On Wednesday, March 23, Staff Writer Simon Panfilio attended a virtual lecture by Jimena Canales on science and the history of non-existent things.

“Can we explain how we went from the steam engine to the microchip, from the early automata of the scientific revolution to artificial intelligence of today?”

That’s the question that author and historian of science Jimena Canales asked at the beginning of her 2020 book Bedeviled: A Shadow History of Demons in Science, and it’s the question she addressed this week in the latest iteration of the New York History of Science Lecture Series. This past Wednesday, the Columbia University Center for Science and Society hosted a lecture in which Canales discussed the idea of studying ‘non-existent things,’ a critical approach towards our limited understanding of where technology is going.

Canales explained that, in her book, she tried to figure out how to determine the shape that the development of technology will take. “Nobody gets it right,” Canales said of people trying to estimate the trajectory of technology throughout history. “Nobody knows where technology will go.” As a historian of science, Canales sought a more apt understanding of these developments and trends, because she considers it imperative to seek an ethical grasp of the frontiers of technology before advancements get out of hand. “By the time technology arrives, most ethical questions are around use— should we use it or not?” Canales said. “By then, it’s too late: the question of use is pretty much meaningless because the technology is there.”

In her studies, Canales focused on the importance of imagination in scientific progress. “Imagination in science is often assumed to play a secondary role,” Canales commented; “it is something often considered as if it were… a sibling that’s closer to the arts and humanities… an inconvenient id hiding behind science’s ego.” However, inventiveness and creativity are essential to both scientific discovery and scientific invention. Canales views science as “an open-ended search” that leads to places we’ve yet to discover, to trails we’ve yet to blaze—as opposed to the traditional belief, popularized by Carl Sagan, that the aim of science is to eliminate false beliefs. In Canales’s view, science is best viewed as a creative process of interacting with our world by channeling imagination.

“The most powerful characteristic of science is based on how it is used to change the world by bringing new technologies and innovations into being,” Canales says. The elementary, Sagan-esque interpretation that science is based around eliminating misconceptions “pales in comparison” with how technology like motors, computers, nuclear bombs, and virtual reality have changed our world. “Sagan’s view is correct for one aspect of science, but science has given life to many imaginings that will change our future in yet unforeseen ways,” Canales said, emphasizing this impossible-to-project trajectory of future developments.

But before diving into the meat and potatoes of her thoughts, Canales stopped to consider an even more fundamental question: “What is technology?” In answering this, Canales looked not to the traditional conceptualization—technology as the industrial application of science—but instead took the opportunity to observe a recurring historical pattern, one that’s simultaneously reasonably able to be anticipated and unexpected all the same: the attribution of demonic qualities to new technologies.

“Is there a basic characteristic that can be used to categorize [all forms of technology]?” Canales asked. The answer, apparently, is that new scientific innovations tend to inspire reactions labeling them as ‘demonic’; this pattern describes the reactions to new innovations typical in society. Saying words like ‘science’ and ‘technology’ and ‘demon’ in the same sentence doesn’t feel right to us: we’re used to picturing demons, even if not as inherently religious, as something from the worlds of philosophy and literature and art. But, as Canales points out, these worlds are intertwined with that of science and technology, because after all, scientists are humans using their imaginations to innovate and discover.

In technology, a ‘daemon’, at its most basic and literal level, is an aspect of a program or process that is triggered by a certain condition to fulfill its processing. Canales, however, conjured up images closer to the traditional ‘demon’ we know from art, literature, and religion. Whenever these new types of technology appear—not just an advancement of an existing concept, but the synthesis of a new concept that is finally able to take shape within our progressing technological capabilities—they are met with reactions that can border on fear, because people don’t know how to rationalize something that hadn’t even been a consideration in their prior understanding of how the world worked.

Throughout centuries of scientific advancement, people have reacted to new and frightening technology through the lens of the demonic. As Canales recounted, Scottish cultural critic Thomas Carlyle wrote that the Industrial Revolution’s machine-based economy was driven by “the steam demon”; Elon Musk himself has characterized artificial intelligence as “summoning the demon,” and, of course, developments as destructive as the atomic bomb have been described as “demon[s] of technology.”

“Poets and writers talk about technology as demonic, even though we think of [science and technology] as at odds with belief in the supernatural,” Canales reflected. As a result, it makes sense for society to view new technologies as something ‘evil’ and otherworldly, because, for all intents and purposes, they are otherworldly. We’ve never known a world in which a new technology exists until that technology is invented, and it takes a while for new developments and the existing order to be reconciled.

Canales also points to another notion of ‘the demonic’ that’s been prevalent in science for centuries. The term ‘demon’ also refers to some sort of thought experiment that challenges widely-accepted scientific and philosophical beliefs. This type of demon is anything “that may stump or break a hypothesis of a law of nature,” Canales explains. For example, Pierre-Simon Laplace imagined a thought conundrum (known as Laplace’s demon) in which a theoretical abstract entity (the demon) is able to know exactly where every atom in the universe is at a given moment in time and is also closely familiar with the laws of motion. As a result, the demon theoretically has the capacity to calculate the entire future of the universe, as well as all of the events of its past. It’s not quite the same as a steam engine or a nuclear bomb, but it’s still another instance of new innovations in human imagination disrupting the accepted order.

This concept remains a lightning rod in the popular debate over free will—if the exact trajectory of the future of the universe can be precisely calculated, doesn’t that imply that our path is naturally pre-ordained? Though Canales never alluded to this connection in her lecture, I can’t help but notice the parallels between Laplace’s demon and the guiding question of her work—is it possible to be able to understand where our technology is headed? According to Canares, we should remain cognizant of imagination in science, because the story of the friction between the scientific order and new and innovative concepts, whether they be thought experiments or artificial intelligence, has been told before. No matter where technology goes, it will be determined by human imagination, and perhaps more importantly, how society responds to the imagination.

Canales’s book Bedeviled: A Shadow History of Demons in Science is available through Princeton University Press.

The New York History of Science Lecture Series will continue on April 20, with Sophia Roosth’s lecture on subterranean imaginations.

Image via Simon Panfilio