Michael Robertson on The Last Utopians

RobertsonFor readers reared on the dystopian visions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea of a perfect society may sound more sinister than enticing. In The Last Utopians, a lively literary history of a time before “Orwellian” entered the cultural lexicon, Michael Robertson reintroduces us to a vital strain of utopianism that seized the imaginations of late nineteenth-century American and British writers and readers. The book delves into the lives and works of four key figures—Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—who lived during an extraordinary period of literary and social experimentation. The publication of Bellamy’s Looking Backward in 1888 opened the floodgates of an unprecedented wave of utopian writing. Morris, the Arts and Crafts pioneer, was a committed socialist whose News from Nowhere envisions a future Arcadia. Carpenter boldly argued that homosexuals constitute a utopian vanguard. Gilman, a women’s rights activist and author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” wrote Herland, a visionary tale of an all-female society. Read on to learn more about utopian dreaming and action, in both their time and ours.

When did you get the idea to write this book? 

At a lunch on Nassau Street in Princeton with Hanne Winarsky, my former editor at Princeton University Press. I had just completed Worshipping Walt, my group biography of Walt Whitman’s disciples, and Hanne and I were batting around ideas for my next book project. Writing Worshipping Walt, I’d become fascinated by Edward Carpenter, a British writer attracted to Whitman by his proclamations of love between men. Hanne asked what particularly interested me about Carpenter. I replied, “His utopianism. His bold and eccentric and wonderful idea that homosexual men and women constitute the advance guard of the utopian future.” By the end of the lunch, I had the chapters of The Last Utopians mapped out.

Sounds a bit like a cartoon lightbulb-going-on moment.

It does, doesn’t it? When I told that story to a friend, he said he knew lots of writers who had had the same experience, but it always happened late at night, in a bar, and involved ideas scribbled on cocktail napkins that made no sense the next day.

Your title and subtitle seem to be at odds. Your title claims that Carpenter, Edward Bellamy, William Morris, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were the last utopians, but the subtitle refers to their legacy. What’s up with that?

I hope there’s a creative tension at work. These four writers were indeed part of the last generation of artists and intellectuals who took utopia seriously—who believed in the importance of laying out their visions of a transformed, better society, and who believed that we could reach utopia through a benign evolutionary process. After World War I—and after World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot—that sort of grand utopian vision became increasingly untenable. But I didn’t want to end the book on the battlefields of the Great War. The philosopher Ernst Bloch argued the “the hope principle” is as basic to human nature as the pleasure principle, and I think the utopian impulse is alive and well today. It just takes different forms. My last chapter is all about contemporary utopianism.

What’s behind your choices of the contemporary utopian communities and movements that you describe in your last chapter?

I wanted to explore sites and movements that share the values of Bellamy, Morris, Carpenter, and Gilman. In brief, those are a commitment to democratic economic equality, an interest in alternatives to the patriarchal nuclear family and compulsory heterosexuality, a progressive spirituality that locates the divine in the human and natural worlds, and the search for a simple lifestyle in harmony with nature. In a couple of cases, I found contemporary movements directly inspired by one of the last utopians. I attended a retreat in Scotland of the Edward Carpenter Community, a gay men’s group, and I spend a weekend in Vermont with the Radical Faeries, gender noncomformists who embrace Carpenter’s radical utopian vision. But most of the contemporary utopians I encountered had no knowledge of Carpenter, et al.

Who are those other contemporary utopians?

I found some of them in what used to be called “utopian communes” but now are known as “intentional communities.” I visited two of the largest, oldest, and best-known communities, Twin Oaks in Virginia and Findhorn in Scotland, and I spent a week at Erraid, which is located on a tiny island in the Scottish Hebrides. I was also able to visit a short-lived but influential community: Occupy Wall Street. Every utopian thinker is interested in education, and that’s especially true of Rudolf Steiner, the eccentric Austrian philosopher and founder of Waldorf schools. I spent a wonderful day visiting classes at the local Waldorf school. Finally, the contemporary food movement, with its vision of small, sustainable, community-supported agriculture has a powerful utopian vision, and I visited a lot of farms and gardens.

The research must have been enjoyable.

It was. I spent a lot of time with big-hearted optimists in a variety of interesting places. I picked radishes in the rain with a chatty woman from East London, talked about utopia with Michael Moore at Occupy Wall Street, chatted with ten-year-old boys knitting at a Waldorf school, played frisbee with the Radical Faeries, and built planters out of dumped tires in an empty lot in Trenton.

You say in the book that we’re in a golden age for dystopian fiction. Isn’t this a peculiar moment to publish a book about utopia? Why should we care? 

It’s easy to understand why dystopian fiction is so popular right now, given the resurgence of right-wing fundamentalism, misogyny, nativism, and racism; the reality of climate change; our increased awareness of police brutality and invasions of privacy; the crudeness and mendacity of our political culture. But without a utopian vision of a better world, we’re reduced to merely reacting to the latest outrage or resigning ourselves to a morally intolerable status quo. I hope that The Last Utopians will inspire readers with its account of these nineteenth-century visionaries and their contemporary heirs. My goal is to help readers envision how they might live out some portion of a transformed future in the here and now.

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of two award-winning books, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples (Princeton) and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. A former freelance journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Village VoiceColumbia Journalism Review, and many other publications.

Brian Kernighan on what we all need to know about computers

KernighanLaptops, tablets, cell phones, and smart watches: computers are inescapable. But even more are invisible, like those in appliances, cars, medical equipment, transportation systems, power grids, and weapons. We never see the myriad computers that quietly collect, share, and sometimes leak vast amounts of personal data about us, and often don’t consider the extent to which governments and companies increasingly monitor what we do. In Understanding the Digital World, Brian W. Kernighan explains, in clear terms, not only how computers and programming work, but also how computers influence our daily lives. Recently, Kernighan answered some questions about his new book.

Who is this book for? What kind of people are most likely to be interested?

BK: It’s a cliché, but it really is aimed at the proverbial “educated layman.” Everyone uses computers and phones for managing their lives and communicating with other people. So the book is for them. I do think that people who have some technical background will enjoy it, but will also find that it will help their less technical friends and family understand.

What’s the basic message of the book?

BK: Computers—laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, gadgets—are all around us. The Internet lets our computers communicate with us and with other computers all over the world. And there are billions of computers in infrastructure that we rely on without even realizing its existence. Computers and communications systems have changed our lives dramatically in the past couple of decades, and will continue to do so. So anyone who hopes to be at least somewhat informed ought to understand the basics of how such things work. One major concern has been the enormous increase in surveillance and a corresponding reduction in our personal privacy. We are under continuous monitoring by government agencies like the NSA in the United States and similar ones in other countries. At the same time, commercial interests track everything we do online and with our phones. Some of this is acceptable, but in my opinion, it’s gone way too far. It’s vital that we understand better what is being done and how to reduce the tracking and spying. The more we understand about how these systems work, the more we can defend ourselves, while still taking advantage of the many benefits they provide. For example, it’s quite possible to explore interesting and useful web sites without being continuously tracked. You don’t have to reveal everything about yourself to social networks. But you have to know something about how to set up some defenses. More generally, I’m trying to help the reader to reach a better than superficial understanding of how computers work, what software is and how it’s created, and how the Internet and the Web operate. Going just a little deeper into these is totally within the grasp of anyone. The more you know, the better off you will be; knowing even a little about these topics will put you ahead of the large majority of people, and will protect you from any number of foolish behaviors.

Can you give us an example of how to defend ourselves against tracking by web sites?

BK: Whenever you visit a web site, a record is made of your visit, often by dozens of systems that are collecting information that can be used for targeted advertising. It’s easy to reduce this kind of tracking by turning off third-party cookies and by installing some ad-blocking software. You can still use the primary site, but you don’t give away much if anything to the trackers, so the spread of information about you is more limited.

If I don’t care if companies know what sites I visit, why should I be worried?

BK: “I’ve got nothing to hide,” spoken by an individual, or “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” offered by a government, are pernicious ideas. They frame the discussion in such a way as to concede the point at the beginning. Of course you have nothing to hide. If that’s true, would you mind showing me your tax returns? How did you vote in the last election? What’s your salary? Could I have your social security number? Could you tell me who you’ve called in the past year? Of course not—most of your life is no one else’s business.

What’s the one thing that you would advise everyone to do right now to improve their online privacy and security?

BK: Just one thing? Learn more about how your computer and your phone work, how the Internet works, and how to use all of them wisely. But I would add some specific recommendations, all of which are easy and worthwhile. First, in your browser, install defensive extensions like like AdBlock and Ghostery, and turn off third-party cookies. This will take you less than ten minutes and will cut your exposure by at least a factor of ten. Second, make sure that your computer is backed up all the time; this protects you against hardware failure and your own mistakes (both of which are not uncommon), and also against ransomware (though that is much less a risk if you are alert and have turned on your defenses). Third, use different passwords for different sites; that way, if one account is compromised, others will not be. And don’t use your Facebook or Google account to log in to other sites; that increases your vulnerability and gives away information about you for minor convenience. Finally, be very wary about clicking on links in email that have even the faintest hint of something wrong. Phishing attacks are one of the most common ways that accounts are compromised and identities stolen.

KernighanBrian W. Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University. He is the coauthor of ten other books, including the computing classic The C Programming Language (Prentice Hall). He is the author of Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security.