My rating: 2 of 5 stars
[This is the first of the books I set myself to read in my challenge to read last year all the books I read up to 1977 that I still own in their original edition.]
When Martin Pawley died in 2008, obituaries were quick to latch onto the seeming far-sightedness of The Private Future. This book of “social prophecy”, The Guardian said, provided evidence of “how penetrating Pawley’s vision could be”. It was, for The Independent “one of his prescient books”. Published in hardback in 1973, the paperback edition of 1974 has emblazoned on the front cover, “With all the force of FUTURE SHOCK” in an attempt to ride the coat tails of Toffler’s publishing wonder, a serious book of cultural analysis that became an international best-seller. The paperback of Pawley’s book was soon remaindered, however; I picked it up in a bargain bin at Woolworth’s in 1976 or so.
The book contends that individuals in Western culture are becoming more private. People are becoming islands unto themselves as family and community broke down. What was the cause of this breakdown? Here, the book becomes less prescient, and instead fits into a general pattern of cultural analysis of the fifties and sixties. Among the causes are, of course, consumerism, and the rise of popular culture and the media that carried that culture – cinema, television and radio. “Can these shoals of anonymous commuters,” he wonders, “fed on sports reports and salacious advertising really be called communities? Are these thinly populated, fenced-off brick boxes really the homes of families? Do ten or twenty million of them amount to a society? Surely not.” (p.8) The tenor is very 1970s: “shoals of anonymous commuters”, “fenced off brick boxes”, “sports reports and salacious advertising” – against popular culture, against space, light and suburban homes for the masses, and reducing people to anonymous “shoals”.
Although The Guardian might regard Pawley as “prescient”, his critique is of the extant society, the future he foresaw was very much his now. The conditions for the private future were already there – the future would merely bring further privatisation and the withering of community. This is not a vision for now. As Pawley notes “The conditions of life have changed dramatically over the last thirty years… ” (p.16). And the society these changes have brought about – in which families have become smaller as children leave home and elders move to retirement homes or nursing homes, in which there are no connections with shop assistants, because ” with modern objects like fridges and freezers, [there is] no need to visit shops as often” – is the society Pawley is describing in the 1970s.
The book itself is rather slim, 200 pages in the paperback edition, and is more polemic than penetrating analysis. There is no bibliographic information, and few references to other sociologists or hard data; the book stands or falls on the basis of Pawley’s insights, rather than evidence adduced from other sources. The books rambles somewhat – for example, because of the concentration on consumerism as a facet of privatisation, there is anti-capitalist rant, yet this somehow feels shoe-horned into the argument. The book is also sometimes contradictory – for example, you might wonder if Pawley desires the private future, rather than being against it. And is he for or against freedom and emancipation? You would think he would be for both things. Yet he rails against the washing machines and fridges that enable women more free time (and thus to work and to become politically involved) because they do not require somebody (usually, in the 1960s, a wife) to visit shops, or otherwise be involved in the community.
How prescient, then, was Pawley? How penetrating was his vision? Interestingly, both The Guardian and The Independent were making their comments after Pawley’s death in 2008. Who could have foreseen then quite the power of the social networks then? It was easy to concentrate on headphones and the Walkman and iPod, and see them as symbols of self-sufficiency, of inwardness, of privatisation. And yet, even then, we were already 30 years on from Pawley’s books. Some elements of it might have been true. Yet the idea that there were no longer communities, families or other social groupings seems a little misplaced. Certainly, some types of community might have declined – trades unions certainly, the nuclear family to an extent – yet, even in the mid-2000s, other communities had developed, some internet-based (chatrooms, newsgroups), some around media and popular culture (people sharing discussions at work about television programs), some around formal and informal groupings in the real world (membership of the National Trust, for example). With more leisure time (because of those fridges and washing machines) came more time to appreciate nature, or history, or architecture, and to develop local communities based around these pursuits.
All of the above are, I feel, still true. Technology, capitalism, the individualist drive within us, the desire for freedom and liberation might well lead to the decline of some forms of community, but these things also lead to the growth of new communities and the re-organisation of others. The drive to feel part of a community, to be shaped by a community, to take part in community is still there within us, and is now partly driven by social media. Yes, this media is currently divisive, but it enables the creation of communities and cultures that shape and are shaped by us. Yes, it creates echo chambers, but what are these but the reflections of particular communities that still exist “out there” IRL, as we used to say (lol). And, yes, we might interact in private with the devices that enable these communities, as private individuals. But community still exists in these new forms, through these media, just as family continues to exist in new, changed and sometimes radical, forms.
Reading The Private Future forty years on is not, then, to rediscover a hidden classic that explains the world as it is now. It is a book that attempted to explain some aspects of the world as it was then, a book that seemed unsure if it wanted to stop the process it foresaw or celebrate it. It is, however, in its own, dated, way, an interesting read. It is now a history of the way some aspects of the world once were, and might have become – a retro what-if for a world that quickly changed after the book was written to become something else, somewhere else with different people in it.
A two star review may seem paltry, but in the Goodreads world, that means I thought “it was Ok”. And if you are interested in sociology, cultural studies, history or politics, and discover this book second-hand, pick it up. You might find yourself intrigued by what it was saying about the private then.