One of the things that most strikes me when thinking on the subject of our contemporary discourse regarding the future is just how seldom those engaged in the discussion aim at giving us a vision of society as a whole. There are books that dig deep but remain narrow such as Eric Topol’s: The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care, and George Church’s recent Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. Many of these books are excellent, but one walks away from reading them with a good idea of where a particular field or part of our lives might be headed rather than society as a whole.
Even when authors try to extend the reach of speculation out more broadly they tend to approach things from certain lens that ends up constraining them. Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect tries to apply the idea of peer-networks to areas as diverse as politics, education, economics and the arts while Peter Diamandis, and Steven Kotler in Abundance appear to project the mindset and passions of Silicon Valley: exponential growth in computers, the D.I.Y movement, billionaire philanthropy, and the spread of the benefits of technology to the world’s poorest, into a future where human potential can finally be met. However good these broader approaches are they seldom leave you with an idea of how all the necessary parts of the future societies they hint at and depict fit together let alone what it might be like to actually live within them.
What seems to be missing in many works on the future is the sense of a traveler’s perspective on worlds they depict. The interesting thing about being a traveler is that you both experience the society you are traveling in as an individual and are at the same time outside of it, able to take a bird’s eye view that allows you to see connections and get a sense for how the whole things fits together like an artful building designed by an architect.
We used to have a whole genre devoted to this architectonic way of looking at the future, the literature of utopia. Writing utopias may seem very different from envisioning positive versions of the future, but perhaps not as much as we might think. Like futurists, many utopian writers tried to extrapolate from technological trends. Way back in 1833, John Adolphus Etzler, wrote a utopia The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, that bears remarkable similarity to the arguments of Diamandis and Kotler though the technology that was thought would finally end human want was nascent industrial era machines, and Etzler embedded his argument in a narrative that gave the reader an idea of what living in such a society should look like. More famous example of such extrapolations are Edward Bellamy’ s Looking Backward, 1887 or the incomparable H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, 1905.
One might object that futurism is a predictive endeavor whereas utopianism tries to prescribe what would be best and therefore what we should do. Again, I am not quite sure this distinction holds, for much of futurists writing is as much arguments about potential and are meant to coax us into some possible future, or as Diamandis and Kotler put it in Abundance: “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.” (239). Utopianism is at least transparent in the fact that it is being prescriptive as opposed to futurism which often tries to come across as tomorrow’s news.
I am not quite sure who we could blame for this state of affairs, but surely Friedrich Engels of the duo Marx and Engels would bear part of the responsibility. Back in 1880 Engels in his essay Socialism: Utopian and Scientific made the case that Marxism as opposed to the utopianism such found in figures such as Robert Owen was “scientific” in that it was based upon an understanding of the future as determined. Marxists in this view weren’t trying to influence the course of history they were just responding to and playing a role in underlying forces that would unfold to an inevitable conclusion anyway. Whether he wanted to or not, Engels had removed human agency when it came to the issue of deciding what the human future would look like, or rather he drove such agency into the shadows, unacknowledged and occult.
One might ask, what about futurism that is focused not on good scenarios at least from the author’s point of view, but bad outcomes- predictions of disaster and explorations of risk? Even here, I think, futurists are trying to shape the future as much as predict it like a fortune teller. It’s a sadistic prophet indeed who merely tells you your society will be destroyed without giving you someway to avoid that fate. Futurism that focuses on negative futures are largely warnings that we need to take steps to prevent something terrible from happening or at the very least prepare.
We can find utopian literature in this world of negative futures too or at least the doppelganger of utopia- the realm of dystopia. Indeed, dystopian literature has provided us with some of the best early warning systems we have ever had such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We which warned us about Soviet totalitarianism, Jack London’s The Iron Heel which provided us with a premonition of fascism or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which has proved a better reflection of the future with its depiction of the dystopia of consumer society than George Orwell’s 1984.
The one place where compelling architectonic versions of the future continue to be found is in science-fiction. Writers of science-fiction continue to play this social role, and often do so with brilliance as this praise for Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel 2312 attests. This teasing out and wrestling with both the positive and negative possible worlds we might arrive at given our current course or with some changes in our trajectory lend evidence to the observation that science-fiction whose surface often seems so silly is in fact the most socially and philosophically serious form of fiction we have.
Yet there are differences between science-fiction and utopian literature not the least of which is utopia’s demand to convey an architectonic vision of possible worlds. The desire in utopias to get every detail right down to how people dress and what they eat make utopian literature some of the worst we have because it takes away from the development of characters. In a utopia the normal way fiction is organized is inverted: the world portrayed is the real character whereas the protagonists and others are the mere backdrops for this world.
Unlike much of science-fiction, the focus of utopia is more on social organization than science and technology although even in one of the earliest and the most famous utopia- Plato’s Republic- science and technology play a role, just not in a form we would readily recognize. Plato based his work on some of the most advanced applied-sciences of his day: pedagogy, dialectical philosophy, geometry, musicology, medicine/athletics, and animal husbandry. Yet these sciences and technologies were not the driver of his utopia. They were the building blocks he used to create a certain form of social organization.
In the sense that they were often seen as proposing a blueprint for the human world utopian literature was often serious in a way science-fiction need not be. Etzler did not merely write a utopia he tried to build one in Venezuela based upon his ideas. Edward Bellamy is a mere footnote in American literature compared to the geniuses who shared the stage with him during his era: Herman Melville, Henry James or Mark Twain. Yet, Bellamy’s work was considered serious enough that it inspired clubs to debate his ideas regarding the future of industrialism all throughout the United States and influenced real revolutionaries such as V.I. Lenin. Would any serious social thinker today dare to write a version of the future in the form of a utopia?
Perhaps what we need today is less a revival of utopia as a literary form- something it was never very good at- than a new way to imagine architectonic possible futures. Given the fact that we are a long way off from the day when a person like H.G. Wells could conjure up a vision of utopia sure in the belief that he had some working knowledge of everything under the sun this new form of utopia would need to be collaborative rather than springing from the mind of just one individual.
I can imagine gathering together a constellation of individuals from across different disciplines in a room: scientists, engineers, artists, fiction writers, philosophers, economists, social scientists etc and asking them to design together the “perfect” city. They would ask and answer questions such how their imagined city provides for its basic needs, how it is layed out, how it fits into the surrounding ecosystem, how its economy works, how its educational system functions, its penal system. Above all it would attempt to create a society whose pieces fit together in an architectonic whole. Unlike past utopian literature, such exercises wouldn’t present themselves as somehow final and perfected, but merely provide us with glimpse of destinations to which we might go.