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- Visualizing Utopia
By Holden Karnofsky 15 min read

Visualizing Utopia

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I previously wrote that describing utopia tends to go badly - largely because utopia descriptions naturally sound:

  • Dull, due to the lack of conflict and challenge. (This is the main pitfall noted in previous work on this subject,1 but I don't think it's the only one.)
  • Homogeneous: it's hard to describe a world of people living very differently from each other. To be concrete, utopias tend to emphasize specific lifestyles, daily activities, etc. - and this ends up sounding totalitarian.
  • Alien: anything too different from the status quo is going to sound uncomfortable, at least to many.

In this post, I'm going to present a framework for visualizing utopia that tries to avoid those problems. Later this week I'll share some links (some from readers) on more specific utopias.

(Why care? See the beginning of the previous post, or the end of this one.)

The basic approach

I'm not going to try for a highly specific, tangible vision. Other attempts to do that feel dull, homogeneous and alien, and I expect to hit the same problem. I'm also not going to stick to a totally abstract assertion of freedom and choice.

Instead, I'm going to lay out a set of possible utopias that span a spectrum from conservative (anchored to the status quo) to radical (not anchored).

  • At one end of the spectrum will be a conservative utopia that is presented as "the status quo plus a contained, specific set of changes." It will avoid sounding dull, homogeneous and alien, because it will be presented as largely similar to today's world. And it will be a clear improvement on the status quo. But it won't sound amazing or inspiring.
  • At the other end will be a radical utopia that doesn't aim to resemble today's world at all. It will sound more "perfect," but also more scary in the usual ways.

I don't expect any single point on my spectrum to sound very satisfying, but I hope to help the reader find (and visualize) some point on this spectrum that they (the reader) would find to be a satisfying utopia. The idea is to give a feel for the tradeoff between these two ends of the spectrum (conservatism and radicalism), so that envisioning utopia feels like a matter of finding the right balance rather than like a sheer impossibility.

I'll first lay out the two extreme ends of the spectrum: the maximally "conservative" utopia, and the maximally "radical" one. I'll then describe a couple of possible intermediate points.

Note that I will generally be assuming as much wealth, technological advancement and policy improvements as are needed to make everything I describe feasible. I believe that everything described below has at least a decent chance of eventually being feasible (nothing contradicts the laws of physics, etc.) But I'm certainly not trying to say that any of these utopias could be achieved today. If something I describe sounds impossible to you, you may want to check out my discussions of digital people.

The maximally conservative utopia: status quo minus clearly-bad things

This isn't really a utopia in the traditional sense. It's trying to lay out one end of a spectrum.

Start here:

In this world, everything is exactly like the status quo, with one exception: cancer does not exist.

It may not be very exciting, but it's hard to argue with the claim that this would be better than the world as it is today.

This is basically the most conservative utopia I can come up with, because the only change it proposes is a change that I think we can all get on board with, without hesitation. Most proposed changes to the world would make at least some people uncomfortable (no inequality? No sadness?), but this one shouldn't. If we got rid of cancer, we'd still have death, we'd still have suffering, we'd still have struggle, etc. - we just wouldn't have cancer.

You can almost certainly improve this utopia further by taking more baby-steps along the same lines. Make a list of things that - like cancer - you think are just unambiguously bad, and would be happy to see no more of in the world. Then define utopia as "exactly like the status quo, except that all the things on my list don't exist." Examples could include:

  • Other diseases
  • Hunger
  • Non-consensual violence (not including e.g. martial arts, in which two people agree to a set of rules that allows specific forms of violence for a set period of time).
  • Racism, sexism, etc.

"Status quo, minus everything on my list" is a highly conservative utopia. Unlike literary utopias, it should be fairly clear that this world would be a major improvement on the world as it is.

I note that in my survey on fictional utopias, it was much easier to get widespread agreement (high average scores) for properties of utopia than for full utopian visions. For example, while no utopia description scored as high as 4 on a 5-point scale, the following properties all scored 4.5 or higher: "no one goes hungry", "there is no violent conflict," "there is no discrimination by race or gender."

The maximally radical utopia: pure pleasure

All the way at the radical end of the spectrum, there's a utopia that makes no attempt at preserving anything about the status quo, and instead consists of everyone being in a state of maximum pleasure/happiness at all times.

There are a number of ways of fleshing this out, as discussed in this Slate Star Codex post. The happiness could be a stupor of simple pleasure, or it could be "equanimity, acceptance and enlightenment," or it could be some particular nice moment repeated over and over again forever (with no memory of the past available to make it boring).

This "maximally radical utopia" is rarely even discussed in conversations about utopia, since it is so unappealing to so many. (Indeed, I think many see it as a dystopia). It's off-the-charts dull, homogeneous, and alien. I provide it here not as a tangible proposal that I expect to appeal to readers, but as a way of filling out the full spectrum from conservative to radical utopia.

An in-between point, erring conservative

Here's a world that I'd be excited about, compared to today, even if I think we can do better (and I do).

In this world, technological advances have made it possible to create much more ambitious art, entertainment, and games than is possible today.

For example:

  • One artistic creation might work as follows. The "viewer" enters into a realistic, detailed virtual recreation of some time in the 20th century. They experience the first ~50 years of a particular (fictional) person's life. Around age 25, they fall in love and get married. For the next 25 years, their marriage goes through many ups and downs, but overall is a highlight of their life. Then around age 50, their relationship slowly and painfully falls apart. Shortly following their divorce, they wander into a bar playing live music, and they hear a song playing that perfectly speaks to the moment. At this point, the simulation ends. This piece is referred to a "song," and evaluated as such.
  • Another artistic creation might have a similarly elaborate setup for a brilliantly made and perfectly timed meal, and be referred to as a "sandwich."
  • There are also "games" in virtual environments. In these games, people can compete using abilities that would be unrealistic in today's world. For example, there might be a virtual war that is entirely realistic, except that it poses no actual danger to the participants (people who are injured or killed simply exit the "game"). There might be a virtual NBA game in which each participant plays as an NBA player, and experiences what it's like to have that player's abilities.

Everyone in this world has the ability to:

  • Subsist in good health, unconditionally. There is no need to work for one's food or medical care, and violence does no permanent damage.
  • Have physical autonomy over their body and property. Nobody can be physically forced by someone else to do anything, with the exception that people are able to restrict who is able to enter their space and use their art/entertainment/games.
  • Spend their time designing art, entertainment, or games, or collaborating with others designing these things, or engage in scientific inquiry about whatever mysteries of the universe exist at the time.
  • Spend their time consuming art, entertainment, games or scientific insights produced by others.
  • Additionally, everyone in this world has a level of property and resources that allows them to be materially comfortable and make art/entertainment/games/science along the lines of the above, if they choose to. That said, people are able to trade relatively freely, subject to not going below some minimal level of resources. People who work on creating popular art/entertainment/games/insights accumulate more resources that they're able to use for more creation, promotion, etc.

In this world, the following patterns emerge:

  • There are a wide variety of different types of "careers." Some people focus on producing art/entertainment/games/scientific insight. Others participate in supporting others' work: promoting it, managing its finances, performing needed repairs, etc. (Creators who can't get others excited enough to help them with these parts of the job just have to do these parts of the job themselves.) Others are pure "consumers" and do not take part in creation. Between these options, there is some option that is at least reasonably similar to the majority of careers that exist today.
  • There is a wide variety of tastes. Some art/entertainment/games/lines of inquiry have large, passionate fan bases, but none are universally liked. As a result, people have arguments about the relative merits of different art/entertainment/games/insights; they experience competitiveness, jealousy, etc.; they often (though by no means always) make friends with people who share their tastes, make fun of those who don't, etc.
  • Many people want to be involved in creating art/entertainment/games with a large, passionate fan base. And many people want to be a well-regarded critic, or repair person, or "e-athlete" (someone who performs well in a particular game), or scientist. Not everyone succeeds at these ambitions. As a result, many people experience nervousness, disappointment, etc. about their careers.
  • Most of today's dynamics with meeting romantic partners, raising families, practicing religion, etc. still seem applicable here.

This utopia is significantly more "radical" than the maximally conservative utopia. It envisions getting rid of significant parts of today's economy. I imagine that doing so would change the political stakes of many things as well: there would still be inequality and unfairness, but nobody would be reliant on either the government or any company for the ability to be comfortable, healthy and autonomous.

But it's still a fairly "conservative" utopia in the sense that it seeks to preserve most of the things about today's world that we might miss if we changed them. There is still property, wealth and inequality; there is still competition; most of the social phenomena that we're accustomed to still exist (jealousy, pettiness, mockery, cliques, etc.) Not all of the careers that exist today exist in this world, but it's hopefully still pretty easy to picture a job that is "similar enough" to any job you'd hope would stick around. Whatever kind of life you have and would like to keep, it's hopefully possible to see how you could keep most if not all of what you like about it in this world.

(I expect some readers to instinctively react, "It's nice that there would still be jobs in this world, but working on art, entertainment, games and science isn't good enough - I want to do something more meaningful than that, like saving lives." But most people today don't work on something like saving lives, and as far as I can tell, the ones that do aren't more happy or fulfilled in any noticeable way than the ones that don't.)

I expect most readers will see this world as far short of the ideal. But I also expect that most will see how this world - or something like it - could be a fairly robust improvement on the status quo.

Another in-between point, erring more radical

This world is similar to the one described just above. The main difference is that, through meditation and other practices like it, nearly everyone has achieved significantly greater emotional equanimity.

People consume and produce advanced art/entertainment/games/science as in the above world, and most of the careers that exist today have some reasonably close analogue. However, people experience far less suffering when they fail to achieve their goals, experience far less jealousy of others, are less inclined to look down on others, have generally more positive attitudes, etc.

This utopia takes a deliberate step in the radical direction: it cuts down on some of the conflict- and suffering-driven aspects of life that were preserved in the previous one. In my view, it rather predictably has a bit more of the dull, homogeneous, alien feel.

A "meta" option

This one leans especially hard on things digital people would be able to do.

In this world, there is a waiting room with four doors. Each door goes to a different self-contained mini-world.

Door #1 goes to the maximally conservative utopia: just like today's world, minus, say, disease, hunger, non-consensual violence, racism, and sexism.

Door #2 goes to the maximally radical utopia: everyone lives in constant pleasure (or "equanimity, acceptance and enlightenment"), untroubled by boredom or material needs.

Door #3 goes to the moderately conservative utopia described above. Material needs are met; people produce and consume advanced art, entertainment, games and science; there are many different careers; and most of the careers and social dynamics that exist today have some reasonably close analogue.

Door #4 goes to the moderately radical utopia described above. It is similar to Door #3 but with greater emotional equanimity, less suffering, less jealousy, more positive attitudes, etc.

Each citizen of this world starts in the waiting room and chooses:

1 - A door to walk through.

2 - A protocol for reevaluating the choice. For example, they might choose: "I will remember at all times that I have the ability to return to the waiting room and choose another door, and I can do so at any time by silently reciting my pass code." Or they might choose: "I will not remember that I have the ability to return, but after 10 years, I will find myself in the waiting room again, with the option to return to my life as it was or choose another door."2

Their natural lifespans are at least long enough to have about two 60-70 year tries behind each door if they so choose. (Perhaps much more.)

Finally: anyone can design an alternate utopia to be added to the list of four. This alternate utopia can itself be a "meta-utopia," e.g., by containing its own version of the "waiting room" protocol.

Now that I've laid out a few points on the spectrum, this utopia makes a move in the abstract direction, emphasizing choice.

Personally, I find this utopia to feel somewhat plausible and satisfying, even though I wouldn't say that of any of the four utopias that it's sampling from.

Is a utopia possible?

As stated above, I don't expect any of the options I've given to sound like a fully satisfying utopia, to most readers. I expect each one to sound either too conservative (better than the status quo, but not good enough) or too radical (too much risk of losing parts of our current world that we value).

What I've tried to do is give the reader an idea of the full spectrum from maximally conservative to maximally radical utopias; convince them that there is an inherent tradeoff here, which can explain the difficulty of describing a fully satisfying utopia; and convince them that there is some point, somewhere on this spectrum, that they would find to be a satisfying utopia.

There isn't necessarily any particular world that everyone could agree on as a utopia. For example, some people think it is important to get rid of economic inequality, while some think it's important to preserve it. Perhaps a world where everyone chooses their own mini-world to enter (such as the "meta" option above)3 could work for everyone. Perhaps not.

In real life, we aren't going to design a utopia from first principles and then build it. Instead, hopefully, we will improve the world slowly, iteratively, and via a large number of individual decisions. Maybe at some point it will become relatively easy for lots of people to attain vast emotional equanimity, and a large number but not everyone will, and then there will be a wave of sentiment that this is making the world worse and robbing it of a lot of what makes it interesting and valuable, and then some fraction of the world will decide not to go down that road.

This is the dynamic by which the world has gotten better to date. There have been lots of experiments that didn't take off, and some social changes that look far better in retrospect than someone from 300 years ago would have expected. Many things about the modern world would horrify someone from 300 years ago, but most changes have been fairly gradual, and someone who got to experience all 300 years one step at a time might feel okay about it.

To give an example from the more recent past:

  • Social norms around sex have in some sense gotten closer to what Brave New World feared (see previous discussion): many people in many contexts treat sex about as casually as the Brave New World characters do.
  • But in other respects, we haven't moved much in the Brave New World direction - people who want to be monogamous still don't generally face pressure (and certainly not coercion) against doing so - and overall it seems that the changes are more positive than negative.
  • This is consistent with the general patterns discussed above: many changes sound bad when we imagine everyone making them, but are better when different people get to make different choices and move a step at a time.
  • I think this explains some of why "radical" utopias don't appeal: it seems entirely justified to resist the idea of a substantially different world when one hasn't been through an iterative process for arriving at it.

I consider the real-life method for "choosing utopia" to be much better than the method of dreaming up utopias and arguing about them. So if, today, you can start to dimly imagine the outline of a utopia you'd find satisfying, I'd think you should assume that if all goes well (<- far from a given!) the real-life utopia will be far better than that.

So?

Regardless of the ability or inability to agree on a utopian vision, I expect that most people reading this will agree that the world can and should get better year by year. I also expect them to agree on many of the specifics of what "better" means in the short run: less poverty, less disease, less (and less consequential) racism and sexism, etc.

So why do our views on utopias matter? And in particular, what good has this piece done if it hasn't even laid out a specific vision that I expect to be satisfying to most people?

I care about this topic for a couple of reasons.

First, I think short-term metrics for humanity are not enough. While I strongly support aiming for less poverty every year, I think we should also place enormous value on humanity's long-run future.

Part of why this matters is that I believe the long-run future could come surprisingly quickly. But even if we put that aside, we should value preventing the worst catastrophes far more than we would if we only cared about those directly affected - because we should believe that a glorious future for humanity is possible, and that losing it is a special kind of tragedy.

When every attempt to describe that glorious future sounds unappealing, it's tempting to write off the whole exercise and turn one's attention to nearer-term and/or less ambitious goals. I've hypothesized why attempts to describe a glorious future tend not to sound good - and further hypothesized that this does not mean the glorious future isn't there. We may not be able to describe it satisfyingly now, or to agree on it now, and we may have to get there one step at a time - but it is a real possibility, and we should care a lot about things that threaten to cut off that possibility.

Second, I believe that increasing humanity's long-run knowledge and empowerment has a lot of upside (as well as downside).

There is a school of thought that sees scientific and technological advances as neutral, or even negative. The idea is that even if we had all the power in the world, we couldn't use it to make the world better. Like the citizens of Brave New World, we're our own prisoners: if we successfully solve some problems (such as making ourselves happier) we'll create just as many to offset them (such as by losing the conflict and complexity that give life meaning). Some people concede that the poverty reduction we've seen to date is good, but think that once we reach a certain level of wealth, further advances won't help.

I think this is a tempting worldview, in an age when most futurism is found in fiction, and the dystopias are acclaimed masterworks while the utopias are creepy slogs. But ultimately I think this dynamic tells us more about the challenges of using our imagination than it does about the reality of utopia.

Personally, I don't consider myself able to imagine a utopia very effectively. But I do feel convinced at a gut level that with time and incremental steps, we can build one. I think this particular "faith in the unseen" is ultimately rational and correct. I hope I've made a case that the oddities of describing a utopia need not stop us from achieving one.

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Footnotes

  1. E.g., https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/can-socialists-be-happy/  

  2. People who choose to remember the existence of the waiting room aren't able to tell - or at least, aren't reliably able to convince - people who don't, to protect the latter's choice not to remember. 

  3. See also this post on the "Archipelago" idea