The following is an excerpt from “Everyday Utopia: What 2000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life” by Kristen Ghodsee, professor and chair of Russian and East European studies in the School of Arts & Sciences. (©2023 Simon & Schuster)
In the last months, ChatGPT and other generative A.I. products have turned the world upside-down, and we may be only decades away from universal solar power, asteroid mining, and something close to human immortality. The pace of this technological change has inspired a growing number of future-positive books. They suggest political and economic changes that might seem far-fetched but are increasingly debated as real possibilities.
The French economist Thomas Piketty has called for a progressive global wealth tax to combat income inequality. The Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman has promoted several utopian visions “for realists,” including open borders and a 15-hour workweek. In his book “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think,” Greek-American engineer Peter Diamandis (founder of XPRIZE, which rewards inventors for technological developments that benefit humanity) and science journalist Steven Kotler look to the wonders of artificial intelligence and advances in robotics to propose solutions to problems like food scarcity, aging populations, and climate change. And in “Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” British author Aaron Bastani argues that technologies like cheap solar energy, asteroid mining, and CRISPR gene-editing will lead us into a world of post-scarcity universal health and leisure.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this popular neo-utopianism lies in its primary focus on the public sphere. Today’s future-positive writers critique our economies while largely seeming to ignore that anything might be amiss in our private lives. But where we reside, how we raise and educate our children, our personal relationship to things, and the quality of our connections to friends, families, and partners impact us as much as tax policies, the price of energy, or the way we organize formal employment. How can you challenge or change political and economic systems when both are directly dependent on the primary institution in society responsible for the production and care of the next generation?
Since political and economic systems accrue and distribute power and wealth among people, those people are essential inputs to those systems. A wide variety of philosophers, theologians, and social theorists like Pythagoras, Plato, Thomas More, Tomaso Campanella, Charles Fourier, Flora Tristan, and Alexandra Kollontai once argued that political reforms or revolutions will fail unless they also rethink of how we create and sustain our families and communities. As we face an ever-growing number of disruptive technological advances, it is essential to explore how past utopian thinkers believed that changes in our intimate lives could help us forge stronger and more harmonious societies.
And yet resistance to new ways of thinking may be most extreme when it concerns how we structure our private lives. Many people today fear these types of changes, looking to the stability of the traditional family as a bulwark against the vicissitudes of demographic, economic, or climatic upheavals. But, according to the anthropologist Wade Davis, “the world into which you were born does not exist in an absolute sense but is just one model of reality—the consequence of one particular set of intellectual and adaptive choices that your own ancestors made, however successfully, many generations ago.” As individuals going about our daily lives, it is often hard to step out of the flow of history and consider how things might have been different if our ancestors had made an alternative set of “intellectual and adaptive choices” and to imagine what those choices might look like in practice.
When we lose sight of the past, we also lose sight of the idea that there were other pathways forward, other roads not taken. We begin to feel our present reality as static and inflexible. We convince ourselves that things cannot change, and that if they do, they will change for the worse. At the same time, profit-seeking corporations and think-tanks often encourage brainstorming sessions open to all ideas regardless of practical constraints: so-called “blue sky thinking.” Conjuring up new technologies, products, or marketing slogans to increase profits distinguishes the entrepreneurial mastermind from the mere corporate flunky. We accept that this is a good approach for solving economic issues and scientific problems but dreaming of different ways of organizing our lives is dangerous and discouraged.
Apple computers provides one paradigmatic case. After their runaway success in the 1980s, Apple fell into a rut and brought back its cofounder Steve Jobs to reinvigorate its product line. The return of Jobs coincided with the 1997 to 2002 Apple advertising slogan “Think Different,” which epitomized the spirit of blue sky thinking. The now iconic television advertisement included Steve Jobs’s own narration over a series of black-and-white images of people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martha Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., Frank Lloyd Wright, Alfred Hitchcock, Maria Callas, and John Lennon with Yoko Ono. “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels, the troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently,” Jobs tells us, celebrating the idea that those who “have no respect for the status quo” inevitably become the ones who “push the human race forward.” At the end of the ad, Jobs explains, “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” It was an explicitly optimistic commercial message about the transformative power of utopian thinking… So why limit such thinking to designing better Apple products?
In academia, blue sky thinking underpins the discipline of geoengineering—scientists who hope to hack the earth’s weather systems in order to prevent the deleterious effects of climate change. The Cambridge University Center for Climate Repair suggests ocean greening, recycling CO2, refreezing the polar ice caps, and spraying aerosols of sulfate particles into the stratosphere to prevent solar radiation from reaching the planet. In Silicon Valley, a new breed of extreme dreamers, such as the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, is experimenting with ways to achieve human immortality. And those who study artificial life (in its hard, soft, and wet forms) push the boundaries of their imaginations to understand how sentience might evolve from complex systems. In the technology sector, entrepreneurs reap rewards when they “move fast and break things,” no matter what the costs to society as a whole. We can break democracy as long as we don’t challenge the social and economic systems, which ensure that the billions generated by new innovations accrue to a smaller and smaller handful of people.
We often accept the way things are because we’ve never known them to be different. The behavioral economists William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser called this the “status quo bias.” People prefer things to stay the same so they don’t have to take responsibility for decisions that might potentially change things for the worse. The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky famously found that people want to avoid feeling regret, and that they are more likely to feel regret about a bad outcome resulting from a decision they made compared to a bad outcome that came from inaction. It’s just so much easier to do nothing. Accepting the status quo—even if we hate it—means the potential for fewer regrets. We might not want to admit it, but many of us are too scared, too tired, or too lazy to dream.
Thinking outside the box is hard. The box can be very comfortable.
To be sure, we need to think critically about which sorts of visions are realistic and which are not. The 20th century gave us examples of utopian dreams that went badly awry. But the lesson should not be to stop dreaming—to suck it up and get on with the status quo. There are those for whom our present arrangements work out quite nicely: mostly men, mostly white, and mostly wealthy. These people have every reason to inculcate a collective fear of political blue sky thinking, a fear that immobilizes and prevents us from even considering new ideas that might lessen the pressures we place on individual households and families. Don’t let them. By experimenting with old ideas in new ways—forms of collective living and child-rearing, for instance—we can build more robust and flourishing communities that benefit everyone.
Dystopian visions of the future haunt our media landscape today. These days cynical apathy is more fashionable than what many might consider naive optimism. Wearing black turtlenecks and passively ruminating on the coming climate apocalypse is just hipper than trying to convince others that the world can and should be changed.
But a case must be made for relentless optimism and radical hope in the face of the many challenges the future will bring. Historically speaking, real social progress often begins with hopefulness, extreme dreaming, and crazy ideas. Reviewing the history of previous blue sky thinkers and examining the cultures and communities experimenting with their ideas today provide a necessary first step in unshackling our collective political imaginations from the all-pervasive ideologies that try to convince us that change is dangerous. The concept of utopia can help us forge fresh paths forward, giving us the courage, curiosity, and conviction to try out new and better ways of organizing our private lives.
The text above is excerpted from “Everyday Utopia: What 2000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life” by Kristen R. Ghodsee, copyright ©2023 Simon & Schuster. Used by arrangement with the publisher.