Why Utopia Fails

Nature ahbors a vaccum, the soul abhors stasis.

I recently read Holden Karnoffsky on the problems with utopias. They’re uncool and dystopias has been far more popular to write and consume for quite some time. Why? Karnoffsky describes his struggle with finding much or even any scholarly interest or enthusiasm for the topic.  It just seems hard to make utopias compelling? Karnoffsky gives these as the main problems:

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).

Another reason is that utopias must have a way of resolving disputes, and these tend to be a sort of soft but omnipresent social pressure that easily comes off as creepy and oppressive.

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.

Because of this, supposed utopias collapse into dystopias as soon as a single word hits a little ominously, which is more likely to happen the more specific you get. People tend to like utopias more the more abstract and general they are.

This by itself sounds like enough explanation as to why it’s hard to make them compelling: either it’s too specific to appeal to all people, because people are different (and no society that values harmony too highly is going to appeal to nonconformists) or it’s so vague as to be meaningless.

I did feel one angle was missing. I think Karnoffsky’s description is incomplete without pointing out that utopias tend to be static. It’s almost part of the definition: “what’s it like when everything important has already been achieved” is the genre. All we do in utopias is sit around and enjoy ourselves, which eventually starts to feel meaningless. Personal growth, sure, but there’s no sense that it ever leads to something of genuine consequence.

I don’t think utopias are dull because of lack of conflict per se, but because of what tends to lead to conflict: agency and stakes.

Heaven — the OG utopia — is less enticing than it used to be for the same reason. When life is, for most of us in the developed world, mostly free from the constant pain of hunger, disease, violence, oppression and toil that characterized the vast majority of the history of civilization, then the mere promise of “the constant in-your-face horribleness will stop and you can rest, safely” isn’t enough to satisfy.

Things being good isn’t enough

Belief in utopia, like thinking that just getting that promotion or buying that car/house/whatever is going to make us happy forever, comes from a mistaken model of our own psychology. We’re not happy when things have become good, we’re happy when they’re becoming better, and especially when we’re actively and effectively making them better ourselves. This is illustrated by the way our dopamine system works — levels spike when we’re approaching and achieving a goal, and plummets afterwards, because it’s been depleted, and we need to achieve again to eat tomorrow, and the next day. Lasting improvement means a higher baseline and need for another lasting improvement, tomorrow and the next day. We’re not wired to be happy unless we’re making progress, again and again, towards greater heights.

It’s already happened with a lot if small things. When it comes to entertainment I’m thinking of the time and effort I put into recording from television onto tapes and downloading from filesharing networks in years past. Entertainment-wise I’m unimaginably wealthier today compared to just 20 years ago. I don’t appreciate it enough, and my children haven’t got a chance..

“Sure dad, when you were a kid you had to wait for Saturday morning to watch an hour of cartoons” says my daughter and puts her finger on “next episode” on the Netflix app, automagically connected to the 50-inch screen in our living room. She will always be incapable of comprehending the excitement I felt when mom decided to buy a VCR. Nor will I understand how much my mother looked forward to getting to share one bottle of soft drink with her sister on Sundays.

There’s no clear way around this hedonic treadmill. The only two ways are dropping out into self-imposed asceticism, or keep going faster and faster.

Cancer getting cured all the time

Karnoffsky has an idea for the “most conservative utopia”: an idea for a society that’s as close to ours as possible while being unambiguously better. He suggests “everything is the same except cancer doesn’t exist”. It’s a good one because if we could beat cancer once and for all it would be a tremendous achievement, improving the lives of countless people. But of course within a generation or two most wouldn’t even know what cancer was and just take the cancer-free reality for granted. They wouldn’t think of themselves as living in a utopia any more than we do. Repeat for an arbitrary number of such improvements.

This is the central problem of utopia: we don’t need cancer to be cured, we need cancer to get cured, forever, and preferably we want similar achievements rescaled to our personal lives: we don’t want a promotion, we want to be promoted constantly.

If you’ll pardon me getting nerdy: motivation isn’t set up to reach a global goal state, it’s set up to do gradient descent forever, and feel happy when we know where we’re going and moving at a decent rate. It’s just that it didn’t evolve in an environment where we were anywhere near as powerful as we are now. There was never any risk of us actually getting there.

I think that for many well-off people and societies the gradient is getting weaker and less coherent, and thus harder to find and to descend, which leads to malaise and lethargy. Today’s rich societies are far, far better than they used to be, in most tangible ways (intangibles are less clear). They’re also far more complex and interconnected, and as a result of both, it’s become a lot harder to find ways to make things better without making anything else worse, or without running up against dense rules and systems designed to prevent anything getting worse.

The final frontier

There’s a ~solution that I suspect is buried deep into out hindbrains: expansion. Exploration. New virgin lands. We struggle with moving forward metaphorically because there’s no longer any space for us to do so literally. The Earth has been explored and spoken for. Military conquest and colonization is no longer morally acceptable. There’s nowhere to go, and where we are is bogged with all kinds of limitations, entrenched interests, crowdedness, cruft and complexity.

We feel suffocated and claustrophobic as a civilisation because there’s no space. Except of course, in actual space.

Karnoffsky points out that some utopias do work better than others:

The utopian visions that I perceive as most successful today are probably Star Trek and Iain M. Banks’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.

Star Trek works as a utopia because it avoids the static homefront where all problems have been solved. How its wondrous civilisation actually works among regular people not serving on starships at the frontier isn’t much elaborated on, for good reason. It’s just there as a background against which the genuinely meaningful stuff can play out, namely expansion. We don’t get to see the already-achieved perfection on Earth, what we do get to see is the achievement of even further progress, exploring the universe.

Space, the final frontier… to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life, and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Those are iconic words, and well deserved. Star Trek‘s utopia is the only one with a chance of working. The cosmos, unlike the Earth, is large enough: we’ll have direction (“outwards”), we’ll make meaningful progress, forever.

Utopia is (literally) self-contradictory

That takes care of eternal progress, but it’s not obvious to what extent need for agency and stakes can be satisfied. Achievements must be important enough to matter, but not so important that failure means we’re not actually in utopia. Is success in what is effectively meaningless games really satisfying?

Meaningful success necessitates the possibility of meaningful failure. For that to be true some must in fact fail. And, troublesome as it may be, part of achievement and psychological well-being is moving up in social status compared to others. In other words, not everyone can win, in the true sense of “win”, and maybe the big black pill is that not everyone can be fulfilled and happy at the same time. Not everyone can feel like a success. There are positive-sum and zero-sum  components to personal flourishing, and while I’m all for growing that positive-sum component as much as is humanly possible, I don’t think that zero-sum part can be eliminated altogether. Hence, no perfection, and no utopia.

Maybe this is in fact the same problem Karnoffsky describes in the beginning: “forced into conformity while pretending that we’re freely and enthusiastically doing what we please”. Utopia demands that we can do as we please, but us doing as we please affects others, directly and indirectly. If utopia also demands that no one gets hurt, no one fails, no one is defeated, frustrated, or loses anything they want, and no one succeeds enough to make others look bad by comparison, then we cannot “do as we please”.

Our best shot at utopia would have to be based around expansion into new virgin territory, literally and metaphorically. It would allow people to choose their level of struggle, danger, competition, and agency. It would need to have many different axes of social status to allow as many as possible to climb near the top of any one of them.

…and it would have to be described without much more detail than that.

Utopias fail because they try to give us what we want and what we want is contradictory. We want the possibility of failure but we don’t want anyone to fail, we want winners but no losers, and we want agency but we don’t want to be the targets of the agency of others.

7 thoughts on “Why Utopia Fails

  1. If you’re interested in this, I strongly recommend the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, most of whose work is utopia-influenced and arguably utopian. His most out-and-out utopia is PACIFIC EDGE (described as the third book in the Three Californias trilogy, but an utterly independent story (with only one minor overlapping character) that can be read on its own), which tackles these literary issues head-on and, I would argue, solves them brilliantly (in ways it’s almost impossible to discuss without spoilers).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The cosmos, unlike the Earth, is large enough: we’ll have direction (“outwards”), we’ll make meaningful progress, forever.

    // I think start trek works because there are many alien civilizations who are either unaware of galactic civs or not aligned with human ideals. I dont think the exploration motivation would work for cold dead planets. the challenge is too big to overcome for all except few.

    the only utopia I could think of is living in the matrix somehow. free from physical world and populated with AI.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t see that as a utopia and I think many agree with me on that (and I think it’s fair to say that Star Trek doesn’t either). Expansion could work without other civilizations I think, as it would allow people to settle other planets and thereby choose their level of challenge/freedom.


  3. They’re also far more complex and interconnected, and as a result of both, it’s become a lot harder to find ways to make things better without making anything else worse, or without running up against dense rules and systems designed to prevent anything getting worse.

    Speaking of that, by complete coincidence the next day https://thezvi.wordpress.com/2022/09/25/announcing-balsa-research/ was published and apparently had an effect like the full moon on the comment section.

    Performance envelopes. Effectively infinite metaphorical virgin territory. Conquer/discover/invent just a little bit of that space, and praise and/or money await. Infinite (or at least undefinable) even in number, given the variety of things — from mousetraps to high-temperature alloys (to make more efficient gas turbines) — and the traits by which to describe each kind of thing.


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