utopia: machines triumphant

Utopians were prophets in the sense of predicting the future and also prophets in the sense of castigating the present; a vision of things as they should be was also a reproach to things as they are. One of the hallmarks of our time is that the utopias are dark. No longer places of hope, but of horror, hell on earth. Our triumphs in science have led us mostly to hubris, and by extension, to fear.Many are no longer optimistic about our destiny. Which is paradoxical. In many respects we are still the heir to Rousseau and the values of the Enlightenment: we are essentially good and perfectible; yet there is a split off part of us that does not accept this. Wrongdoing seen not as a “disease” that can be cured and utopia as nothing but a dream of conditioning…

William Morris's News From Nowhere ( 1890) looks forward to a time late in the twentieth-century when all the dreams of nineteenth-century Socialism have come true. "Labour's May-Day," the frontpiece of this idealistic book, symbolizes its way of life. Image:http://hwj.oxfordjournals.org/content/69/1/146/F3.expansion.html

The belief that everything was possible to science, to the machine, was the great source of Victorian optimism, but there were dissenters. One of them was Samuel Butler, who in Erewhon had created perhaps the first full-scale negative utopia. He brilliantly satirized his age, by exaggerating, but even less than he realized,what was possible. We are today not very far removed from the Erewhonian notion that disease is a crime while crime is only a disease. Above all, we are remarkably close to his fantasy of the machine. Well over half a century before machines learned to “think” , Butler visualized what would happen if they ever did become autonomous. The fact that they still lacked consciousness, he warned, meant little; after all, a mollusc also lacked consciousness, but there were other species ahead. And as machines grow more human, people become more machine-like. The solution in Erewhon called for man to destroy the machine. Years later he outcome in Karel Capek’s R.U.R. would be the contrary, with machines destroying people.

---Ninety years ago today, the word robot entered the science fiction lexicon. It came by of the Czech language play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) premiered in Prague on January 25, 1921. In the years since, robots have been unceasingly abused, or alternately, unceasingly rebellious against their human masters--at least in fiction. The word “robot” derives from the Czech word robota which means “work” or “labor,” and figuratively “drudgery.” The word was supposedly suggested by Čapek’s brother, Josef. Over time, it’s all but replaced “automaton” which had been previously used for mechanical beings in English.---Read More:http://sorcerersskull.blogspot.ca/2011/01/happy-birthday-robot.html

The Machine Triumphant is a theme that was carried on, not too long after Butler by H.G. Wells, and to him it suggested both hope and horror, both promise and threat. Accordingly, his visions are both positive and negative. In A Modern Utopia he set out deliberately to discover what could be done with the old utopian traditions in a new age, and he broke with most of them. He abandons the usual yearning for smallness and seclusion by making his a world-wide community with a common language. He allows and indeed encourages both property and money, with some limitations. Above all, Wells is concerned with freedom, which he feels all previous utopias ignored or slighted. He favors neither individualism nor socialism but a mixture of the two, with the state looming large in everyone’s life, but hardly more so than we are already accustomed to.

---Many of Wells’s works, among them The Food of the Gods, A Modern Utopia, In the Days of the Comet, and The World Set Free, were based on short-range sociopolitical speculation but were primarily concerned with the utopian organization of mankind as the sole alternative to the criminal waste and muddle of Victorian bourgeois society. Wells created Victorian nightmares that proved all too prophetic for the twentieth century.---Read More:http://brbl-archive.library.yale.edu/exhibitions/utopia/dt01.html

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