The Shape of Things to Come

Book the Third
The World Renascence: the Birth of the Modern State

3. The Technical Revolutionary

H.G. Wells

THE EXISTENCE of this large number of scientific and technical workers in the Western communities and their rapid and lively apprehension of the breakdown about them is one of the profoundest differences between the second and the first Decline and Fall.

We find no real equivalent at all to them in the Roman story. There were great numbers of artisans without any science, steeped in tradition; and quite out of touch with these artisans there were a few small groups of ineffective philosophers whose speculations were finally swamped by the synthesis of Christianity. Artisan and philosopher were in different worlds. The philosopher has left it on record that he despised the artisan. Probably the artisan despised the philosopher in equal measure so far as he knew about him; but he has not left it on record. Neither artisan nor philosopher seem to have had any awareness of the broad social forces that were destroying the common security in which they went about their affairs, and turning the Empire into a battling ground for barbarian adventurers.

It is doubtful if at any time the imperial court or the imperial civil service had any real conception of any sustained decline. Nineteenth- and twentieth-Century historians, as Ogilvy and Freud point out in their Roman History (2003 and revised by Pan Chow Liang 2047), were all too apt to imagine an up-to-date intelligence for such emperors as Julius Cæsar, Octavius, Marcus Aurelius or Domitian. They represented them as scheming and planning on almost modern lines. But there is no proof of any such awareness in the Latin record. One large element in that old Roman world that would surely have displayed some sense of the needs of the time, if anywhere there had been that sense, was the universally present building industry. It did hold on in a way throughout the decline and fall, but consciously it did nothing politically.

Students are still working out the preservation and continuation of the art and mystery of the masons into the middle ages. There was a great loss of knowledge but also a real survival. The medieval free-masons who built those flimsy but often quite beautiful Gothic cathedrals it is now such a task to conserve, carried on a tradition that had never really broken with that of the pyramid builders. But they had no sense of politics. They had a tradition of protective guild association similar to the Trade Unions of the Capitalist age, they interfered in local affairs in order to make jobs for themselves, but there is no sign that at any time they concerned themselves with the order and stability of the community as a whole. Their horizons were below that level of intelligence.

Now the skilled and directive men of the collapsing order of the twentieth century were of an altogether livelier quality. Their training was not traditional but progressive, far more progressive than that of any other class. They were inured to fundamental changes in scope, method and material. They ceased to be acquiescent in the political and financial life about them directly they found their activities seriously impeded. Simultaneously with the outbreak of that very expressive and significant word “Technocracy” in the world’s Press (1932-33) we find, for instance, a Professor of Engineering, Professor Miles Walker, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, boldly arraigning the whole contemporary order by the standards of engineering efficiency. Everywhere in that decadence, amidst that twilight of social order, engineers, industrialists and professors of physical science were writing and talking constructive policies. They were invading politics. We have already noted the name of Professor Soddy as one of the earlier men of science who ceased to “mind his own business”, and took up business psychology.

At first these technicians and business men were talking at large. They did not immediately set about doing things; they still assumed that the politicians and monetary authorities were specialists with sound and thorough knowledge in their own departments, as capable of invention and adaptation as themselves; so that they did no more than clamour for decisive action—not realizing that the very conditions under which bankers and politicians lived made them incapable of varying their methods in any fundamental fashion. But this grew plain as disaster followed disaster. A new type had to assume authority if new methods were to be given a fair chance. New methods of government must oust the old. An increasing proportion of the younger men, abandoning all ideas of loyalty to or cooperation with the old administrative institutions, and with an ever clearer consciousness of their objective, set themselves to organize nuclei after the De Windt pattern and to link these up with other nuclei.

The movement spread from workshop to workshop and from laboratory to laboratory with increasing rapidity all over the world. Al Haran estimated that already in 1960 seven-eighths of the aviators were Modern State men, and most of the others he says were “at least infected with these same ideas”. Such infection went far and deep.

Wherever there was little or no repression the development of this movement to salvage civilization went on openly. But to begin with it encountered some very serious antagonisms. The military element had always been disposed to regard the man of science and the technician as a gifted sort of inferior. The soldier in his panoply ordered them to do their tricks, and they did their tricks. That was the idea. The behaviour of both types during the World War did much to confirm this assumption of their docility. The Peace of Versailles came before there was any serious disillusionment. The nineteenth-century scientific man had been a very lopsided man; often he had proved himself a poor conventional snob outside his particular investigations.

“The sciences,” as Simon Azar remarked, “came before Science”; the scientific outlook was a late result and not a primary cause of the systematic pursuit of knowledge. It was a discovery and not a starting point. Science taught the men who served it, and the pupil learnt more than the teacher knew. There was and is an incessant conflict in the scientific world between achievement and fresh enquiry, and in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was acute. The older men suspected younger men with broader ideas and hindered their advancement. They wanted them all to work in specialist blinkers. But after the World War the world of pure and applied science found itself obliged to think about things in general, and, as the Great Slump went on without surcease, it thought hard. The technicians, because of their closer approach to business and practical affairs generally, were considerably in advance of the “pure” scientific investigators in this application of constructive habits of thought to political and social organization.

Even during the Chinese warfare there were intimations that chemists, engineers and doctors might have different ideas from the military. After the Tokio sterilization fiasco, and still more so after the failure of the eleventh gas offensive upon Wuchang to produce adequate results, the Japanese military authorities began to enquire into the possibility of “expert sabotage”, and their enquiries had a certain repercussion upon the relations of “scientific” military men to real scientific and technical experts in Europe. There was an attempt to distinguish between experts who were “loyal” and experts who were “subversive”. More often than not it was the latter who were the brilliant and inventive men. Uncritical loyalty was found to go with a certain general dullness. The authorities found themselves in a dilemma between men who could not do what was wanted of them and men who would not.

A campaign against pacificist, disturbing and revolutionary ideas had been gathering force during the thirties. It became a confused and tiresome persecution in the later forties. But it was ineffective because it was incoherent. Attempts to weed the staffs and students of technical schools and to reduce the teaching profession to docility failed, because there seemed to be no way of distinguishing what was essential science from what was treasonable thought. The attempt to destroy freedom in one part of a man’s brain while leaving other parts to move freely and creatively was doomed to failure from the outset.

The Shape of Things to Come - Contents    |     Book 3 - 4. Prophets, Pioneers, Fanatics and Murdered Men

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