- Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities by Howard P. Segal
This brief history of utopias moves from Plato to the present in 245 pages of text. It is part of a series of histories of religion, and if written by another scholar might contain little about technology. But in the capable hands of Howard P. Segal, professor of history at the University of Maine, technology rightfully has an important role in the imagination of alternative societies. His concise, well-written book covers utopias ancient and modern, Western and non-Western, and it is not limited to fiction conventionally labeled utopian but includes world’s fairs, social science, digital media, prophecies, millennial movements, and science fiction. Given this ambitious range, Segal can devote only limited space to dystopias. While he has sought to be comprehensive within the limits imposed by the series, he focuses on Anglo-American examples. There is a commendable range of reference, including such rare works as Mary Griffith’s Three Hundred Years Hence (1836), and useful suggestions for further reading.
Segal views utopias neither as predictions of the future nor as feasible alternative societies but as reactions to and suggestions for improvement of the societies from which they spring. After defining his topic in two chapters, in chapter 3 he examines the European history of utopia from Plato and Thomas More to Condorcet, Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and Karl Marx, followed by an equally comprehensive chapter on American utopianism. He also discusses critics of utopian schemes, including Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and William Morris in Britain, and Americans ranging from Henry Adams to the Unibomber.
Utopias before about 1900 occupy the first ninety pages, but the heart of the book, and its special interest for readers of this journal, lies in chapters 5 through 7, which deal with the last hundred years. Chapter 5 examines the growing expectations of a technological utopia in the early twentieth century, especially in the United States. Segal considers Howard Loeb, the rise of the social sciences, and the enthusiasm for technological fixes in the decades immediately after World War II, which culminated in a new systems engineering that promised a “cure for chaos” (p. 111). Chapter 6 looks at the retreat from megaprojects such as the American space program and nuclear power plants, and the declining role of scientists and inventors as cultural heroes. Yet somewhat paradoxically, Segal notes, social forecasting and futurology came into vogue at this time, including Buckminster Fuller in his last years and such champions of technological determinism as the Tofflers. He also examines postcolonial critiques of Western utopianism, including “the pre-industrial vision of Mohandas [End Page 972] Gandhi” (p. 173). Chapter 7 argues that since the end of the cold war, utopianism has become more fashionable, finding expression not only in writing but also in new media (including Facebook) and in well-funded technological projects. Segal notes how “scientific and technological pioneers avowedly link their achievements with the recovery of human divinity” as they seek to “transcend earthly boundaries through space flight and to exercise God-like powers of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering” (p. 187). Given these ambitions, it seems that history can “be ignored, so profoundly different will the future be from the past” (p. 188), a proposition Segal carefully refutes.
This overview contains sections that cry out for expansion had this not been a survey. For example, Segal makes an interesting but all too brief critique of Leo Marx’s 1964 Machine in the Garden (p. 84) that seems debatable. Such passages should be seen as springboards to class discussion, for this book seems ideally suited to a course on the history of utopias, and it deserves wide adoption for that purpose. As Segal makes abundantly clear, utopia in all its forms is flourishing, from experiments like “second life” in cyberspace (pp. 198–99) to the escapist fantasies of science fiction films (pp. 199–203) to the “edutopian” embrace of “teaching machines” (pp. 203–17). He...