FUTURE ISSUE April 2001
of work will be in lofty, airy halls with beautiful designs in tiles
and metal, furnished like palaces with every convenience, the machinery
running almost noiselessly,
Edward Bellamy - Looking Back 2000-1887
In 1887 an American called Edward Bellamy wrote a novel about the future
entitled Looking Backward 2000-1887. He wrote it in an elegant
but unfinished home in Chicopee Falls, Mass. against the backdrop of
crippling strikes by workers in all industries including the railways.
Prior to this there had been a series of bank collapses and there was
the stench of cordite and revolution in the air. Frustrated by the strikes
and the fact that he could not get his home completed - the home of
his future bride - Bellamy sensed that society was on the cusp of a
complete change. This would be a social revolution in which the USA
could become a workers paradise, usury abolished, men and women
would labour for the State from age 21 to 45 in a vast organisation
run along almost military lines. At 45 you retired, yet still served
your community offering your wisdom - in return you would have a place
to live in and be respected. Of course 45 was seen to be old
in 1887 and he saw nothing of the huge change in lifestyles of older
people - who dont really get old now until their late
Bellamys vision was not just a bestseller, although it was only
ever outsold by Uncle Toms Cabin and Ben-Hur in
the 19th century. Bellamy may have heard of Marx and his ideas, and
certainly he would have heard of Robert Owen, the industrialist whose
ideas of giving workers clean, well lit workspaces and housing were
taken up by many American industrialists in the 18th century. Naturally
Bellamy predicted that the death of Capitalism would occur in the USA
and arguably Marx may have thought so too, his targets being men like
Rockefeller and Carnegie. That Marxism was spawned in Russia
is one of the world's tragedies - a nation that was neither capitalist
or industrialised became the wrong experimental destination for Bellamy
and Marxs ideals.
Bellamy saw a USA in 2000 that was still quaintly Victorian in values
to women, but nevertheless a workers paradise. It was a place
where the press (media) was controlled by the people in the community.
A place where women wore practical clothes like men - that were also
disposable and cheap. Factories had become very desirable places to
work and almost completely safe and silent (in contrast to the monstrous
filthy, dangerous, consumptive places they were in the 1880's). In the
homes of the future he predicted the electroscope (TV) and roads filled
with silent, efficient electric cars. Communication was not necessarily
by old fashioned telephone but with sound and text files (perhaps email
or even Napster). Bellamy's hero is almost driven mad by noise of traffic
and moves to the basement of this home to escape it. No wonder then
he craved a near silent future.
Bellamy described his Utopia and America, riven by industrial strife,
marvelled at it. Was he wrong? Of course. Did he get anything right?
Quite a lot really. His book was very influential, possibly affecting
attitudes of labour leaders and bosses for the next twenty years. He
predicted a complete change - a world freed from mass poverty and starvation,
everyone entitled to a home and a job, dignity in labour and old age.
Nothing you can argue with there.
Well here we are in 2001 and now it is our turn at Hackwriters to imagine
a world just 19 years away, A world where almost all who read this now
will still be alive, but will have experienced an almost complete change.
Bellamy wrote about a world 113 years distant. But of course his world
was running in slow motion. In 1890 it was possible to imagine whole
cities powered by electricity for the first time. Visionaries such as
Nikolai Tesla and Mr Westinghouse were thinking of an electric powered
society, Tesla of radio (but oddly not of broadcasting), all factories
powered by clean hydro-electricty. Indeed Buffalo, New York grew up
to be the first electric city with cutting edge factories making all
kinds of new inventions that transformed lives and changed old ways
forever. The electric car was already being developed, trains were getting
faster and Bellamy had already predicted air-cars as a way of escaping
crowded cities. The city of the future he decided was like Hampstead
Garden Suburb and he got that right. The future was the suburb writ
large. Yet - technology aside, the 20th Century turned out to be less
about creating paradise and more about land grabs, dying empires, racial
and political upheavals, the rise of mass consumption, mass tourism,
mass murder. The future was about population growth, hunger, energy
exploration and exploitation. We ended up with cheap food, cheap vacations
and cheap lives. We went from respecting the land, the animals that
toil, to mass extermination of virtually all the wildlife and now the
So 2020 with hindsight
- how was it for you?
We too are on the cusp of a great change. Just as in 1887 we are faced
with the consequences of big changes in working practices, equal pay
and rights for women, the disabled and gays, (not in that order) and
the consequences of the mobile technology revolution and internet. We
are also grappling with genetic changes in ourselves and our food and
advances in medical science. Yet we also have the old diseases coming
back, completely resistant to antibiotics. TB is spreading across Europe
rising alarmingly in the UK right now, a country that has actually stopped
innoculating teenagers - the most at risk group. There is Bubonic plague
in Zambia. Aids is everywhere and decimating the young of Africa. We
have global climate changes, volatile political situations on the periphery
of Europe (sporadic riots within Europe) and in 2001 a US President
took office committed to fighting battles long won, reigniting old grievances
such as declaring China Enemy Number 1 to boost his friends
in the defence industries. A consequence of this is the all too avoidable
stand-off between the USA and China over the spy plane and the US aircrew.
Well you get the President you pay for and the USA is paying all right.
This is a 19th century political landscape, not the 21st. It can so
help our world security to look at the world in this narrow petty way
and a risky strategy. Perhaps there really is nostalgia for the cold
war. But who is to say that this time our enemies will
shirk for using the bomb. Any odds available on the Taliban not using
it if some businessman in Russia sold it to them? If a trade
war with China begins and a world recession results, will the voters
thanks the Republicans for this in 2004?
So threading our way through all the possible timelines to the near
future is fraught with difficulty. Bellamy fell asleep and imagined
this Utopia we are meant to be living in now. We at Hackwriters take
our chances and explore a future where genetic science is triumphant.
Where over the next 20 years we avoid global conflict, clumsily reach
some sort of compromise, feel our way forward rather than make great
Myself, I see two worlds. One devastated by petty racial squabbles and
religious wars - Christian versus Muslim -Muslims fighting Christians
using the weapons we have sold to them. I see another world where coastlines
are inundated following political vacillations and inaction. I see Japanese
robot technology taking us all by surprise as they, by necessity, (an
aging population and closed doors to immigrants) need these machines
to nurse, feed, work and eventually manage their lives. I see mass tourism
dying as suddenly as it began, killed by a combination of epidemics,
wars, energy costs and environmental reasons.
I see the white judeo-christian centric world ideal being marginalised
by asian and latino aspirations creating a world less obsessed with
culture and more focussed on a material world. I see the
environment suffering and then suddenly becoming valuable even fashionable.
I see cities like London dying, asphyxiated by a combination of housing
costs, transportation problems, emerging civil disobedience and a dearth
of workers being able to live and work there on the pay offered. Social
disparity is growing fast in London, just like 1887. Europe will be
the real winner. The decades of under investment in education in the
UK and over reliance on paperwork that masks the deficiencies will result
in an eventual decline in our GDP. England will continue to dwell on
its glorious past as huge swathes of its young and old grow impoverished
in mind and spirit, the smart ones leaving for Europe, just as they
did for the colonies in the19th century.
Savour the UK now.
Savour the USA now.
Bellamy imagined a whole new world in 2000 for the USA and now ironically,
it is probably just as vulnerable to an alternative to capitalism should
the right concept come along.
Is there any ray of light?
In 1887 Bellamy wrote that the Golden Age still lay before us. He was
taking quite a risk writing at that time. Im thinking that the
last five years was probably our Golden Age. You have to leave it to
notice, but the train has now definitely left the station.
© Sam North 2001 - Managing Editor
Read more about Edward Bellamy Bellamy
of the Future
See our futures here: The Future
of Sex, Water
Genes versus Bad Genes, Interview
with a clone,
A child's future