Why do all apparent Utopia's turn out to be horrible Dystopian nightmares? It might just make good story telling but perhaps it is unavoidable, in practice it seems to be, so lets kick that idea around on this episode of the Sci Phi Show.
- Utopia and Dystopia
- Thomas More and Utopia
- Plato's Republic and The Laws
- The Atopia Chronicles (Atopia Series Book 1)
- Marching Boot Effect by Mike Koenig
Worth picking up
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Why are all Utopias Dystopias?
Why is every Utopia a Dystopia? That is the question we will consider on this episode of the Sci Phi Show
In the long history of science fiction there have been repeated depictions of futures that are supposed to be Utopian, yet under the surface these paradises, these “Heaven's on Earth” always turn out to be nightmares. It would be fair to note that any depiction of an actual utopia would not make for interesting story telling, and I would agree with this, but at the same time, stories of apparent Utopia's that are not what they appear to be do provide a useful playground for thought experiments about the feasability of such an endevour even if the actual attempts to build them have always ended in blood and fire.
So what is a Utopia? Even though the idea of dystopian Utopia's have a long history in science fiction. They go back a least to H.G Well's Time Machine, with the idyllic life of the Eloi dependent on and as a food source for, the cavern dwelling Morlocks that run everything. The idea of an ideal city or ideal state goes back at least as far as one of the Fathers of Western Philosophy, Plato, in his books, The Republic and The Laws. The term Utopia itself was coined by Thomas Moore in his 1516 book of the same name. It is thought that it was intended as a play on words, “topos” in Greek means place, but the the “U” sound, either O-U or E-U in Greek has different meanings, not or best respectivly. So Utopia is simultaneously the best place and no place at all. If only more modern people who tried to build real Utopia's had gotten the joke.
These first Utopias can be found in two of Plato's works, although there is some dispute over what Plato actually intended with them. The Republic contains the most famous example of an attempt at what an ideal city looks like, with a strict caste system and a founding story and legend of the origins of the different castes that serves as a noble lie to tie the whole idea together, all ruled over by a caste of wise Philosopher Kings. There is an open question whether Plato meant this arrangement as a possible formulation for a real city or whether it is intended as an alleory for the human being. However Plato lays out a more explicit idea for an ideal city in his book the Laws, when he tells us of the city of Magnesia, offering a vision of a city ruled over by wise philosophers who rule by persuasion and reasoning and Plato dismisses the use of simple commands as resorting illegitmately to force.
Meanwhile Thomas Moore presents us with an idylic pagan island state that observes strict population control, no private property and a place where everybody labours for the common good. All people are obliged to work but only for a 6 hour work day. Slavery exists in Moores Utopia but it is reserved either for people from other countries or Utopias criminals. Strangely to discourage covetouesness the criminals chains are made from gold as are the chamber pots and jewels are childish play things. All the wealth of Utopia being scorned by the natives and only being used for trading with other nations. The population is maintained at a uniform size, either jettisoning excess population by constructing colonies or making up a population shortfall by inviting foreigners to join the nation. Strangely, given Thomas Moore was canonized as a Roman Catholic Saint and was a devout believer during his life, Utopia permitted euthanasia, divorce and a married presithood. It is a strange place but an interesting one to consider.
There are more modern visions of Utopia from the Marxists and their dreams of communist revolution, to the racial and eugenic purity of a Nazi Utopia or the primitive vision of life put forward by some luddite enviromentalists. All of these visions of the perfect society aim to create a new world, a heaven on earth, the ideal society where everybody is happy and satisfied with their lives. One obvious problem would seem to be, with so many conflicting visions of what an ideal society would look like you have to wonder who gets to choose? The visions are radically at odds with one another and probably irreconcilably so.
The basic problem of all of these Utopian visions that I think Moore understood with his play on words is one of human nature. Humans are a messy selfish lot and something like Marx's vision of a perfect society with everybody labouring, “To each according to their need, From each according to the ability”, will fail when it is tried on a large scale. Eric S. Raymond faously quipped that the basic problem with the idea was that, “Love doesn't scale”. It works on the level of a family but wont work on the scale of a whole society. You will sacrifice for a spouse, child or parent, but much less so for a total stranger, but Comunism would seem to require that you treat them all the same. The German Polician and Journalist Eugen Richer wrote a fascintating peice of speculative fiction about a Communist revolution that came to Germany and how it worked out in a series of diary entries in his 1895 book, “Pictures of a Socialist Future”, a frighteninly accurate prophecy of how Commnism would work out when it was tried in the following century, even if he got the location wrong.
So is Utopia impossible? There have been several visions of a utopian from science fiction and they are nearly always dystopian nightmares, whatever superficial paradise they appear as on the surface. Consider the film Logan's Run. A future paradise where people live lives of ease and hedonism until their 30th birthday when they must undergo Carrousel and those who try to avoid this “rebirth”, the Runners, are hunted down by the Sandmen for failing to properly confrom to their social obliations. This world has the noble lie of Carrousel for the citizenry to make the necessary population control palatable and even desirable and social deviants are hunted and punished.
We see soemthing similar in the hedonistic paradise of Brave New World, with a rigid caste system of Alphas, Beta, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilon's, all happy in their place and conditioned from birth to be a cog in the orderly society. The role playing game Paranoia has a satirical take on the same idea with a society ruled over by an insane computer and citizens who have an obligation, on pain of death, to be happy and cheerful at all times to keep “friend computer” plactated and happy.
Star Trek has a long history of the crew meeting members of these various utopian or attempted utopian worlds. David Kyle Johnson, our guest from last time, has an exploration of some of these ideas in this months issue of Sci Phi Journal, check the show notes or Amazon to get a copy. In the original series Kirk and the crew would often destroy these seeming paradises to force the people to live “authentic” lives as the crew saw fit. The members of the various Stargate teams had encounters with such utopias as well, often winding up imprisoned or on the run as the mask of the perfect world slips and reveals the rotten core underneath.
So where does this leave us? It seems that the natural laws of economics and humans basic nature will mean that any attempt to build a real Utopia will either collapse as the realities of human beings get in the way and drag them down or they will need to be such incredibly oppressive and totalitarian nightmares that the paradise will only be a thin veneer. Perhaps this is part of the problem. All of the Utopian systems that human beings have tried or have imagined do have a few common features. First they are always collectivist in orientation and secondly are built with a scarcity mindset.
The second idea, scarcity is a basic function of real world economics. Nothing is free, everything has a price and even if you don't pay that price someone else will have too. If you are to have what you need to eat you either need to produce it yourself, or labour in some fashion to produce something you can trade for what you need to eat, or someone else needs to labour and you live at their expense. The problem is that most human beings are resentful of being compelled to labour on behalf of others without reward, especially if the job is difficult or dangerous. You will do it for your family and maybe your friends but “love doesn't scale” much beyond that. But perhaps through technology we can solve the problem. There is a notion of a post scarcity world. If you think of the internet, many of the things on the internet exist in a post-scarcity enviroment. This podcast you are listening too can be copied by as many people as like and listened to and there is no limit to that copying, it takes up some storage space but as many people as like can have a copy without the original being diluted or used up. People dream of technology so powerful and so cheap that we can realize this post scaricty idea for everybody. Imagine a world of nano scale 3D printers that ran on some basic compound and could print everything you needed including foodstuffs. It might not be perfectly post scaricty but a cheap ubiquitious technology like that would relieve a lot of want and need in the world. It would also be an incredibly disruptive technology. What would to de Beers in a world where a flawless diamond could be printed at home in an hour or so from a handful of charcol? Although not as powerful as a technology like Star Trek's replicators, which with power and some basic raw mateirals can turn nearly anything into anything, it would still be a step towards a truly post scarcity world.
What about the idea of collectivism? All of these Utopian visions tend to be collectivist and technocratic. What room do they have for individuals to make free choices and live their own lives? It seems that in all cases you need to be a cog in the well oiled machine or be thrown away. This has certainly been true of actualy attempts to build utopia, with them ending in some of the worst democides in human history. It seems the collectivist nature of the usual forms of utopianism make it unavoidable. If a failure to conform will endanger the whole enterprise then I doubt the dark side of these attempts can be avoided.
But perhaps there is a Utopian possibility that can work. There is the possibility of some sort of post scarcity world, which seems to be a requirement to make a Utopia possible. I read an interesting novel, Atopia that spoke of a future artifical island nation, the Atopia of the title, that led the world in advanced virtual reality technology, where all the citizens, when not living and exploring purely virtual worlds are living in this world with a series of digital overlays that allows even a spartan apartment to be anywhere you want. The story contains a number of interesting cautionary tales of technology gone awry but it does paint an interesting possibliy for an ideal state. Although it contains a warning about it collapsing into a nightmarish self indulgent hedonism that robs human beings of their humanity. Perhaps a world of uploaded people, freed form their corporeal forms could acheive utopia because of the, presumably post scaricty nature of their existence but perhaps even then, some new scarcity would rear its head.
Is Utopia possible? I'm not sure, I suspect not. All of the attempts so far have not ended well and I don't think anything but a radically remade human nature will be capable of acheiving one. Of course the planners and their Utopias may seek to remake man in some perfect image they have devised, I fear that is probaly worse than trying to make do with what we have.
If you enjoyed this discussion and love Sci Phi, grab a copy of our new Magazine Sci Phi Journal. You can find it on Amazon, Smashwords and from Castellia and house and in this issue we have a discussion of Star Trek's attitude to Utopias from David Kyle Johnson along with great stories and articles. You can find it at Sciphijournal.com or from the links in the show notes. As usual, you can find more information on the ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com. I can be reached with comments via firstname.lastname@example.org and love getting mail, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via thesciphishow on twitter. If you do enjoy the show please go over to our facebook page and click like. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don”t hesitate to ask. And don't forget, it's Phi with a P H.
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