Friday, April 17, 2020

Visions of Utopia

I want to live in a utopia. I want a world of peace, where all people can thrive and pursue lives that are fulfilling to them. Is this just a dream? A fantasy? People have tried to create perfect societies before, but they have always wound up with their own problems, and some went to hell on the road paved with good intentions. Maybe the idea of a perfect world is incoherent; as they say, one man’s heaven is another man’s hell. But that doesn’t mean we should give up. We may not be able to reach a mythical utopia, but at we can work to make the world better than it is, and dreams and visions can give us something to aim for. Perhaps instead of utopias, it would be better to call them “extremely good societies.” So today, we are going to look at a number of things we might hope to find in an extremely good society.

Source: Wikipedia
To begin with, not everything is relative. There are different kinds of fulfillment, which are meaningful to different degrees to different people, but a model that works pretty well is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is represented as a pyramid, with physiological needs like food and shelter at the bottom, and attaining one’s true potential at the top. Some say each level requires all the levels below it to be filled before it can be worked on, but I think it more true to say the lower on the hierarchy a need is, the more distress it provokes when it is not met, and the higher on the hierarchy a need is, the more fulfilling it is when it is met. Those who have great community and have all their social needs met, but who struggle for the basic physiological needs, might live happy, if difficult, lives. And those who have all of their physiological and security needs met, but struggle with the higher needs, may live easy and comfortable, yet be bored out of their minds. I think it fair to use how well and for how many people the hierarchy of needs is filled as a first approximation to measure how good a society is.

So now let’s look at some things we might find in an extremely good society. Some of these may be incompatible with one another. Some may be feasible in the near future, while others require radical change. We’re not looking to build the One True Utopia, we’re just imagining some things that might be found in some kind or other of extremely good society. So let us begin.

A healthy balance of individualism and collectivism
In the United States, the prevailing thought is that we should each be our own person, work hard for our own benefit, not rely on others, and succeed in life through our own blood, sweat, and tears. We contrast this with countries with dictators or ruling communist parties, and say, “look how bad it is for those collectivists, who have to live their lives in service of the State.” Yet it seems to me there is a clear third option, a healthier kind of collectivism mixed with individualism. Instead of seeing ourselves as loners elbowing our way forward in the world, or as tools in service of an empire, we see ourselves as part of a national and/or global community. Collectively, we build our society to be a positive, encouraging environment, making it easy and rewarding for individuals to seek fulfillment.

A Shift from work to hard fun
Right now, the basic dignity of having one’s physiological needs met is contingent upon one of four things: selling one’s time to earn a living, mooching off family or friends, becoming dependent on stigma-laden welfare programs, or getting lucky and having a bunch of money fall into your lap. In the future, when the resources needed to fulfill people’s basic needs are more efficiently distributed, we can hope things will be cheap enough that people will need to work less, either by fewer days in the week, fewer hours per day, or by it becoming optional to have a job. This would free up time to pursue hard fun activities, letting people grow and learn skills that are interesting and fulfilling to them, rather than being forced to spend their energy as cogs in the market.

By Eddie Quinones on Flickr
Of course, many people would still put their time and energy into work, because, frankly, money is great. With money, you can buy a bigger house, fancy stuff, and show off to your friends. Or, you can use it for important causes like reducing poverty, scientific research, buffering against existential risk, building infrastructure, creating a business to supply a need, and all kinds of things. If people spend their time pursuing hard fun, then many people will still pursue money, because to them, earning money and using it for things they care about is hard fun.

Less dopamine overdose and advertisements
Let’s face it; in modern-day capitalism, we are bombarded with ads and subtle manipulations to make us indulge in all kinds of things we would otherwise neither want nor need. From sugar to toys to sex to junk food, we’re pumped full of dopamine and induced to endlessly crave more, more, more. In an extremely good society, we would emphasize the need for long-term fulfillment over the desire for immediate gratification. Healthy food would be more abundant and offered up for display in stores, while the junk food would be tucked away in the corners. Social media and pornography would take on a tone of kindness and emotional support, rather than being optimized to maximize clicks and ad revenue. And speaking of ads, there would be a lot fewer, and those we had would direct us to resources to easily find things we really want and need, rather than butting into our awareness to try to make us crave things we never would have wanted otherwise.

By the way, if you are interested in partaking in some legal civil disobedience against the dehumanizing side of capitalism, you may want to consider using an adblock extension on your browser. It’s free, and once you try it, you may realize you never knew how refreshing a life with drastically fewer ads could be.

The ability to have grown-up conversations about emotions, including sexuality
In our society, especially among men, we are taught that our emotions are our own problems to deal with, and that we shouldn’t let them affect our work. If this isn’t outright said, it is heavily implied. Yet emotions are often not trivial things that can be easily dealt with in private. Much of the time they require support from friends, family, and authority figures. We should, then, move societally toward a place where we can more comfortably open up with our emotional struggles, and not be so quick to dismiss others who do so as attention-seeking or lazy.

This is very strongly seen in the realm of sexuality, where, in America at least, we simultaneously see two conflicting extremes of social expectation. On one pole, we are expected to pretend sexual desire does not exist except in an institutionally recognized monogamous relationship called marriage. This expectation is put higher on women. On the opposite pole, we are expected to be ravenous for sex, pursue it aggressively, and use it as a competition for status. This affects mostly men. Both of these, however, are a struggle for both men and women. Progress can be made on both these problems by reducing the taboo on sex, and thus reducing the allure of its forbiddenness and the sense of rebellion associated with it. We would also expect better education and safety methods, reducing the risks of STDs and the need for adoption and abortion.

Easy access to reliable information
In the age of the internet, information is so abundant we don’t know what to do with it. This is a problem, because it makes finding true and reliable information a hassle. In an extremely good society, official sources of information like the census bureau or scientific encyclopedias will be presented in ways that are more easy for the average person to read, with plenty of charts and graphs available with a few simple clicks. Search engines will continue to get better at showing what people are looking for, and make the most reliable sources easy to find, perhaps in drop-down lists. Easy-to-follow, multi-channel instructions for how to find jobs and pursue interests will be abundant, in contrast with the marginally helpful blog posts that searches present today.

No skeletons in the closet
When considering utopia, it is important that it be a real utopia, not just a facade. The prosperity we show must be real, and we can’t shove people who don’t fit our image into prisons, slander them with national media, or burden them with so much work they can’t think straight. We also wouldn’t have laws preventing abuse and injustice from being exposed, like these. A house is not valuable if we dress up its rotting frame with nice carpets and wallpaper; we want the house to be top quality through and through.

A renewable economy
When we throw something away, it doesn’t just disappear. It goes into a landfill, or a river, or the ocean. Over time, trash piles up. Nature gets polluted, and resources get used up. It is clear this cannot go on forever. In an extremely good society, we would use resources in such a way that our waste can be recycled back into new resources. Instead of the input being raw materials and the output being garbage, the input would be sunlight on Earth, and the output would be Earth’s heat radiated away into space, and everything we use would cycle in the middle.

A post-scarcity economy
Food isn’t free. That’s because it takes a lot of work to produce the amount of food needed to feed everyone. But when was the last time you paid for air? There’s no need. It’s everywhere. We just breath it without thinking about it. That’s because, in economic terms, food is scarce, and air is abundant. But food doesn’t always have to be scarce. When the methods of producing and distributing a commodity become so robust that everyone has easy and free or nearly free access to them, that commodity is said to be post-scarcity. In many places, water is post-scarcity. We just open the tap or the drinking fountain, and out it comes.

In the future, energy may become post-scarcity when we figure out good nuclear fusion reactors. Raw materials may become post-scarcity once we develop a good space infrastructure and start mining asteroids. Over time, as technology, infrastructure, and social progress get better, we can hope the rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy will become progressively less and less scarce.

One possible avenue toward post-scarcity is the Patreon model. Artists, educators, and content creators of all kinds produce work that is available to all for free, giving people the option of donating an amount per month of their choosing out of gratitude. For many independent creators, this works really well, and there is a vast wealth of every kind of art and entertainment you can imagine floating around for free on the internet. It may be possible for this model to extend to other industries as well.

A flourishing natural environment
We are in the middle of one of the great extinctions of geological history, and it’s because of, well, humans. I’m not just talking about the industrial revolution, though that’s part of it. Our ancestors have been hunting species to extinction and grazing grassy plains into deserts for hundreds of thousands of years.

At first, this may make us feel sad or ashamed. But we shouldn’t be. We are merely among the first few generations to know about this problem, which means we are also among the first who have had the opportunity to try to solve it. And even if you aren’t overly concerned about saving the whales and pandas, a healthy ecosphere with lots of biodiversity is good for humans in many ways. In an extremely good society, we can expect to find nature flourishing everywhere.

By WinterE229 (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Preparation for and prevention of catastrophes
Right now, it is the way of the land for laws, safety regulations, and disaster preparations to be done in response to catastrophes that have already struck. Take the COVID-19 pandemic that is at its height in the United States at the time this post is written. There is a shortage of masks among doctors. Why? Because hospitals didn’t stockpile them beforehand in case of a pandemic outbreak. Here’s the thing: we knew something like this could happen, and how to prepare for it, but we didn’t do it. Maybe it was to cut corners and save money, or maybe it was because we were working on all kinds of problems in the present, so future problems that may or may not occur didn’t seem as immediate. Either way, we can expect extremely good societies to have a wise view of risk assessment and preparation at the national level.

Thirty years ago, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama proposed the idea that history is over, and the best possible type of society has been found in liberal democratic capitalism. But history is not over. As we have seen, there are plenty of ways society could become better. Maybe the labels of “liberal,” “democratic,” and “capitalism” can be applied to some kinds of extremely good societies, but history is very much still in motion. Right now, you and I have the opportunity to play a part in the course of history, and help steer it toward an extremely good society. So let’s dream. Let’s imagine. And let’s look for real, feasible ways to turn those dreams into reality.

1 comment:

  1. This post reminds me of Edward Belamy's utopian novel "Looking Backward: 2000 - 1887"? I may have mentioned it before. It is not riveting reading, but I find it interesting as he lays out his hopes for society 113 years into the future. (He published it in 1888.) He mirrors many similar sentiments to yours. It will be interesting to see how this virus and shut down of our economy pans out in the next couple decades. No doubt new ways of surviving anad thriving together will emerge. But will people become less selfish, more kind, and more willing to sacrifice for the common good? Maybe for a while. I think it's important that we observe and celebrate hope, joy, and gratitude even in the midst of the messy life we experience each day right now. Thanks for this article.