Read CROWDS AND MACHINES - CHAPTER VIII of Crowds A Moving-Picture of Democracy, free online book, by Gerald Stanley Lee, on


I remember looking over with H.G.  Wells one night some time ago a set of pictures or photographs of the future in America, which he had brought home with him.  They were largely skyscrapers, big bridges, Niagaras, and things; and I could not help thinking, as I came home that night, how much more Mr. Wells had of the future of America in his own mind than he could possibly buy in his photographs.  What funny little films they were after all, how faint and pathetic, how almost tragically dull, those pictures of the future of my country were!  H.G.  Wells himself, standing in his own doorway, was more like America, and more like the future of America, than the pictures were.

The future in America cannot be pictured.  The only place it can be seen is in people’s faces.  Go out into the street, in New York, in Chicago, in San Francisco, in Seattle; look eagerly as you go into the faces of the men who pass, and you feel hundreds of years-the next hundred years-like a breath, swept past.  America, with all its forty-story buildings, its little Play Niagaras, its great dumb Rockies, is the unseen country.  It can only as yet be seen in people’s eyes.  Some days, flowing sublime and silent through our noisy streets, and through the vast panorama of our towers, I have heard the footfalls of the unborn, like sunshine around me.

This feeling America gives one in the streets is the real America.  The solidity, the finality, the substantial fact in America, is the daily sense in the streets of the future.  And it has seemed to me that this fact-whether one observes it in Americans in America, in Americans in England and in other nations-is what one might call, for lack of a better name, the American temperament in all peoples is the most outstanding typical and important fact with which our modern world and our philosophy about the world have now to reckon.  Nothing can be seen as it really is if this amazing pervasive hourly sense of the future is left out of it.

All power is rapidly coming to be based on news-news about human nature, and about what is soon to be done by people.  This news travels by express in boxes, by newspapers, by telephone, by word of mouth, and by wireless telegraph.  Most of the wireless news is not only wireless, but it is in cipher-hence prophets, or men who have great sensitiveness; men whose souls and bodies are films for the future, platinum plates for the lights and shadows of events; men who are world-poets, sensitive to the air-waves and the light-waves of truth, to the faintest vibrations from To-morrow, or from the next hundred years hovering just ahead.  As a matter of course, it is already coming to be true that the most practical man to-day is the prophet.  In the older days, men used to look back for wisdom, and the practical man was the man who spoke from experience, and they crucified the prophet.  But to-day, the practical man is the man who can make the best guess on to-morrow.  The cross has gone by; at least, the cross is being pushed farther along.  A prophet in business or politics gets a large salary now; he is a recognized force.  Being a prophet is getting to be almost smug and respectable.

We live so in the future in our modern life, and our rewards are so great for men who can live in the future, that a man who can be a ten-year prophet, or a twenty-five-year prophet, like James J. Hill, is put on a pedestal, or rather is not wasted on a pedestal, and is made President of a railroad.  He swings the country as if it were his hat.  We see great cities tagging Wilbur Wright, and emperors clinging to the skirts of Count Zeppelin.  We only crucify a prophet now if he is a hundred, or two hundred or five hundred years ahead.  Even then, we would not be apt to crucify; we would merely not use him much, except the first twenty-five years of him.

The theory is no longer tenable that prophets must be necessarily crucified.  As a matter of history, most prophets have been crucified by people; but it was not so much because of their prophecy as because their prophecy did not have any first twenty-five years in it.  They were crucified because of a blank place or hiatus, not necessarily in their own minds, but at least in other people’s.  People would have been very glad to have their first twenty-five years’ worth if they could have got it.  It is this first twenty-five years, or joining-on part, which is most important in prophecy, and which has become our specialty in the Western World.  One might say, in a general way, that the idea of having a first twenty-five years’ section in truth for a prophet is a modern, an almost American, invention.  We are temperamentally a country of the future, and think instinctively in futures; and perhaps it is not too much to say (considering all the faults that go with it for which we are criticized) that we have led the way in futures as a specialty, as a national habit of mind; and though with terrific blunders perhaps have been really the first people en masse to put being a prophet on a practical basis-that is, to supply the first twenty-five years’ section, or the next-thing-to-do section to Truth, to put in a kind of coupling between this world and the next.  This is what America is for, perhaps-to put in the coupling between this world and the next.

In the former days, the strength of a man, or of an estate, or a business, was its stability.  In the new world, instead of stability, we have the idea of persistence, and power lies not so much in solid brittle foundation quality as in conductivity.  Socially, men can be divided into conductors-men who connect powers-and non-conductors-men who do not; and power lies in persistence, in dogged flexibility, adaptableness, and impressionableness.  The set conservative class of people, in three hundred years, are going to be the dreamers, inventors-those who demonstrate their capacity to dream true, and who hit shrewdly upon probabilities and trends and futures; and the power of a man is coming to be the power of observing atmospheres, of being sensitive to the intangible and the unknown.  People are more likely to be crucified two thousand years from now for wanting to stay as they are.  There used to be the inertia of rest; and now in its place, working reciprocally in a new astonishing equilibrium, we step up calmly on our vast moving sidewalk of civilization and swing into the inertia of motion.

The inertia of men, instead of being that of foundations, conventions, customs, facts, sogginess, and heaviness, is getting to be an inertia now toward the future, or the next-thing-to-do.  Most of us can prove this by simply looking inward and taking a glimpse of our own consciousness.  Let a man draw up before his own mind the contents of his own consciousness (if he has a motor consciousness), and we find that the future in his life looms up, both in its motives and its character, and takes about three quarters of the room of his consciousness; and when it is not looming up, it is woven into everything he does.  Even if all the future were for was to help one understand the present and act this immediate moment as one should, nine tenths of the power of seeing a thing as it is, turns out to be one’s power of seeing it as it is going to be.  In any normal man’s life, it is really the future and his sense of the future that make his present what it is.

History is losing its monopoly.  It is only absorbed in men’s minds-in the minds of those who are making more of it-in parts or rather in elements of all its parts.

The trouble with history seems to have been, thus far, that people have been under the illusion that history should be taken as a solid.  They seem to think it should be taken in bulk.  They take it, some of them, a solid hundred years of it or so, and gulp it down.  The advantage of prophecy is that it cannot be taken as a solid by people who would take everything so if they could.  Prophecy is protected.  People have to breathe it, assimilate it, and get it into their circulation and make a solid out of it personally, and do it all themselves.  It is this process which is making our modern men spiritual, interpretative, and powerful toward the present and toward the past, and which is giving a body and soul to knowledge, and is making knowledge lively and human, the kind of knowledge (when men get it) that makes things happen.