- Why Describing Utopia Goes Badly
By Holden Karnofsky 14 min read

Why Describing Utopia Goes Badly

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A kind of discourse that seems pretty dead these days is: describing and/or debating potential utopias.

By "potential utopias," I specifically mean visions of potential futures much better than the present, taking advantage of hopefully greater wealth, knowledge, technology, etc. than we have today. (I don't mean proposals to create alternative communities today, or claims about what could be achieved with policy changes today,1 though those can be interesting too.)

It seems to me that there's little-to-no discussion or description of potential utopias (there's much more attention to potential dystopias), and even the idea of utopia is widely mocked. (More on this below.) As someone interested in taking a very long-run perspective on humanity's past and future, this bothers me:

  • When thinking about the value of ensuring that humanity continues to exist and/or successfully navigating what could be the most important century, it seems important to consider how good things could be if they go well, not just how bad things could be if they go poorly.
    • It seems pretty self-evident to me that failing to really consider both sides will skew our decision making in some ways.
    • In particular, I think it's liable to make us fail to feel the full importance of what's at stake. If the idea of describing or visualizing utopia seems absurd, it's more tempting than it should be to write the whole question of humanity's long-term trajectory off and think only about shorter-term matters.
  • Speaking more vaguely, it just doesn't seem great to have very-long-run goals be absent from discussion about how things are going in the world and what ought to change. I know there's an argument that "The long-run future is too hard to reason about, so we should focus on the next few years," but I also resonate with the general idea that "plans are useless, planning is indispensable."

Below, I'll:

  • Describe some of my own experiences looking for discussions of potential utopias, and the general contempt I perceive for such things in modern discourse.
  • Hypothesize that one of the main blockers to describing utopia is that it's inherently difficult to describe in an appealing way. Pretty much by their nature, utopias tend to sound dull (due to the lack of conflict), homogeneous (since it's hard to describe a world of people living very differently from each other) and alien (anything very different from the status quo is just going to rub lots of people the wrong way).
  • Look at Brave New World - which presents a "supposed utopia" as a dystopia - through this lens.

In the next post, I'll give a framework for visualizing utopia that tries to avoid the problems above.

Utopia is very "out"

A few years ago, I tried to collect different visions for utopia from existing writings, and use Mechanical Turk polling to see how broadly appealing they are. (My results are available here.) I learned a number of things from this exercise:

  • I looked for academic fields studying utopia. I hoped I would find something in the social sciences: for example, analyzing what sorts of social arrangements might work well under the assumption of greatly increased wealth and improved technology, or finding data on what sorts of utopian descriptions appeal most to different sorts of people. However, the only relevant-seeming academic field I found (Utopian Studies) is rooted in literary criticism rather than social science.
  • The main compilation I found for utopian visions, Claeys and Sargent's Utopia Reader, is nearly all taken from fiction, especially the readings from the 20th century.
  • Most of the "utopia" descriptions I found there are very old, and are quite unappealing to me personally. In recent work, dystopia seems to be a more common topic than utopia. (Both dystopia and utopia are both considered part of "utopian studies").
  • When I tried testing the most appealing utopias - as well as some I came up with myself - by surveying several hundred people (using Positly), none scored very well. (Specifically, none got an average as high as 4 on a 5-point scale).

I attended the Society for Utopian Studies's annual conference. This was the only conference I could find focused on discussing utopia or something like it. It was a very small conference, and most of the people there were literary scholars who had a paper or two on utopia but didn't heavily specialize in it. I asked a number of people why they had come, and a common answer was "It was close by."

A lot of the discussion revolved around dystopia. When people did discuss utopia, I often had the sense that "utopia" and "utopian" were being used as pejorative terms - their meaning was something like "Naive enough to think one knows how the world should be set up." One person said they associated the idea of utopia with totalitarianism.

Rather than excitement about imagining designing utopias, the main vibe was critical examination of why one would do such a thing. I think that people thought that the analysis I'd done - using opinion polling to determine whether any utopias are broadly appealing to people - was pretty goofy, though this could've been for a number of reasons (such as that it is).

In a world with a large thriving social science literature devoted to auction theory, shouldn't there be at least a few dozen papers engaged in a serious debate over where we're hoping our society is going to go in the long run?

Why is utopia unpopular?

If I'm right that there's little-to-no serious discussion of potential utopias (and general contempt for the idea) in today's discourse, there are a number of possible reasons.

"Ends justify the means" worries? One reason might be the idea that aiming at utopia inevitably leads to "ends justify the means" thinking - e.g., believing that it's worth any amount of violence/foul play to get a chance at getting the world toward utopia.

  • This might be based on the history of Communism in the 20th century and/or the writings of people like Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin.2
  • I'm not sure I understand the reasoning here: it also seems "risky" in this way to have strong views (as many do) about how people should live their lives and what should be legal/illegal today. The idea that policy has high stakes and is worth fighting over seems pretty widespread, and not so scorned. (Also, Communism itself seems much more warmly received in modern discourse than utopia.)
  • I'm generally against "ends justify the means" type reasoning, whether about the long-run future or about the present. Many people focused on the present seem happy with "ends justify the means" type reasoning. So it seems to me that this is just a different topic from visualizing utopia.

This piece focuses on a different possible reason for utopia's lack of popularity: past attempts to describe utopia generally (universally?) sound unappealing.

This isn't just because utopia makes poor entertainment. For example, take these excerpts from Wikipedia's summary of Walden Two, a relatively recent and intellectually serious attempt at utopia:

Each member of the community is apparently self-motivated, with an amazingly relaxed work schedule of only four average hours of work a day, directly supporting the common good and accompanied by the freedom to select a fresh new place to work each day. The members then use the large remainder of their time to engage in creative or recreational activities of their own choosing. The only money is a simple system of points that buys greater leisure periods in exchange for less desirable labor. Members automatically receive ample food and sleep, with higher needs met by nurturing one's artistic, intellectual, and athletic interests, ranging from music to literature and from chess to tennis.

In one sense, each individual sentence of this sounds like an improvement on life today, at least for most people. And yet when I picture this world, I can't help but picture ... seeing fake-seeming smiles everywhere? Half-heartedly playing tennis while thinking "What's it all for?" Feeling a vague, ominous pressure not to complain?

And it gets worse as it gets more specific:

As Burris and the other visitors tour the grounds, they discover that certain radically unusual customs have been established in Walden Two, quite bizarre to the American mainstream, but showing apparent success in the long run. Some of these customs include that children are raised communally, families are non-nuclear ...

Now I'm picturing having to be friends with everyone I don't like ...

... free affection is the norm ...

That isn't helping.

... and personal expressions of thanks are taboo.

Such behavior is mandated by the community's individually self-enforced "Walden Code", a guideline for self-control techniques, which encourages members to credit all individual and other achievements to the larger community, while requiring minimal strain. Community counselors are also available to supervise behavior and assist members with better understanding and following the Code.

And now it's sounding like an almost dead ringer for Brave New World, a dystopia written more than 10 years prior. Actually, it doesn't sound all that far off from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I'm basically imagining a world where we're all either brainwashed, or forced into conformity while pretending that we're freely and enthusiastically doing what we please. The comments about "individual self-enforcement" and lack of physical force just make me imagine that all my cooperative friends and I don't know what the source of the enforcement is - only that everyone we know seems pretty scared to challenge whatever it is.

I don't think this is a one-off. I think it's a common pattern for descriptions of utopia to feel either vague and boring, or oppressive and scary, if not both. The utopian visions that I perceive as most successful today are probably Star Trek and Iain M. Bank's "Culture novels," but both of these seem to revolve around advanced civilizations interacting with hostile ones, such that most of the action is taking place in the context of the (very non-utopian) latter.

But the world can get better, right?

What is it about describing a vastly improved world that goes so badly?

Utopias sound dull, homogeneous and alien

When one describes a utopia in great detail, I think there tend to be a few common ways in which it sounds unattractive: it tends to sound dull, homogeneous and alien.3

Dull. Challenges and conflict are an important part of life. We derive satisfaction and meaning from overcoming them, or just contending with them.

Also, a major source of value in life is our relationships, and we often form and maintain relationships with the help of some form of conflict.

  • Humor is an important part of relationships, and humor is often (usually?) at someone's expense.
  • Working together to overcome challenges - or sometimes, just suffer them - can be an important way of bonding.
  • If you read guides to writing fictional characters who seem relatable, compelling and interesting to the reader, you'll often see conflict and plot stressed as essential elements for accomplishing this.

When I think about my life as it is today, I think a lot about the things I'm hopeful and nervous about, and the past challenges I've overcome or gotten through. When I picture most utopias, there doesn't seem to be as much room for hope and fear and challenge. That may also mean that I'm instinctively imagining that my relationships aren't the same way they are now.

(This "dullness" property seems closest to the one gestured at in George Orwell's 1948 essay on why utopias don't sound appealing.)

Homogeneous. Today's world has a large number of different sorts of people living different sorts of lives. It's hard to paint a specific utopian picture that accommodates this kind of diversity.

A specific utopian picture tends to emphasize particular lifestyles, daily activities, etc. - but a particular lifestyle will generally appeal to only a small fraction of the population.

This might be why utopias often have a "totalitarian" feel. It might also explain why there is perhaps more literature on "dystopias calling themselves utopias" (e.g., Brave New World, The Giver) than on utopias. If you take any significant change in lifestyle or beliefs and imagine it applying to everyone, it's going to sound like individual choice and diversity are greatly reduced.

Alien. More generally, we tend to value a lot of things about our current lives - not all of which we can easily name or describe. The world we live in is rich and complex in a way that it's hard for a fictional world to be. So if we imagine ourselves in a fictional world, it's often going to feel like something is missing.

I think most people have a significant degree of "conservatism" (here I'm using the term broadly rather than in a US political context). We improve things one step at a time, rather than by tearing everything down and building it back up from scratch. When a world that is "too many steps away" is described, it's hard to picture it or be comfortable with it.

I think a description of today's world could easily sound like a horrible dystopia to the vast majority of people living 1000 years ago (or even 100 or 50), even though today's world is, in fact, probably much better on the whole.

Utopia as dystopia: Brave New World

It's interesting to look at a dystopian novel like Brave New World through the "dull, homogeneous and alien" lens.

Brave New World presents a world of advanced technology, great wealth, and peace, which has enabled society to arrange itself as it wants to. These are conditions that "ought to" engender a utopia - and in fact many of the characters loudly proclaim their world to be wonderful - but that instead results in a dystopia. This "utopia as dystopia" formula is reasonably common (other fiction in this vein includes Gattaca and The Giver).

Brave New World heavily emphasizes homogeneity and lack of choice:

  • All children are genetically engineered and raised by the state.
  • Not only has monogamy disappeared entirely, but it seems all romantic choice has disappeared as well:

“Has any of you been compelled to live through a long time-interval between the consciousness of a desire and its fulfilment?”

“Well,” began one of the boys, and hesitated.

“Speak up,” said the D.H.C. “Don’t keep his fordship waiting.”

“I once had to wait nearly four weeks before a girl I wanted would let me have her.”

“And you felt a strong emotion in consequence?”


“Horrible; precisely,” said the Controller. “Our ancestors were so stupid and short-sighted that when the first reformers came along and offered to deliver them from those horrible emotions, they wouldn’t have anything to do with them.”

There's also a strong alien vibe created by this sort of thing, as people disparage things that are extremely basic parts of our lives, like bad emotions. (The people in scenes like this also just talk in a very strange, wooden way.)

Brave New World also heavily emphasizes a lack of conflict (implying a dull world):

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last. [Including typhoid! - Ed.]

Brave New World is often thought of as clever for the way it transmutes a utopia into a dystopia. But maybe that's the kind of transmutation that writes itself. Describe a future world in enough detail and you already have people worried about dullness, homogeneity, and alienness. Brave New World amplifies this with various incredulous quotes to demonstrate just how homogeneous and conflict-free everything is, and by describing the government policies that enforce such a thing.

"Abstract" utopias

To lay out a utopian vision that avoids the problems above, one might try presenting a more abstract vision, emphasizing freedom and individual choice and avoiding giving a single "picture of what daily life is like." By being less specific, one can allow the reader to imagine that they'll keep a lot of what they like about their current life, instead of imagining that they'll be part of a homogeneous herd doing something very unfamiliar.

An example of this approach4 is Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia.5 To take Wikipedia's summary:

The utopia ... is a meta-utopia, a framework for voluntary migration between utopias tending towards worlds in which everybody benefits from everybody else's presence ... The state protects individual rights and makes sure that contracts and other market transactions are voluntary ... the only form of social union that is possible [is] fully voluntary associations of mutual benefit ... In Nozick's utopia if people are not happy with the society they are in they can leave and start their own community.

I note that in my paper, the utopia that scored best among survey respondents was reminiscent of Nozick's:

Everything is set up to give people freedom. If you aren't interfering with someone else's life, you can do whatever you want. People can sell anything, buy anything, choose their daily activities, and choose the education their children receive. Thanks to advanced technology and wealth, in this world everyone can afford whatever they want (education, food, housing, entertainment, etc.) Everyone feels happy, wealthy, and fulfilled, with strong friendships and daily activities that they enjoy.

(This was not what I expected to be the highest-scoring option, given that the survey population overwhelmingly identifies with the political left. By contrast, the "government-focused utopia" I wrote performed horribly.)

But this kind of "abstract" utopia has another issue: it's hard to picture, so it isn't very compelling.

I think this points to a kind of paradox at the heart of trying to lay out a utopian vision. You can emphasize the abstract idea of choice, but then your utopia will feel very non-evocative and hard to picture. Or you can try to be more specific, concrete and visualizable. But then the vision risks feeling dull, homogeneous and alien.

Don't give up

My view is that utopias are hard to describe because of structural issues with describing them - not because the idea of utopia is fundamentally doomed.

In the next post, Visualizing Utopia, I try to back this up by offering a framework for visualizing utopia that hopefully resists - or at least addresses - the "dull, homogeneous, and alien" trap. Click here to read it.

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  1. I'd put Utopia for Realists in the latter category. 

  2. I'm not deeply familiar with their arguments, but here are some links giving a feel for them:

  3. Some people try to get around this by describing utopia more abstractly. I'll address that later. 

  4. Another example: Nick Bostrom's Letter from Utopia

  5. I am not saying that Nozick's utopian vision is fully satisfying, and I certainly don't agree with Nozick's politics overall. I'm just noting that it has some appealing features relative to the more specific utopias discussed above.