Shelf Life

The Future

An excerpt from Nick Montfort’s exploration of how to create what lies ahead

By Charlotte Salley | January 19, 2018
(T. Arai/Flickr)
(T. Arai/Flickr)

Future-making, as Nick Montfort, a digital media professor at MIT, describes it, is not a matter of waiting for tomorrow and reacting. It’s an active enterprise. The future we want, he believes, is the one writers, artists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and designers are constructing now. Yet future-making isn’t just about computers and new media. Manifestos, world fairs, and, in this excerpt, literary utopias are all examples of willing tomorrow into existence.

If we start our search for utopias from the United States, one vision, and one particular book, looms particularly large. This is Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel, Looking Backward: 2000–1887. Set in Boston in the year 2000, it follows the experiences of a man who, like an even more dormant Rip Van Winkle, entered a trance in 1887 and was brought out of his suspended animation in good health more than 100 years later. What he found, as the book’s preface explains, was “a social order at once so simple and logical that it seems but the triumph of common sense.” He tours the city, learning about the improved working conditions and the abundance of food and goods available to everyone. Boston, and the United States, have been transformed into a bountiful socialist utopia.

Soon after the novel was published in 1888, its publisher was acquired, the book was reissued, and it became tremendously popular. A million copies were sold in two years, with only Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur outselling the book, and in those cases over a longer span of time. Dozens of clubs were started to discuss the socialist ideas of the book. These groups, organized by “Bellamyites,” were called “nationalist clubs” because of negative associations with the term “socialism,” but they were closely related to the concept of socialism and did not have any particular relationship to what we now think of as nationalism. These clubs were only around for a few years, but they, and Bellamy’s book, were an important influence on the Theosophical movement, which went on to establish a dozen utopian communities in the United States. The impact on American writing was strong, too, with more than 150 books being written in response to Looking Backward—including exuberant sequels and several books opposed to the ideas of the original novel.

Looking Backward’s new society is based on ideas that precede the book; this society is also presented well in the context of the novel. The narrator, Julian West, is from the same time as his early readers, and it’s of course necessary for people from the year 2000 to explain to him how this strange new society works. The difference between the improved social order and that of 1887 is illustrated throughout Looking Backward, but perhaps never as memorably as when the narrator finds that a sudden downpour has begun and he—and, it seems, everyone else—is without an umbrella: “The mystery was explained when we found ourselves on the street, for a continuous waterproof covering had been let down so as to enclose the sidewalk and turn it into a well-lighted and perfectly dry corridor, which was filled with a stream of ladies and gentlemen dressed for dinner.” As one of the natives explains, “the difference between the age of individualism and that of concert was well characterized by the fact that, in the nineteenth century, when it rained, the people of Boston put up three hundred thousand umbrellas over as many heads, and in the twentieth century they put up one umbrella over all the heads.”

Excerpted from The Future by Nick Montfort, published by The MIT Press 2017.  All rights reserved.  

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