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Ideology in Age of Great Inventions

Thoughts on Progress

One of the best-selling American novels of the 1880s was what would now be called science-fiction: a man falls into a trance-induced slumber for 113 years only to wake up in a futuristic utopian society. The book, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (published in 1888) not only became one of the most popular of its era, but continues to pop up, at least in historical discussions, to this day. The novel is usually remembered for Bellamy's success in smuggling socialist ideas (the nationalization of industry and the redistribution of wealth) into a hugely popular piece of fiction. Less often emphasized, but no less important, is how he managed to do it.

The novel's protagonist, Julian West, wakes up in the year 2000 to find America transformed. Gone is the inequality and social chaos that threatened Bellamy's own industrial society. Instead, West sees the promise of production technology realized. Looking back from the future, he learns that as the giant nineteenth-century corporations became more technologically advanced, they became more efficient. New machines and new organization led to an ultimate merging of all industry with a benevolent government. Production was so great and material wealth so abundant that there was an end to scarcity, worker exploitation, and social conflict.

In the future society of Looking Backward, everyone has a job to which they're well suited and they retire at 45—all the while indulging in endless consumer goods at gigantic department stores that accept something akin to credit cards. And peering all the way into our own time, Bellamy's future citizens entertain themselves with music and broadcasts straight from the telephone.

Bellamy's readers thought his future sounded like an idyllic place; the book became an instant bestseller, spawning the formation of clubs across the country to discuss and promote his ideas. This meant the spread of a sort of socialist thinking, but it also meant the spread of what might have been a peculiarly American sort of technological utopianism. At its foundation, that's what Bellamy's particularly optimistic view of the future was based on: the idea that technological advance, used wisely, could solve our problems.

Looking Backward saw plenty to worry about in the turbulent events of the 1880s, but it identified a hope for the future in America's increasing material wealth and productive capacity. And in its success, the book also suggested that many Americans had come to identify technological advance as perhaps the best means for social and political progress—an idea that would not only be very influential with the Progressives of the early twentieth century, but would persist as an article of faith in the future to this day.

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