Wednesday, April 10, 2013

148: Howard Segal's Technologial Utopianism

In Technological Utopianism in American Culture, Howard Segal argues that a strain of utopian literature produced in American between 1833 and 1933 firmly linked human improvement to technology.  While technological utopianism may have been a marginal thread in popular culture, it had a huge influence on both European and American intellectuals' thoughts on technology and American movements like scientific management, the conservation movement, and technocracy.  In tracing the careers and writings of 25 American technological utopians, Segal hopes to make their ideas more accessible and also to show that utopianism is a useful tool for social criticism.

According to Segal, American technological utopianism has four unique characteristics that distinguish it from other utopian traditions:

  • technological utopians envision a world very similar to the one in which they live; the difference is more quantitative than qualitative
  • versus Europe, America in the 19th century was perceived as a place where utopia could still be built
  • American technological utopians were less revolutionary and more practical than their European counterparts
  • these writers used utopianism not to fantasize about the future but to critique and suggest improvements for present-day society.
Even within this matrix, Segal's subjects range widely, from Robert Thurston, the first president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, to Albert Waldo Howard, a deaf musician and writer who claimed to have "cosmic consciousness" and to be the reincarnation of Beethoven.  Also, aside from Edward Bellamy and King Camp Gillette, most were relatively unknown in their own time, and the quality of their writing is generally not very high.  However, they were all optimistic about American technological development leading to social Progress, and they variously described technocracies of the near future that were clean, efficient, and culturally uniform.  And they did, it seems, have some influence: Segal shows how technological utopians closely watched and integrated extreme versions of contemporary reform movements into their work, including conservation, corporate and government reorganization, city planning, national planning, and scientific management; he also shows how these movements tended toward technological utopianism in the problems they identified and the solutions they proposed.

While the technological advances predicted by Segal's subjects have happened, most of the social reforms they were supposed to bring have not.  However, because many of them embraced Auguste Comte's concept of the "technological plateau," the level of technological development beyond which societies should not go, they are closely linked to later utopian writers, including Schumacher, Winner, and Marcuse.  If Segal's scope - unknown literary utopians only - limits him from making large claims, at least the variety of subjects and the practicality of their prescriptions provides a window into the radical end of American reform.

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