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Inside Every Utopia Is a Dystopia (bostonreview.net)
96 points by hownottowrite 185 days ago | hide | past | web | 30 comments | favorite

The remains of the 1939 Worlds Fair are found in the Bronx. I took a subway there once on a visit to NY. I was both inspired by the science center there, and dismayed to find it surrounded by antiquated residences and roads. It was like a vision of the future in a garden surrounded by the mundane suburban sprawl of reality. Futurism is still the closest thing I have to a religion, and so I admire that in Bel Geddes vision. My favorite bit of futurism is Robert McCall's "The Prologue and the Promise" mural found in the Disney Epcot center [1]. If we aren't striving for a better future, then what are we living for?

For the idea that "Inside Every Utopia is a Dystopia," the 1973 story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin [2] has always most starkly impressed this concept into my mind. In it, Omelas is a perfect utopian city where life is perfect, except this perfection is dependent on the incredible suffering of a single child kept hidden away in a dark place. At a certain age, child's suffering is revealed to each citizen. Most residents learn to live with this fact or rationalize it away. It's a serious oversimplification of certain dimensions of our own modern societies, but it is a powerful metaphor for thinking about how much our cheap modern conveniences rely on the services of minorities and the impoverished who serve us and manufacture our many shiny things. I wish this essay had delved deeper into this concept.

[1] http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/415544/5082948/1260951...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ones_Who_Walk_Away_from_Om...

It sounds like Le Guin expanded on a famous passage from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."

"No, I wouldn't consent," said Alyosha softly.


Our standard of living depends on a great deal of the suffering of others.

Most of nature is essentially a constant living horror movie for all participants, which we just barely sit outside of (as long as food remains plentiful and the TV is on). So was the human experience for most people, most of the time we've been on this planet. Still is for many people.

The truest understanding of conscious, mortal existence in this universe, and of the course of our species in it, may well be something akin to cosmic horror.

Sanity and the ability to "function" in society mostly depend on temporarily forgetting these things.

I disagree. There is nothing fundamental about our existence which mandates suffering. That provides hope.

It's not a fundamental necessity, just the reality for the vast majority of all living creatures.

Ever heard about the "first noble truth"? :)

And insofar as Omelas is trying to make a point about life in general, history in general, potential societies or lives in general, it is simply reactionary. Who is even Ursula Le Guin to tell us that everything must have a seed of evil in its core?

I don't think that's le Guin's thesis. The Dispossessed is her book that explores the nature of utopia, its subtitle is "an ambiguous utopia" even. I think the focus of omelas is the juxtaposition of outward peace and prosperity and internal brutality. The key to the book is how people react to seeing the rotten core of their society. It's not a thesis on what all societies look like-- le Guin has constructed many complex, lifelike societies that don't have such brutally evil defects, but a kind of society that sounds awfully familiar. The point of this story is how one reacts to the revelation of the society's nature, both within the narrative and externally in the reader. Who walks away from Omelas?

Yes, absolutely. I think LeGuin is the last "great" Utopian writer we've had. The Dispossessed is a beautiful work, and one that doesn't have a dark heart. It has bad parts, it might not last, but it's not Omelas. You're exactly right, Omelas is about how we the reader would choose.

Would you leave everything behind because of evil? Would you live with it?

A good answer to a good question!

It's been a while since I read that short story, but the message I took from it wasn't that there was a seed of evil in the society, but that no matter what society or system exists, there will always be those that cannot fit into it. Perhaps someone considered a failure in one society, would be a "king" in another. If someone doesn't have something that society values, perhaps it will be hard to coexist in that environment, causing them to leave or become something deemed worse. Maybe Le Guin had other motives with her story. Maybe Utopia is just a step towards the next Utopia, which will itself be another step, due to an inherent lack of satisfaction. There are many ways to interpret the story, which is why I have always enjoyed it.

>The remains of the 1939 Worlds Fair are found in the Bronx.

Queens actually (Flushing Meadows) and what you see from the World's Fair today is almost certainly from the later 1964 fair.

i fell down a reading hole about the 1939 world's fair and found this film about it from the same year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YF594h8KUXw

fair warning: it seems to mostly be about how unlikable a character's communist art professor boyfriend is

I always wondered what happened to the kid as she aged. Killed? Shipped far away? Dies during child birth of the next pariah? Is it a guy? Kept in perpetual childhood?

The perpetual childhood might be part of the torture?

I'd buy that. Now I'm wondering how this solution was found and how long it took to get adopted.

Yeah, Omelas immediately came to mind for me as well, on seeing the title. Rather more literal than what was intended in the article, I think.

"Futurism is still the closest thing I have to a religion"

Thank you, I just learned something about myself.

That picture did something to me.

information must be free, and so lies and manipulations proliferate

Profound! Lies and manipulations are also information. In a free society, who is to judge what is an unacceptable subtle lie and what is an unacceptable subtle manipulation?

(What if a private platform achieves some kind of network effect, such that it has a virtual monopoly? By going to a private website, you are giving up your freedom voluntarily, but through network effects, that private website can effectively suppress all speech through its dominated medium.)

If it's dominated by a single player then the information isn't actually free. Hence rather than anarchists we get the neoanarcbists fighting against tight control of the information rather than fighting control over the people themselves.

We'll also have neoluddites who are fine with physical machines leveraging human labor to great heights but who fear and rise up against expert systems and machine learning that threaten to automate away human control of those machines.

I am skeptical of ML not because it will automate away human control of production (which would be quite a good thing in many respects) but because it is likely to reinforce arbitrary or implicit human biases while being sold as the epitome of rational objectivity. A lot of technologists I meet are socially and culturally illiterate and do not seem competent to implement such systems. I would further argue that employers have strong economic incentives to select for such illiteracy when hiring.

>A lot of technologists I meet are socially and culturally illiterate and do not seem competent to implement such systems

And who are you to make such a judgement?

What about the case that fear of bias is used as a tool of control? Perhaps in such a society, these "culturally illiterate" developers would be better suited to create a more minimally biased system.

I'm an artist, mystic, and all-around fringe thinker. and I feel fine about having a cautiously qualified opinion.

It probably won't be like that. Those in charge of the utopia generally never foresee the dystopian aspects well. Remember how people worried about overpopulation, until we found out westernization brings declining and even sub-replacement fertility.

More likely we'll be like some soviet socialist nightmare. All packed into dirty, ugly cities, eating our hummus and drinking our water as we are shuttled from our four hour a week job by an Uber and back to our shoddy, grey Mincome housing blocks to watch bread and circuses on Netflix.

I'm not certain what specific symptoms could come about, but if there's one constant in human nature it's that people will find short-term reasons to oppose things no matter the long-term goals.

If you've never seen Norman Bel Geddes' Futurama from the 1939 World's Fair, here it is.[1] (480p). That was the GM vision of the future. Much of it was achieved, mostly the highway part.

By 1956, GM's vision had progressed to a titanium body self-driving turbine car with huge tailfins.[2] That prototype car, the Firebird II, actually worked.

In 1964, GM did Futureama 2 at the 1964 World's Fair. This was a future that didn't happen, with space stations, all-terrain vehicles on the moon, and giant road-building machines cutting roads through tropical jungles. The 1964 World's Fair perhaps represented "peak future", the high point of industrial-strength utopianism.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypxE5XdzLuY&t=467 [2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_ccAf82RQ8 [3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-5aK0H05jk

The review itself is worth reading for itself, but I found it interesting that its author is the novelist John Crowley. I wonder if it is just random that he was asked to review this book or if he is currently researching the topic for a new novel.

A utopia is a local maximum. Intelligent beings, having the ability to model and traverse fitness landscapes, eventually figure this out.

But a global maximum is also a local maximum, so what good does it do you to figure that out?

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