Are perfect, micromanaged worlds utopian or dystopian?

Utopia or not

A blog reader emailed me last week with a question, and I thought I’d reply best by writing a new blog post (so you guys can peek into the discussion as well).

His question was:

Does living in a perfect world indicate that you indeed live in a “Utopia?” Or is a society that’s “too perfect” in fact dystopian?

This is actually a brilliant question. Where is the line between a society that’s perfectly managed to the benefit of all, and a society that’s micromanaged to the detriment of personal freedom and individuality?

Is there any chance for a perfect Utopia to exist, without dystopian elements?

I can’t dig into utopian versus dystopian society models without asking what the core features of each are. Despite the many forms such societies could take, they’d all have to have some core principles in common, such as

Utopian societies would all have, at least

  • some form of extended personal and social freedom,
  • social, economic and technological equality,
  • the ability to avoid or abolish disease and pain,

Dystopian societies would all have, at least

  • a priviledged subset of individuals in a position of power,
    which inevitably results in
  • an unequal distribution of rights and duties,
    and that creates
  • social, economic, and/or technological inequality (resulting in war, famine, etc.)

Let’s look into these a bit.

Each person has their own vision of what freedom means. To some, freedom is the ability to do whatever they want (while respecting laws) without being judged and condemned for it. To others, freedom is the exact opposite: the ability to judge and condemn others based on their own beliefs, which usually include the belief that their belief is inherently superior and grants them more rights. Ahem. To others still, freedom means the absence of laws and social distinctions alltogether, a form of peaceful anarchy. Something that’s in fact impossible to sustain.

While the definition of freedom isn’t necessarily agreed upon, the definition of equality is: Everyone in a utopian society should have the exact same rights and duties as everyone else. No priviledged few. No powerful few that dictate who serves and who benefits.

But does that mean no ruling power? No government? No law enforcement?

Ideally, yes. If an utopian society comes with all it should come, it would bring implicit social justice and solidarity right along with everything else. Right? Not unless we fundamentally change the human nature — and that would place us in something similar to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Competitiveness and egotism are embedded in our genetic makeup. No society could truly be uniformly free, equal, and in a state of equilibrium without sacrificing our nature, without intervening into our genetic inheritance. Without controlling. And that would make even the best society dystopian by definition.

Technological utopianism — the belief that technological advancements will inevitably bring about some form of Utopia — is based on the understanding that these technological advancements serve the people, the majority (if not totality) of the world’s population in equal measure, and not some corporation, form of government, or limited number of priviledged individuals. That the people have a right to benefit from all advancements in equal measure, and no obligation to do so.

But it’s that “no obligation” part that’s eating this apple from the inside out. If some individuals can opt out, diversity will continue to exist, and where there is diversity there is inequality, and as a result there will always be conflict.

And I think here lies the answer.

A society that’s externally regulated and uniformized (whether by a ruling party or by initial consensus) and not left up to the choices of each individual in part, as generations succeed each other, will be inherently dystopian.

The only true Utopia I can see — apart from an entirely fictional, consensual egalitarianism in which diversity at an individual level prevails but somehow coalesces into peaceful social uniformity — is a world in which each individual can live in the world they see as ideal. A world which each individual experiences reality the way they design it. In which each individual makes their own laws, unifies or segretaes the rest of the world according to their beliefs, and adopts the role they want to adopt for as long as they want. A world in which their choices never impinge on someone else’s freedoms, or alter the nature of someone else’s world. And such a Utopia — as you may have guessed it — would necessarily have to be virtual.

Am I saying something like The Matrix is the ideal, sustainable Utopia?

I am, actually. (Don’t look at me like that.)

For those who exist inside it, a virtual reality that’s tailored to their specific needs IS the ideal, utopian world.

But there’s always a catch. (Happy now?)

Will those individuals’ bodies exist in the “real world” and be tended to, abused or otherwise managed by people who choose not to go virtual? Will the way their bodies are treated affect the way they perceive their lives, and thus the quality of their utopian world? Will the choice to not go virtual put some people in a position of absolute power, thus implicitly creating a dystopia underneath a sheet of utopian fantasy? Or if there are no more bodies to speak off, will these opt-in people essentially be brains in vats? How will they procreate? Will they procreate? Will humanity be thus essentially trimmed down to a handful of people tired of caring for others, eventually pulling the plug and starting all over? Will this society be even allowed to form? And how could it ever come to be? What’s the collected benefit of going virtual? And who pays the electrical bill?

Well, that’s all up to whoever spins the story. :)

(Come on, you didn’t actually think I’d answer all of that!)

So what’s your spin?

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