Saturday, May 10, 2008

Technological Utopianism in American Culture

Howard Segal, Technological Utopianism in American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985)

This book promised to tell me about twenty-five different utopian thinkers in the years 1880-1940ish, all of whom counted on technology to carry out many of their utopian objectives. However, frustratingly, there was only one chapter on the actual plots of the utopias themselves. Segal seemed to dismiss his own sources, calling them stilted and sometimes formulaic, and chose to concentrate instead on the social circumstances surrounding the writing of these utopic texts. That was a bit annoying, considering that there were some really awesome-looking images in that chapter, particularly of the plans for King Camp Gillette's city in The Human Drift (1894) - a book which I think I should check out.

Segal argues that these twenty-five authors turned to writing about technological utopia, rather than creating actual utopian communities (like the Brook Farms and Fourierian phalansteries of the earlier part of the century) because society had grown to be more complex and bureaucratic, and it was harder and harder to imagine change on a community level. In the absence of this, these writers turned to technology on two counts: the technology of writing/imagination; and the technology of social control. Like the efficiency experts I covered in my review essay about Haber, Jordan, et. al, these writers saw administration as the saving technology which would eliminate emotions from politics and leave society running rationally.

These writers favored "megalopoli", as opposed to small towns, as ideal imagined communities. (See picture of Gillette's planned apartment building in his city, "Megalopolis," described in The Human Drift.)

Elements of the technological utopia which Segal argues have actually come to pass include the interpenetration of work and leisure; the elimination of popular political thought (partially as the result of the former); the death of play; the bureaucratization of art; and conformism in personality.

On page 95, Segal criticizes Leo Marx for saying that Americans stopped searching for the middle landscape after the Civil War - says instead that urban, suburban, and regional "middle landscapes" continued to be seen as ideal - ex. Frederick Law Olmsted's parks.

Segal teaches at the University of Maine, and has written on Henry Ford's village industries and a book called Future Imperfect: The Mixed Blessings of Technology in America.

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