Category Archives: Arts & Literature

Notes: Utopia is Dead

The original cover illustration for Thomas Moore’s “Utopia,” from 1516, courtesy Wikipedia

In 1516, Thomas More — a lawyer and councilor to the notorious English king Henry VIII — published a little book called Utopia. More’s account, written in the form of a Socratic dialogue, centered on a fictional island, on which a country reminiscent of an updated vision of Plato’s perfect Republic had been discovered by a mysterious world traveler named Raphael. The book was not, strictly speaking, about the future. Utopia was a place that was imagined to be far away in space, not time. Nevertheless, the word “utopia” has become synonymous with the vision of a perfect, future society.

More’s fictional Utopia had not evolved organically to perfection. It was designed, in meticulous detail, by a man named Utopos — a foreigner who had conquered the place and its “ignorant savages” centuries earlier, transforming them in the process. Considering that the real “New World” and its “ignorant savages” had been discovered by Europeans just a few decades previously, this aspect of More’s Utopia reveals a great deal about Europe’s future vision for that New World and its peoples. In its all-but-inevitable conquest of the Americas, which still lay a few decades in the future, Europe imagined that it would play a role like that of Utopos, the designer of a perfect civilization. As we now know, their impact was the very opposite of utopian: existing human societies in the real New World were rapidly destroyed by the European lust for gold, profit, and geopolitical power.

Meanwhile, back in More’s innocent, fictional Utopia, the politics might strike us as socialistic, or even idealized communism; in fact, they sound something like the universe of Star Trek. There is no money in Utopia. Not even gold is considered to be valuable; the ultimate pleasure in life is not the ownership of possessions, but good health. There is no hunger or poverty: “Recognition of individual merit is combined with equal prosperity for all.” The Utopians have learned to work the land effectively, on an island of relatively scarce resources and poor soil quality. In fact, they are so efficient that people work only as much as they want to, at their chosen trades, and are otherwise free to spend their time in “some congenial activity” (though not “in idleness or self-indulgence”). Utopian society is even wealthy enough to donate a significant fraction of its total exports to the help the  in other countries.

At first glance, More’s Utopia sounds like a future Scandinavia, where the idea of a basic “citizen salary” (a social payment that a citizen receives regardless of whether she works or not) is gaining traction as a social experiment in some countries, and where up to 1% of the national GDP is already committed to overseas development aid. But one should not jump to the conclusion reached by More’s fictional alter-ego, “More,” who concludes that “there are many features of the Utopian Republic that I should like … to see adopted in Europe.” (p. 132)

For example, there is plenty of slavery in More’s Utopia. The slaves are convicts, or poor people from other countries who have volunteered to be owned, in order to have work. And there is absolutely zero tolerance for premarital sex. “The Utopians are particularly strict about that kind of thing, because they think very few people would want to get married — which means spending one’s whole life with the same person, and putting up with all the inconveniences that this involves — if they weren’t carefully prevented from having any sexual intercourse otherwise.” (p 103)  And by the way, monogamy is a strict requirement in Utopia: marital infidelity, or even attempted seduction, is a crime. The punishment: slavery.

More’s depiction of the perfect society is quite unconvincing today; but the influence of his book on Western society was enormous and lasting. The idea of utopia became so ingrained in the Western tradition that even computer modelers, centuries later, use that word to describe the best possible outcome of their future-trend simulations. But like More’s “More,” thinking out loud about Europe’s prospects in the final sentence of his surprisingly modern-feeling work of fiction, the word “utopia” has also come to mean a fantasy future that one “hardly expects” to become real.

*

Fast forward five hundred years. Along the way, we pass dozens, growing to hundreds and finally thousands of imaginary utopias, all written, drawn, and — beginning in the early 20th century — rendered into motion pictures by the mind of man.

For it is principally men who have busied themselves with thoughts of a future utopia over the past five centuries. As late as 1998, in a comprehensive book-length study of Ecological Utopias by the Dutch political scientist Marius de Geus, there was not a single female thinker or author, in all of history, with a model of utopia that he considered important enough to mention, let alone analyze. (In fact, only three women are quoted or cited by name, as commentators on the concept of utopia, in the whole book.)

De Geus made a useful distinction between two types of utopias, and that distinction was still highly relevant twenty years later. On one side, there are utopias of abundance, where technology advance has provided ever-increasing access to resources, machines, and opportunities, such that everyone is living a life of comfort and even luxury.

On the other side, there are utopias of sufficiency, where humanity’s material appetites and desires have been tamed, minds are enlightened, and nobody is in need because nobody wants (or gets) more than their modest, sustainable share. Thomas More wrote the first of these “sufficiency utopias”: his Utopians wore simple clothes, eschewed excess, and avoided killing animals. The iconic modern example of the genre was Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia — a green-politics dream of a book that inspired a generation of activists and innovators and that, like Thomas More’s Utopia, gifted the world not just with a provocative future vision, but with a useful new word.

Most “ecotopias” — whether they are fictional stories like More’s and Callenbach’s, or theoretical constructions of green-tinged social and economic theory such as those put forth by the modern “degrowth” movement — fall into this second, “sufficiency” category. But de Geus, an environmentalist professor whose concern was to help rectify “a blatant lack of new ideas … concerning the future of our society,” considered this green tendency toward sufficiency-utopia thinking a flaw: “ecotopian thinkers underestimate the advantages and pleasures of luxury and comfort,” he wrote, “and are inclined to exaggerate the positive aspects of austerity and moderation.”

De Geus’s academic writing style tends to be dry, and one wants to shout, “What an understatement!” But then he continues, even more drily:

“Their general assumption is that by living more simply, attaching less value to material goods, by simplicity, frugality, and doing without luxury and affluence, a happy and environmentally friendly life is possible. This assumption appears to disregard the fact that most people in contemporary society are extremely fond of ease, convenience and comfort.”[1]

Now one wants to shout, “Exactly!” This misplaced belief in both the corrective and the attractive power of a sufficiency utopia has been the Achilles heel of the environmental movement for decades. It is demonstrably true that some people find joy and satisfaction in a monastically-inspired or a consciously-chosen simple life; but most people, very evidently, do not.

In fact, most people in this world do live a simple life: material simplicity is all one can afford on $3,000 or less per year (the approximate median annual income for the world as a whole).[2] Visions of downscaling our material way of life have so far proven appealing to a tiny minority of relatively wealthy people, whose annual incomes — even when modest by the standards of their surrounding societies — are nonetheless great enough to place them in the top one percent of all humanity. (By example: earning a salary of just under $35,000 in the United States, a level that might be considered “lower middle class,” still places that wage-earner in the top one percent, globally).[3]

It is empirically verifiable that the “abundance utopia” is far more attractive to the vast majority of humanity. It is also the official policy goal of most nations. Prosperity, opportunity, the pleasures of technology and travel and entertainment for all: this is the vision that guides the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments, organizations, institutions, and decision-makers. In fact, this dream of a world that is universally wealthy (while acknowledging that some people will always be more wealthy than others) has long since moved out of the domain of science fiction and into the halls of government, the boardrooms of investment banks, and the central offices of aid agencies and large foundations. It is no longer seen as “utopian” — a word derived from the Greek for “no place.” It is seen as humanity’s all-but-inevitable destination.

This is why I believe it is time to declare: utopia is dead. As a concept, it has been absorbed into the globalized industrial culture and has evolved into, or replaced by, a different dream. This new dream still encounters scoffers and critics and enemies, but it has nonetheless has been formally endorsed by 193 heads of state, at a United Nations summit meeting held in 2015.

We call that dream “sustainable development.”

[1] See “Median GDP per capita: how much does the typical person earn in different countries?”, by Hauke Hillebrandt, Giving What We Can, 25 May 2016, https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/post/2016/05/giving-and-global-inequality/

[2] Marius de Geus, Ecological Utopias: Envisioning a Sustainable Society, International Books, Utrecht, The Netherlands, 1999, p. 242.

[3] See: http://www.globalrichlist.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes: Television – “Window to the Future”

Click to enlarge

In the 1920s, television was not just a new, futuristic technology; it became a symbol of the future itself. The print ads and magazine covers of the day celebrated the advent of TV with breathless descriptions of new developments and potential video services that were coming “Soon!” or even just “Maybe!” — such as this cover from “Radio News,” a very popular US periodical in its time. (Note that television was thought of as an add-on to radio in those days. Note also that it took nearly a hundred years for this magazine cover’s vision of getting medical care via audio-video transmissions to be realized, via a technology no one in the 1920s saw coming: the fusion of video and telephony that we call the “smart phone”.)

But television didn’t really take off until after World War II, and by the 1960s, when reasonably priced color sets from Japan began to swamp the global market, TV was such a normal part of industrial-world households that it called less and less attention to itself, as a technology. Ads for televisions focused more and more on the sensual experience it was there to provide. TV was no longer “the future” — it was “magic,” a “wonderland of color” and a “thrilling” window to a world of entertainment and distraction.

And occasionally, a window to visions of the future itself, for it was television that introduced the world to Star Trek — the first  series built around an imagined future where humans had conquered the galaxy with starships.

The original 1960s series “Star Trek.” Collage with images courtesy Wikipedia.

Source: Window to the Future: The Golden Age of Television Marketing and Advertising, by Steve Kosareff, Chronicle Books, 2003

Note: Science Fiction film titles

Apple’s iTunes service had over 2,500 films available under the category of science fiction when I last checked. I ran an analysis of the most common words in the titles of those films, and here were the top 10 results, in order of frequency (not counting franchise series titles, like Marvel’s “Agents of Shield”):

  1. Time
  2. Man
  3. Earth
  4. Unknown
  5. Dark
  6. Alien
  7. Star
  8. Space
  9. Planet
  10. World

The word “Future” was much farther down the list, coming after words like “Dead”, “Apocalypse,” and even “Spielberg”. (I also looked at film director names.)

Based on that list, here is the ultimate science fiction movie title:

“The Time of Man on Earth: the Unknown Dark — like an Alien Star in Space — How our Planet became a World.”

It almost makes sense — and almost sounds like a summary of how some people view the era of humanity’s ascendancy on the “Third Rock from the Sun.”

Notes: The Viridian Design Movement (1999-2008)

In 1999, science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling gave a speech in which he called the growing problem of greenhouse gas emissions “an aesthetic problem.” Our reliance on fossil fuels and other pollutants was creating an ugly world, even though it was largely invisible to our senses. He believed the best hack for starting an environmental revolution was not technical or political, but artistic.

“We’re in trouble because we live in filth and we can’t see it,” said Sterling. “We’re like eighteenth century people who lived before germ theory. We’re ignorant of the squalor that surrounds us, and we have bad taste.”

Sterling determined to attack the problem head-on, and he single-handedly launched a new design movement to “Change what people see. Change how they see.” Sterling wanted to use art and design to help people visualize a future that was a brighter and more attractive shade of green — and start making it real.

He called the movement “Viridian” because that was the name for a shade of green that was slightly unnatural — cool, techy, and  environmentally friendly without being predictably so.

Sterling’s initiative was bold and quirky, and he was well-known in sci-fi and futurist circles, so he immediately attracted a following. He wrote a manifesto and a set of design principles, and he declared himself the Viridian Movement’s “Pope-Emperor.” Then he appointed a “Curia” of friends, advisors and fellow-travelers, to help spread the word. (I was lucky enough to be one of these.) The Viridian Movement, operating through Sterling’s email list, quickly spawned a number of design competitions, whose purpose was to call into being the kinds of design innovations Sterling felt to be lacking — things like spore-based ink to help people “embrace decay,” or a graphic symbol to highlight the fact that we were already in a state of “greenhouse disaster.”

Being on the slightly more practical side, I decided to organize an international Viridian Design Competition around one of Sterling’s best-loved ideas (conceived with colleague Stefan Jones): an electricity meter that was actually fun to look at, and that would tell you clearly when you were destroying the climate, and when you were saving it.

With a $10,000 grant from an enlightened philanthropist, I ran the contest though Donella Meadows’ Sustainability Institute (where I was the unpaid Director of Arts & Culture) and in partnership with a prominent international sustainability network known as the Balaton Group. That group’s global experts in climate science, modelling, renewables, and energy efficiency were the judges. And our winner, Inci Mutlu’s “Wattbug”, went on to receive media exposure in the New York Times and Wired magazine.

So did the Viridian Movement help create the future — that is, the present in which we are living now? Did it “introduce something new into the probability stream” as Elon Musk puts it? Or just accelerate what was bound to happen anyway?

Today, “smart meters” that provide immediate visual feedback on energy consumption are everyday items in the world’s electricity grids — though none are as cute as the Wattbug, and they would have arrived, eventually, anyway. Sustainable design is an increasingly normal part of life, though not in the radical ways described by Sterling at the end of the 20th century. New, more mainstream-friendly design movements for sustainability have emerged such as the one I helped launch with the Norwegian government’s Center for Design and Architecture, organized around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. (It’s called the Oslo Manifesto.)

In 2008, Sterling himself seemed to sense that the Viridian moment was over and abdicated from his self-appointed overlord position,  four years ahead of the movement’s scheduled “Expiration Date.” Having an expiration date was itself a Viridian idea; but the zeitgeist was also changing. Al Gore and the IPCC had won the Nobel Peace Prize, which reduced the need for specialized awareness-raising on climate change. The economic meltdown now called the “Financial Crisis” was hitting its peak, which reduced interest in flashy new design ideas for a time. Sterling had just published a thoughtful book on design, called “Shaping Things,” that he considered “very Viridian without coughing up that fact in a hairball.” (Sterling, who is from Texas, has both a large personality and a penchant for colorful metaphors.)

Meanwhile, both the ideas and many of the people from the Viridian list had been absorbed into a then-new thing, called a “blog”, that went by the name of Worldchanging and promoted the alternative phrase “bright green.” (I was part of that, too.)

So in his final “Viridian Note” — the epistles that Pope-Emperor Sterling had been regularly sending out to the masses for nearly a decade — he gracefully admitted that “the world has become a very different place,” and that the growing calls for change in finance and politics went a bit beyond the design focus of Viridian. But his parting words were still a broadside against traditional green thinking or the notion that we should just consume less, an approach that he disparagingly called “hairshirt-green” (after the very uncomfortable goat-hair garments that Christian penitents and ascetics used to wear).

“Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism. Like the New Age mystic echo of Judaeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn’t do or say anything conceptually novel — nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.”

Sterling challenged his readers, in a more open-ended, less green-authoritarian way, to simply “re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.” You spend a lot of time with your stuff, and it takes up space. So acquire quality. Ditch what you don’t need and don’t use. This was ultimately far more important, opined the author of the Viridian Manifesto, than whether the object in question was “green.”

From this future vantage point, I can see the “streams of probability” that Viridian touched, as it tried to create a certain quirky vision. It lifted the topic of green design out of the environmental muck and into flashy, digitized lights of Silicon Valley. It was a brilliant act of conceptual art, the impacts of which are impossible to measure. I know it affected a certain moment in my life, inspired certain of my actions, and that it did that for hundreds of other people, who then went on to affect (or infect) other people, with the idea of making “green” more attractive, cool, and relevant. It probably “accelerated the inevitable.”

But the boldness of Sterling’s vision — his willingness to just write a manifesto and launch a movement, armed with nothing but an email account and some name recognition — inspires me still today. I doubt, for example, that we would have thought up the Oslo Manifesto in 2016 if my Viridian memories hadn’t been lurking, quite unconsciously, in the background of my mind.

So hats off to Viridian! It may have expired — but like true design classics, it never actually went out of style.

Book: The World in Six Songs (Levitin)

Image resultNote that this was drafted in 2009, when this site was first created. The style of working for this book has changed since then.

Daniel J. Levitin’s book The World in Six Songs scratches an intellectual itch that I didn’t know I had.  As a singer and songwriter who also works on sustainable development theory, practice, policy, data, etc., I resonate strongly with his combination pop music producer and neuroscience.  I’m only 25 pages into the book, but it is compulsive reading for me, as it opens up one of several new topics in this research that have only occurred to me since starting this blog — in this case, the role of the arts, poetry, music generally in framing our capacity to envision the future.

Levitin writes about six kinds of songs — friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, love.  I wonder if I will agree with him, by the time I’ve finished reading, that these categories are comprehensive?  Where do songs of longing, hope, and wonder fit in, for example?  I just wrote one of those recently (called “Set the World Right Again”) and can’t imagine that fitting easily into one of those six categories.

On the other hand, I write a lot of “knowledge” songs, that is, songs that try to make ideas more memorable.  These have fallen out of fashion in the modern world, says Levitin; we have only the ABC’s and number songs and the like to remind us of how central such songs were in earlier eras.  So perhaps my own “Exponential Growth,” or the new little ditty on the weird economics of discounting the present value of natural resources (“Damn the Discount Rate”), are actually old-fashioned.

Levitin’s central thesis appears to be that music and poetry — and their union in song — is at the very heart of human cultural and even recent biological (in the case of the brain) evolution.  Not, “I think therefore I am,” but “I create, therefore I am human“.  An interesting thesis, easy to accept if one is of a creative temperament.  And a great starting point for the question:  to what extent is our ability to imagine and create better futures dependent on our capacity to create, for example, songs as well?