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Learning from the History of the Future

Book by Oona Strathern: A Brief History of the Future

Looking back from the future (regnose) is a well tried technique to think about outcomes and many writers and thinkers have experimented with this using different methods and with varying measures of success over the years. Here are just a few of the examples from some of the more colourful characters from my book, A Brief History of the Future (also in German, as Die Visionäre).

Colette’s Lover and the Art of Imagining a Good Day

France’s most famous futurist, Bertrand de Jouvenel was the son of Baron Henry de Jouvenel, one of the most influential and charismatic political journalists in Paris. When Bertrand was just three years old, his parents separated and after taking various scandalous lovers, Henry shocked French society even more by taking up with the author Colette, who had just left her aristocratic lesbian lover. Colette and Henry married in 1912, but it was not until the spring of 1920 that Bertrand was finally allowed to meet his infamous stepmother. At sixteen, he was still shy, but was showing all the signs of having inherited his father’s good looks and charm. Within a year he had become Colette’s lover, and would remain until he was twenty-one, becoming the source of much gossip and speculation. As Colette’s biographer Judith Thurman remarked to a family friend, “I could understand Colette’s attraction for Bertrand, but what, I asked bluntly, did a beautiful boy of sixteen see in a fat and domineering woman of fifty however charming she might be?”
The answer lay not just in her powerful seductive charms, or revenge on his inattentive, domineering father, but also his thirst for knowledge and experience outside the conservative confines of Parisian society. Writing late in his life de Jouvenel recalled, “the pleasures she gave me were all those which open a window on the world, which I owe entirely to her”.

De Jouvenel’s interest in politics and the future began in his youth when he accompanied his diplomat father to the peace conferences after the First World War, but it was later fuelled by the works of H. G. Wells, of which he read everything he could. He travelled through America and Britain during the 1930s and observed, at close hand, poverty, the soup kitchens and the plight of the homeless. Following a shameful and much-regretted flirtation with the unemployment policies of the Nazis during the Second World War, de Jouvenel became engaged in the problems of authoritarian governments that were gripping Asia and Africa in the 1950s.

It was, however, the Ford Foundation that gave de Jouvenel his first big break in futurism in 1960 when it financed a project called »Futuribles«. This was a think tank of experts who got together to speculate and write essays about the future of society and politics in the spirit of the sixteenth-century Spanish Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, who first coined the term »futurible« to fuse the ideas of future and possibility. As de Jouvenel explained, „the purpose is to generate a habit, the habit of forward-looking”. Less reassuringly, but rather charmingly, he took pains to explain: “Our authors . . . certainly do not pretend to any knowledge of the future, which would be foolish, but neither do they pretend that they have no opinion about it, which would be evasive”. Furthermore, he admitted to his critics that, yes, their purpose was essentially unscholarly, and no, it was not scientific, but in the great tradition of French philosophising, it took them into the realm of »possibles«. It was this period in which de Jouvenel was inspired to put to paper his ground rules and philosophical parameters for thinking about the future.

The result was a handbook, The Art of Conjecture, published in French in 1964. In it he distinguished between the possible (what we know) and the desirables (what we wish for), and pointed out that &lquo;Man is fortunate when the desirable and the probable coincide! The case is often otherwise, and thus we find ourselves trying to bend the course of events in a way which will bring the probable closer to the desirable. And this is the real reason we study the future.” There was no prediction per se in the book, but lots of philosophical ruminating on defining the future and the fact that knowledge of the future is a contradiction in terms. For de Jouvenel there was no one future, but a fan of possibilities to be unfolded. How too, he philosophised, can we even begin to define the future if it is “pre-existent – something existing before it appears”. At the time his book was considered a ground-breaking contribution to futurism.
When funding from the Ford Foundation ran out, de Jouvenel had the prescience to keep the catchy name Futuribles, and in 1967 set up his own research institute in Paris. For a while he enjoyed considerable success and a reputation as a suave political philosopher, travelling the world to give speeches and advice.

By the time of his death in 1987 he had rather fallen off the futurological radar, and it was left to his son Hughes to run the institute. Today Futuribles still publishes journals on a wide range of themes using a Delphi-like network of some 350 correspondents to identify »possible« global trends and Hughes is working, as his father before him, to emerge from the paternal shadow as a thinker in his own right. As well as setting a high standard for his son, Bertrand de Jouvenel’s legacy was that he believed that we should try to forget about prophesy per se, and simply take time to imagine what makes a good day for an ordinary man. Writing in The Art of Conjecture he poetically recommended, “Take this man when he wakes up; follow him through to the time of sleep. Plot as it were, the sequence of his pleasurable and unpleasurable impressions, and now imagine what a »good day« should be. Picturing this »good day« is the first step into a modern utopia; then you will have to seek the conditions, which can bring about this good day.”

Bellamy’s Dream: Looking Backward to Look Forward

Looking Backward, was the last of the great optimistic utopias of the nineteenth century. First published in 1888, it was, like many a utopia before it, an instant hit and became the third bestselling book in America after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. It stars Julian West, a Bostonian who goes to sleep in 1887 and wakes up in a socialist paradise, 113 years, three months and eleven days later in the year 2000. The book was a futurist manifesto disguised as fiction, “intended in all seriousness as a forecast, in accordance with the principles of evolution, of the next state in the industrial and social development of humanity.”

Young West awakens in the home of a fine gentleman called Dr Leete, who conveniently has a beautiful and unattached daughter. Here in the year 2000 we find many of the superficial delights of modern-day society. For a start there is abundant electric lighting and everyone can enjoy »music by telephone« or even listen to a sermon from the comfort of their armchair. “There are some who still prefer to hear sermons in church”, explains Dr Leete, “but most of our preaching, like our musical performances, is not in public, but delivered in acoustically prepared chambers, connected by wire with subscribers’ houses.” Even Bellamy’s description of shopping malls sounds uncannily like those of today: “A vast hall of light . . . the walls and ceiling were frescoed in mellow tints calculated to soften . . . Around the fountain was a space occupied with chairs and sofas, on which many persons were seated conversing.” He also noted that these »distributing establishments« would, for the sake of convenience, all sell exactly the same goods.

Bellamy also had a vision of an efficient delivery service. Bringing to mind the speed and advertising slogans of courier services today, Ms Leete boasts to West that “my order will probably be at home sooner than I could have carried it from here”. The young lady naturally does not pay in the future in cash, but with »an American credit card« which is available to everyone and can conveniently be used abroad. Unlike the credit cards of the twenty-first century, Bellamy’s are used to distribute “surplus wealth (which) . . . all enjoy in equal degree”, and as a result, selfishness and »excessive individualism« have been all but eradicated.

The »female question« is a trickier matter for many (male) futurists. Bellamy finds it hard to foresee how women would live, think and want today. Where he fails, as many before and after him, is to envisage the more subtle social and moral shifts in society. Bellamy for example, still envisions the ladies politely retiring after dinner, and leaving the men to discuss more important matters. Unmarried women – even in the twenty- first century – are, according to Bellamy, poor specimens to be pitied, though on a more positive side he foresaw that the independence of women means that “there can be no marriages now except that of inclination”. Bellamy himself was happily married to his adopted sister, with whom he had two children. As a well-off writer and subsequently a speaker much in demand, he would have been able to afford domestic help, and his wife would, as he hoped for women of 2000, have been released from domestic drudgery. Indeed, women in the future would not need to cook as every household would be able to eat à la carte in a community dining hall.

Gilman’s Mountain: Female Forecasting

A great fan of Bellamy’s was the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A compatriot and contemporary of Bellamy, Gilman referred to Looking Backward as “that great modern instance”, even if half of the inhabitants of that »instance« were poorly represented by her tough feminist standards. Celebrated more in feminism than futurism, she was, however, one of the first significant female futurists even though the details of her life and death were so miserable that one would seriously think twice before reading her vision of any future. Charlotte’s father abandoned the family shortly after her birth, and she grew up in poverty with a repressive mother who, like Bellamy’s, deprived her, as a matter of principle, of maternal love. As an adult she suffered severe postnatal depression, and was ordered to take to her bed and avoid intellectual excitement. This led to a complete nervous breakdown, and when she eventually recovered, she promptly divorced her husband, then scandalised society further by sending her daughter to live with him. Three years after she was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer in 1932 she killed herself, preferring “chloroform to cancer”.

But do not let that put you off. There is no Cassandra-like doom and gloom in her writings, and her two main futuristic works are – at least from a woman’s point of view – funny and prophetic in unexpected ways. Admittedly Gilman had a very distinctive feminist-driven vision of the future, and confessed that she only “wrote to preach”. Strangely, her predictions are interesting not because they were wildly wrong, nor because they have come true, but because nearly a hundred years later, some fundamental questions and concerns have not changed. Answers are all very well, but asking the right questions at the right time is one of the founding principles that sets an interesting futurist apart from a mediocre one. One of Gilman’s most prophetic and funniest scenes is from her 1911 book Moving the Mountain, when explorer John Robertson returns to America after being lost in Tibet for thirty years and asks his sister, “Now tell me the worst – are the men all doing the housework?” She reassures him they are not. He thinks a bit, and then still wondering where the catch is, inquires nervously, “they still wear trousers don’t they?”

In the fictional America of 1940 he is, however, disappointed to find that there are no more dutiful and desperate housewives. Robertson, who is treated like an extinct species, finds it hard to adjust and notes wistfully how a house without a housewife seems “altogether empty’”. Gilman was looking ahead to a time when the mountain had been moved, when “the women woke up”, have become economically independent, and work like men, according to their abilities and talents. Interestingly, Gilman does not insist – as some feminists do – on equality in everything in the future. In The Home: Its Work and Influence she reassures readers that everyone will work according to their human talents. Men do not have to change nappies (unless they really, really want to), but should do the heavy, “violent plain” work as that is what they actually are best at. So, while the men are busy digging and hammering, women she predicts, will prefer the administrative and constructive jobs. In a forerunner of the work-life balance and domestic services that are widely on offer today, the women set up the superbly named Home Service Company. This is a successful business that among other things manages the new food industries, centralised cooking and home-delivery services. As well as the housework and cooking being taken care of, the women are further liberated by the fact that there are childcare services available everywhere.

As mentioned above, Gilman herself had a complete nervous breakdown when she was first married and faced with a small screaming baby and a dreary domestic routine. So, although these predictions were in many ways a personal projection, they still represented the dream of a better future for many women of her generation. At the time, ideas such as the kitchen-less house were shocking for the social shifts they represented.

In her preface to Moving the Mountain Gilman said, “One of the most distinctive features of the human mind is to forecast better things”. Better things for her meant not only better novels, but also a “new social consciousness”. She christened the book a »baby utopia« as it involves “no other change than a change of mind, the mere awakening of people, especially the women, to existing possibilities. It indicates what people might do . . . in thirty years.” Even by the most utopian of utopian standards, thirty years represents pretty optimistic thinking for deep social shifts.

Herland published four years later, was an altogether bigger and bolder vision of the future and hence a much more frightening proposal. Set in a remote mountain area, it tells the story of three male explorers who stumble across an all-female society. Herland, they discover, has emerged triumphant from the ashes of a civilisation destroyed, rather predictably, by reckless male behaviour. The women they encounter are of enviable Amazonian proportions – athletic, strong and with cropped hair – and sexless, though one of the men reports, “when I see them knit, I can almost call them feminine”. But as the hapless three soon discover, far from fulfilling every clichéd male fantasy, the place has serious disadvantages. Although the men are treated kindly, they are kept locked up or under guard for much of the time – not so much to protect the women from the »gentlemen«, explain the Herlanders, but vice versa. Not only are the men bewildered by the absence of either recreational or procreational sex. Compensation is not to be found in the usual realm. There is no smoking or drinking, and even a good juicy steak is out of the question as the Herlanders are all vegetarian. Despite this being a sexless race, the women have survived and multiplied thanks to the discovery and development of procreation by parthenogenesis. Far from devalued, motherhood in Herland is seen as the highest social service. But in an all-too transparent reflection of her own desires and experiences, babies in Gilman’s utopia never cry, and are not brought up by home-bound depressed mothers, but by all mothers collectively.