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‘The future 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 worker’s 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 don’t really get ‘old’ now until their late sixties.

Bellamy’s vision was not just a bestseller, although it was only ever outsold by Uncle Tom’s 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 Marx’s ideals.

Bellamy saw a USA in 2000 that was still quaintly Victorian in values to women, but nevertheless a worker’s 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 domestic animals.

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 leaps.

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. I’m 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

also Visions of the Future

See our futures here: The Future of Sex, Water Futures, Hydrogen Solutions,
Good Genes versus Bad Genes, Interview with a clone, A child's future

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