Letters to my nemesis, part three.
"There are just no cultures where “no one is managing things,”" --
Yes, but there are also no cultures that were designed with the pre-assumption of every citizen having a globally connected computer in their pockets. Whether or not central management is an absolute requirement for avoiding chaos is a function of what tools for self-organization and distributed decision-making and distributed process management we have. Even just a few decades ago it was clear: we do not have good enough tools for self-organization, we do need central management. Today... I'm not sure. I'm not sure either way, the answer may easily be that yes, we still need centralization, but I definitely think it's something that hasn't been fully explored.
Pretty much all the social structures we have were designed centuries ago, and a lot of their design was informed by the technology (mostly communication tech) that was available back then. The way our once-every-four-years elections, and one-representative-per-geological-region political systems work, they made sense in the past, but not necessarily with the tech we have today. Technically we could easily build a system where any citizen can delegate their vote to anyone, possibly to multiple persons depending on area of expertise, changing their setup any time, overriding on a case-by-case basis, etc., etc. Similarly, I think a whole lot of the areas where we think central management is essential, could now be replaced with distributed, self-organizing cooperation.
I really would love to see what kind of structures we'd come up with if we re-designed it all from scratch but with today's tech in mind. And I don't mean getting it designed by a committee, but what would organically evolve out of the chaos, under today's circumstances instead of those centuries or millennia ago. Unfortunately not only do we not know, but we also don't have good ways to play around with such questions. (If I were a billionaire, I'd build online games that could serve as sandboxes for such experiments.)
One (group's/individual's) definition of utopia imposed from the top down on others is oppression aka tyranny....bottoms up!
Historically I think you're wrong that all human communities have had "an authority" or a formal hierarchy that makes decisions for everyone else. That is not a universal. It may be that modern nation-states are something of a political monoculture in that respect--though we also have plenty of people celebrating free-market capitalism or other formulations of "the wisdom of crowds" as something that supposedly 'makes decisions' without an intervening authority or hierarchy. But there are definitely "stateless societies" that have existed in the past, and some of them have been quite complex in institutional terms, in terms of population density or territorial extent. I think the job of utopian fiction might be at times less about imagining the future and more about having a more imaginative and broad-ranging understanding of the relative diversity and variety of how human beings have lived together across their history as a species.
In the future, it is probable that there will be a times of utopia as well as a times of dystopia. God knows best.
The discussion about what "utopian" means clarifies something for me.
I would argue that to count as "utopian" a vision has to include some element of, "a better world will create better people." Without that it's just a theme park. That could be, "people raised in a world with education and without deprivation and inequality will be more respectful and empathetic." Or (in a bottom-up utopia), "people with meaningful responsibility for creating their own world will rise to the challenge and be more thoughtful and responsible."
I think that's part of the difficulty of making a utopia convincing; it's easy to be cynical, and I don't think it requires that we imagine a world that is so boring and placid that there aren't stories to tell and conflicts occurring.
But, I would argue, to deserve the name "utopia" requires some belief that a better world will not only do a better job of feeding and clothing people, but will also nurture and cultivate more generous and thoughtful people.
Upon reflection the biggest challenge in writing a utopian book is how not to be boring. A true utopia would have no stories. “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” Then there is the time honored genre of people trying to make things better and accomplishing the opposite. See all of human history for examples.
Wonderful piece, Ellie. Yes, we need thinkers to help think us out of this mess and positive utopian visioning seems vital. To answer your question, top down or bottom up, I think it not either/or but both/and, a genuine collaboration but with a new top. The current top cannot be reasoned with because it is creating a mass formation psychosis so the bottom must topple the top in order to create a new accountable top dedicated to solving problems instead of allowing this profit-motivated system of institutionalized usury to continue creating them. I think it important to understand the dystopia we live in, to envision a path out of it toward a better world. I think we need to have an international ‘Sankofa’, examining our history to determine where we took the wrong fork in the road and make the correction.
I've always thought, whether true or not, that most dystopian fiction is a future projection, or reflection of what the writer is perceiving in their society. Huxley and Orwell wrote two versions of a totalitarian dystopia based on how they saw the world and its governance around them progressing. Today we kind of have those two versions manifested in the Biden v Trump fascisms which I think are illusory creations of global finance, our collective nemesis. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in which both fascisms are employed may be more accurate.
However, I am at a loss to find examples of places where the leadership/government is making good decisions. Finland and Ladakh are better but problems for them are increasing due to the actions and policies of the global financial hegemon. There are lessons to be learned in those examples. If you would, please share the examples you refer to.
I have never written a book and now it seems to late to do so, as you say who reads books anymore? The book I want to write is all about the money and titled Healing Our Dystopia but perhaps it makes more sense to be a newsletter as new information and thinking continue to flow.
“When we think of “AI” we immediately think of AI taking over the world and killing the whole human race.” How about an AI taking over the world in order to save the human race (and the Earth?). Some small part of me would welcome a benevolent AI overlord. 😉 But seriously, I’ll try to have a more substantive comment when I get back from volunteering at my local nature center. (Trying to create utopia in a small way.)
“And aren’t there societies that already know how to?” The answer to that is no.
(my first comment broke, this is Take 2.)
excited to see the conversation continue!
i'm linking to my comment on yesterday's post below (hopefully)—to keep it visible, and also because it goes directly to what we're discussing in this section.
i'm still not sure if "leadership" and "governance" are the correct terms to contrast. but it feels intuitively true to me: when you say that you can't imagine a culture where "no one is managing things"—i agree, but that's not the same thing as imagining a culture in which there's no government. this is getting into a whooole big can of worms about how we define things like "government" and "state," and i'd love to have that conversation. for my purposes, just on the surface, i think there are plenty of communities and cultures at all points in history (including today) that are guided by leaders who aren't necessarily part of a remote, abstract "government." i think that will increasingly be the case in the future, as governments struggle to keep up with the unpredictable effects of climate change and political instability.
here's the link to my comment from yesterday. hopefully it works this time! https://open.substack.com/pub/ellegriffin/p/how-do-we-define-utopia?r=1onphg&utm_campaign=comment-list-share-cta&utm_medium=web&comments=true&commentId=39995381
It seems to me that part of what you’re differences are is actually a difference of definition. I would not have said that any of the children’s books that you listed were utopian.