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The Terrible Century

Winston Churchill reminds us that technology can do great-and awful-things.

In April 1949, Winston Churchill spoke before a crowd of 14,000 in Boston Garden for MIT’s “Mid-Century Convocation.” TR published the speech, excerpted below, the following month. As we look to a new century, we’re mindful of the lesson Churchill learned in this one: The seductive “brain buzz” of technology must be tempered by ethical codes.

We entered this terrible Twentieth Century with confidence. We thought that with improving transportation nations would get to know each other better. We believed that as they got to know each other better they would like each other more, and that national rivalries would fade in a growing international consciousness. We took it almost for granted that science would confer continual boons and blessings upon us….

That is how we began the century. Science presently placed novel and dangerous facilities in the hands of the most powerful countries. Humanity was informed that it could make machines that would fly through the air….

…Fanned by the crimson wings of war, the conquest of the air affected profoundly human affairs. …The whole prospect and outlook of mankind grew immeasurably larger, and the multiplication of ideas also proceeded at an incredible rate. This vast expansion was unhappily not accompanied by any noticeable advance in the stature of man, either in his mental faculties, or his moral character. His brain got no better, but it buzzed the more. …Science bestowed immense new powers on man, and, at the same time, created conditions which were largely beyond his comprehension and still more beyond his control. While he nursed the illusion of growing mastery and exulted in his new trappings, he became the sport and presently the victim of tides, and currents, of whirlpools and tornadoes amid which he was far more helpless than he had been for a long time.

…Our…codes of honour, morals and manners, the passionate convictions which so many hundreds of millions share together of the principles of freedom and justice, are far more precious to us than anything which scientific discoveries could bestow. Those whose minds are attracted or compelled to rigid and symmetrical systems of government should remember that logic, like science, must be the servant and not the master of man.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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