In this article originally published in Quartz, I examine how the Victorians who lived in Holmes’ London also lived in a time of enormous technological upheaval, and how that revolution informed the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.
The picture, in case you’re wondering, is of my dog Watson.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a futurist living in a time and place when the technology of the Industrial Revolution was fundamentally changing people’s lives. Many of the concepts he wrote in the fictional adventures of Sherlock Holmes formed the basis for pioneering forensic techniques that are still in use today.
But the connection between his most famous character and technological innovation goes well beyond the techniques employed in the stories—Sherlock Holmes himself is a technological disruptor.
The Great Detective’s radical methods and innovations in the field of crime fighting echo the collective hopes and fears of an era in which technology has seen massive destruction and vastly improving people’s lives. To Victorians, the first “horseless carriages” that began to appear in London in the late 1800s—including Holmes’ final story, His Last Bow—may have sounded as strange as driverless cars do to us today.
But the Londoners of the century quickly got used to such technological marvels. Within a few short decades, they saw the introduction and popularity of railways, photography and cinema, not to mention items such as typewriters, bicycles, gramophones and sewing machines.
But the biggest disruption for us today has come from advances in communication technology. In 1866 Brunel’s SS Great Eastern (the largest ship of its time) laid a cable across the Atlantic connecting the two continents, and by the turn of the century, a global telegraph network had been established that extended to almost every corner of the world. reached. (Sounds familiar?) By 1887 there were thousands of telephones installed in Britain and America, and Marconi’s radio was beginning to take off.
Conan Doyle may not have been able to envision the world today, but the theory and philosophy that Holmes’ computer brain applies to solving mysteries is particularly relevant today. In fact, they can help us understand some of the key technologies shaping our lives in the 21st century.
In a world where we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day, it’s no wonder that some of the most valuable technologies are devoted entirely to helping people find information relevant to them.
Holmes lived at the pinnacle of the information age, and identified the dangers of a disorganized mind. In A Study in Scarlet, Watson discovers how brutal Holmes’ analytical approach to the problem is. When Watson is shocked that Holmes – whose “ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge” – did not know that the Earth revolved around the Sun, Holmes quips that he would try to forget the fact:
“You look amazed,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I know it I’ll do my best to forget it.”
“You see, he explained, “I agree that a man’s brain is basically like an empty attic. And you have to stock it with the furniture of your choice. The fool takes every kind of wood that comes before him so that he may have a multitude of useful knowledge, or at best he may find it difficult to lay his hands on it.
Now the skilled worker is actually very careful what he takes in his brain-attic. He’ll have nothing but tools that can help him do his job, but he has a great assortment of these, and all in perfect order. ”
To see this Holmesian theory in practice we need look no further than discovery technology. The way Google constantly adjusts its search results based on what’s contextually relevant to us is a prime example.
In the world of information clutter, we’re constantly trying to clean out our attics, yet there’s a fine balance between filtering out the clutter and looking up important information. The filter bubble effect, partially blamed for events like the Trump election shock, shows what can go wrong when algorithms are tasked with making those decisions for us.
Augmented and Mixed Reality
The Watson-Holmes dichotomy is also surprisingly useful in helping to wrap our heads around the concept of augmented/mixed reality (known as AR or MR). It is often difficult to understand how virtual objects can be persistent in the real world. This means that someone wearing a headset like the Microsoft HoloLens will see a completely different reality than someone without it, yet those realities are constantly related to each other.
By that reasoning, we can argue that Watson sees reality as the “real” world without being advanced while Holmes’s eyes allow him to see things through a spectrum amplified by his analytical mind.