Spring/Summer 1994, Volume 11.2


Fred Erisman

The Technological Utopias of Thorstein Veblen and Nevil Shute

Fred Erisman (Ph.D., U. of Minnesota) is Lorraine Sherley Professor of Literature at Texas Christian University. He is the author of the Boise Western Writers pamphlet on Tony Hillerman (1989) and the forthcoming pamphlet on Laura Ingalls Wilder (1994). His most recent articles have appeared in The Social Science Journal, Western American Literature, and The Journal of Popular Film & Television.

Technology, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the congruence of the ideas of the Norwegian-American economist, Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), and the British popular novelist, Nevil Shute (1899-1960). Their lives overlap by a scant third of a century, and seem, on the surface, antagonistic; Veblen devotes his academic career to outspoken criticisms of business and commerce, while Shute, by training an aeronautical engineer, has considerable success as an entrepreneurial businessman in the aircraft industry before turning to fulltime authorship.' Nevertheless, the social ideas of the one resonate in the fiction of the other, for both are working within the long-standing tradition of the technological utopia, and their regard for the potential inherent in the proper exercise of technology provides the basis for a provocative debate over how a humane society might function effectively within a technological world.'

At the heart of Veblen's socio-economic thought are three broad concepts: the instinct of idle curiosity, the instinct of workmanship, and the parental bent. Emerging in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904), developed explicitly in The Instinct of Workmanship (1914) and The Higher Learning in America (1918), and broadly expanded in The Engineers and the Price System (1921), these concepts at last form the foundation of Veblen's technocratic utopia, a society in which their application by enlightened engineers and others of the technologically adept will overcome the corruption that permeates the world of capital and commerce. Freed of its corruption, society will then proceed to a more harmonious, albeit relentlessly secular, relationship with technology and the world.

Shute, working from a first-hand knowledge of the engineering and business worlds, takes up ideas paralleling these in two novels closely related in time, No Highway (1948) and Round the Bend (1951). The first is his testimonial to the energy that drives the intellectually curious mind and the humanitarian benefits that can derive from technical knowledge. The second, which he began planning immediately after finishing No Highway (although he did not begin writing it until completing the intervening A Town Like Alice [1950]), is an unabashedly utopian tale of the emergence of a religious movement offering salvation within the confines of a secular and technological world (Smith 84-7). The two books derive from the same technology-driven society that gave Veblen his starting point, and, read in tandem, offer an alternative response to its problems. Dramatizing the manner in which informed, technically knowledgeable individuals, in the best utopian tradition, can "maximize their virtues and strengths and the hard-edged technocracy implied by Veblen (Segal 11). minimize their vices and weaknesses," Shute offers a vision of the future of the race more hopeful and considerably more humane than that present in

Of the many instincts that drive the human animal, Veblen says, one of the most basic is that of idle curiosity. This is the urge within humans to "want to know things, when graver interests do not engross their attention" (10 W 85). This desire to know need not have a practical application, which is why Veblen labels the instinct "idle" curiosity-i.e., "'idle' in the sense that a knowledge of things is sought, apart from any ulterior use of the knowledge so gained" (HLA 5). And, because there is no immediately apparent practical application of the knowledge, those who possess the instinct in large supply run the risk of being "accounted dreamers, or in extreme cases ... of unsound mind." Nevertheless, he continues, those who heed the instinct can lead humankind to "the most substantial achievement of the race,-its systernatised knowledge and quasi-knowledge of things" (10W 87). For Veblen, therefore, the desire to seek, accumulate, and systematically organize information is an inherent trait of the human mind, a trait singularly well adapted to the investigation of technology.

Shute makes this trait a central element of No Highway, which tells of the efforts of Theodore Honey, a scientist specializing in pure metallurgical research, to gain the attention of the commercial aeronautical establishment. Honey's laboratory data indicate that metal fatigue will soon cause catastrophic failure in the tail of the most technically advanced airliner of the day. Because he is physically unheroic, socially inept, outwardly unkempt, and given to bizarre religious study in his spare time, though, the eminently "practical" corporate authorities ignore him, and the chief designer of the firm that manufactures the airliner bluntly accuses him of ... mental disturbances ... and a scientific mental decline"' (NH 246-47). To these hardheaded men of business and engineering, Honey is one of Veblen's insane dreamers and therefore to be disregarded.

When Honey, frustrated by this disdain, takes direct action to ground one of the airliners, destroying the machine in the process (he retracts the landing gear while it sits empty on the tarmac), his employer, the Director of the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, comes to his defense, couching his argument in equally Veblenesque terms. That much of Honey's other research seems tangential and impractical, says the Director, is of no real consequence:

'You cannot limit a keen intellect, or try to fetter its activity. At times,perhaps, I have no job on hand ... that will wholly occupy the energiesof some member of my staff, but I cannot put the untiring brain into coldstorage, or prevent the thinker from thinking. If there is a hiatus in the flow of work my research workers will start researching on their own.... That, gentlemen, does not mean that they are going mad. It means that I have picked my men well, because the true research worker cannot rest from research.' Shute, like Veblen before him, acknowledges idle curiosity as the impulse that drives the creative mind.

Whereas Veblen, the academic, however, is content to present the instinct as an irresistible, disinterested urge permeating his secular utopia, Shute, the novelist, goes one step further. To him, seemingly idle curiosity possesses liberating qualities, for when combined with the agency of technology, it can empower even the most insignificant of persons to do enormous good for humanity. Thus, Mr. Honey's destruction of the airliner gives him heroic stature in the eyes of one of the craft's flight attendants: ... I wonder how many lives you've saved, Theo,"' she muses. "How many people are now living who would be dead by now, or just about to die, but for your courage and your genius?... (NH 330). Here is where Shute's utopian plan to reshape the world begins-in the demonstration of how even insignificant persons, if equipped with idle curiosity and augmented by the humane traits of courage and good faith, can indeed "maximize their virtues and strengths" and gain in significance within the larger world.

If the instinct of idle curiosity leads to the seeking of knowledge, the instinct of workmanship stimulates the application of knowledge. This instinct, second in Veblen's trinity, involves "creative work and technological mastery of facts," leading to "a disposition to do the next thing and do it as well as may be" (10 W 33-4). Moreover, because it stimulates the individual to want to do high quality work, the instinct has still larger implications, for it leads to the establishing of qualitative standards of achievement-what Veblen calls "the norms, or the scheme of criteria and canons of verity, according to which the ascertained facts will be construed and connected up in a body of systematic knowledge" (HLA 5). The desire to do work of high quality, crucial to Veblen's reshaping of society, is natural and innate; any compulsion to do less than quality work, therefore, must be the result of pressures generated by a corrupt workplace.

The issue of workmanship, a secondary element in No Highway, although implicit in Mr. Honey's single-minded dedication to research, comes to the fore in Round the Bend, which Shute considered his best and most enduring book (Smith 88). Like No Highway, Round the Bend is a story of commercial aviation, tracing the rags-to-riches career of its nominal protagonist, Tom Cutter, as his efforts take him from working-class life in wartime England to personal and financial success as the operator of a charter airfreight business in the Persian Gulf. It is also, however, the story of a Eurasian technician, Connie Shaklin (or Shak Lin), a boyhood friend of Tom's who becomes chief ground engineer in the airfreight enterprise. As the story unfolds, Connie's approach to aircraft maintenance gradually takes on ethical and metaphysical attributes, until it blossoms into a religious cult with profound implications for a technologically dependent and technocratically led society.

Connie Shak Lin sees his professional career as a testament to the instinct of workmanship. "'All I ever wanted to be,"' he tells Tom, late in the book, was an absolutely first-class ground engineer.... But the truth of it is, you can't do any job really well unless you're really good yourself. The perfect job demands a perfect man, and you can't separate the two ... (RTB 331). Because he thus understands the instinct, he wants to communicate its ramifications to his coworkers and fellow maintenance engineers. "'I want to tell them as a first class G.E. . . , so that they'll remember me as someone who was good at their own job. Then if they like to pay attention to the things that I believe in, they'll be doing it on grounds of solid competence and fact, not just emotion... (RTB 308). He wants, in short, to join the world of the spirit to that of the workplace, as utopian an impulse as any could ask. Whereas Veblen offers only a secular drive as a basis for the improvement of work, Connie introduces moral effort as a necessary complement to technological expertise, so that his own demonstrated mastery of the worldly norms and criteria of ideal aircraft maintenance gives credibility to the corresponding moral norms he aspires to instill in the lives of his followers.

In Connie Shak Lin's world, the norms of ethical striving can be expressed in engineering terms. Talking with his employer, who is depressed over having decided, as a matter of principle, to decline a lucrative offer for his business, Connie resolves Tom's moral dilemma by couching it in a micrometric metaphor. "'Half a thou too small,' he [says]. 'The difference between Right and Wrong. Half a thou bigger, and it'Id be Right. As it is, it's Wrong, and you can't cheat about it... (RTB 198). For all its abstract nature and outward complexity, Tom's problem (and, by extension, every moral issue) is for Shute as reducible to absolute terms as a decision in a matter of engineering. Precision in work can be translated into precision in morality as much as precision in thought, and the individual is the better for it.

Enhancing this precision, moreover, is the exalted nature of the work itself, for those who repair aircraft are ... called to a higher task than common men,"' and have, therefore, a responsibility that extends beyond the tasks at hand (RTB 95). The question for the engineer, Connie says, must be not whether the completed task meets earthly criteria of excellence, but divine criteria:

'God is All-Merciful, and He will not hold bad work against you if He sees you striving to do right.... With every piece of work you do, with every nut you tighten down, with every filter that you clean or every tappet that you set, pause at each stage and ... humbly ask the AllSeeing God to put into your heart the knowledge whether the work that you have done has been good or ill.... If the work is good you may proceed in peace, and if it is ill you may do it over again, or come to me and I will help you to do well before God.'(RTB 98)

In thus linking moral striving with the practical requirements of the workplace, Shute seems to counter Veblen's criticism that technology does little to encourage "the dexterity, diligence, or personal force of the workman," and "gives no insight into questions of good and evil, merit and demerit" (TBE 310-11). Veblen's response to the dilemma is an entirely secular one: the only solution is to seek still higher levels of technical competence, which will lead at last to "a theoretical insight into the causal sequences which make up the machine process ... [and] the laws of causal sequence that run through material phenomena" (TBE 312-3). Whereas Veblen focuses solely upon the process, however, Shute, through Connie Shak Lin, looks to the larger, spiritual context.

In Round the Bend, Shute makes overt what is implicit in No Highway-a belief that association with technology, and aircraft technology in particular, is an exalting, even transcendent relationship for those who engage in it. As he does so, he builds upon the long tradition equating "flying with spiritual matters. . . , where angels flew and the heavens constituted the divine sanctuary of God" (Corn viii). He expands the tradition, however, by implying that the mastery of aircraft technology is as exalting an experience as flying itself, and a real-world analogue to the saving qualities of spiritual striving. Just as the airplane lifts humanity above the ground, placing the body closer to Heaven, the good works of those who maintain airplanes provide a corresponding means of elevating the spirit.' Thus, his system reformulates and expands Veblen's analysis by giving spiritual as well as worldly meaning to the work at hand, thereby benefitting the individual as much as the task. It is an extension of the instinct for workmanship that Veblen did not anticipate, and yet another demonstration of how the novelist's technical expertise is tempered by his commitment to humanity. The parental bent, the third of Veblen's fundamental instincts, completes the human involvement with knowledge begun by the instincts of idle curiosity and workmanship. Its effect however, is "of much larger scope than a mere proclivity to the achievement of children," for it looks to the utilization of knowledge for the betterment of the larger society, be it community, nation, or race. The workings of the parental bent, therefore, have "a large part in the sentimental concern entertained by nearly all persons for the life and comfort of the community at large, and particularly for the community's future welfare," leading to an "approval of economy and efficiency for the common good." Veblen has, to be sure, some reservations as to the absolute applicability of the bent in a technologically oriented society, but retains a belief that it will nonetheless "to some extent animate the workmen as well as those who may have the remoter oversight of the work," and thereby guide the utopian reshaping that Veblen projects (JOW26-7,90-1).

That belief comes to the fore in The Engineers and the Price System, where he speaks most openly of his vision of a technocratic utopia. At the head of this society, Veblen says, will be "the leaders of the industrial personnel, the workmen," individuals "soberly trained in a spirit of tangible performance and endowed with something more than an even share of the sense of workmanship, and endowed also with the common heritage of partiality for the rule of Live and Let Live." Once in power, these persons will oversee "an industrial system of an unexampled character-a mechanically balanced and interlocking system of work to be done, the prime requisite of whose working is a painstaking and intelligent co-ordination of the processes of work," the end of which is "very simply to serve human needs" (EPS 80,132). These technological coordinators become, in short, "a group of priests within the sacred spaces of the industrial order," and under their secular but benevolent rule, the new order will emerge (Noble 102-3).

Nevil Shute, like Veblen, sees the skills of the technological workplace as having social implications that reach far beyond the hangar and the machine shop. An engineer himself, however, he recognizes that technology and technologically skilled leaders, in and of themselves, will not necessarily guarantee an ideal society. True progress, as he sees it, requires more than the tempering influence of the sense of "live and let live" of which Veblen speaks. Thus, Shute, through Connie, extends the process of individual spiritual engagement he began with the apotheosis of Theodore Honey, advancing a modified version of the Veblenian technocratic utopia in which personal morality and responsibility are exalted as emphatically as technical competence (Smith 80-1, 126-7). The union of the two he realizes will not come about easily, for it requires extraordinary effort and concern on the part of the individual striving to achieve it.

That effort, on the one hand, must occur in the practical, economic, world of the workplace, for the technologically sophisticated leaders have a responsibility toward those working beneath them. As Connie muses to Tom:

'When a good man employs others he becomes a slave to the job, for the job is the guarantee for the security of many men. So when a man speaks candidly in the hangar of the things, the ethics of the work. . . , he may bring others to believe in those things too, and to depend upon his words. Then he, too, is a slave to his own job, because if he relaxes his endeavours to teach men proper ways of work and life, he may destroy the faith he has created in them, and so throw them back into an abyss of doubt and fear and degradation, lost indeed.' (RTB 28-9)

Moral responsibility requires as much of the individual as business responsibility, and the employer seeking to create progress must, of necessity, accept the duties of both realms of responsibility.

On the other hand, the effort as Shute articulates it carries a spiritual component missing from Veblen's secular analysis. Shute acknowledges that technical training encourages, even requires, secular thinking, but argues nonetheless that technology and spirit are not only compatible, but complementary. Talking with Tom Cutter about Connie's teachings, Gujar Singh, Tom's chief pilot and himself a Sikh, makes the point explicitly:

'When one of our boys starts to learn ... the maintenance of aircraft - - - , [he] learns that science is the ruling force in the world.... Our young men ... see that railways run and ships steam and aeroplanes fly without the help of God. So they abandon God and turn to Science.... With God taken from their way of life, our engineers become slovenly and irresponsible.... I think that Shak Lin understands this very well. He is showing your men that God is with them in the hangar, and making them turn to God for help in doing their work well. He is giving back to them the thing that has been taken from their lives.'(RTB 102; cf. IOW90-1)

For Shute, therefore, restoring the union of morality and technical competence gives a necessary balance to the world and makes technology at last compatible with a truly human and humane life.

That humanity, however, does not absolve the individual from personal responsibility; rather, as Theodore Honey learns, it increases the need for such responsibility. Technical work in general necessarily reaches far beyond the worker to affect others within the society, if not the society at large, and technical work dealing with aircraft has even farther-reaching implications. On this point Connie is adamant. Talking with his crew in the course of an engine overhaul, he spells out the strictures unequivocally: technicians like themselves, he says, are "'men of understanding and of education, on whom is laid responsibility that men may travel in these aeroplanes as safely as if they were sitting by the well in the cool of the evening.... You are educated men doing the most skilled work in all the world, and ... God will require more of you than of common men."' Ultimately, then, these trained workers become the priesthood that Veblen implies and Connie names overtly, anticipating Noble's 1968 metaphor by almost two decades. "'My temples are the fitters' shop, the tool room, and the hangar on the aerodrome, ' " he says shortly before his death; "'Each man who finds God in his daily work by working in a shop with other men, he is a priest for me"' (RTB 97-9, 320). Through Connie, Shute offers a vision of a world in which technology and humanity complement each other for the true betterment of the race.

Overall, then, the acerbic economist and the engineer-author share in their writings an appreciation of the importance of technology as a social force. Veblen, the academic, looks to technology for the salvation of "a culture debased by predatory businessmen," going so far as to propose in The Engineers and the Price System what he called a "Soviet of Technicians" to lead the society out of its errors (Tichi 136; FPS 134-5). Shute, for his part, takes a no less devoted but more romantic approach to the workings of technology, whether simply in the joys of "messing about" with machines and machinery, or in speculating throughout his fiction about the possibilities technology holds for the changing world, from the early days of flight in his first novels to the perils of nuclear war in his 1957 novel, On the Beach (Smith 910, 15). Both, however, acknowledge the compelling power, for evil as well as for good, that technology possesses, and devote a major portion of their work to interpreting the implications of that power for the society at large.

Greater even than their regard for technology, though, is their shared utopian bent. Both writers strive, one through polemical monographs, the other through middle-brow fiction, to alert the world to the problems facing it, and to offer proposals for the betterment of those problems. Veblen is the more overt utopist, working, as Howard Segal points out, in the tradition of the American technological utopia to postulate a world in which "the control of the people's material welfare will pass into the hands of the technicians" from those of the "vested interests" (Segal 121-2; FPS 134). Shute, the novelist, is less overt but no less determined in his aim, candidly exploiting the instructive potential implicit in his work. Calling fiction one of "the most Potent educational influences in the world," he sets out to examine "all aspects of modern life," including aviation in particular and technology in general, to present a world in which the physics of Theodore Honey gives way to the metaphysics of Connie Shak Lin, and competence, conscientiousness, and a regard for human concerns will lead all persons to worldly and spiritual salvation (NH 345).

It is, finally, the combination of technology and utopianism that forges the principal link between the economist and the engineer. Shute, like Veblen, recognizes all that technology might do; indeed, he says, as a student he was trained to think of engineering as "the art of directing the great sources of Power in Nature to the use and convenience of man", (quoted in Smith 127). But, because he turns to fiction-writing after being an engineer, he comes to recognize better than Veblen that the very strengths of technology may contribute to its ultimate failure. Life is not precise nor is society systematic, and unthinkingly to glorify technology and ruthlessly to impose upon the world its disinterested precision will create abuses at least as great as those it strives to correct. Shute's solution, therefore, is to speak out for another kind of natural Power, the uniquely human qualities of humankind. He builds, to be sure, upon a version of Veblen's instinctive drives as much as upon technology's demands, but looks, finally, not to the system but to the persons who constitute the system.

In Shute's novels one sees more clearly than in Veblen's monographs how technical competence and human concerns are complementary as well as compatible. Coming to his own understanding of the forces at work in the business and technical world, Shute strives to articulate and interpret those forces for the nonacademic, nontechnical citizen. More to the point, though, he goes on to demonstrate how an economist's vision of a technocratic society can be enhanced and tempered by a novelist's transcendent humanism. Taken together, the works of the two authors are utopian in the very best sense of the term, offering ideas that may well pave the way toward a new era of social, technological, and human progress. It is no small achievement for either.


'The basic life of Veblen remains Joseph Dorfman, Thorstein Veblen and His America. (New York: Viking, 1935). Other helpful studies include David Riesman, Thorstein Veblen (New York: Scribner, 1953), and Douglas F. Dowd, Thorstein Yeblen (New York: Washington Square P, 1966). Shute describes his engineering and business careers in Slide Rule: the Autobiography of an Engineer (London: Heinemann, 1968). The only extended study of Shute's literary career to date is Smith's volume in the Twayne's English Authors Series, although some of his recurring character types are examined in Fred Erisman, "The Ageless Adventure Hero," Illinois Quarterly, 43 (1980), 40-48.

'Anyone seeking backgroud information on utopias and utopianism must begin with the magisterial study by Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1979). A useful introduction to the technological utopia is Segal's Technological Utopianism in America (1985). Related studies include Henry Elsner, Jr., The Technocrats: Prophets of Automation (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1967), and Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992).

'Shute is not given to elaborate symbols or metaphors in his work, but in this context Theodore Honey's theories concerning the Second Coming of Christ, not to mention the name "Theodore" itself (i.e., "gift of God"), are too overt to be ignored (see NH 245,111-14).


Corn, Joseph J. The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.

Noble, David W. "The Sacred and the Profane: The Theology of Thorstein Veblen." Thorstein Veblen: the Carleton College Veblen Seminar Essays. Ed. Carlton C. Qualey. New York: Columbia UP, 1968:72-105.

Segal, Howard P. Technological Utopianism in American Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Shute, Nevil. No Highway. New York: William Morrow, 1948. Cited as NH.

—.Round the Bend. New York: William Morrow, 1951. Cited as RTB.

Smith, Julian. Nevil Shute. TEAS 190. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Tichi, Cecelia. Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1987.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Engineers and the Price System. 1921. New York: Viking, 1933. Cited as EPS.

—.The Higher Learning in America. 1918. Stanford, CA: Academic Reprints, 1954. Cited as HLA.

—.The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts. 1914. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1964. Cited as IOW. The Theory of Business Enterprise.   New York: Scribner, 1904. Cited as TBE.