14 May 2012


Howard P Segal. Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Of all the visions and beliefs which have influenced humankind over the millennia, that of a radically transformed world is perhaps the most potent. Many of these visions have been of a religious nature, with transformations brought about by divine or other supernatural cause. Utopias however envisage good (or not so good) societies brought about by human action.
Howard Segal takes a look at many of these, noting that not all Utopian visions are from Europe or North America. He does deal with the classics from More onward, though many will see some notable omissions, such as the Diggers of the Commonwealth period in England, perhaps the first self consciously utopian community. His emphasis is on the United States however, and much of his work is devoted to dreams of technological utopias and their failure (the supersonic sub-orbital aircraft, atomic powered cars, the 25 hour working week brought about by computers etc., etc). Most of these technological visions represent what one might call petty utopias, which posit some improvement in the world, but certainly not the total transformation of society.

I have to say that this book does have one major drawback for the British or other non-USA readers, that of American parochialism and navel gazing. It tends to get bogged down in the minutiae of US life and politics, and to wander away from what most people might think of as utopias. To devote about 5% of a ‘brief history’ of utopias to the problems of one particular US nuclear power plant seems rather strange.

Segal believes utopias are important, but most recent ones, at least as documented here, have given up on grand visions of a totally transformed world, and certainly don’t stir the blood. – Peter Rogerson.

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