The Technium


[Translations: Japanese]

Every utopia is a fiction, with necessary flaws that prevent it from ever becoming real. I don’t believe in utopias. Particularly technological ones. (That doesn’t stop critics from accusing me of being a technological utopian.) My aversion to utopias goes even deeper. I have not met a utopia I would even want to live in.

Diy 3d utopia 420x423
[Circular buildings = utopia, image from 3D Utopia]

I don’t have to worry about that nightmare because utopias are impossible. Yet dystopias, their dark opposites, are possible, though unlikely. Dystopias are certainly fascinating, and a lot more entertaining than most utopias. There are also much easier to envision. Who can’t imagine an apocalyptic last-man-on-earth world, or a world run by robot overseers, or a disintegrating megacity, or simple armageddon? There are endless possibilities of how the modern civilization collapses. (See my previous post on Collapsitarians). But just because dystopias are cinematic and dramatic, and much easier to imagine, that does not make them much more likely.

The flaw in most dystopian narratives is that they are not sustainable. They flash chaos, but then quickly self-organize. The outlaws and underworlds that seem so exciting at “first demise” are quickly taken over by organized crime and militants, so the lawlessness becomes racketeering, and over very little time, racketeering becomes a type of corrupted government — all to maximize the income of the bandits. In a sense rapid greed rapidly cures dystopias. Real dystopias are more like the old Soviet Union, or Libya, rather than Mad Max or Bladerunner: they are stifling bureaucratic rather than lawless. Ruled by fear, their society is hobbled except for the benefit of a few, but like the pirates at sea (see The Invisible Hook) there is far more law and order than not. In fact in real broken societies, the outrageous outlawry we associate with dystopias are not permitted. The big bandits keep the small bandits to a minimum.

I think our destination is neither utopia nor dystopia nor status quo, but protopia. Protopia is a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.

Today we’ve become so aware of the downsides of innovations, and so disappointed with the promises of past utopias, that we now find it hard to believe even in protopia — that tomorrow will be better than today. We find it very difficult to imagine any kind of future we would want to live in. Name a single science fiction future that is both plausible and desirable?

No one wants to move to the future today. We are avoiding it. We don’t have much desire for life one hundred years from now. Many dread it. That makes it hard to take the future seriously. So we don’t take a generational perspective. We’re stuck in the short now. We also adopt the Singularity perspective: that imagining the future in 100 years is technically impossible. So there is no protopia we are reaching for.

It may be that this future-blindness is simply the inescapable affliction of our modern world. Perhaps at this stage in civilization and technological advance, we enter into permanent and ceaseless future-blindness. Utopia, dystopia, and protopia all disappear. There is only the Blind Now.

That is possible. But I am hoping that our current future-blindness is only a passing phase and that we will again begin to generate plausible visions of a desirable future, ones that are slightly better than today. These protopian visions won’t be as thrilling as either dystopias or utopias, but they might be thrilling enough to aim towards.

  • Besmissen

    “The twenty-first century, I predict, will confound the twentieth century notion of the Future as something exciting, novel, unexpected or radiant; as Progress, to use an old word.”

    This is from Tom Wolfe’s short essay “The Great Relearning.” I was struck by his prediction when I first read it maybe ten years ago.  I’ve spent a good amount of time since hoping he’s wrong.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Yes, Tom Wolfe is always ahead of us. Great quote.

      • Deltacdynamics

        As humanity slugs toward the future-unknown we must always maintain an awareness of the many obstacles in our path. When considering the considerable technological progress from which we have benefited and the technological progress from which we are likely to benefit we must also consider the entropic nature of…nature and the outside forces that can and will direct civilization.

        The question is not whether utopia or dystopia or even protopia can exist. The question is how are we going to deal with an ever more accessible array of technologies providing us with ever more potential (either positive or negative) in an ever more hostile world?

        …and to coin my own idiom, we cannot see the future for the trees.

        • Glen Wells

          We don’t see the forests that have disappeared, or the futures that have yet appeared.

  • AnthonyC

    “Name a single science fiction future that is both plausible and desirable”
    Star Trek TNG. That’s pretty much the only one I can think of.

    I’ve never heard the term ‘protopia’ before. Who coined it? It seems an apt description of what the future is likely to be.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      I coined it today.

  • Luke Schubert

    The Mars in “Blue Mars” sounds pleasant (though the Earth is flooded by then).

    “The Diamond Age”has its good points thanks to nanotech, though still its share of social and political problems.

    Talking about Neal Stephenson, I sometimes think it would be cool if someone did set up a 1 year (and/or 10 year) math …

  • I always enjoy your optimistic view of the future, but I believe that it’s usually a very bumpy road to get there. My hope is that we get better at learning from the mistakes of the past since ‘black swans’ can’t help but emerge in places we least expect them. When the machine breaks (as it always does in some form) lets encourage those who will build it’s replacement so they can make it better and take a real (baby) step towards the “good’.

    Below is one of favorite quotes on this subject:

    “That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended–civilizations are built up–excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top, and then it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down.”- C.S. Lewis

    5/21/11 note: added a missing sentence at the end of the C.S. Lewis quote since I think it adds to his perspective.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite thinkers, but on this subject he is just wrong. There is backsliding, but it is two steps forward, one back, so over time there is one step forward.

      • Kevin, I always view C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Orwell in the same light considering their ideas and beliefs were greatly influenced by WW2 and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. It’s not hard to see their point when they saw such a cruel evil rise up and do so much damage. I do think that over the long period you could be correct, but it’s true that great civilizations have fallen into ruin (Ancient Egyptian, Inca, Maurya,Toltec, Mayan, Phoenician, Babylonian, Sumer, Aztecian, Minoan, and etc). Thankfully people pick up the pieces and try to build something that’s more durable, more moral, and increases the prosperity for a greater percentage of the following generation. I don’t know if you have ever read G.K. Chesterton’s ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill’, but it is often cited as one of Orwell’s influences for ‘1984’, but unlike Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece it’s more far more prototopian and encouraging.

        • AnthonyC

           Civilizations do collapse, but (except for the really isolated ones, like Easter Island) they leave behind some of their knowledge and skill, so that their successors rose up even higher than they did.

          To some extent I think we’ve hampered that “bouncing” in the event of our own failure- the next civilization wouldn’t have the benefit of easily accessible coal and oil, for example- but the principle still applies.

        • Kevin_Kelly

          Yes, particular empires have fallen, but civilization as a system on this planet has not fallen. The Greeks are gone, but the Romans followed upon their achievements. The British Empire faded, but their achievements continue. Lewis, Tolkien, Orwell were blinded by the horrors of their time and could not see the longer arc.

          • Kevin, I think you’re correct about the ‘long arc’ and there’s no doubt that when a person is surrounded by the horrors of war, plague, or natural disasters that it can dampen their hope of the future. Considering that during the last 10 years we have had a constant bombardment of war/terrorism on one side, and death by global warming on the other. This has certainly contributed to many people having a very unhealthy case of future-blindness. On the other hand, we need to be mindful that tragic ‘short-arc’ evil things have occurred many times throughout human history and it would be naive to think that it can’t happen again in a new and unanticipated way.

            After WW2 Tolkien stated the following and at the time he was certainly correct to think this: 

            “The destruction of Germany, be it 100 times merited, is one of the most appalling world-catastrophes. Well, well,—you and I can do nothing about it. And that [should] be a measure of the amount of guilt that can justly be assumed to attach to any member of a country who is not a member of its actual Government. Well the first War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter—leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines.”- J.R.R. Tolkien

  • Alex P

    Could it be that our blindness is a form of awareness: the realization that predicting the behavior of combinations of new things is like correctly guessing the combination of a combination lock.

    When you transform inputs to create a new type of output, the properties of the output are undefined at the level of the inputs.

    Example: analog transistors combine to make digital logic gates.  Not only are these new behaviors qualitatively different; from the POV of the inputs, that is the current state of the art, they do not even appear real. Better example: from the POV of hardware, software isn’t “real”. My favorite example of all: “zero” doesn’t look real from the POV of numbers. And it isn’t. Zero isn’t a number, it’s a placeholder that creates something new, which allows the numbers to be used in a larger-scale system.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Yes, I think the improvements are often emergent at a higher level.

  • wyldr1

    Brings to mind this quote….”There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old system and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.” — Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1513
    I believe in order to achieve that “slightly better than today” future, we will need a far greater vision than “slightly better”.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      That’s the weird thing. For the past 2,000 years and certainly for the past 300 years, we’ve improved slightly better each year with no vision of what slightly better is.

      • KK, I certainly agree that many things are truly better with little-to-no-vision by many to have caused this type of grand scale betterment of humanity. If anything I would place the deep-cause of this ‘long arc’ goodness with the transcendence, grace, and providence of God.

  • It is so true that in recent years, conservatives have been pessimistic about safety and moral values whereas liberals have been whining about climate change and transgenic food. 

    All in all, it is no longer fashionable to think of the future positively.  

    A positive, constructive future: What a novel idea!  

    Thank you Kevin. I fully embrace Protopia.

  • I think a lot of perceptive futurists are coming to similar conclusions: that there really is a wall ahead of us, a “Singularity” or evolutionary break with the past beyond which predictions are futile, and the old notion of incremental progress leading to a Star Trek future is a 20th century fantasy.  Nature is quite radical and surprising, and we might just be approaching a moment of epochal surprise.

    I assume your relentless optimism comes from a Christian worldview in which God is looking out for homo sapiens, because I don’t see any evidence in nature that we are such a blessed species.  We could all go extinct next week and in a cosmic sense it wouldn’t matter.  I tend to think Lovecraft’s rather pessimistic “Cosmicism” was closer to the cosmic truth than that of C.S. Lewis or Arthur C. Clarke.  Our best hope for long-term survival is probably a Singularity and the creation of post-human “mind children”, because otherwise I do think we’re staring down what Clarke called “the long slope that stretches, across a thousand million years of time, down to the shores of the primeval sea.”

  • Jonathan Sneed

    Today we’ve become so aware of the downsides of innovations, and so disappointed with the promises of past utopias, that we now find it hard to believe even in protopia — that tomorrow will be better than today.

    I couldn’t disagree more.  Maybe I’m just got blinders on because of my own transhumanist bent, but I see a global civilization that expects more and more good to come out of technological innovation.  

    For an example of sci-fi that seemed like a nice place to be: “Sunshine”, released in 2007.  The general plot was a kind of near future disaster movie- the sun had gone out for pretty much no reason, and a manned mission to the star’s surface was required to start it up again.  The sun had not gone out due to some “man tread on God’s domain” cautionary tale against science; it was never explained at all.  The mission was an international venture between China and the US, with no play on antagonisms or espionage- just common cooperation for the common good.  The ship was run by a general AI that was only slightly subsentient, and it remained a quietly useful tool throughout the movie with no HAL moments.  There was light, responsible use of VR environments with no attempted surreal undermining of reality.  And the least plausible element of all this was the only source of conflict- the part where the sun went out.  I’d LOVE to live in that future.

    As long as we’re on neologisms, I’ve been fond of referring to myself as a Eutopian.  Without bowing to the hubris of trying to plan a perfect society, it’s hard to deny that (averaged from the Savannah to the space station) tomorrow is a better place to be than today, and that human effort is responsible.  That’s a track record we can and do feel good about.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      “Eutopian” is interesting. What is your definition of that?

      • Jonathan Sneed

        Pretty similar to your ‘protopian’, I expect.  The difference for me is an emphasis on action or improvement, rather than anticipation (the good-place vs. the before-place).  A eutopia takes the progress of yesterday as a standard to meet and beat today.

        It’s true that you can generally anticipate a ‘better tomorrow’, but that’s still a function of a whole lot of people working very hard without necessarily having a unified (or even coherent) vision of the future.  I suppose the word reflects the fact that I’m not too worried about the explicit pessimism in sci-fi, because in this moment we seem to be working harder than ever to actually get there.

    • I’ve found this perspective to be strongly tied to generation: baby boomers (it seems) really did think that some magic Age of Aquarius was going to fix all problems by 1/1/2000, and when it didn’t happen they gave up on the entire concept of Progress, decided that nothing ever gets better and there’s no reason to bother trying.  David Wilcox captured the attitude nicely in his song Modern World:

      Net Gen’ers, on the other hand, see all the amazing developments that have happened since the sixties, and since y2k, and imagine a future where everyone has access to quality education, where scientific and cultural ideas can interact freely, where prejudice can be overcome because, on the internet, no one can tell you’re black. 

      As for me, I have trouble imagining a world where this can happen that’s not a protopia. 

  • All progress starts with that one small step. That step is attainable, but a seemingly large hurdle nonetheless. If everyone thought of the world as a protopia the world would certainly improve. 

  • soahc

    I have always thought ‘technology solves the problems it creates’. There will always be problems and obstacles in society. However I believe bureaucracy definitely exacerbates this pattern.

    Intersting though…perhaps the future will not be dystopian or utopian, but rather bland. At which point we will probably need some strong VR  to get our adrenaline fixes.

  • Howard_frampton

    “Name a single science fiction future that is both plausible and desirable?”

    Firefly (or Serenity, if you’ve only seen the movie). This presents a future that’s far from perfect, but not quite dystopia, either. In a lot if ways, the “future” presented is very like the present we live in. Sure, tech has advanced considerably, but we still have mostly the same problems we have now.

    The Romans thought they were the height of civilization, two millenia ago. And in some respects they were, especially compared with what had come before. And here we sit, thousands of years later, and we’re not all that different from them.

    I think utopia is simply not possible this side of heaven, and an authoritarian dystopia is quite possible.

  • mhyke

    A protopian approach is the only thing that can save mankind from destroying itself. But there are few, if any, protopians running our world. There is no protopian invisible hand out there. We work so hard and invest so much in technological change, but very little in social and political change, and that is where we need to make progress.