How French Artists in 1899 Envisioned What Life Would Look Like in the Year 2000

Atom­ic physi­cist Niels Bohr is famous­ly quot­ed as say­ing, “Pre­dic­tion is very dif­fi­cult, espe­cial­ly if it’s about the future.” Yet despite years of get­ting things wrong, mag­a­zines love think pieces on where we’ll be in sev­er­al decades, even cen­turies in time. It gives us com­fort to think great things await us, even though we’re long over­due for the per­son­al jet­pack and moon colonies.


And yet it’s Asi­mov who appar­ent­ly owned the only set of post­cards of En L’An 2000, a set of 87 (or so) col­lectible artist cards that first appeared as inserts in cig­ar box­es in 1899, right in time for the 1900 World Exhi­bi­tion in Paris. Trans­lat­ed as “France in the 21st Cen­tu­ry,” the cards fea­ture Jean-Marc Côté and oth­er illus­tra­tors’ inter­pre­ta­tions of the way we’d be living…well, 23 years ago.

The his­to­ry of the card’s pro­duc­tion is very con­vo­lut­ed, with the orig­i­nal com­mis­sion­ing com­pa­ny going out of busi­ness before they could be dis­trib­uted, and whether that com­pa­ny was a toy man­u­fac­tur­er or a cig­a­rette com­pa­ny, nobody seems to know. And were the ideas giv­en to the artists, or did they come up with them on their own? We don’t know.



One of the first things that stands out scan­ning through these prints, now host­ed at The Pub­lic Domain Review, is a com­plete absence of space trav­el, despite Jules Verne hav­ing writ­ten From the Earth to the Moon in 1865 (which would influ­ence Georges Méliès’ A Voy­age to the Moon in 1902). How­ev­er, the under­wa­ter world spawned many a flight of fan­cy, includ­ing a whale-drawn bus, a cro­quet par­ty at the bot­tom of the ocean, and large fish being raced like thor­ough­bred hors­es.


There are a few inven­tions we can say came true. The “Advance Sen­tinel in a Heli­copter” has been doc­u­ment­ing traf­fic and car chas­es for decades now, fed right into our tele­vi­sions. A lot of farm work is now auto­mat­ed. And “Elec­tric Scrub­bing” is now called a Room­ba.


For a card-by-card exam­i­na­tion of these future visions, one should hunt out Isaac Asimov’s 1986 Future­days: A Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry Vision of the Year 2000, which can be found on Ama­zon right now. (Or see the nice gallery of images at The Pub­lic Domain Review.) And who knows? Maybe next year, your order will come to your door by drone. Just a pre­dic­tion.

Note: Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1922, a Nov­el­ist Pre­dicts What the World Will Look Like in 2022: Wire­less Tele­phones, 8‑Hour Flights to Europe & More

Author Imag­ines in 1893 the Fash­ions That Would Appear Over the Next 100 Years

In 1900, Ladies’ Home Jour­nal Pub­lish­es 28 Pre­dic­tions for the Year 2000

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts the Future in 1982: Com­put­ers Will Be “at the Cen­ter of Every­thing;” Robots Will Take Human Jobs

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

A Look Inside David Bowie & Iman’s Beautiful Mountain Home

It’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Iman and David Bowie invit­ing Vogue read­ers to join them on the above vir­tu­al tour of their moun­tain­top home near Wood­stock, New York when the rock leg­end was alive.

Grant­ed, short­ly after their 1992 wed­ding, he gave Archi­tec­tur­al Digest a peek at their ultra-lux­u­ri­ous, Indone­sian-style hol­i­day digs on the Caribbean island of Mus­tique, but, as reporter Christo­pher Buck­ley not­ed, “role changes have always been part of David Bowie’s per­sona.”

By the time they bought prop­er­ty and start­ed a fam­i­ly in New York, they had honed tech­niques for fly­ing under the radar in pub­lic, allow­ing them to lead a fair­ly reg­u­lar life in both Man­hat­tan and Ulster Coun­ty where the house they built on their 64-acre plot of Lit­tle Ton­shi Moun­tain is locat­ed.

Even the most ded­i­cat­ed city slick­er should be able to appre­ci­ate the beau­ty of their floor-to-ceil­ing Catskills views.

“It’s stark, and it has a Spar­tan qual­i­ty about it,” Bowie said pri­or to break­ing ground on the house:

The retreat atmos­phere honed my thoughts. I’ve writ­ten in the moun­tains before, but nev­er with such grav­i­tas.

WPDH in Pough­keep­sie report­ed that “the moun­tain­top retreat was kept “secret” from fans and paparazzi as much as any­thing can be hid­den in the age of the Inter­net and TMZ:”

Locals, how­ev­er, are well aware of Bowie’s moun­tain­top home. Although many knew of his address, the rock icon’s requests for pri­va­cy were most­ly hon­ored by his neigh­bors and fel­low Ulster Coun­ty res­i­dents. Bowie was spot­ted around town but rarely has­sled by strangers.

By and large, his neigh­bors left him in peace to pick up Chi­nese take out, browse the indie book­shop, and cel­e­brate his daughter’s birth­day at a near­by water park.

Bowie record­ed his final album, Black Star, on the moun­tain. Soon after, friends and fam­i­ly gath­ered to scat­ter his ash­es there too.

Iman con­fides that she found it dif­fi­cult to spend time at the house fol­low­ing his 2016 death, but spend­ing time there dur­ing the most intense part of the pan­dem­ic helped her come to terms with grief, and rejoice in the many con­tents that remind her of him.

Some high­lights:

  • Bowie’s 1980 paint­ing, Mus­tique, one of many self-por­traits he paint­ed over the years.

I feel like when I look at his eyes and I move around the house, it’s like it’s fol­low­ing me.

  • Lynn Chadwick’s sculp­ture “Ted­dy Boy and Girl”

Art con­sul­tant Kate Cher­ta­vian recalls how Iman enlist­ed her to help her track it down in the sum­mer of 1993 to mark the couple’s first wed­ding anniver­sary:

David had shared with her a small draw­ing of a sculp­ture by Lynn Chad­wick… a ver­sion of his Ted­dy Boy and Girl that had won the Inter­na­tion­al Sculp­ture Prize at the 1956 Venice Bien­nale. Although I didn’t yet know David, his inter­est in this sculp­ture, with its musi­cal ref­er­ences and incred­i­ble ener­gy, made per­fect sense. Ted­dy Boy and Girl is one of Chadwick’s best-known bod­ies of sculp­ture that helped rock­et the artist to inter­na­tion­al fame. The series elo­quent­ly embod­ies the emer­gent 1950s British Pop cul­ture as they depict post-war music-mad teens in their Edwar­dian frock coats danc­ing with arms in the air.

…way before David and I met, this was one of his favorite books. And actu­al­ly, he told me some of the lyrics from his song “Heroes” were actu­al­ly inspired by this book. And then of course, final­ly, when we meet, we can’t believe that we both adore the same book, but that also the whole sto­ry hap­pens from where I come from, Soma­lia.

  • A self-por­trait by their then-fif­teen-year-old daugh­ter Alexan­dria Jones, in which she and her moth­er are depict­ed inclin­ing gen­tly towards each oth­er:

It’s me and her and, of course, the black star. That’s David… she paint­ed this in 2016, which was the first year with­out David.

Of per­haps less imme­di­ate inter­est to those uncon­nect­ed to the world of high fash­ion is a pricey black croc­o­dile Her­mès Birkin bag, a sou­venir of a Parisian hol­i­day ear­ly in the couple’s romance. This item does come with an endear­ing sar­to­r­i­al sur­prise for Bowie fans, how­ev­er:

…and he bought him­self, you won’t believe it, san­dals.

Round­ing out the tour are a lim­it­ed edi­tion porce­lain pitch­er by Kara Walk­er and gifts from fash­ion design­er and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Hedi Sli­mane and fel­low for­mer mod­els Bethann Hardi­son and Nao­mi Camp­bell.

(Are we wrong to wish those san­dals had been Crocs?)

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Behold The Paint­ings of David Bowie: Neo-Expres­sion­ist Self Por­traits, Illus­tra­tions of Iggy Pop, and Much More

David Bowie’s Top 100 Books

The Art Col­lec­tion of David Bowie: An Intro­duc­tion

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.


Gillian Anderson Reads Anaïs Nin’s Passionate Letter about Sex and Poetry

From Let­ters Live comes a let­ter read by Gillian Ander­son. They pref­ace it with this: “In 1932, Cuban diarist Anaïs Nin and Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Hen­ry Miller began an incred­i­bly intense love affair that would last for many years. In the 1940s, at which point she, Miller, and a col­lec­tive of oth­er writ­ers were earn­ing $1 per page writ­ing erot­ic fic­tion for the pri­vate con­sump­tion of an anony­mous client known only as the “Col­lec­tor,” Nin wrote a pas­sion­ate let­ter to this mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure and made known her frustrations—frustrations caused by his repeat­ed insis­tence that they ‘leave out the poet­ry’ and instead ‘con­cen­trate on sex.’ ”

This let­ter comes from The Diary Of Anais Nin Vol­ume 3.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

A Brief Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Noam Chomsky’s Lin­guis­tic The­o­ry, Nar­rat­ed by The X‑Files’ Gillian Ander­son

Hen­ry Miller Makes a List of “The 100 Books That Influ­enced Me Most”

Hear Anaïs Nin Read From Her Cel­e­brat­ed Diary: A 60-Minute Vin­tage Record­ing (1966)

How Did Every­thing Begin?: Ani­ma­tions on the Ori­gins of the Uni­verse Nar­rat­ed by X‑Files Star Gillian Ander­son

The Cardboard Bernini: An Artist Spends 4 Years Building a Giant Cardboard Fountain Inspired by the Baroque Sculptor Bernini, Only to Let It Dissolve in the Rain

From the Tri­ton Foun­tain in the Piaz­za Bar­beri­ni to the Foun­tain of the Four Rivers in Piaz­za Navona, sculp­tor Gian Loren­zo Berni­ni’s glo­ri­ous pub­lic foun­tains have impressed vis­i­tors to Rome for cen­turies.

Berni­ni angled for immoral­i­ty when carv­ing his Baroque mas­ter­pieces from mar­ble.

Image by Trdinfl, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Eter­ni­ty occu­pied artist James Grashow’s mind, too, through­out four years of toil on his Cor­ru­gat­ed Foun­tain, a mas­ter­piece of planned obso­les­cence.

“All artists talk about process”, he rumi­nates in an out­take from Olympia Stone’s doc­u­men­tary, The Card­board Berni­ni, “but the process that they talk about is always from begin­ning to fin­ish:

Nobody real­ly talks about full term process to the end, to the destruc­tion, to the dis­so­lu­tion of a piece. Every­thing dis­solves in an eter­ni­ty. I’d like to speak to that.

He picked the right medi­um for such a med­i­ta­tion — cor­ru­gat­ed card­board, sourced from the Dan­bury Square Box Com­pa­ny. (The founders chose its name in 1906 to alert the local hat­ting indus­try that they did not traf­fic in round hat box­es.)

Grashow chal­lenged him­self to make some­thing with card­board and hot glue that would “out­shine” Berni­ni before it was sac­ri­ficed to the ele­ments:

Water and card­board can­not exist togeth­er.  The idea of a paper foun­tain is impos­si­ble, an oxy­moron that speaks to the human dilem­ma. I want­ed to make some­thing hero­ic in its con­cept and exe­cu­tion with full aware­ness of its poet­ic absur­di­ty. I want­ed to try to make some­thing eter­nal out of card­board… the Foun­tain was an irre­sistible project for me.

The doc­u­men­tary catch­es a mix of emo­tions as his metic­u­lous­ly con­struct­ed Baroque fig­ures — nymphs, hors­es, dol­phins, Posei­don — are posi­tioned for destruc­tion on the grounds of the Aldrich Con­tem­po­rary Art Muse­um.

A young boy at the exhibition’s open­ing is untrou­bled by the sculpture’s impend­ing fate:

I think it’s cool, coz it’s made out of trees and it’s return­ing to mush…or what­ev­er you want to call it.

His bud­dy finds it hard to share his enthu­si­asm, ges­tur­ing help­less­ly toward the mon­u­men­tal work, his voice trail­ing off as he remarks, “I don’t see why you would want that to…”

An adult vis­i­tor unashamed­ly reveals that she had been active­ly root­ing for rain.

When a storm does reduce the sculp­ture to an Ozy­man­di­an tableau a short while lat­er, Grashow sus­pects the project was ulti­mate­ly a self por­trait, “full of blus­ter and brava­do, hol­low and melan­choly at its core, doomed from the start, and search­ing for beau­ty in all of the sad­ness.”

Then he and a helper cart what’s left off to a wait­ing dump­ster.

His daugh­ter, Rab­bi Zoë Klein, likens the Cor­ru­gat­ed Fountain’s imper­ma­nence to the sand man­dalas Tibetan monks spend months cre­at­ing, then sweep away with lit­tle fan­fare:

…the art is about just the gift of cre­ation, that we have this abil­i­ty to cre­ate, that we cel­e­brate that, not that we can con­quer time, but rather we can make the most of the time we have by mak­ing it beau­ti­ful and mean­ing­ful, liv­ing up to our poten­tial..

Grashow speaks ten­der­ly of the ephemer­al mate­r­i­al he uses fre­quent­ly in his work:

It’s so grate­ful for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to become some­thing, because it knows it’s going to be trash.

Watch The Card­board Berni­ni here.

See more of James Grashow’s card­board works here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Design­er Cre­ates Origa­mi Card­board Tents to Shel­ter the Home­less from the Win­ter Cold

Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” Per­formed by Ger­man 1st Graders in Cute Card­board Robot Cos­tumes

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Music Producer Steve Albini, Director Godfrey Reggio & Actor Fred Armisen Explain Why Creating Is Crucial to Human Existence

Imag­ine, if you will, an evening’s enter­tain­ment con­sist­ing of an episode of Port­landia, a spin of Nir­vana’s In Utero, and a screen­ing of Koy­aanisqat­si. Per­haps these works would, at first glance, seem to have lit­tle in com­mon. But if you end the night by watch­ing the above episode of Big Think’s series Dis­patch­es from the Well with Kmele Fos­ter, their com­mon spir­it may well come into view. In it, Fos­ter trav­els Amer­i­ca in order to vis­it with God­frey Reg­gio, Steve Albi­ni, and Fred Armisen, wide­ly known, respec­tive­ly, as the direc­tor of Koy­aanisqat­si, the pro­duc­er of In Utero, and the co-cre­ator of Port­landia. All of them have also made a great deal of oth­er work, and none of them are about to stop now.

“When you have a mania, you can scream and go nuts, or you can write every­thing down,” says Reg­gio. “I write every­thing down.” The same con­cept aris­es in Fos­ter’s con­ver­sa­tion with Albi­ni, who believes that “the best music is made in ser­vice of the mania of the peo­ple doing it at the moment.” As for “the peo­ple who are try­ing to be pop­u­lar, who are try­ing to, like, enter­tain — a lot of that music is triv­ial.”

Fos­ter cred­i­bly describes Albi­ni as “a man with a code,” not least that which dic­tates his rejec­tion of dig­i­tal media. “I’m not mak­ing an aes­thet­ic case for ana­log record­ing,” he says. “Ana­log record­ings are a durable archive of our cul­ture, and in the dis­tant future, I want peo­ple to be able to hear what our music sound­ed like.”

To cre­ate as per­sis­tent­ly as these three have demands a will­ing­ness to play the long game — and to “re-per­ceive the nor­mal,” as Reg­gio puts it while artic­u­lat­ing the pur­pose of his uncon­ven­tion­al doc­u­men­tary films. To his mind, it’s what we per­ceive least that affects us most, and if “what we do every day, with­out ques­tion, is who we are,” we can enrich our expe­ri­ence of real­i­ty by ask­ing ques­tions in our life and our work like, “Is it the con­tent of your mind that deter­mines your behav­ior, or is it your behav­ior that deter­mines the con­tent of your mind?” This line of inquiry will send each of us in dif­fer­ent intel­lec­tu­al and aes­thet­ic direc­tions, impos­si­ble though it is to arrive at a final answer. And in the face of the fact that we all end up at the same place in the end, Armisen has a cre­ative strat­e­gy: “I real­ly cel­e­brate death,” he explains. “I have my funer­al all planned out and every­thing.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Walk­ing Fos­ters Cre­ativ­i­ty: Stan­ford Researchers Con­firm What Philoso­phers & Writ­ers Have Always Known

How TV Addles Kids’ Brains: A Short Film Direct­ed by God­frey Reg­gio (Mak­er of Koy­aanisqat­si) & Scored by Philip Glass

Read Steve Albini’s Uncom­pro­mis­ing Pro­pos­al to Pro­duce Nirvana’s In Utero (1993)

Fred Armisen Teach­es a Short Sem­i­nar on the His­to­ry of Punk

Koy­aanisqat­si at 1552% Speed

Why Man Cre­ates: Saul Bass’ Oscar-Win­ning Ani­mat­ed Look at Cre­ativ­i­ty (1968)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How Loneliness Is Killing Us: A Primer from Harvard Psychiatrist & Zen Priest Robert Waldinger

In 1966, Paul McCart­ney famous­ly sang of “all the lone­ly peo­ple,” won­der­ing aloud where they come from. Near­ly six decades lat­er, their num­bers seem only to have increased; as for their ori­gin, psy­chi­a­trist, psy­cho­an­a­lyst, and Zen priest Robert Waldinger has made it a long­time pro­fes­sion­al con­cern. “Start­ing in the nine­teen fifties, and going all the way through to today, we know that peo­ple have been less and less invest­ed in oth­er peo­ple,” he says in the Big Think video above. “In some stud­ies, as many as 60 per­cent of peo­ple will say that they feel lone­ly much of the time,” a feel­ing “per­va­sive across the world, across all age groups, all income groups, all demo­graph­ics.”

“Hav­ing an exten­sive net­work of friends is no guar­an­tee against lone­li­ness,” writes the late soci­ol­o­gist Ray Old­en­burg in The Great Good Place. “Nor does mem­ber­ship in vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tions, the ‘instant com­mu­ni­ties’ of our mobile soci­ety, ensure against social iso­la­tion and atten­dant feel­ings of bore­dom and alien­ation. The net­work of friends has no uni­ty and no home base.” He names as a key fac­tor the dis­ap­pear­ance, espe­cial­ly in Amer­i­can life since World War II, of “con­ve­nient and open-end­ed social­iz­ing — places where indi­vid­u­als can go with­out aim or arrange­ment and be greet­ed by peo­ple who know them and know how to enjoy a lit­tle time off.”

Old­en­burg’s ele­gy for and defense of “cafés, cof­fee shops, com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters, gen­er­al stores, bars,” and oth­er engines of com­mu­ni­ty life, was pub­lished in 1989, well before the rise of social media — which Waldinger frames as the lat­est stage in a process that began with tele­vi­sion. As more Amer­i­can homes acquired sets of their own, “there was a decline in invest­ing in our com­mu­ni­ties. Peo­ple went out less, they joined clubs less often. They went to hous­es of wor­ship less often. They invit­ed peo­ple over less often.” Then, “the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion gave us more and more screens to look at, and soft­ware that was designed specif­i­cal­ly to grab our atten­tion, hold our atten­tion, and there­fore keep it away from the peo­ple we care about.”

We also know, he con­tin­ues, that “peo­ple with strong social bonds are much less like­ly to die in any giv­en year than peo­ple with­out strong social bonds.” This is a cred­i­ble claim, giv­en that he hap­pens to direct the now 85-year-long Har­vard Study of Adult Devel­op­ment. In 2016, we fea­tured Waldinger’s TED Talk on some of its find­ings here on Open Cul­ture. Before that, we post­ed a PBS Brain­Craft video that con­sid­ers the Har­vard Study of Adult Devel­op­ment along with oth­er research on the con­tribut­ing fac­tors to hap­pi­ness, a body of work that, tak­en togeth­er, points to the impor­tance of love — which, even if it isn’t all you need, is cer­tain­ly some­thing you need. And thus one more Bea­t­les lyric con­tin­ues to res­onate.

Relat­ed con­tent:

New Ani­ma­tion Explains Sher­ry Turkle’s The­o­ries on Why Social Media Makes Us Lone­ly

What Are the Keys to Hap­pi­ness? Lessons from a 75-Year-Long Har­vard Study

All You Need is Love: The Keys to Hap­pi­ness Revealed by a 75-Year Har­vard Study

A Guide to Hap­pi­ness: Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Six Great Philoso­phers Can Change Your Life

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Gives Life-Changing Advice to Teens: Watch His Speech, “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” (1967)

Six months before his assas­si­na­tion, Mar­tin Luther King Jr. spoke to stu­dents at Bar­ratt Junior High School in Philadel­phia, and asked What Is Your Life’s Blue­print?

Address­ing the stu­dents, he observed: “This is the most impor­tant and cru­cial peri­od of your lives. For what you do now and what you decide now at this age may well deter­mine which way your life shall go. When­ev­er a build­ing is con­struct­ed, you usu­al­ly have an archi­tect who draws a blue­print. And that blue­print serves as the pat­tern, as the guide, as the mod­el, for those who are to build the build­ing. And a build­ing is not well erect­ed with­out a good, sound, and sol­id blue­print.”

So what makes for a sound blue­print? The civ­il rights leader had some sug­ges­tions:

Num­ber one in your life’s blue­print should be: a deep belief in your own dig­ni­ty, your own worth and your own some­bod­i­ness. Don’t allow any­body to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ulti­mate sig­nif­i­cance.

Now that means you should not be ashamed of your col­or. You know, it’s very unfor­tu­nate that in so many instances, our soci­ety has placed a stig­ma on the Negro’s col­or. You know there are some Negros who are ashamed of them­selves? Don’t be ashamed of your col­or. Don’t be ashamed of your bio­log­i­cal fea­tures…

Sec­ond­ly, in your life’s blue­print you must have as the basic prin­ci­ple the deter­mi­na­tion to achieve excel­lence in your var­i­ous fields of endeav­or. You’re going to be decid­ing as the days and the years unfold, what you will do in life — what your life’s work will be.

And once you dis­cov­er what it will be, set out to do it, and to do it well.

You can read a tran­script of the speech here. As a post­script, it’s worth high­light­ing a remark­able com­ment left on YouTube, from the stu­dent who appar­ent­ly record­ed the speech on Octo­ber 26, 1967. It reads:

I can­not believe that I found this footage. I am the stu­dent cam­era­man that record­ed this speech. I remem­ber this like it was yes­ter­day. I have been telling my boys for years about this and now I can show them. I thought this was lost years ago and am so hap­py that it sur­vived the years. I was 12 or 13 years old when he can to Bar­rett and was mes­mer­ized by what he was say­ing. I can’t wait to share this with my fam­i­ly. Wow I am elat­ed that I found this.


Relat­ed Con­tent 

How Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Used Niet­zsche, Hegel & Kant to Over­turn Seg­re­ga­tion in Amer­i­ca

Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.‘s Hand­writ­ten Syl­labus & Final Exam for the Phi­los­o­phy Course He Taught at More­house Col­lege (1962)

How Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Got C’s in Pub­lic Speaking–Before Becom­ing a Straight‑A Stu­dent and a World Class Ora­tor

Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live and Learn More

Why must we all work long hours to earn the right to live? Why must only the wealthy have access to leisure, aes­thet­ic plea­sure, self-actu­al­iza­tion…? Every­one seems to have an answer, accord­ing to their polit­i­cal or the­o­log­i­cal bent. One eco­nom­ic bogey­man, so-called “trick­le-down” eco­nom­ics, or “Reaganomics,” actu­al­ly pre­dates our 40th pres­i­dent by a few hun­dred years at least. The notion that we must bet­ter ourselves—or sim­ply survive—by toil­ing to increase the wealth and prop­er­ty of already wealthy men was per­haps first com­pre­hen­sive­ly artic­u­lat­ed in the 18th-cen­tu­ry doc­trine of “improve­ment.” In order to jus­ti­fy pri­va­tiz­ing com­mon land and forc­ing the peas­antry into job­bing for them, Eng­lish land­lords attempt­ed to show in trea­tise after trea­tise that 1) the peas­ants were lazy, immoral, and unpro­duc­tive, and 2) they were bet­ter off work­ing for oth­ers. As a corol­lary, most argued that landown­ers should be giv­en the utmost social and polit­i­cal priv­i­lege so that their largesse could ben­e­fit every­one.

This scheme neces­si­tat­ed a com­plete rede­f­i­n­i­tion of what it meant to work. In his study, The Eng­lish Vil­lage Com­mu­ni­ty and the Enclo­sure Move­ments, his­to­ri­an W.E. Tate quotes from sev­er­al of the “improve­ment” trea­tis­es, many writ­ten by Puri­tans who argued that “the poor are of two class­es, the indus­tri­ous poor who are con­tent to work for their bet­ters, and the idle poor who pre­fer to work for them­selves.” Tate’s sum­ma­tion per­fect­ly artic­u­lates the ear­ly mod­ern rede­f­i­n­i­tion of “work” as the cre­ation of prof­it for own­ers. Such work is vir­tu­ous, “indus­tri­ous,” and leads to con­tent­ment. Oth­er kinds of work, leisure­ly, domes­tic, plea­sur­able, sub­sis­tence, or oth­er­wise, qualifies—in an Orwellian turn of phrase—as “idle­ness.” (We hear echoes of this rhetoric in the lan­guage of “deserv­ing” and “unde­serv­ing” poor.) It was this lan­guage, and its legal and social reper­cus­sions, that Max Weber lat­er doc­u­ment­ed in The Protes­tant Eth­ic and the Spir­it of Cap­i­tal­ism, Karl Marx react­ed to in Das Cap­i­tal, and fem­i­nists have shown to be a con­sol­i­da­tion of patri­ar­chal pow­er and fur­ther exclu­sion of women from eco­nom­ic par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Along with Marx, var­i­ous oth­ers have raised sig­nif­i­cant objec­tions to Protes­tant, cap­i­tal­ist def­i­n­i­tions of work, includ­ing Thomas Paine, the Fabi­ans, agrar­i­ans, and anar­chists. In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, we can add two sig­nif­i­cant names to an already dis­tin­guished list of dis­senters: Buck­min­ster Fuller and Bertrand Rus­sell. Both chal­lenged the notion that we must have wage-earn­ing jobs in order to live, and that we are not enti­tled to indulge our pas­sions and inter­ests unless we do so for mon­e­tary prof­it or have inde­pen­dent wealth. In New York Times col­umn on Rus­sel­l’s 1932 essay “In Praise of Idle­ness,” Gary Gut­ting writes, “For most of us, a pay­ing job is still utter­ly essen­tial — as mass­es of unem­ployed peo­ple know all too well. But in our eco­nom­ic sys­tem, most of us inevitably see our work as a means to some­thing else: it makes a liv­ing, but it doesn’t make a life.”

In far too many cas­es in fact, the work we must do to sur­vive robs us of the abil­i­ty to live by ruin­ing our health, con­sum­ing all our pre­cious time, and degrad­ing our envi­ron­ment. In his essay, Rus­sell argued that “there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is vir­tu­ous, and that what needs to be preached in mod­ern indus­tri­al coun­tries is quite dif­fer­ent from what has always been preached.” His “argu­ments for lazi­ness,” as he called them, begin with def­i­n­i­tions of what we mean by “work,” which might be char­ac­ter­ized as the dif­fer­ence between labor and man­age­ment:

What is work? Work is of two kinds: first, alter­ing the posi­tion of mat­ter at or near the earth’s sur­face rel­a­tive­ly to oth­er such mat­ter; sec­ond, telling oth­er peo­ple to do so. The first kind is unpleas­ant and ill paid; the sec­ond is pleas­ant and high­ly paid.

Rus­sell fur­ther divides the sec­ond cat­e­go­ry into “those who give orders” and “those who give advice as to what orders should be giv­en.” This lat­ter kind of work, he says, “is called pol­i­tics,” and requires no real “knowl­edge of the sub­jects as to which advice is giv­en,” but only the abil­i­ty to manip­u­late: “the art of per­sua­sive speak­ing and writ­ing, i.e. of adver­tis­ing.” Rus­sell then dis­cuss­es a “third class of men” at the top, “more respect­ed than either of the class­es of the workers”—the landown­ers, who “are able to make oth­ers pay for the priv­i­lege of being allowed to exist and to work.” The idle­ness of landown­ers, he writes, “is only ren­dered pos­si­ble by the indus­try of oth­ers. Indeed their desire for com­fort­able idle­ness is his­tor­i­cal­ly the source of the whole gospel of work. The last thing they have ever wished is that oth­ers should fol­low their exam­ple.”

The “gospel of work” Rus­sell out­lines is, he writes, “the moral­i­ty of the Slave State,” and the kinds of mur­der­ous toil that devel­oped under its rule—actual chat­tel slav­ery, fif­teen hour work­days in abom­inable con­di­tions, child labor—has been “dis­as­trous.” Work looks very dif­fer­ent today than it did even in Rus­sel­l’s time, but even in moder­ni­ty, when labor move­ments have man­aged to gath­er some increas­ing­ly pre­car­i­ous amount of social secu­ri­ty and leisure time for work­ing peo­ple, the amount of work forced upon the major­i­ty of us is unnec­es­sary for human thriv­ing and in fact counter to it—the result of a still-suc­cess­ful cap­i­tal­ist pro­pa­gan­da cam­paign: if we aren’t labor­ing for wages to increase the prof­its of oth­ers, the log­ic still dic­tates, we will fall to sloth and vice and fail to earn our keep. “Satan finds some mis­chief for idle hands to do,” goes the Protes­tant proverb Rus­sell quotes at the begin­ning of his essay. On the con­trary, he con­cludes,

…in a world where no one is com­pelled to work more than four hours a day, every per­son pos­sessed of sci­en­tif­ic curios­i­ty will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint with­out starv­ing, how­ev­er excel­lent his pic­tures may be. Young writ­ers will not be oblig­ed to draw atten­tion to them­selves by sen­sa­tion­al pot-boil­ers, with a view to acquir­ing the eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence for mon­u­men­tal works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capac­i­ty.

The less we are forced to labor, the more we can do good work in our idle­ness, and we can all labor less, Rus­sell argues, because “mod­ern meth­ods of pro­duc­tion have giv­en us the pos­si­bil­i­ty of ease and secu­ri­ty for all” instead of “over­work for some and star­va­tion for oth­ers.”

A few decades lat­er, vision­ary archi­tect, inven­tor, and the­o­rist Buck­min­ster Fuller would make exact­ly the same argu­ment, in sim­i­lar terms, against the “spe­cious notion that every­body has to earn a liv­ing.” Fuller artic­u­lat­ed his ideas on work and non-work through­out his long career. He put them most suc­cinct­ly in a 1970 New York mag­a­zine “Envi­ron­men­tal Teach-In”:

It is a fact today that one in ten thou­sand of us can make a tech­no­log­i­cal break­through capa­ble of sup­port­ing all the rest…. We keep invent­ing jobs because of this false idea that every­body has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, accord­ing to Malthu­sian-Dar­win­ian the­o­ry, he must jus­ti­fy his right to exist.

Many peo­ple are paid very lit­tle to do back­break­ing labor; many oth­ers paid quite a lot to do very lit­tle. The cre­ation of sur­plus jobs leads to redun­dan­cy, inef­fi­cien­cy, and the bureau­crat­ic waste we hear so many politi­cians rail against: “we have inspec­tors and peo­ple mak­ing instru­ments for inspec­tors to inspect inspectors”—all to sat­is­fy a dubi­ous moral imper­a­tive and to make a small num­ber of rich peo­ple even rich­er.

What should we do instead? We should con­tin­ue our edu­ca­tion, and do what we please, Fuller argues: “The true busi­ness of peo­ple should be to go back to school and think about what­ev­er it was they were think­ing about before some­body came along and told them they had to earn a liv­ing.” We should all, in oth­er words, work for our­selves, per­form­ing the kind of labor we deem nec­es­sary for our qual­i­ty of life and our social arrange­ments, rather than the kinds of labor dic­tat­ed to us by gov­ern­ments, landown­ers, and cor­po­rate exec­u­tives. And we can all do so, Fuller thought, and all flour­ish sim­i­lar­ly. Fuller called the tech­no­log­i­cal and evo­lu­tion­ary advance­ment that enables us to do more with less “euphe­mer­al­iza­tion.” In Crit­i­cal Path, a vision­ary work on human devel­op­ment, he claimed “It is now pos­si­ble to give every man, woman and child on Earth a stan­dard of liv­ing com­pa­ra­ble to that of a mod­ern-day bil­lion­aire.”

Sound utopi­an? Per­haps. But Fuller’s far-reach­ing path out of reliance on fos­sil fuels and into a sus­tain­able future has nev­er been tried, for some depress­ing­ly obvi­ous rea­sons and some less obvi­ous. Nei­ther Rus­sell nor Fuller argued for the abolition—or inevitable self-destruction—of cap­i­tal­ism and the rise of a work­ers’ par­adise. (Rus­sell gave up his ear­ly enthu­si­asm for com­mu­nism.) Nei­ther does Gary Gut­ting, a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Notre Dame, who in his New York Times com­men­tary on Rus­sell asserts that “Cap­i­tal­ism, with its devo­tion to prof­it, is not in itself evil.” Most Marx­ists on the oth­er hand would argue that devo­tion to prof­it can nev­er be benign. But there are many mid­dle ways between state com­mu­nism and our cur­rent reli­gious devo­tion to sup­ply-side cap­i­tal­ism, such as robust demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism or a basic income guar­an­tee. In any case, what most dis­senters against mod­ern notions of work share in com­mon is the con­vic­tion that edu­ca­tion should pro­duce crit­i­cal thinkers and self-direct­ed indi­vid­u­als, and not, as Gut­ting puts it, “be pri­mar­i­ly for train­ing work­ers or consumers”—and that doing work we love for the sake of our own per­son­al ful­fill­ment should not be the exclu­sive pre­serve of a prop­er­tied leisure class.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Charles Bukows­ki Rails Against 9‑to‑5 Jobs in a Bru­tal­ly Hon­est Let­ter (1986)

Bri­an Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Cre­ative Work: Don’t Get a Job

Hear Alan Watts’s 1960s Pre­dic­tion That Automa­tion Will Neces­si­tate a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.