podcast feeds. Sign up now.  Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
24/07/1939m 50s

S2E3: Unreliable Evidence

In the early 20th century a new forensic technique—fingerprinting—displaced a cruder form of identification based on body measurements. Hailed as modern, scientific, and infallible, fingerprinting was adopted around the world. But in recent years doubts have been cast on its reliability, and a new technique—DNA profiling—has emerged as the forensic gold standard. In assuming it is infallible, are we making the same mistake again? Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
17/07/1931m 37s

S2E2: Second Wind

For thousands of years we sailed our cargo across oceans using zero-emission, 100 percent renewable wind. Then we switched to ships that run on oil, creating a global maritime fleet that pumps greenhouse gases into the sky. Could we go back to wind-powered ships by rediscovering a clever nautical innovation that we abandoned a century ago? Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
10/07/1933m 46s

S2E1: A Familiar Tune

The 19th century invention of the phonograph left composers worried they might not be paid for recordings. The 20th century proliferation of digital sampling outmoded old copyright laws. Can these previous tech disruptions of the music business teach us how to handle a 21st century onslaught of computers that can compose their own songs? Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
03/07/1943m 56s

Season 2 Trailer

What can 19th century polar exploration teach us as humans plan missions to Mars? Do modern online dating apps have anything to learn from romances over the telegraph wires? Dig into the past, and you’ll find surprising lessons about what’s next for our modern world. Season 2 of The Secret History of The Future drops July 03, 2019. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts.  Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
26/06/192m 33s

S1E10: Infinite Scroll

The Renaissance scholars couldn’t keep up with new information (“Have you read the latest Erasmus book?” “I don’t have time!”) and needed a better way to organize it. Thus came the invention of tables of contents, indexes, book reviews, encyclopedias, and other shortcuts. What kinds of technological solutions might help us cope with the information overload we all experience today? Guests include: Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack; Nathan Jurgenson, Snapchat sociologist. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
07/11/1838m 31s

S1E9: A Little Less Conversation

Some people thought the laying of the transatlantic cable might bring world peace, because connecting humans could only lead to better understanding and empathy. That wasn’t the outcome, and recent utopian ideas about communication (Facebook might bring us together and make us all friends!) have also met with a darker reality (Facebook might polarize us and spread false information!). Should we be scared of technology that promises to connect the world? Guests include: Robin Dunbar, inventor of Dunbar’s Number; Nancy Baym, Microsoft researcher.   Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
31/10/1830m 24s

S1E8: VR or It Didn’t Happen

In the Victorian era, plaster casts became a way to preserve important artifacts in 3-D. Now, virtual reality promises to preserve places and experiences. But who decides what gets preserved? And is the technology an accurate recreation of the experience, or does it fool us into thinking we’ve encountered the real thing when we’ve done nothing of the sort? Guests include: Jaron Lanier, VR pioneer; Nonny de la Pena, VR artist; Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
24/10/1832m 1s

S1E7: A Clock in the Sky

In 1714, British parliament offered a huge cash prize to anyone who could find a way to determine longitude at sea. And it worked, sort of ... several decades later. Are modern contests (DARPA challenges, the X Prize) offering riches and glory an effective way to spur technological innovation? Guests include: Dava Sobel, author of Longitude. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
17/10/1834m 57s

S1E6: From Zero to Selfie

In 1969, an anthropologist introduced photographs and films to people in Papua New Guinea who’d never seen themselves represented in media before. It changed their conception of the world. In modern society, social media floods us with imagery at a pace we’ve never encountered before, and powerful video manipulation technology threatens to blur the line between real and fake. Are we the new Papuans, about to be overwhelmed by a wholesale media shift? Guests include: Nathan Jurgenson, Snapchat’s in-house sociologist; Hany Farid, Dartmouth computer science professor. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
10/10/1837m 3s

S1E5: Human Insecurity

The French telegraph system was hacked in 1834 by a pair of thieves who stole financial market information -- effectively conducting the world’s first cyber attack. What does the incident teach us about network vulnerabilities, human weakness, and modern-day security? Guests include: Bruce Schneier, security expert. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
03/10/1830m 10s

S1E4: The Fault In Our Cars

The first pedestrian killed by a car in the western hemisphere was on New York’s Upper West Side in 1899.  One newspaper warned that “the automobile has tasted blood.” Today, driverless cars present their own mix of technological promise and potential danger. Can the reaction to that 1899 pedestrian tragedy help us navigate current arguments about safety, blame, commerce, and public space? Guests include: Missy Cummings, Navy fighter pilot and head of the Duke Humans and Autonomy Lab. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
26/09/1833m 38s

S1E3: Fork Fashions and Toilet Trends

It took a long time for the fork to go from weird curiosity to ubiquitous tool. How long will it take for current technologies -- like the Japanese-style bidet toilet, or heads-up displays such as Google Glass -- to go from oddities to everyday necessities? Guests include: Astro Teller, Google’s Captain of Moonshots; Margaret Visser, author of The Rituals of Dinner. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
19/09/1828m 58s

S1E2: The Body Electric

We’ve used electricity to treat our brains for thousands of years, from placing electric fish on our heads to cure migraines to using electroconvulsive therapy to alleviate depression. But over time, our focus has shifted from restoring health to augmenting our abilities. Should we be wearing battery-powered caps to improve our concentration, or implanting electricity-emitting devices to expand our thinking capacity? Guests include: Brian Johnson, CEO of Kernel. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
12/09/1835m 23s

S1E1: The Box That A.I. Lives In

In the 18th century, a device called the Mechanical Turk convinced Europeans that a robot could play winning chess. But there was a trick. It’s a trick that companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook still pull on us today. Guests include: Jaron Lanier, futurist. Luis von Ahn, founder of CAPTCHA and Duolingo. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
05/09/1835m 27s

Season 1 Trailer

Examine the history of tech to uncover stories that help us illuminate the present and predict the future.  Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
06/08/182m 27s
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