A man wakes up after a sleep of 122 years into a world that has changed entirely. A world of thinking machines and a glass skyscrapers taller than the world’s tallest cathedrals. In this world, the middle classes no longer want mass production of standardised items, but handcrafted goods. This is a world where we drink locally sourced craft beer and lovingly stitch our own quilts.
The man who awoke would be forgiven for thinking that while he was asleep a revolution occurred that change the country. The people of Britain don't perform backbreaking Labour in filthy factories or mines anymore. We now have clean, bright officers which are ergonomically designed and have free tea and coffee for employees. The dehumanising working conditions of Victorian Britain have been conquered by technology.
If this man was William Morris, would he believe he had awoken in his book, News From Nowhere? Would he think that that the working class had cast off the oppressive factory conditions that horrified him in his life? Would he think people aren't exploited anymore?
Well that would depend on how much of the world he saw. Morris would probably be horrified in how we have moved production so far away from consumers that we don't think about it anymore. The industrial working class of today still eek out a wretched existence in dangerous factories, but these are in huge Chinese cities that we don't know the names of. Our world is not Morris's ideal of people working with their hands to make beautiful, high-quality objects, as they did in the imagined medieval Britain he idealised.
I can see Morris being fascinated by craft breweries and artisan bakeries, which are in many ways his spiritual successor. He would also be interested in the tech industry, where lavish perks are bestowed on highly paid workers. Is this the closest we have come to the ideals that William Morris wanted from production?
In the tech industry, people work in beautiful offices with lots of flexibility to explore projects that interest them. They have high-quality food and entertainment provided by their employer. Workers are not regimented into performing repetitive tasks over and over by harsh bosses who watch them hawkishly.
These offices are a million miles away from soul-crushingly oppressive factories of Victorian Britain. Many tech companies have a flat (or flatter) management structure like the Medieval Guilds that Morris thought were greatly superior to Victorian factories. The products that tech companies produce are high quality and lovingly worked on (or at least have many hours poured into them) by the startup employees. Is this what Morris thought work would be like in the future?
Morris said: “That thing which I understand by real art is the expression by man of his pleasure in Labour.” I know from when I worked in a tech company that people take real pleasure in writing code and creating high-quality products that their customers (or fans) really appreciate. Their work environments and products are beautiful, as was Morris's ideal. Of course, many of the products of the tech industry can only be afforded by the wealthy, but the same can be said for Morris's furniture. The iPhone today serves much the same purpose as owning a William Morris chair. They don’t buy them for the functionality or the beautiful design, but to make a statement that they are the type of person who buys such as thing.
The big question for Morris would be: whether these tech company workers were connected to what they worked on. Morris believed that the best way to work was with your hands, creating something. This is why he was interested in the violence of Medieval Knights, as it was hands on. This is why he placed a high value on handcrafted products.
There is a degree to which tech workers are removed from what they make by virtue of working with machines rather than a saw and plane. However, if Morris's ideas about what work should be like are to be anything other than reactionary and anti-modernity (as the Soviet constructivist critic Boris Arvatov thought Morris was) then they need to take into account that almost all work today is done with machines. Morris himself was not against machines, he believed they should be used to free workers from menial or boring tasks, which is one way they are used today.
The aspect of the tech industry that Morris would find most distasteful would be the difference between the working conditions of the employees of the tech companies and the army of self-employed "platform users" that they rely on. The difference between the pay and working conditions of the average Uber driver and the average Uber engineer is huge. The same is true for platforms from Deliveroo to Amazon's Mechanical Turk, which rely on low paid, insecure, arm's length, non-employees to do a lot of the important work. If Morris was horrified by the conditions in Victorian factories then he would probably be horrified by Uber drivers having to pee in bottles to maintain their driving schedules.
What would Morris think of our world? Would he think it glorious compared to his own or morally bankrupt? This question relates to how people in the future might see us. Will they look at us with the same disgust that we look at the Victorians with for their use of child labour?
Morris might think that not a lot had changed. Britain is still a place where the labour of many enriches a privileged few. A place where a few get to work in beautiful workshops and many more toil in terrible conditions. The only difference is that we have got better at hiding the truth.
One thing is for sure and that is that Morris would need to sleep for many more years to wake up a world like News From Nowhere. A world free from exploitation and misery.