Maybe Utopia is Terrifying
I wonder if some small part of the reason people are loath to deal with the essential issues of the day — climate breakdown, poverty, extreme inequality, unchecked capitalism — is more than just the front-loaded effort of setting up and embracing transformational policies and systems like universal healthcare, unconditional basic income, blockchain applications, space exploration, nanotechnology, the shift to renewable energy, automation, etc. Much like putting up shelves in a new apartment is a good deal of work up front that makes living in one’s space quantifiably much easier down the road, these major societal shifts would pay off far more than the initial sweat equity they’d require. I think we have the drive to overcome that inherent procrastination, and we already see this work being done by society’s entrepreneurs and activists every day as much of the greater society claws to hold onto the recognizable past and present ways of doing things. I don’t think human laziness or even fear of change are the only hurdles to stepping headlong into the future.
I wonder if it’s also a deep-seated, unsettling, and largely subconscious fear of the dwindling of human purpose. If you read enough futurist stuff about AI, automation, the nature of work, the potential to extend our lives and defeat disease and aging, and on and on, and if you really think those ideas through, it’s easy to wonder “What the hell am I going to do with myself every day for the rest of my eternal Utopian damnation?”
Where would we find purpose if we were not only immortal but also effectively rendered useless? What’s left to do after we figure out our problems? If machines can do all the labor, if I literally have all the time in the world to decide to accomplish anything with my life, and if there’s no direct consequence to continuing an existence as a humanoid slug, how the hell will I summon the will to get out of bed in the morning?
It’s kind of terrifying, really, a sort of anti-existential dread in which the fear is not of dying or catastrophe, but rather of existence itself, of a purgatorial state of neither living nor dying, of having no calamity to struggle against at all. I have hope that we’ll figure it out, and that we’ll find and cultivate new beauties, joys, causes, and motivations in this weird future, a hundred or a thousand years from now, that we can’t imagine from this side of the looking glass.
Then again, maybe not! Maybe in reaching heaven we will have accidentally created hell on Earth for ourselves. Man, wouldn’t that be a kick in the groin?
In any case, the solution cannot be to hold ourselves back, to dampen progress, to actively and intentionally sabotage our futures. It can’t be to ignore the climate, bury our heads in temporary capitalist profits, escalate war, further divide into partisan bickering, and try to legislate against things like automation, gene therapy, and further equality. It can’t be to choose immediate and defined suffering for fear of a long term and undefinable spiritual malaise. I can’t believe that’s a worthwhile path.
If there were, today, an immediate solution to achieving world peace, I would wager that a large number of people in my beloved United States would vote against it for fear that our economy would topple. “Think of all the military out of jobs! What about all of the employees for Raytheon and Lockheed! How will they make a living?”
Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but it seems no different in principle to me than the way we’re currently thinking about many of our problems.
We need to face the future boldly, follow through with progress, and deal with what comes as best we can. We need to think like engineers, not ideologues. Forget our current paradigms of conservatism, neoliberalism, paternalism, tribalism, nationalism, and the petty philosophies of fear and scarcity. What we need is radical, transformational, progressive humanism, the kind that acknowledges the potential for abundance, embraces bold change, and holds human rights paramount.
So what are we stalling for? What the hell are we clinging to? Let’s get on with it! Now is the generation, the decade, the year, and the second.
Don’t worry. If we ever do find ourselves in some kind of hellishly boring paradise, we can always reintroduce oligarchy, disease, climate destruction, rampant consumerism, guns, and other such unnecessary obstacles again at that time.
Want to read more? Here’s a handy list of links to all my Medium pieces on basic income.