"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail." ― Oscar Wilde
From TV shows to books, ecotopian literature to academic research, Utopia and all the connotations and interpretations it gives rise to, is growing in popularity.
Be it from despair at the state of the world and our longing for optimism, or a dark fascination for techno-utopianism inspired by Silicon Valley, talking about utopia is no longer simply dismissed with ‘one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia.’
When Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, he made up the word, derived from Greek, to mean ‘no place.’ He wasn’t trying to describe a perfect or impossible place. In fact, he professed to entertain and enlighten at the same time; it was a form of satire.
From the criminal justice system to the role of work in people’s lives, from education to private property, More’s work was essentially a critique of the fundamental flaws he saw in European society at the time. One can read it today and learn with dismay that we are still grappling with many of the exact same problems.
So how could we embrace the idea of utopia in our work?
We could be utopian in setting out our vision. This would be utopia as a destination; a destination we may never reach but stating it helps to keep our focus on the horizon. It could also be more as a tapestry of ideas, a collection of stories of how people have done things differently. Or, it can be utopia as a journey, as a way of being. [This is the one we’ll be looking at in this post.]
The usual criticism around utopia is that it’s aspirational, not practical and that we cannot develop a blueprint for society. Historian Rutger Bregman responds to this in his book Utopia for Realists, and says “utopias offer no ready-made answers, let alone solutions. But they do ask the right questions.” (I would actually argue that in his book he does, in fact, present some very compelling, yet practical solutions for tackling some of our fundamental ills, from poverty to aid, to work and homelessness.)
But, one of More’s intentions was for people to understand that we all have to contribute to improving society, for everyone, and that we must consider how our actions today will impact the future. In order to understand what this might be, we need to think differently about the world, and learn to see differently. Rutger’s response to criticism was to ask “Why write off the utopianism? Should we simply stop dreaming of a better world altogether?”
Science-fiction as a literary genre often begins within various forms of utopian or dystopian societies as critiques of what the future may look like if we continue on our trajectories. In Ursula Le Guin’s novels, the futures she described were not about a blank canvas. “[T]he future is already full; it is much larger than our present; and we are the aliens in it,” she wrote.
For example, in The Dispossessed, children from another planet are telling a story they heard about a planet on which people (us humans) might get locked into rooms as a form of unthinkable punishment. Unable to conceive this, they decide to try it out by locking one of them into a room to see what it would feel like. But they give up quickly as they realise it’s just too cruel.
Like More’s Utopia, this kind of thinking invites us to step outside of things we take for granted. In a way it’s about asking ourselves whether we would invent these if they did not exist. Would we invent prisons? Would we invent the institution of marriage today if it didn’t exist? Would we pour concrete all over the places where we live and fill them with cars? Would we create the educational institutions we have today?
The point isn’t (necessarily) that we must therefore work to abolish them, but that it might help us to look at a problem, or all of our work, from a different angle. Doing that might not only provide us with a different understanding of what the problem was all along, but might also get us into the habit of looking at our work more creatively.
If we really think about it, much of our work ultimately aspires to a kind of utopian society (maybe one day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be categorised as utopian!). But we are often paralysed because the long term vision feels too far in the distance and we simply cannot see the road ahead. So we either seek reassurance in short term outcomes or fall into despair, burnout and cynicism.
But maybe the point is about how we step onto that path. If there is no destination, just a journey, we could look at it as always being two steps ahead. Do we want to be like the climber who just wants to reach the top of the mountain, only to realise that there is an even bigger one behind? Or do we want to climb each one artfully?
In the wise words of Eduardo Galeano: “Utopia lies at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.”
Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes
“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking.” — Henry David Thoreau
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four