H. G. (Herbert George) Wells.

Anticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and thought online

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tive work. Into this welter of machine-superseded
toil there topples the non-adaptable residue of
every changing trade; its members marry and
are given in marriage, and it is recruited by the
spendthrifts, weaklings, and failures of every
superior class.

Since this class was not apparent in masses
in the relatively static, relatively less eliminatory,
society of former times, its appearance has given
rise to a belief that the least desirable section of
the community has become unprecedentedly pro-
lific, that there is now going on a "rapid multipli-
cation of the unfit." But sooner or later, as every
East -End doctor knows, the ways of the social
abyss lead to death, the premature death of the
individual, or death through the death or infertil-
ity of the individual's stunted offspring, or death
through that extinction which moral perversion
involves. It is a recruited class, not a breeding
multitude. Whatever expedients may be resort-
ed to to mitigate or conceal the essential nature
of this social element, it remains in its essence,
wherever social progress is being made, the con-

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ANTICIPATIONS

tingent of death. Humanity has set out in the
direction of a more complex and exacting organi-
zation, and until, by a foresight -to me at least
inconceivable, it can prevent the birth of just all
the inadaptable, useless, or merely unnecessary
creatures in each generation, there must needs
continue to be, in greater or less amount, this
individually futile struggle beneath the feet of
the race; somewhere and in some form there must
still persist those essentials that now take shape
as the slum, the prison, and the asylum. All over
the world, as the railway network has spread, in
Chicago and New York as vividly as in London or
Paris, the commencement of the new movement
has been marked at once by the appearance of
this bulky, irremovable excretion, the appearance
of these gall-stones of vicious, helpless, and pauper
masses. There seems every reason to suppose
that this phenomenon of unemployed citizens who
are, in fact, unemployable, will remain present
as a class, perishing individually and individually
renewed, so long as civilization remains progres-
sive and experimental upon its present lines.
Their drowning existences may be utilized, the
crude hardship of their lot may be concealed or
mitigated,* they may react upon the social fabric

* A very important factor in this mitigation, a factor over
which the humanely minded cannot too greatly rejoice, will
be the philanthropic amusements of the irresponsible wealthy.
There is a growing class of energetic people organizers, secre-
taries, preachers who cater to the philanthropic instinct, and

90



DEVELOPING SOCIAL ELEMENTS

that is attempting to eliminate them, in very as-
tounding ways, but their presence and their in-
dividual doom, it seems to me, will be unavoidable
at any rate, for many generations of men. They
are an integral part of this physiological process
of mechanical progress, as inevitable in the social
body as are waste matters and disintegrating cells
in the body of an active and healtrty man.

The appearance of these two strange function-
less elements, although the most striking symp-
tom of the new phase of progressive mechanical
civilization now beginning, is by no means the
most essential change in progress. These ap-
pearances involve also certain disappearances.
I have already indicated pretty clearly that the
vast irregular development of irresponsible wealthy
people is swallowing up and assimilating more
and more the old class of administrative land-
owning gentlemen in all their grades and degrees.
The old upper class, as a functional member of
the state, is being effaced. And I have also sug-
gested that the old lower class, the broad, necessary
base of the social pyramid, the uneducated, in-

who are, for all practical purposes, employing a large and in-
creasing section of suitable helpless people in supplying to
their customers, by means of religious acquiescence and light
moral reforms, that sense of well-doing which is one of the least
objectionable of the functionless pleasures of life. The attempts
to reinstate these failures by means of subsidized industries
will, in the end, of course, merely serve to throw out of employ-
ment other just subsisting strugglers ; it will probably make
little or no difference in the net result of the process.

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ANTICIPATIONS

adaptable peasants and laborers, is, with the
development of toil-saving machinery, dwindling
and crumbling down bit by bit towards the abyss.
But side by side with these two processes is a
third process of still profounder significance, and
that is the reconstruction and the vast proliferation
of what constituted the middle class of the old
order. It is now, indeed, no longer a middle class
at all. Rather all the definite classes in the old
scheme of functional precedence have melted
and mingled,* and in the molten mass there has
appeared a vast, intricate confusion of different
sorts of people, some sailing about upon floating
masses of irresponsible property, some buoyed
by smaller fragments, some clinging desperately
enough to insignificant atoms, a great and varied
multitude swimming successfully without aid, or
with an amount of aid that is negligible in rela-
tion to their own efforts, and an equally varied
multitude of less capable ones clinging to the
swimmers, clinging to the floating rich, or clutch-
ing empty-handed and thrust and sinking down.
This is the typical aspect of the modern com-
munity. It will serve as a general description of
either the United States or any Western European
state, and the day is not far distant when the
extension of means of communication, and of the
share-holding method of conducting affairs, will
make it applicable to the whole world. Save,

* I reserve any consideration of the special case of the "priest."

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DEVELOPING SOCIAL ELEMENTS

possibly, in a few islands and inaccessible places,
and regardless of color or creed, this process of
deliquescence seems destined to spread. In a
great diversity of tongues, in the phases of a num-
ber of conflicting moral and theological traditions,
in the varying tones of contrasting racial tem-
peraments, the grandchildren of black and white,
and red and brown, will be seeking more or less
consciously to express themselves in relation to
these new and unusual social conditions. But
the change itself is no longer amenable to their
interpretations; the world-wide spreading of swift
communication, the obliteration of town and coun-
try, the deliquescence of the local social order,
have an air of being processes as uncontrollable
by such collective intelligence as man can at pres-
ent command, and as indifferent to his local pecu-
liarities and prejudices as the movements of winds
and tides..

It will be obvious that the interest of this specu-
lation, at any rate, centres upon this great inter-
mediate mass of people who .are neither passive-
ly wealthy, the sleeping partners of change, nor
helplessly thrust out of the process. Indeed,
from our point of view an inquiry into coming
things these non-effective masses would have
but the slightest interest were it not for their enor-
mous possibilities of reaction upon the really living
portion of the social organism. This really living
portion seems at first sight to be as deliquescent

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ANTICIPATIONS

in its nature, to be drifting down to as chaotic a
structure as either the non-functional owners that
float above it or the unemployed -who sink below.
What were once the definite subdivisions of the
middle class modify and lose their boundaries. The
retail tradesman of the towns, for example once
a fairly homogeneous class throughout Europe
expands here into vast store companies, and
dwindles there to be an agent or collector, seeks
employment or topples outright into the abyss.
But under a certain scrutiny one can detect here
what we do not detect in our other two elements,
and that is, that, going on side by side with the
processes of dissolution, and frequently masked
by these, there are other processes by which men,
often of the most diverse parentage and antecedent
traditions, are being segregated into a multitude
of specific new groups which may presently develop
very distinctive characters and ideals.

There are, for example, the unorganized myriads
that one can cover by the phrase " mechanics and
engineers," if one uses it in its widest possible
sense. At present it would be almost impossible
to describe such a thing as a typical engineer,
to predicate any universally applicable charac-
teristic of the engineer and mechanic. The black-
faced, oily man one figures emerging from the
engine-room serves well enough until one recalls
the sanitary engineer with his additions of crockery
and plumbing, the electrical engineer with his

94



DEVELOPING SOCIAL ELEMENTS

little tests and wires, the mining engineer, the
railway-maker, the motor-builder, and the irriga-
tion expert. Even if we take some specific branch
of all this huge mass of new employment the
coming of mechanism has brought with it, we still
find an undigested miscellany. Consider the rude
levy that is engaged in supplying and repairing
the world's new need of bicycles! Wheelwrights,
watchmakers, blacksmiths, music-dealers, drapers,
sewing-machine repairers, smart errand boys,
ironmongers, individuals from all the older aspects
of engineering, have been caught up by the new
development, are all now, with a more or less in-
adequate knowledge and training, working in
the new service. But is it likely that this will
remain a rude levy? From all these varied people
the world requires certain things, and a failure
to obtain them involves, sooner or later, in this
competitive creation, an individual replacement
and a push towards the abyss. The very lowest
of them must understand the machine they con-
tribute to make and repair, and not only is it a
fairly complex machine in itself, but it is found
in several types and patterns, and so far it has
altered, and promises still to alter, steadily, by
improvements in this part and that. No limited
stock-in-trade of knowledge, such as suffices
for a joiner or an ostler will serve. They must
keep on mastering new points, new aspects; they
must be intelligent and adaptable; they must

95



ANTICIPATIONS

get a grasp of that permanent something that lies
behind the changing immediate practice. In other
words, they will have to be educated rather than
trained after the fashion of the old craftsman.
Just now this body of irregulars is threatened
by the coming of the motors. The motors promise
new difficulties, new rewards, and new competition.
It is an ill look-out for the cycle mechanic who is
not prepared to tackle the new problems that will
arise. For all this next century this particular
body of mechanics will be picking up new recruits
and eliminating the incompetent and the rule-of-
thumb sage. Can it fail, as the years pass, to
develop certain general characters, to become so
far homogeneous as to be generally conscious of
the need of a scientific education, at any rate in
mechanical and chemical matters, and to possess,
down to its very lowest ranks and orders, a com-
mon fund of intellectual training?

But the makers and repairers of cycles, and that
larger multitude that will presently be concerned
with motors, are, after all, only a small and special-
ized section of the general body of mechanics
and engineers. Every year, with the advance of
invention, new branches of activity, that change
in their nature and methods all too rapidly for
the establishment of rote and routine workers
of the old type, call together fresh levies of ama-
teurish workers and learners who must surely
presently develop into, or give place to, bodies

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DEVELOPING SOCIAL ELEMENTS

of qualified and capable men. And the point
I would particularly insist upon here is, that
throughout all its ranks and ramifications, from
the organizing heads of great undertakings down
to the assistant in the local repair shop, this
new, great and expanding body of mechanics and
engineers will tend to become an educated and
adaptable class in a sense that the craftsmen of
former times were not educated and adaptable.
Just how high the scientific and practical educa-
tion may rise in the central levels of this body is a
matter for subsequent speculation ; just how much
initiative will be found in the lowest ranks de-
pends upon many very complex considerations.
But that here we have at least the possibility, the
primary creative conditions of a new, numerous,
intelligent, educated, and capable social element is,
I think, a proposition with which the reader will
agree.

What are the chief obstacles in the way of the
emergence, from out the present chaos, of this
social element, equipped, organized, educated, con-
scious of itself and of distinctive aims, in the next
hundred years? In the first place, there is the
spirit of trade-unionism, the conservative conta-
gion of the old craftsmanship. Trade -unions
arose under the tradition of the old order, when
in every business employer and employed stood
in marked antagonism, stood as a special instance
of the universal relationship of gentle or intelli-
7 97



ANTICIPATIONS

gent, who supplied no labor, and simple, who sup-
plied nothing else. The interest of the employer
was to get as much labor as possible out of his
hirelings; the complementary object in life of the
hireling, whose sole function was drudgery, who
had no other prospect until death, was to give as
little to his employer as possible. In order to
keep the necessary laborer submissive, it was a
matter of public policy to keep him uneducated
and as near the condition of a beast of burden as
possible; and in order to keep his life tolerable
against that natural increase which all the moral
institutions of his state promoted, the laborer
stimulated if his efforts slackened by the touch
of absolute misery was forced to devise elabo-
rate rules for restricting the hours of toil, making
its performance needlessly complex, and shirking
with extreme ingenuity and conscientiousness. In
the older trades, of which the building trade is
foremost, these two traditions, reinforced by un-
imaginative building regulations, have practi-
cally arrested any advance whatever.* There

* I find it incredible that there will not be a sweeping revolution
in the methods of building during the next century. The erection
of a house-wall, come to think of it, is an astonishingly tedious
and complex business ; the final result exceedingly unsatis-
factory. It has been my lot recently to follow in detail the process
of building a private dwelling-house, and the solemn succes-
sion of deliberate, respectable, perfectly satisfied men who have
contributed each so many days of his life to this accumulation
of weak compromises, has enormously intensified my constitu-
tional amazement at my fellow-creatures. The chief ingredient

9 8



DEVELOPING SOCIAL ELEMENTS

can be no doubt that this influence has spread into
what are practically new branches of work. Even
where new conveniences have called for new types
of workmen and have opened the way for the ele-
vation of a group of laborers to the higher level



in this particular house-wall is the common brick, burned earth,
and but one step from the handfuls of clay of the ancestral mud
hut, small in size and permeable to damp. Slowly, day by day,
the walls grew tediously up, to a melody of tinkling trowels.
These bricks are joined by mortar, which is mixed in small quan-
tities, and must vary very greatly in its quality and properties
throughout the house. In order to prevent the obvious evils
of a wall of porous and irregular baked clay and lime mud, a
damp course of tarred felt, which cannot possibly last more
than a few years, was inserted about a foot from the ground.
Then the wall being quite insufficient to stand the heavy drift of
weather to which it is exposed, was dabbled over with two coat-
ings of plaster on the outside, the outermost being given a primi-
tive picturesqueness by means of a sham surface of rough-cast
pebbles and whitewash, while within, to conceal the rough dis-
comfort of the surface, successive coatings of plaster, and finally
paper, were added, with a wood-skirting at the foot thrice painted.
Everything in this was hand work, the laying of the bricks,
the dabbling of the plaster, the smoothing of the paper ; it is a
house built of hands and some I saw were bleeding hands
just as in the days of the pyramids when the only engines were
living men. The whole confection is now undergoing incal-
culable chemical reactions between its several parts. Lime,
mortar, and microscopical organisms are producing undesigned
chromatic effects in the paper and plaster ; the plaster, having
methods of expansion and contraction of its own, crinkles and
cracks ; the skirting, having absorbed moisture and now drying
again, opens its joints ; the rough-cast coquettes with the frost
and opens chinks and crannies for the humbler creation. I
fail to see the necessity of (and, accordingly, I resent bitterly)
all these coral-reef methods. Better walls than this, and better
and less life-wasting ways of making them, are surely possible.
In the wall in question, concrete would have been cheaper and
better than bricks if only " the men " had understood it. But I
can dream at last of much more revolutionary affairs, of a thing

99



ANTICIPATIONS

of versatile educated men,* the old traditions have
to a very large extent prevailed. The average
sanitary plumber of to-day in England insists
upon his position as a mere laborer as though it
were some precious thing; he guards himself from
improvement as a virtuous woman guards her
honor; he works for specifically limited hours and
by the hour with specific limitations in the practice
of his trade, on the fairly sound assumption that
but for that restriction any fool might do plumb-
ing as well as he; whatever he learns he learns
from some other plumber during his apprentice-
ship years after which he devotes himself to
doing the minimum of work in the maximum

running to and fro along a temporary rail, that will squeeze
out wall as one squeezes paint from a tube, and form its surface
with a pat or two as it sets. Moreover, I do not see at all why
the walls of small dwelling-houses should be so solid as they are.
There still hangs about us the monumental traditions of the
pyramids. It ought to be possible to build sound, portable,
and habitable houses of felted wire-netting and weather-proofed
paper upon a light framework. This sort of thing is, no doubt,
abominably ugly at present, but that is because architects and
designers, being for the most part inordinately cultured and
quite uneducated, are unable to cope with its fundamentally
novel problems. A few energetic men might at any time set
out to alter all this. And with the inevitable revolutions that
must come about in domestic fittings, and which I hope to discuss
more fully in the next paper, it is open to question whether many
ground landlords may not find they have work for the house-
breakers rather than wealth unlimited falling into their hands
when the building leases their solicitors so ingeniously draw
up do at last expire.

* The new aspects of building, for example, that have been
brought about by the entrance of water and gas into the house,
and the application of water to sanitation.



DEVELOPING SOCIAL ELEMENTS

of time until his brief excursion into this mysterious
universe is over. So far from invention spurring
him onward, every improvement in sanitary work
in England, at least, is limited by the problem
whether "the men" will understand it. A person
ingenious enough to exceed this sacred limit might
as well hang himself as trouble about the im-
provement of plumbing.

If England stood alone, I do not see why each
of the new mechanical and engineering industries
so soon as it develops sufficient!} 7 to have gathered
together a body of workers capable of supporting
a trade - union secretary, should not begin to
stagnate in the same manner. Only England
does not stand alone, and the building trade is
so far not typical, inasmuch as it possesses a na-
tional monopoly that the most elaborate system
of protection cannot secure any other group of
trades. One must have one's house built where
one has to live; the importation of workmen in
small bodies is difficult and dear, and if one cannot
have the house one wishes, one must needs have
the least offensive substitute; but bicycle and
motor, iron-work and furniture, engines, rails,
and ships, one can import. The community, there-
fore, that does least to educate its mechanics
and engineers out of the base and servile tradi-
tion of the old idea of industry will in the coming
3^ears of progress simply get a disproportionate
share of the rejected element ; the trade will go else-

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ANTICIPATIONS

where, and the community will be left in posses-
sion of an exceptionally large contingent for the
abyss.

At present, however, I am dealing not with the
specific community, but with the generalized civ-
ilized community of A.D. 2000 we disregard the
fate of states and empires for a time and, for
that emergent community, wherever it may be,
it seems reasonable to anticipate, replacing and
enormously larger and more important than the
classes of common workmen and mechanics of
to-day, a large, fairly homogeneous body big
men and little men, indeed, but with no dividing
lines of more or less expert mechanics and en-
gineers, with a certain common minimum of edu-
cation and intelligence, and probably a common
class consciousness a new body, a new force,
in the world's history.

For this body to exist implies the existence of
much more than the primary and initiating nucleus
of engineers and skilled mechanics. If it is an
educated class, its existence implies a class of
educators, and just as far as it does get educated
the schoolmasters will be skilled and educated
men. The shabby-genteel middle -class school-
master of the England of to-day, in or a little
way out of orders, with his smattering of Greek,
his Latin that leads nowhere, his fatuous mathe-
matics, his gross ignorance of pedagogics, and
his incomparable snobbishness, certainly does not

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DEVELOPING SOCIAL ELEMENTS

represent the schoolmaster of this coming class.
Moreover, the new element will necessarily embody
its collective, necessarily distinctive, and un-
precedented thoughts in a literature of its own,
its development means the development of a new
sort of writer and of new elements in the press.
And since, if it does emerge, a revolution in the
common schools of the community will be a neces-
sary part of the process ; then its emergence will
involve a revolutionary change in the condition
of classes that might otherwise remain as they
are now the older craftsman, for example.

The process of attraction will not end even there;
the development of more and more scientific en-'
gineering and of really adaptable operatives will
render possible agricultural contrivances that
are now only dreams, and the diffusion of this
new class over the country-side assuming the
reasoning in my second chapter to be sound
will bring the lever of the improved schools under
the agriculturist. The practically autonomous
farm of the old epoch will probably be replaced
by a great variety of types of cultivation, each
with its labor-saving equipment. In this, as in
most things, the future spells variation. The
practical abolition of impossible distances over the
world will tend to make every district specialize
in the production for which it is best fitted, and to
develop that production with an elaborate precision
and economy. The chief opposing force to this

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ANTICIPATIONS

tendency will be found in those countries where
the tenure of the land is in small holdings. A
population of small agriculturists that has really
got itself well established is probably as hopelessly
immovable a thing as the forces of progressive
change will have to encounter. The Arcadian
healthiness and simplicity of the small holder
and the usefulness of little hands about him, natu-
rally results in his keeping the population on his
plot up to the limit of bare subsistence. He avoids
over-education, and his beasts live with him and
his children in a natural, kindly manner. He will


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Online LibraryH. G. (Herbert George) WellsAnticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and thought → online text (page 6 of 21)