Friday, 17 January 2020
To-Day & To-Morrow. The inspiration for FUTURES
This week, Professor Max Saunders reveals the history behind the FUTURES essays.
To-Day and To-Morrow – tech, sex & swearing in the 1920s
Almost a century ago a young geneticist, J. B. S. Haldane, made a series of startling predictions in an essay called Daedalus; or, Science and the Future. Genetic modification. Wind power. The gestation of children in artificial wombs – “ectogenesis”. This ingenious little book did so well that the publishers Kegan Paul based a whole series on the idea. They called it To-Day and To-Morrow, and between 1923 and 1931 they brought out more than 100 volumes, by rising stars like Haldane, leading thinkers like Bertrand Russell – who answered Daedalus with a gloomy warning about the future of science, called Icarus – and authors including Robert Graves and Vera Brittain.
The books covered a huge range of topics. Technology – aviation, wireless, automation. Socio-political subjects, including the state, the family and sex. Culture: theatre; cinema; the press; language; clothes; food and drink; leisure and sleep.
C. K. Ogden, Heretics & Basic English
The series was edited and curated by freelance thinker, bookseller and collector C. K. (Charles Kay) Ogden, whose influence pervaded British intellectual life during the first half of the twentieth century. Ogden – who edited four other series for the same publisher – was co-founder and president of the Heretics Society at Cambridge University. The society was set up in 1909 to question authorities in general and religious dogma in particular. It was at the Heretics Sojm467348ciety that Haldane presented the first iteration of Daedalus. Ogden went on to create Basic English – a list of 850 essential words which enable people learning to speak the language to communicate effectively. Ogden divided his word list into five categories
- “Operations” (100 words), comprising verbs, prepositions and pronouns and the like
- “Things” 1, a collection of 400 “general words”, from “account, act”, to “writing, year”
- “Things” 2, comprising 200 “Picturable words”, from “angle, ant” to “wire, worm”
- “Qualities – 100 General”: from “able, acid” to “yellow, young”
- “Qualities – 50 Opposites”: from “awake, bad” to “white, wrong”.
Who read them?
The To-Day and To-Morrow books got people talking. Winston Churchill read Daedalus and immediately wrote an essay titled ‘Shall we all Commit Suicide?’ Haldane’s friend Aldous Huxley also read it, and in Brave New World imagined a society in which ectogenesis was combined with mass production. James Joyce read twelve of the books, T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard reviewed several. Evelyn Waugh tried to write one, but it was rejected.
There were a few duds… and some opinions which, to a contemporary sensibility are genuinely shocking. But, overall, this is brilliant, exuberant writing, rich with bracing ideas which can make subjects we thought we knew well look fresh and different. The individual visionaries represented in the series have not been superseded. The long form essay allowed them greater scope than in speeches or journalism. They could elaborate their visions, take them further than more systematic methods can reach. Big data, after all, is past data. It can tell us what’s trending, and we can extrapolate those trends. Group-based futurology irons out idiosyncrasies. But it’s the individual imagination that, sometimes, can make the quantum jumps that bring the genuinely new into being. That’s what we need more of now – not to delude ourselves that we can know the future with any certainty, but to imagine futures that are worth working towards.
And that's what FUTURES aims to offer. But we can't do it without your help. Pledge now and share with your contacts, so we can release these visions into the wild, and change the conversation.
- All five books.
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