Our Common Task
A guide to
reclaiming a humanist future.
“Bathed in light, the world remains our first and last love.” —Albert Camus
Anyone writing seriously about utopia in the fall of 2020 will seem—to be charitable—a little disconnected from reality.
The American West is burning. The Arctic is melting. Populism and authoritarianism are on the rise. Nearly a million people have died from the coronavirus. Economic inequality continues to grow, only accelerated by the pandemic.
If there’s anything like a road to utopia—if we can even begin to entertain such an idea—we don’t seem to be on it. The belief that society’s problems can be solved seems ridiculous when each day brings fresh horrors. Our collective failure to make so much as a dent on climate change, the cancerous spread of polarizing misinformation with its fracturing of society, and the irretrievable damage we are inflicting on the biosphere, only deepen a sense that the best we can hope for now is adaptation and survival in an environment increasingly hostile (physically, psychologically, spiritually) to the individual.
But hope, as “Mad” Max Rockatansky reminds us from the other side of collapse, is a mistake, and despair paralyzes. What we need are viable alternatives. Alternatives that go beyond bolt-on fixes to broken systems. Alternatives we can imagine living—and thriving—in. And most importantly, alternatives we can look for in our present and in our past, not in some idealized future.
Utopia is in the air again, though few dare call it by that name. Ideas that would be dismissed just a few short years ago as “utopian”—a word that has been cut down to pejorative status—are entering into the mainstream. Political programs like the Green New Deal promise solutions that could spare us from the worst effects of climate change while stimulating the economy. Universal Basic Income and its brethren suggest how we might mend broken social safety nets and ease economic inequality. But what we lack, and urgently need, is a vision of the world we want to bring into being. That’s all utopianism is: the audacity to imagine the world we want, and then living as though that world were possible.
Metals become malleable when subjected to heat. In higher temperatures, they melt, making it possible to cast existing forms into new shapes. Common Task is premised on a belief that under certain conditions, the malleability of our society also increases. The coming decade, more than any other in recent memory, will be turbulent and heated. In the words of Arundhati Roy: “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” —Carl Sagan
A guide to utopia has to start with a foundation of all the concepts feeding into it: ourselves, nature, technology, society, and the other Big Things. It’s easier to go on a journey together if we all leave from the same place.
“I am neither a liberal nor a conservative…. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom.” —Anton Chekhov
- A society consists of individuals. Only individuals suffer, experience joy, love, longing, pleasure, pain, act with intent, die. They can do so collectively, but always and only as individuals. In the end, only individuals matter.
- This is an ontological position, not a value judgement. A family or society exists only insofar as its individual members exist.
- Because of this, we should reject any ideology that stresses the primacy of a group at the expense of individuals.
- Similarly, we should reject any ideology that places a system (such as markets) above individuals.
- This should not be taken as an endorsement of individualism. Individuals do not exist in isolation. The point is simply that we should always treat individuals as ends, never as means.
- Humans are complex, emotional, self-aware animals with a degree of free will—not rational agents, logic machines, or biological algorithms.
- Humans are not the only complex, emotional, self-aware animals on this planet.
- The quickest path to dooming any human undertaking is to assume that we can become, or even reliably pretend to be, anything other than what we are—both at our best and at our worst.
“Use your head, can’t you, use your head, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” —Samuel Beckett
- The human brain is the most mysterious and versatile physical structure in the known world. We know more about how the universe came to be than how the brain works.
- The nature of the relationship between brain, mind, and consciousness is the greatest scientific question of our time.
- Though we are emotional creatures first and foremost, we are wired for reason. Using only his mind and some crude observations, Aristarchus of Samos figured out that the Earth orbits the Sun almost 2,000 years before this became accepted fact. Einstein produced four of his groundbreaking papers in one year spent hunched over a desk in a musty Bern patent office, with reason as his only instrument.
- In spite of these impressive abilities, we are extremely susceptible to biases and fallacies in our thinking—and to those who would exploit these biases.
- The either/or fallacy is one of the most pernicious of these errors, passed down to us by Aristotle. It suggests that everything must be either this, or that. Good or bad. Nature or nurture. Introvert or extrovert. Liberal or conservative. It is the binary logic of machines applied to an analog world full of semantic nuance, contradiction, and mystery. If we are, on a species-level, in trouble, it is in large part because of our inability to internalize the fact that multiple ideas which seem opposed to each other can simultaneously be true.
- This doesn’t mean that truth is relative. It isn’t. Only that out in the world, truth is more complicated than it appears to us. We simplify the world in order to function in it, but we do so at our peril.
“The map is not the territory.” —Alfred Korzybski
- Words are not reality—they represent abstractions that allow us to make sense of reality, to think and talk about it.
- This is important because it means that words do not and cannot map perfectly to reality, and that different languages—systems of words—can reflect reality in subtly different ways.
- Words matter. Words and mind are inextricably linked and together they create the feedback loop that makes reasoning possible.
- The abuse of language is a form of psychological abuse. George Orwell memorably took it to task in Politics and the English Language three quarters of a century ago, but we’ve been at it for much, much longer. What’s new is the degree to which words have saturated our lives. Social media and 24 hour news have made it impossible to escape.
- Precision and clarity are how we push back against the abuse of language. Because we use words to think, choosing them with care leads to clearer arguments and thoughts. We should always strive to practice good linguistic hygiene, and to use language in good faith—for our own sanity, if nothing else.
- Where pushing back is impossible, we must step away. Silence can be a virtue.
- The only way to have a productive discussion involving abstractions (democracy, justice, utopia) is to clearly and rigorously define them first. Often we’ll find that the discussion ends up fixating on the definitions of the words themselves. This is a good thing.
“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.” —John Gall
- We are surrounded by and enmeshed in systems.
- Thinking in terms of systems helps us to make sense of a chaotic and unpredictable world.
- Societies are systems. Culture is a system. Governments, markets, weather, language, and the biosphere are all examples of systems.
- Some complex systems are too big and too complicated to think about coherently. We can call these types of systems hyperobjects.
- Complex systems can be broken down into simpler ones for the purpose of thinking about them.
- It’s possible to understand how a system works without being able to make accurate predictions about it. But we should be wary of our tendency to believe that we understand systems which we do not.
- It’s impossible to make accurate long-term predictions about most complex systems.
- Some systems tend towards stability through self-regulation, while others are inherently unstable.
- It’s not necessary to understand how a system works before acting to change it. In fact, history is the story of humans collectively changing or dismantling systems before understanding them—often with serious consequences (like climate). But a system must be understood in order to effectively change it with a specific outcome in mind.
- It’s unproductive to approach systems dogmatically. No system is inherently good or bad. But we should evaluate systems, especially those created by humans, based on our convictions about what is desirable and undesirable.
- Most complex systems are interwoven with others and cannot be fully understood in isolation.
“The creation of rules is more creative than the destruction of them. Creation demands a higher level of reasoning and draws connections between cause and effect. The best rules are never stable or permanent, but evolve, naturally according to content or need.” —Andrea Zittel
- All systems are governed by rules. Nature provides an immutable set of rules, in the form of physics. These rules cannot be broken.
- Science is the system we use to learn about nature’s rules, and mathematics is the language we’ve evolved to describe them.
- Systems created by humans, while still beholden to nature’s rules, are governed by their own rules. These can be implicit (emerging from the system itself) or explicit (defined, agreed upon, and enforced by participants in the system). They can also be broken.
- It’s easier to break or enforce an explicit rule than an implicit one.
- Multiple sets of rules can apply to the same system. A society, for example, has implicit rules (norms, tendencies) and explicit rules (laws).
- Human-made rules can be said to have two types of effects: intended effects, and unintended—or perverse—effects. The more complex a system and the more complex a rule, the more likely it is to have unintended effects.
- A system is efficient when it is governed by the minimum amount of rules necessary for it to function as intended.
- A system does not need to be efficient to function as intended.
- A goal-oriented system with significant time and resource constraints will benefit from efficiency more than an equilibrium-oriented system without such constraints.
- Increasing the efficiency of a system can decrease both its stability and resilience. Efficiency is a strategy. It is not always the best strategy.
- All human-made systems tend towards inefficiency. Bureaucracy is one example.
“Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time.” —Ursula K. Le Guin
- Stories are our oldest method of understanding the world and ourselves. Humans are story-driven animals.
- Though we are perfectly capable of reason, we’ve shown time and time again that we are generally impervious to naked facts—especially when they contradict what we already believe. What gives stories their power is that they rely on emotion for effect.
- Emotion, in the context of storytelling, is like a Trojan Horse. Because we can’t filter emotions the way we can filter information, emotion serves as a vehicle for smuggling ideas past our rational defenses and embedding them where they will be difficult to dislodge.
- Causality is another reason stories are so powerful, making the world palatable by presenting it as a system governed by order and predictability. “This happened because that happened” is appealing when so many things seem to happen for no reason at all.
- The more a story affects us emotionally and the more it relies on simple causality, the more effective it is likely to be.
- The self is a story that we tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s a way of making sense of everything that has ever happened to us and everything we have done—an attempt to forge meaning from the chaos. Like any other story, it is structured around emotional events and relies on cause-and-effect for its power.
- It follows that if we want to change the way we think—and change the way others think—we should look to stories.
- Next to blood ties, shared stories are our most powerful means of forging communities. A religion is a story, just as a nation is a story.
- If we are to ever move beyond our tribal roots and the endless cycle of us-versus-them, we need a shared human story.
“Oh, if only it were possible to find understanding,” Joseph exclaimed. “If only there were a dogma to believe in. Everything is contradictory, everything tangential; there are no certainties anywhere. Everything can be interpreted one way and then again interpreted in the opposite sense. The whole of world history can be explained as development and progress and can also be seen as nothing but decadence and meaninglessness. Isn’t there any truth?” —Herman Hesse
- Truth is the foundation of our shared reality. It is the way things are, as far as we know—not how we want or expect them to be. Without a shared reality, a “commons” of truth, any universal human undertaking is impossible.
- Truth is a slippery fish, so we have to be rigorous with it. When we talk about truth, we’re talking about something beyond facts and raw data. Truth requires insight.
- Nobody has a monopoly on seeking and telling the truth, and we should be skeptical of anyone who claims to. Scientists, philosophers, artists, and others have all made enormous contributions to our understanding of the world. But a farmer who has tilled the same land his entire life will know the truth of that land better than any professional truth-seeker.
- “My truth”, “post-truth”, “alternative facts”—these may seem like hard times for truth. If we scratch the surface, however, we’ll find that most of these abuses of truth are, again, abuses of language. The same strategies of precision and clarity apply.
- That’s the good news. The bad news is: reality is complicated. Our means of knowing reality are limited. What we accept as truth today might be wrong tomorrow—not because we decided on a new truth, but because we learned something new about reality. In our pursuit of the big truths, we should remember to appreciate the small ones, the practical and constructive ones we draw upon to navigate our lives every day.
- More bad news: people are complicated. We like our truths to be simple and digestible, or if not then at least accompanied by authoritative mathematical formulas. But when it comes to people, nothing is simple. Certainty is elusive. Contradictions abound. The utopian approach is to embrace this uncertainty and contradiction, not to sweep it under the rug.
- We should try to tell the truth whenever we can, as best we can. The public sphere is saturated with lies and half-truths, and our collective future at stake. But before we speak, we might take a moment to ask ourselves: Am I telling the truth? How do I know? Am I sure?
“Nature is the realm of the unspeakable. It has no voice of its own, and nothing to say. We experience the unspeakability of nature as its utter indifference to human culture.” —James P. Carse
- Nature is the complex system that envelops all other systems.
- Nature is a hyperobject.
- We are part of nature, because nothing is outside or above nature.
- Usually, when we talk about nature, we specifically mean our planet’s biosphere—the life-giving system that we are an outgrowth of, and the one we are dependent on for our existence.
- As humans, we like to project our own views onto nature, whether that’s idealizing it (“we don’t deserve animals”) or painting it as a horror show (Werner Herzog). This is fine, as long as we understand that when we do, we are really revealing something about ourselves—not about nature.
- We don’t need reason to understand what nature is to us—this relationship exists on a more primitive level. It’s enough to acknowledge that we seek out unfiltered, direct access to the natural world, and feel energized and alive when in communion with it.
- Nature and utopia have always been inseparable. Consider the Garden of Eden.
“We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.” —Umberto Eco
- Beyond the necessities of life, death is our oldest preoccupation. All of our most powerful stories situate us in relation to death.
- Religion, which we remember is also a story, is a form of negotiation with death. Death, of course, cannot be negotiated with—religion is meant to help us negotiate with ourselves the terms on which we deal with death. These terms are invariably private terms.
- If we believe that only individuals matter, and that individuals are ends in themselves, then we cannot “accept” death, even while acknowledging its inevitability.
- Mourning, as a way of dealing with death, is not specific to humans. Many animals mourn. Civilization began when we moved beyond mourning to actively working against death. Margaret Mead, when asked what she considered the first sign of civilization to be, described a femur that had been broken and then healed: a sign that someone had been helped, that others had not accepted what would otherwise have been a death sentence.
- Our struggle with death, especially untimely death, is a utopian struggle. Hospitals are perhaps the most utopian institutions we’ve built. But as technology progresses and we begin to press against the limits of death, we should be mindful of the consequences.
- As a feature of all living systems, death serves a purpose: it ensures the dynamism of the system. Human systems are inherently dynamic only because individuals die. In hopeless times, we’ve often reached for the comfort of knowing that even the greatest injustice, the reign of the worst tyrant, will end. Death, for now, remains the only realm where we are all equal.
“Human society, after all, isn’t built on bald statements of fact and unfiltered emotion, but on rules understood, invented, and tactically broken. Perhaps we recognize each other best through the games we play.” —Susan Tallman
- Games are highly-constrained, human-designed systems with simple sets of explicit rules.
- Games are played with the objective of winning. The stakes can be high or low.
- The rules of a game define the behavior of its participants, both in a positive and negative sense: to play by the rules means acting to achieve an objective within a set of agreed-upon constraints. To cheat is the same—only the constraints differ.
- Games, when played voluntarily in a limited way as entertainment, or to assist in understanding more complex systems, can enrich our experience and our knowledge of the world—or just be fun.
- When a society is structured around high-stakes games that its members are coerced into playing, the result is the opposite: human well-being is stifled.
“Every time we went to the supermarket, my mom would give me a quarter to play Pac Man. As a good socialist kid, I thought the goal of the game was to help Pac Man, who was stranded in a maze and needed to find his friends, who were looking for him. My games didn’t last very long. The correct way to play Pac Man, of course, is to consume as much as possible while running from the ghosts that relentlessly pursue you. This was a valuable early lesson in what it means to be an American.” —Maciej Cegłowski
- Most of us live enmeshed in a complex system structured as an overlapping collection of coercive games. We call this system capitalism.
- Capitalism is the most powerful engine of economic growth that humans have ever devised.
- Capitalism is neither a monstrosity nor an inevitability. It is simply a human system for organizing economic activity that disproportionally benefits a small minority at the expense of the majority.
- Like any engine, capitalism involves a tradeoff: it emphasizes power (growth) at the expense of everything else. As an engine, it is dynamic but inefficient, and destructive to the environment it operates in.
- The only alternative to capitalism that has scaled to the level of large industrial economies is a system we generally call communism, but is more accurately described as state socialism. As a utopian idea, it has its attractions. But whatever we think of it, we should recognize and accept that in practice, communism has been a failure—both as an economic system and as a method of promoting human well-being. We should learn from its failure and move on.
- The systems of capitalism, markets, and commerce all overlap, but they are not coterminous. This is important, because it means that markets and commerce can (and do) exist outside of capitalism. We shouldn’t seek to replace these systems—they are some of the fundamental building blocks of civilization—but we must work to reconfigure them in the service of individual well-being and the public good.
- Capitalism’s success is based on its ability to supply an overwhelming amount of material goods (and, to a lesser extent, services) to a large base of worker-consumers. As a rule, most of these goods and services are unnecessary to individual well-being, and many are detrimental.
- The rules of capitalism are such that it is possible—but socially, psychologically, and economically difficult—for individuals to opt out of participation in the system.
- It’s impossible for other living beings to opt out, and as unwitting participants, their only role in the system is to be exploited for profit.
- Capitalism is structured to treat growth as an end, and everything else (individuals, the natural world) as a means to that end. It is a system with no built-in limits beyond the life of its host—our society and our planet. As Murray Bookchin observed: “we have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.”
- Capitalism will not disappear overnight. Every time it’s faced a crisis, it has mutated and adapted to the new reality, finding novel ways to continue maximizing shareholder value. Our immediate aim must be to limit the damage by whatever means (political, social, economic) that we can muster, while working to move more of what is critical to human well-being—health, shelter, nourishment, education, the environment—outside its boundaries. And in searching for the path beyond capitalism, we would do well to recall Buckminster Fuller: “In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete. That, in essence, is the higher service to which we are all being called.”
“An orator is only a loud-mouth, a motto is only a slogan, politics change, statistics are faked, fine alliances break, bright flags tarnish, but a human face, good cat, is the sun and the moon…” —Chris Marker
- Humanism, simply, is a worldview that emphasizes human life, liberty, agency, and the individual human experience. To put it another way, humanism takes human well-being and all that it involves to be an end in itself.
- Despite efforts by some to define it as such, humanism is not a religion or a replacement for religion. It does not involve the worship of humanity or make grand pronouncements on how one should live. Nothing about humanism makes it incompatible with religion or spirituality, though it is incompatible with religious absolutism.
- Humanism recognizes that human rights are social constructs. They must be defined, established, and fought-for.
- In the wake of the deadliest war in human history—World War II—representatives of our planet came together to endorse a groundbreaking document: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- As a human document born of compromise, the Declaration is not without flaws and oversights. But while its influence has waned in the 21st century as idealism and globalism have fallen out of fashion, the fundamental tenets of the Declaration remain as relevant as they ever were, and broadly reflect the humanist worldview. It’s a brief and deceptively simple statement well worth reading, if only to remind ourselves that the utopian project is an ongoing one.
- Humanism is a form of moral universalism. This simply means that humanists accept a foundation of rights and freedoms that apply equally to everyone, regardless of their nationality, religion, class, race, sex, gender, or any other human characteristic. This approach is emphatically non-absolutist: a great many ethical and belief systems can thrive in the same humanist soil.
- The rights of non-human species and the welfare of the planet are central to the humanist worldview, which recognizes and celebrates our interdependence with the rest of the natural world.
- One can subscribe to humanism and not like humanity in general (as Albert Camus did). The humanist approach is one of solidarity, not blanket affinity.
- Any true utopia must be a humanist utopia.
“New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop.” —Neil Postman
- Technology is the system through which we apply our understanding of the world to organize and act upon it—and ourselves.
- Humans are creatures of technology. All technology is an extension of us and only amplifies what is human—both the good and the bad.
- As with language, humans and technology form a continuous feedback loop. We are always changing technology, and technology is changing us.
- To blindly reject technology is to reject an aspect of our humanity.
- To blindly embrace technology is similarly misguided. We should approach technology in the same way we approach any other human system: by evaluating how it supports or undermines individual well-being.
- There are profoundly anti-human technologies (nuclear weapons) and pro-human technologies (vaccines).
- If a technology can be developed, it will be developed. We should never ask ourselves whether a feasible technology should exist, because, eventually, it will. It’s up to us to manage technologies in ways that are beneficial to human well-being.
- Technology is not created in a vacuum—it inevitably reflects the structure of our society: our needs, priorities and preoccupations.
- Technological development is fundamentally goal-oriented. As a society, we can decide on goals and incentivize the development of certain technologies over others. This is an extremely powerful mechanism that, under capitalism, is largely (but not entirely) surrendered to market forces.
- It’s tempting to believe in a technological solution to every problem, but this is a mistake. Human problems require human solutions, and technology can only ever be a part of such solutions.
- There is nothing inherently utopian about technological progress. In the absence of other forces, technology will always be coopted in the service of the dominant powers in a society.
“There is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it.” —Albert Camus
- We have absolutely no idea how—or even whether—matter gives rise to mind. We have a highly subjective idea of what it means to have or be one. And as for consciousness, we can barely wrap our heads around the concept, stuck as we are firmly inside it. Intelligence, on the other hand, is something we can work with.
- We should think about intelligence as a constellation of related properties that a system (or being) exhibits. The degree to which intelligent systems exhibit each property can vary.
- The constellation of intelligence includes creativity (the ability to repurpose existing information for new uses), adaptability (the ability to function in new situations), judgment (the ability to prioritize information and make sense of contradictory inputs), opportunism (the ability to take advantage of new circumstances) and agency (the ability to form, and act with, intent).
- Humans, by this definition, are intelligent. Many other living beings we share the planet with are also intelligent.
- The relationship between intelligence and sentience (self-awareness) is a big question. Nothing in our definition of intelligence suggests that a system must be self-aware to be considered intelligent. It may be that sentience is an emergent property of intelligent systems. Or it may be that we are thinking about sentience the wrong way entirely.
- Intelligence has no known biological prerequisites. Any system that meets the criteria should be considered intelligent.
- It follows that there are no theoretical obstacles to non-biological intelligence.
“What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power.” —Michael Ondaatje
- Power is a phenomenon that emerges in any system of relationships where agency is involved. Power is the ability to influence, override and manage agency.
- Agency, we know, is a property of intelligence. It is something individuals possess. Individuals, either separately or collectively, are always at the receiving end of power, and they are often—but not always—those exercising it.
- Power, when concentrated and wielded by individuals (either on their own or in groups), corrupts. This is a well-worn truism, but worth restating.
- In the more abstract context of a system, power is the ability of any part of the system to affect or influence other parts, as well as the system as a whole.
- When we talk about structural power, we don’t just mean systems that enable certain individuals or groups to exercise power over others. We also mean systems that, through their very configuration, unevenly exert power over individuals by constricting and managing their agency. Most systems humans are a part of have some degree of structural power baked into them.
- Power is most effective—and most conspicuous—when exercised in a system with explicit rules (like government) or at the physical level (violence). There is a reason the two are so closely linked. Power is less effective when exercised in a system with nebulous, implicit rules (like culture).
- Because power dynamics and imbalances are intrinsic to all human systems, power is here to stay. Many utopian projects have failed by believing that power could be removed from society (or distributed equally, which amounts to the same thing).
- As with systems, it’s a mistake to approach power dogmatically. Power is neither good nor bad. It is, in many respects, like fire: indispensable when harnessed and managed to serve our needs, but dangerous and destructive when unchecked. Camus, in the Notebooks, wrote of “not refusing to recognize what is true even when the truth happens to thwart the desirable. Ex. recognizing that power, it also, it especially, persuades.”
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many; accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” —Italo Calvino
- Society is the system of relationships between individuals on a large scale.
- A society consists exclusively of individuals.
- Like a nation, the boundaries of a society are defined by its shared stories. Unlike a nation, which is built on a single story shared by all, society is defined by multiple overlapping stories.
- This overlap is important. A society can only exist as a coherent system if its members at least partially internalize the same stories.
- There are, and have been, many human societies. Civilizations are societies. Societies come and go.
- All societies constrain the agency of individuals by establishing and enforcing rules. These rules, as in any other system, can be implicit and explicit.
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” —Immanuel Kant
- A government is a system with a monopoly on making and enforcing explicit rules on a societal level.
- Thinking about government is no different than thinking about any other human system. For existing systems, we only need to ask: how does it support or undermine individual well-being in practice? For systems that have not been tested in the real world, we must ask an additional question: how viable is it, given what we already know about real societies?
- Nearly every existing form of government concentrates a non-trivial amount of power in the hands of a limited number of individuals. These days, unless we live in a naked autocracy, we call these individuals politicians.
- If we accept that power corrupts, then it follows that every existing form of government is susceptible to corruption—more specifically, that the politicians who constitute a government are susceptible to corruption.
- It’s unreasonable to expect that we could create a government of incorruptible politicians, and our machines are not (yet) up to the task of replacing them.
- One solution to the problem of fallible, corruptible politicians is not having any government at all. Another is revolution. A more reliable, systemic solution is ensuring that we have an effective mechanism for empowering politicians who represent our interests, and for replacing them when they no longer meet our standards for representation, accountability, or sanity.
- This type of government exists, of course. We call it democracy.
“I’ve always found it very hard to think about any system, any planned, top-down system as, by definition, benevolent. The best systems and institutions are constantly focused on negotiation, on structured negotiation. So, the best institutions are places that have a constant system of check and balances.” —Fred Turner
- There are many flavors of democracy. For our purposes, democracy is a system of government where individuals exercise a meaningful amount of control over how they are governed through the process of voting.
- Nearly all modern democratic governments are representative democracies, which means we elect others to represent us instead of directly making the rules ourselves.
- By the end of the 20th century, this form of government seemed so unstoppable that some called for an outright end to history, arguing that humanity had reached the pinnacle of its development in the holy union of representative democracy powered by a globalized free market economy. We (those of us in the West, at least) were convinced that our greatest problem, crossing the threshold into the 21st century, was a date-related computer bug.
- From the perspective of 2020, it goes without saying that this was a little premature. Democracies today seem ill-equipped to handle the mounting challenges of the 21st century, with partisan politics slowing or preventing any consequential policymaking.
- We shouldn’t dismiss representative democracy just yet, however. It has one thing going for it that no other existing system of government does: it incorporates human fallibility into its core tenets.
- Most systems of government assume that they will work as designed. Dictatorships assume an infallible leader. Communism assumes a politburo with the interests of the working class at heart. History, however, shows us that it’s practically certain that any government will eventually betray the principles on which it was founded.
- Representative democracy is unique in that it makes (almost) no positive assumptions about how individuals in power will behave. In fact, it makes negative assumptions, anticipating that politicians will try to abuse their power and relying on formalized structures (such as separate branches of government) to limit such abuses. It is the first system of government designed not to enable the wielding of power, but to constrain it.
- Representative democracy could be considered the first systems-aware form of government. It is structured as a series of games that make it difficult for any individual or group of individuals to accomplish anything, but also to permanently “win”—thereby bringing the game to an end—without dismantling the game itself.
- This is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Balancing competing forces that necessarily have the ability to change the rules of the game effectively means walking a thin line between instability (which can manifest as either chaos or consolidation of power) and stasis. Both, left uncorrected, will destroy the system.
- Despite built-in safeguards, capitalist representative democracies are, and always have been, susceptible to tampering through the use of money. Traditionally, this has been done by corporate interests advancing their agendas through lobbyists and campaign contributions. In the US, this has been a systemic weakness since at least the late 1800s.
- In recent years, representative democracies around the world have come under attack through an entirely new set of systems—social media and big data. These attacks bypass government entirely, focusing instead on manipulating individual voters through the use of highly-targeted propaganda. The messaging is not new. What is new is the ability to deliver these messages without pause, at scale, and with pinpoint accuracy.
- With the inherent fragility of representative democracy and the constraints that the system imposes on itself, it can be tempting—and even seem prudent—to look to other, less limiting forms of government to solve our problems. Given what we know about power, and a long historical record of failed alternatives, we should resist the temptation.
- Democracies are dynamic systems. They are highly sensitive to technological and cultural developments. Like bicycles, they derive their stability from motion, and must constantly adapt to changing circumstances and the needs of society—or risk toppling over.
“We can’t see our culture very well, because we see with it.” —William Gibson
- Culture is the oldest continuous human system.
- Culture is a hyperobject.
- All of the previously described systems feed into culture, and they are all affected by it.
- If the self is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, culture is the story humanity tells itself about itself. It is a story in a constant state of upheaval, full of competing ideas, being rewritten from moment-to-moment.
- Art is a distillation of this story. It is how we are able to see our culture.
- Because culture is constantly changing, all art is firmly rooted in its time. Works of art are snapshots of culture.
- Culture is inherently democratic. Though many try, no individual or group controls culture. Anyone can make a contribution, and by contributing, influence the course of its development. This shouldn’t be confused with cultural “production” under capitalism, which is emphatically not democratic.
- As James Carse memorably put it, a society has boundaries; culture has only a horizon.
- There are many human societies, but only one human culture—diverse, contradictory and alive.
- Culture—not government or capitalism—is the primary system through which we should seek our utopia.
“Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.” —Eduardo Galeano
- Human history is the dance of utopia and dystopia. They have always been fellow travelers. Whenever the balance shifts towards one, the other is quick to step in. The current resurgence of utopianism (in its many disguises) is a response to the dystopian fog of our present and our growing anxiety about the future.
- If we have collectively lost faith in utopia, our disillusionment is warranted. The grand utopian socialist projects of the past century all collapsed or turned into dystopias, and the early utopian promise of computer networks has been usurped by capitalist profit-seeking and authoritarian control. Let’s be unequivocal about it: the history of utopian idealism put into practice is a history of failure.
- If we accept this, it might seem sensible—even warranted—to jettison utopia from our quiver of useful ideas. This would be a mistake.
- Utopia is one of the most powerful stories we have—a rallying cry for a better world. But if we’re to make use of this story today, after the utopian failures of the 20th century, we have to change our approach. Less hubris, more humility. Less faith in technology, more in our role in shaping it. Less idealism, more grit. We can—indeed we must—still be unreasonable. Utopia is an inherently unreasonable project (as all great projects are). But, to borrow Camus’ words, we must be unreasonable while remaining close to the reality of beings and things.
- A utopia that constrains our humanity and diversity is a false utopia. We should imagine utopia not as a world where all problems are resolved and everyone lives the right way in blissful harmony—this is a project we know is doomed to fail—but rather as a world where unnecessary conflicts and suffering have been minimized, and individuals have the means and freedom to become more what they are. Our utopia, to be useful, must be imperfect—just like us.
- Utopia is not a destination we should ever expect to reach—it is a point on a compass. Its purpose is to let us know if we’re headed in the right direction, and, if not, how to adjust our course. Few compass users ever reach the magnetic north pole, and those who arrive there find a moving target. But we all benefit from the needle pointing towards it.
- It’s tempting to fantasize about wiping the slate clean and starting anew. This is the temptation of revolution, of colonizing new worlds, of bunker dwellers and would-be Martians. It’s an escape fantasy. But we don’t need to invent utopia from scratch: its seeds are all here already. So look around. Clear the brush. Do some digging. Then water the soil and see what might grow.