Utopias, dystopias, and other traps

As a dork, I’m a huge fan of science fiction. But, over time, I’ve switched from reading books to watching movies. That’s because, for me, it’s a little easier to suspend disbelief in a movie theater.

With books, there’s too much opportunity for me to have — imaginary — arguments with the author about their vision of the future. And the older I’ve gotten, and the more time I’ve spent covering business, politics, and military conflicts, the less patience I have for writers who don’t do their research.

Specifically, too many people fall into either the dystopia-utopia trap, or the nothing-ever-changes trap.

Dystopias and utopias

Many people, when they imagine the future, naturally tend towards one of two extremes. Either everything will be perfect and everyone happy all the time, or everything is going to be totally horrible.

And since happiness is boring to write about, fictional utopias usually turn out to be dystopias in disguise.

We’ll all get wiped out by disease, by aliens, by zombies, by climate change, by lack of food, or by our own laziness and stupidity.

Invariably, of course, someone survives to rebuild because a planet devoid of life is as boring to write about as one where everyone is perfectly happy.

Predictions of coming cataclysms have always been with us. And I’m not opposed to them in principle — by warning us of potential threats, such as overpopulation, nuclear war, or the Y2K Bug, they spur effort and allow us to deal with them.

1983's The Day After, released at a time when nuclear war seemed all but inevitable.

1983’s The Day After, released at a time when nuclear war seemed all but inevitable.

A potentially cataclysmic threat, like nuclear war, mass starvation, or global warming requires massive concerted action. I understand that.

In practice, however, few of us are going to dedicate our entire lives to preventing one of these cataclysms from happening. At most, most of us will just donate some money, or cast a ballot.

And, chances are, the cataclysm isn’t going to come after all.

Unfortunately, the common attitude of “everything is getting worse, and in the future things are going to be really, really bad” means that we’re not preparing for the future that is going to come.

In fact, when we’re not panicking, we’re probably assuming that the future is going to be just like today.

A future where nothing changes

In our regular lives, things are constantly changing. Things change globally, with country after country moving up the economic ladder.

And technologically, with new transformative technologies appearing every couple of years.

So why is it that in so many visions of the future, things don’t change?

Take, for example, a common scenario: life-extending drugs are invented, but are only available for the rich. Society becomes stratified, and there’s no hope for the lower class. So… the drugs never go-off patent? Cheap generics never become available? Competitors don’t come out immediately with products that are even better and cheaper?

Matt Damon in 2013's Elysium.

Matt Damon in 2013’s Elysium.

It’s a natural human tendency to use linear projections when thinking about the future. Stocks are going up, and will always be going up. The number of unfilled programming jobs is growing, and will continue to grow.  Violence is increasing and will always continue to increase.

(That last one, by the way, is completely false. Check out The Better Angels of Our Natures: Why Violence has Declined, the best book I read last year.)

Either of these two ways of looking at the future — that it will end in disaster or that it will go on just like today — aren’t particularly useful when it comes to long-term planning. With the former outlook, we might as well just throw up our hands and give up. with the latter, we just need to do more of what we’re doing right now.

The result is that we miss opportunities and fail to prepare for the changes that are actually coming.

Up Next: How to expect the unexpected

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Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

  • Paul

    I disagree with the belief that Utopias are boring. Star Trek is supposed to be a Utopia (or as close to it as we could get), but it is anything but boring.

    Even in a Utopia, there are many sources of drama with which writers can turn into a story. Such as exploration and discovery, tests of the Utopian principals, inter-personal relationships, the struggle to maintain the Utopia against internal and external disruptions, personal sacrifice, etc.

    However, I don’t believe that a true Utopia can ever be reached, not as long as humans remain humans.

    We are messy, irrational beings. We don’t really know what we want, but instead have to guess at what we think will be best for us. Our evolution was to create tools, hunt antelope, and to escape predators on the plains of Africa, but in this we developed brains large enough to escape the simple existence and enter the world of imagination.

    This power of imagination has enabled us to imagine that the world could be different from what it is and our tool making has allowed us to treat ourselves and the world around us as a tool to be crafted. Over the millenniums we have made better and better tools, but, as a perfect stone axe is impossible, so too is a perfect society (a Utopia).

    But, it was out seeking the perfect stone axe that lead to the development of the technology around us, and so it should be that despite the impossibility of a perfect society that we should still seek to improve the world. Our imagination will always exceed what can be done in the real world, but it is the drive for that imagined world that gives me hope for humanities future.

    It is not the destination that is important, instead it is the journey.

    • lmpierce

      Hi Paul,

      I appreciate with your thoughts on the why utopias are destined to fail.

      As for Star Trek, I don’t think Roddenberry was conceiving of a utopia, but rather a better future. Having been a police officer, I’m sure he was very much hoping things would improve in the future from the reality he had seen on a daily basis.

      Along the lines of Star Trek and utopia, there was the episode from the original series (“This Side of Paradise”) in which a small colony of humans actually lives in a utopia made possible because of the effects of the spores of an indigenous plant. When they are shaken from their illusions, the leader concludes they have “accomplished nothing”. Kirk has an interesting monologue in which he argues that humans aren’t meant for such an idealistic existence.

      And when talking about utopias gone wrong, who could forget the “will of Landru” in “The Return of the Archons”?

      By the time the Borgs arrive on the scene, the message seemed to be that any perfect life of total harmony would only be possible if everyone was involuntarily compelled to be one with a collective and essentially an automaton. It seems that Star Trek has often used utopia-like themes as a way to define the higher ambition of individuality and individual improvement made possible because of the way imperfections and shortcomings motivate us to action.

      I also like the way Carl Jung conceived of individual growth. We start with an undifferentiated unconscious personality from which the ego develops, leading to all kinds of interactions in contradistinction to being harmonious with the world, but from which we individuate into distinct persons that can eventually consciously interact with the world harmoniously, not because we have to, but because we have learned it (often the hard way) through living.

      Since the timing of that is different for each of us, I think part of the reason utopias fail is that they would require perfect synchronization of personal growth among the group of people making such an attempt.

  • Jim Williams

    The future will either be total collapse, about which there isn’t too much to say, or we will all migrate into the Net, where everything will be totally different and yet somehow exactly the same as always. The reason SETI will never find anyone is because the Universe is boring, and all technologically advanced societies have turned inward. (Jesus could walk on the water, but I can fly! — Jefferson Starship)

    Will mankind even notice when Homo Sapiens goes extinct?