Heaven (not) on Earth
Will we ever get to utopia? We’ve been drawing the map since we first put pen to paper, but the moment we like the look of our sketch, we scrunch up the paper and toss it in the trash.
To get to utopia, we need to stop asking “are we there yet?”, and accept what’s already in front of us.
Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache.
Orwell has hit the bullseye. Like a bad Hollywood franchise, utopists keep rebooting instead of continuing. It’s not their fault; the entire purpose of utopia is to mend the broken... but mending the broken is what forces utopias into obsolescence.
The utopian recipe is to trumpet a radical idea, to lock horns with hegemons, and to reorder hierarchies (Brossard 2019). Each of these acts is regrettably, but necessarily, static; utopias must be restricted by context because they are a result of context, of utopian niches (Brossard 2019, 436–38). The radical idea dissipates to no more than a point on an already-unfolding political trajectory. The hegemons fade, morph, and grow until they are no longer the opponent you picked a fight with. The hierarchies are only reordered from the author’s perspective. I’m sure Plato was thrilled with philosophers being kings, likewise More with being put out of a job, but what about everyone else?
Context restricted the utopias of old to a particular period of fashionability: after that, they became passe and a new one was ordered; utopias are thus forever kept just out of reach. Plasticity, then, is the utopia’s ally and our utopian hope. Plasticity will keep these great utopian monuments from being covered in pigeon sh*t.
The human problem
The Modern Utopia must be not static but kinetic, must shape not as a permanent state but as a hopeful stage, leading to a long ascent of stages.
(Wells 2004, 16)
H.G. Wells recognised the durability of a plastic utopia. He knew that you could never find ‘a balance of happiness won for ever’ (Wells 2004, 16). Needs and desires evolve; the definition of perfection evolves likewise. Wells then proceeded to pen some 400 pages doing the exact opposite. Barely a paragraph after decrying Morris for making ‘the whole race wise, tolerant, noble’ (Wells 2004, 18), he mentions that, in his modern utopia, he’ll ‘permit [himself] a free hand with the mental conflict of life’ (Wells 2004, 20). Orwell slammed Wells for persisting in that naivety when Wells later insisted Hitler was somehow destined to fail, the goodness of men somehow destined to prevail, and the war would somehow peter out without further bloodshed.
Before you can even talk of world reconstruction, or even of peace, you have got to eliminate Hitler, which means bringing into being a dynamic not necessarily the same as that of the Nazis, but probably quite as unacceptable to ‘enlightened’ and hedonistic people.
What emerges from Orwell’s words is a cruel paradox. Utopia cannot come into being without enforcing a common philosophy. Paradise must be born in blood. And it can only persist with bloodshed. Our innate individuality will always birth conflict, and we must either allow conflict, or quash it. Neither option is particularly utopian, and all the plasticity in the world can’t save us from that.
Untangling the web
... but perhaps it can. Until the late 20th century, humanity had never actually beheld true plasticity. The wet blanket of our corporeal reality and the certainty of scarcity kept plasticity out of our reach. But the chirping modems of the 90s threw off the blanket. They made a new world that was entirely plastic.
Cyberspace is our utopia. Cyberspace offers the limitless potential to sate the ever-evolving tastes of humanity. Whether mansions or huts are trendy, you can have one—everyone can have one; 50-acre mansions only sip a few more cents in electricity than a riverside hut. And in its limitless potential, cyberspace paradoxically does limit the wrath we can inflict upon one another. Even if you had reason to kill someone, you couldn’t; virtual forms don’t play by physical rules.
Virtual forms, in fact, can be anything. This fact alone could dismantle much of what creates conflict. Our physicality: sex, race, and so on, are the basis of much conflict that isn’t materially based. Virtual forms needn’t take human silhouettes, so our cyberutopia needn’t see the conflicts of physicality.
We also know that eternal happiness is an oxymoron. From A Christmas Carol to The Good Place, we’ve long known that happiness is the absence of sadness (Orwell 1943). If absence makes the heart grow fonder, presence makes happiness grow weaker. Even utopia needs breaks. Lucky for us, the portal to cyberspace is as omnipresent as the devices it runs on. Perhaps more interestingly, the exit is omnipresent, too; when utopia begins to bore you, as paradise can tend to do, you can leave. And you can come back, too. Maybe even to a different utopia, whose inhabitants’ attitudes and philosophy are more in line with how you’re feeling today.1
Cyberspace offers everything we’ve been looking for.
Right under your nose
So, utopia is already here. Perhaps a little underdressed until our technology can fully immerse us into cyberspace, but here nonetheless. Our plastic paradise has finally come. Utopian texts, of course, will never die. Nor should they. The political purposes they serve are too important; they’ll likely even shape what we implement as paradise in cyberspace. But the worlds they dream of, and that we’ve dreamed of, are already right under our noses.
We must be cautiously optimistic in this space, though. The capitalist digerati of our time have warped cyberspace into another space for subjugation to surveillance, control, and value extraction. The ideas described here are drawn from the emerging federated web: a collection of services mimicking traditional social media, but maintained by individuals with their own hardware, and a technologically-enforced democracy among those individuals.2 That is where our utopia will come from, and we must tread carefully to avoid ensnarement in the same capitalist traps that litter our physical world.
Brossard, Baptiste. 2019. “Elements for a Theory of Utopia Production.” Utopian Studies 30 (3): 422–43. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/utopianstudies.30.3.0422.
Orwell, George. 1941. “Wells, Hitler, and the World State.” Horizon.
Wells, Herbert George. 2004. A Modern Utopia. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg.
Incidentally, this is the mobile utopia Wells fawned over.↩
The technology behind this is outside the scope of this article. For more information, see the Fediverse website. A very accessible article on the topic is also available at New Atlas.↩