Dystopias and Utopias

In the Twisted Thicket thread Alex gave me the following challenge:

You have a good grasp on the topics of dystopian and utopian worlds. However, I would like to hear your own theory of how we could become both a dystopian society, or utopian. how it would happen ect. yes, im giving you a challenge.

Let’s see if we can tackle this in today’s post. I believe this is sort of a three part question:

  1. How would we become a dystopian society?
  2. How would we become an utopian society?
  3. Can we have a society that is a bit of a mix of the two? (if that’s even possible)

The first part of the question is rather easy to predict. The world could be plunged into a dystopian nightmare rather quickly, and all you need to think about is a single keyword: energy. Right now, our whole civilization depends on constant supply of energy. Our cities, which are the hubs for our commerce, communication and culture simply cannot function without electricity. We use it for air conditioning, waste disposal, pupping water to high rise buildings, transportation, food preservation, communication and etc. It is the life blood of civilized world. Worst part is that currently most of the infrastructure in the western world is almost entirely dependent on non-replenishable, dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. A sharp decline in the supply of oil could easily plunge us into total chaos and break down civilization as we know it.

It goes like this: first the gasoline becomes exuberantly expensive which wrecks most western economies. High gas prices drive food prices. Cities become too expensive to keep running because their infrastructure is essentially bleeding money, and transporting perishables into city stores and restaurants costs fortune. People migrate in droves to suburbs and the country side, hoard gas and fossil fuels and try to survive of the land, while cities go dark one by one. Some areas fare better than others though. Nuclear power plants, wind farms and solar power keep some smaller cities afloat, providing the last safe havens for mega-corporations, millionaires and failing government which struggles to keep the country together even as the communication lanes break down. Global trade is done, because it is just too expensive to fly or ferry things by boats. Long distance domestic commerce is done, because hauling goods is no longer profitable. Eventually you end up with few walled, fortress-cities that still have energy scattered across the map, separated by vast expanses of chaos. Those who were not lucky enough to live in the cities end up either taking up farming, hunting/gathering or join up with roving gangs and war bands to prey on the farmers and hunters. Those in turn organize local governments, militias and etc…

The experience might be a little bit like what I described here. One day the power goes out, and never comes back and you either starve to death, or learn to cope. Some people will cling to their communities, and search for a strong leader to organize them. Others will do the exact opposite – they will seek safety in seclusion. Jean Hegland’s novel Into the Forest is actually a pretty good description of that. After the power goes off and economy collapses two young girls seclude themselves in their wood cabin, and slowly learn to eschew their ties to civilization and essentially go feral, reverting to a hunter, gatherer nomadic lifestyle.

But that’s the worst case scenario, and one we can easily avoid if we only invest in alternate energy ahead of time. Thorium reactors seem to be the most promising solution to our fossil fuel addiction right now. But let’s look at another way we could turn into a weird dystopia.

A while ago, the I Polish SF magazine I subscribe to used to run a column titled “The New Middle Ages” in which the author published his musings on how western democracies are slowly turning “feudal” and tried to extrapolate how this trend could shape the power structures and societies in the future if it continued as he predicted. The whole concept revolved around the idea of increasing social stratification. Rich are getting richer, poor are getting poorer while the middle class starts to fade out of existence. Wealthy and educated people migrate to suburbs, then to gated communities. They educate their kids in exclusive private, corporate sponsored schools, work in gated corporate compounds, etc… Middle class members can either enter corporate serfdom, or be lumped together with the poverty stricken masses at the bottom.

If you have never actually read Oryx and Crake I highly recommend this book. It extrapolates exactly this scenario in which the social elites live and work in heavily defended, comfortable corporate compounds, while the rest of the population tries to eke out the living in almost completely ungoverned urban jungles outside. There things like poverty, perpetual social unrest and gang violence are facts of life. Vestigial government is both corrupt, indebted to the international corporations and almost entirely impotent.

Utopian societies are a little more difficult to predict because they almost never pan out the way they supposed to. Utopia is a model to strive towards, but probably not one that we could achieve. Then again we might never know. My go-to theory when talking about utopian societies is naturally singularity. The thing is, that the whole point of singularity is that we don’t actually know what it will do. It is sort of pointless to speculate how our lives will look after it because we don’t have the frame of reference. But it is fun to do it anyway.

One of the theories is that some of the post-human, self-improving artificial intelligences we create will develop “caretaker” personalities and take upon themselves to create comfortable living conditions for their ancestors/creators. Sort of like we try to save and breed endangered species of animals – only better. I imagine us, old-style humans living in comfortable, weather controlled habitats in post scarcity economies. Energy is virtually an inexhaustible, infinite resource: you simply drop a wormhole into a very low orbit around the star, and siphon all the energy you need on the receiving end. Nano-machinery allows them to disassemble waste on atomic level, and re-use everything. Fusion can be used to make metals and alloys as needed. All is taken care of for you – nothing is bought, nothing is sold. If you need new clothes, your house will “grow” them for you in your closet, and then absorb your dirty clothes once you take them off. If you need food, it is provided for you. The utility cloud of nano-machines that keeps your house clean can also perform medical functions. It will patch up your wounds, prevent your appendix from rupturing and keep you from aging. If you manage to kill yourself somehow, you will be restored from backup that your house automatically takes every time you go to sleep. People devote most of their time entertaining themselves, creating art philosophy, resurrecting old crafts and etc… In this strange world, the act of making a sandwich is elevated to sort-of avant-garde performance art.

Of course it could go the other way too. We could also find our utopias by migrating inward, into virtual worlds. If human mind can be digitized, we may one day have an option to become citizens of a brand new virtual universe: one with infinite worlds, and places to live. Worlds not bound by rules of physics that could never exist in nature. Worlds without hunger, without wars… Well, except for those who enjoy fighting wars. The point is that you make up your own rules as to how you want to live.

I read a short story once (I can no longer recall the title or the author) in which used this model. People lived in simulated worlds. They had no physical needs – but they still gathered and “ate” imaginary food for the taste. They still entertained themselves preparing it, and discussed art and poetry during meals. They had care-free safe sex, and were able to share intimate thoughts and ideas at much deeper level than corporeal humans ever could. They spent time playing games that would be impossible to play with physical bodies, partying and entertaining each other. Every few hundred years people would just leave: burn their imaginary houses and virtual properties, change their name, appearance and move into a new community to shake things up so the populations were in flux, relationships changed and people wouldn’t usually get stuck in a rut forever.

Both these scenarios don’t actually “fix” human nature though, so there would always be violence, jealousy, envy (although in post-scarcity economies people would probably be more envious of ideas or relationships rather than physical things) and suffering. Just in different aspects. In fact, human suffering in these settings would be much more acute. With no death, sickness, hunger or economic strife suffering would in most cases be result of premeditated sadism or malice, and hardly ever accidental. Still, utopian enough I guess.

As to how do we get there? The answer is: technological progress.

Let me quickly wrap this up, by trying to come up with the last one: a utopian dystopia. We need a setting which not only appears to be a utopia, but in fact is one for its inhabitants, but deep down inside it is very, very dysfunctional. I think my favorite example of this comes from Dan Simmon’s Illium novels. In them, technologically advanced post-humans migrated to man made satellite rings that they installed in the sky. They have left the Earth to about a million of old-style humans (our genetically improved descendants). They would live in small communities taken care of mechanical servitors who would provide for all their needs. Servitors would grow their food, prepare it, serve it, manufacture their clothing, build and maintain their shelters and provide for their safety. Every 20 years a person would be taken up into the rings, where they would be stuffed into a “bacta tank” like device that would rejuvenate them. They could also be taken there ahead of schedule in case of an injury or disease. People would move between communities using “fax nodes” – sort of instant teleportation devices around which communities would cluster. After 100 years on Earth, each person was to ascend to the rings and join post-humans in their orbital cities.

While all of this sounds great, there was also a darker side to this utopian society. For one, all old-style humans were illiterate. They lost art, poetry, literature and almost all crafts. They were completely dependent on the servitors and their post-human masters who at some point went away never to come back. No one knows what happened to them, though most assume they still live in the rings but have better things to do than to check up on the boring old-styles. Curiously enough, none of the people who ascends to the rings on their hundredth birthday ever comes back to say hi. Most folks prefer to assume this is because being post-human is just that awesome and try not to think about the alternatives. Not only that, but the Earth itself was partly ruined by the excesses of previous generations. Environment almost wrecked by out of control genetic engineering was now overrun by resurrected prehistoric beasts and man-made mutants. Stockpiles of ancient civilization destroying weapons rotting away and corroding in forgotten places ready to unleash their deadly payloads at some unspecified time in the future. And there is no one in the world who could locate, or disarm them. How is that for an utopia/dystopia mix?

What are your favorite utopian and dystopian settings from movies and literature? How about mixed ones? Can you think about any others?

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9 Responses to Dystopias and Utopias

  1. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    Well utopian and dystopian societies are just a step apart. Most likely if we ever reach singularity it won’t be as perfect as it’s supposed to be.
    I highly recommend you to read “The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect”, it is available free on the internet – http://www.kuro5hin.org/prime-intellect/
    It conveys one rather real fear in utopian society, if everything is perfect, then there’s really no meaning to eternal existence.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    Uh, very interesting – thanks for the link. I’m reading it right now. The party in the first chapter is very reminiscent of the careal killer convention from Neil Gaimans Sandman.

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  3. Adrian BELGIUM Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Utopia’s are dystopia’s. We humans couldn’t live without imperfection.

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  4. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    For me, the most likely dystopia (and the one we are going towards fastest at the moment) is not a post apocalyptic one, nor one where misery comes from lack of energy. Energy can easily be found in other ways than fossile fuels. Most world economies are already trying to get away from these (except the USA and China but that’s because they are extremely conservative countries with a vision on short term gains only). I am much more concerned about socio-political Lebanization or Balkanization of the world. Lebanon today, like the Balkans some years ago, is a society which combines extreme social stratification and inequalities and extreme tribalism and nationalism. Add to it the fact that private companies have corrupted these places, practically replacing the normal power structures, and you have a recipee for disaster.

    And don’t think that such situations are particularly unstable. These places (like our world tomorrow?) have been like this for ages, periodically experiencing massive flares of violence. But the main structural aspects remain, the power shifting towards one of the corporatist, religious or ethnic group rather than the other. Nonetheless, we could call it a stable state of unbalance (like in physics). It is one where Humans would be extremely unhappy, yet unable to change their lives in any significant way.

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  5. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Dammit, I was going to say Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect. Good read…

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  6. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Be sure to share your opinion, when you’re done :)

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Adrian:

    Yes, it’s like if you pull enough layers from an utopian setting you will eventually get to the ugly and opressive shit. It is just a matter of digging deep enough, or stepping back and looking at the big picture.

    Ain’t human nature wonderful? :)

    @ Alphast:

    This is indeed a problem, and one without an easy solution but I feel like the counterpoint here is globalization and cultural convergence.

    I look at it this way: young kids in these stratified, Balkanized regions are now growing up using the internet.Many of them probably have functional grasp of English even if they were never formally taught the language. Many of them have interest and hobbies that reach across national and cultural barriers and socialize online with people of vastly different cultures every day. Weather they want it or not, they are slowly becoming citizens of the world. Yes, they may still hold the prejudices and tribe/class/national grudges but the optimist in me wants to think that this wonderful global communication network we have will slowly rub them away. Not completely, but enough to allow progressive voices to be heard.

    Of course the same technology can be used to organize and focus the hate fueled, prejudiced groups.

    But you make an interesting point.

    Did you ever read Singularity Sky by Charles Stross? I’m not actually sure if I reviewed it here – it might have been one of the rapid-fire things but it is actually relevant to this discussion.

    The basic premise of the book is this: what would happen if a deeply stratified, divided, culturally backwards society gets post-singularity technology over night. Basically a traveling fleet of information traders shows up on a planet that was purposefully held at victorian era technology level by the ruling class, and starts dropping technology from the orbit in exchange for folk stories, old books and any other information they deem worthy of cataloging. People get their hands on stuff like nano-molecular assemblers that can make anything out of dirt and air, thermonuclear weapons,etc…

    What do they do? They start a revolution to abolish the ruling class but soon enough no one cares. I mean, it is hard to care about politics if a guy riding a robotic dragon is launching nukes from his ass, aiming them at a 50 feet purple skinned rabbit who just happens to be building an upside down pyramid made out of diamond in your back yard. In the end people end up abandoning all these post-human toys and turn back to the same oppressive government that they tried to abolish for years, because it offers them at least a semblance of stability.

    I guess the point is that post-scarcity economies that we theorize about won’t happen overnight. We will have to sort of grow and mature into them.

    Here is the thing though: we use the technology to shape the world to suit us, but in turn it also shapes us. Our technology will change the way we think. I have no doubt that we will invent new classes of social and economical problems as quickly as we solve the current ones.

    I mean, if you told an ancient greek or a person from the middle ages about our current living conditions in US and/or Western Europe they would likely think we do live in some technological utopia. I mean, we have no plagues, no famine, we can travel to any point in the world in mere hours, and send messages just about anywhere in seconds. Our medicine can cure ailments that were considered lethal in their times. It is all a matter of perspective.

    @ Liudvikas:

    I most definitely will. :)

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  8. David UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    As interesting and disturbing as some of these technological-singularity utopias and dystopias can be, I think that those suggested by Orwell and Huxley in 1984 and Brave New World are much more compelling given that we’ve had several decades to approach these authors’ hauntingly accurate predictions. They show how society need not have any more technological advance to collapse completely—neither features technology we don’t already have, or couldn’t willingly reproduce in a few months.

    For a more modern example, The Unincorporated Man is a novel approach to constructing a utopia/dystopia, depending on one’s opinions on personal freedom.

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  9. kmac AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    might i suggest reading daemon by daniel suarez. follow it up with the sequel freedom. not only are they amazing reads, but also on topic with your post.

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