Utopian vs. Dystopian Futures

July 19 2008 / by John Heylin / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Social Issues   Year: General   Rating: 16 Hot

In the field of futures studies, expectations on what the next century holds for us range anywhere from the fantastical to the downright depressing. Some would say having a negative outlook on the future hinders the science of actually progressing towards a better future. Others contend that expecting the incredible will lead to irreparable technological mistakes.

Utopians might argue that if you see the future as doomed, then every decision you make will be influenced by that negative outlook. A perfect example is the pleadings of many scientists and environmentalists for the media to stop portraying global warming as inevitable. Their fear is that if people feel that global warming can’t be stopped, then why care about pollution? Why try and bail out a sinking ship if it’s guaranteed to go down?

On the other side, having a positive outlook on the future also heavily impacts your choices. Utopianism is by far more uplifting (for obvious reasons), but there is harm in it as well. If you have the expectation that humans will invent a cold fusion reactor in the next decade, maybe you’re less likely to conserve energy. Or maybe you’re not concerned about the impact of smoking cigarettes because thirty years from now, you assume there will be a cure for cancer.

In the utopian corner of futures study we find a world where “biotech and nanotech advances eliminated disease and aging,” according to Dick Pelletier of www.positivefuturist.com. In his vision of the future, every human on Earth is not only free of illness, but also lives in an “ageless body powered by enhanced neurons.” This fantastical view he sees as not only entirely possible, but so easily attainable that he estimates all this will be achieved by the year 2030. Raymond Kurzweil, famous futurist and holder of 15 honorary doctorates, calculates that our rate of progress is doubling every decade. Pelletier, although holding seemingly fictional beliefs, might not be too far off the mark. (cont.)

On the other hand, we have movies like Soylent Green, depicting a world where overpopulation, global warming and severe pollution have decimated the United States. The movie stars Charlton Heston as a NY city police detective investigating the death of a rich businessman. In the end (cover your eyes if you haven’t seen the movie), immortalized by the famous line “Soylent Green is people!” Heston discovers that Soylent Green, a food-ration handed out by the government, is made from human corpses. This astounding story was set to take place in the year 2022. Although seemingly unrealistic, it hints at real fears people have about overpopulation and food scarcity.

In reality, a combined negative and positive view is what most futurists adhere to. Jamais Cascio, a popular futures blogger at www.openthefuture.com, believes having just one view is a faulty way of thinking about the future. “Dystopianism and utopianism are poor filters for understanding what’s coming down the road,” he explains. If you adhere to these extreme views, “good things get ignored by dystopians, [while] complexities get ignored by utopians.” So in other words, if one has an extremely negative or positive view of the future, chances are their view is flawed.

John Smart of the Acceleration Studies Foundation also believes that what you deem as progress also depends on what your vision of the future holds. “Whether expected change is dystopian or utopian depends on your foresight framework.” So even though a city maintained and run by robots is for many a utopian view, the lower class that makes up most of our physical workforce would see this as a final coup de grace.

The most likely possibility is that the future will be an average of everyone’s combined views. A perfect example of this would be the famous 1906 ox-guessing experiment done by Sir Francis Galton. Although none of the participants in this experiment could guess the correct weight of the ox, the average of all the guesses was only a pound off. In a way, we’re all individually wrong about the future, but together we’re all right.

In the end there is but one conclusion – in order to properly think about the future, one must have a balance of both the utopian view as well as a dystopian view to get the best picture. There will always be utopians like Dick Pelletier who hold hopes that by 2040 we will all be living in a perfect world, free of disease and even death. Similarly, there will always be people like Alan Moore of Watchmen fame who belong at the opposite end of the spectrum. Is this a bad thing? I think not. In the words of Alvis Brigis in his article titled Positive vs. Negative Futures, “Whether you find yourself on the dark or bright side of futurism, what matters most is that you bring your A-game.”

Note: Those interested in this topic might want to attend the NYC Future Salon concerning these same themes.

What do you see as the future?

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Comment Thread (5 Responses)

  1. Nice piece John. You presented both sides well (though you seem to usually come down on the Dystopian side of the ledger). The most important thing is for folks to keep an open mind regardless of predisposition and stay away from the ad hominem attacks that don’t serve to advance the debate. I guess the one thing that most of us can agree on is that we’re in for quite a ride in the not too distant future.

    Posted by: Jeff Hilford   July 18, 2008
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  2. I agree that the future is likely not quite as utopian as the most optimistic case, but it’s also likely to be close enough since our social and political structures (those darned complexities) will have less time to respond, e.g. luddite backlashes. We will even have the ability to rapidly counter existential risks, since in a fast knowledge economy, the knowledge agents (scientists, engineers) have a great advantage over those whose minds are still stuck in the dark ages.

    So I disagree that the future will be a balance between utopia and dystopia. We seem to have a morbid negativity built into our brains, maybe it’s a survival feature (i.e. we plan for the worst). I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but people have been predicting dystopia for decades, even centuries. We’re always “on the verge of destroying ourselves”, but the future of reality is seldom as bad as the future of our fears. Most past predictions of mass starvation, nuclear annihilation etc never came to pass. We already have the ability to wipe oursleves out, many many times over, but for some reason we haven’t.

    In fact inter-national conflicts have decreased and mnay countries have democratised over the last fifteen years. Stephen Pinker makes a great case for violent death having greatly reduced (as a percentage of our population, which massively increased). To match earlier centuries, 2 billion people would have to have died in the two world wars.

    Could it be (heaven forbid that I should claim this) that things are, generally speaking and on balance, actually improving? I realise it’s not politically correct or popular to say that but it has no influence on its truth or otherwise.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   July 19, 2008
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  3. Thank you for the post…..I so often am stuck in my ‘black&white’ mindset that I forget about the possibilities. Wonderful food for thought! Karin in Dungeness

    Posted by: dungenesscrab   July 19, 2008
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  4. Jheylin, I enjoyed reading your very well-written post.

    However, I believe that too much importance has been given describing whether the future is utopian or dystopian. Why can’t the future just be described as the future?

    Take for instance how information technologies will affect our tomorrow life. A number of companies are now working on video cameras integrated into clothing or eye-ware that can record a 24/7 video stream from the wearer’s perspective. They predict that an entire lifetime of such recordings will be able to fit into a small device within 10 years.

    When this technology is combined with GPS and computer vision software and cross-referenced with our contact lists and email, a complete digital record can be created to supplement our memories. Imagine being able to search for and review anything experienced during your digitally-enhanced life.

    The building blocks are already in place to make this future unfold with companies like Google, Flickr, and others allowing daily activities to be recorded.

    The sum of these innovations will gradually change the way we define ourselves. Our consciousness becomes the central processing unit of a complex system, with external storage and sensor facilities spread around the world and to friends. As human-computer interfaces improve, our sense of self will evolve to include our digital memories as well as those of others.

    And thanks to globalization, this sharing of knowledge and experience will be available to everyone worldwide.

    Whether these information technologies are described as utopian or dystopian, this will still become our future. Some people will love it; others may become frustrated; but it is still our future.

    Just a thought; comments welcome.

    Posted by: futuretalk   July 19, 2008
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  5. CaptSunbeam – I do think people have some degree of morbidity built into our structure. In college a friend of mine used to always proclaim she failed a paper (she was a 4.0 student) no matter what. Surprise, she got an A. If she had hoped for the A and got a B she probably would have jumped off the nearest cliff. So yes, I can see that.

    futuretalk – I agree, the future is in fact ‘the future,’ but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. For every electronic device that makes my life easier, what happens when it stops working? I guess for my perspective it all comes down to survival when the worst happens. If everything shuts down tomorrow (Katrina?), then what are you going to do? People that live in third world countries are better prepared to face a catastrophe than us – we’d walk to Safeway and wonder why it’s closed. I guess all I’m saying is that although technology is fun, there is a dark side to some people. ;)

    Posted by: John Heylin   July 21, 2008
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