Throughout history utopia seemed so close and yet so far away, like a mirage that you see but is still not quite there. We had visions of utopia from the previous century that failed disastrously, where decisions made by the few ruled over many. Its biggest problem is how to harmonize structure with individual freedom. Any system needs order to operate but forced order limits the development of a system. It is just a question of time when it will self-regulate and overthrow the imposed structure. This phenomenon of adapting the structure to personal needs is called desire path in urban planning. It is associated with the erosion caused by people, animals or vehicles in a spontaneous attempt to find the shortest route between two points instead of following the constructed path by urban planners.
Our reality revolves around certain natural laws. If you impose a structure that does not follow these laws eventually the system will fall apart. In nature nothing is permanent, everything is in constant flux. The possibility of change and adaptation enables the system to survive. Technology uses and exploits these laws but it cannot change them. It can only follow them. If it could change them, then it would be magic, not technology.
In this text I will try to outline potential problems (entropia), opportunities (polytopia) and recent historical sources of utopian ideas (prototopia) that came out of distributed networks, rapid technological advancement and collective authorship.
Francis Fukuyama said that we live at the end of history, in a time without alternatives. Lately we noticed that things have actually changed faster than expected and we are on the verge of a new beginning. This new era that we are entering is not something that we willingly decided on, it was defined by a string of decisions and technological determinism. The only thing that we can do is to jump onto this technological wagon and catch the momentum that will propel us. They say that history repeats itself but this is a precedent and we have nothing to compare it with. This is a leap into the void where exponential growth will cause a rupture (technological singularity) in the fabric of space and time and start a new history, the beginning of the posthuman stage. Possibly it will not even be written by us but by machines. Maybe there is an opportunity in this big leap into the unknown to reconsider and revive an idea that seems impossible. The process of searching for it could yield some food for thought. We know that over the course of history things that seemed impossible at one point became possible at another. We know that there is no limit to human ambition and curiosity. Of course this comes with a risk, an existential one. There is a term for it, a Great Filter, a hypothetical threshold in the advancement of a civilisation, with a high probability of self-destruction.
Entropia (Entropy + Utopia)
Utopia is defined as a society of great personal liberty and wellbeing. Utopia sounds good on paper but in reality it was impossible to achieve. The idea served as inspiration for different political systems that always ended up as dystopian. The same often applies to modernist architecture. The city of Brasilia, the federal capital of Brazil, was a majestic vision that probably should have stayed on the drawing board. Built in the 60’s, the city was constructed outside of the human scale, as a city monument. A personal grandeur vision of the architects and politicians projected onto the inhabitants of the city. The city was built in a way that does not account for the fact that someone would live in it. The restrictive framework of the project is what caused the friction in the system. For a project to succeed there should be some possibility of adaptivity, an open framework, a set of parameters from which the city will emerge.
The search for utopia is similar to a search for a perpetual motion machine, the hypothetical machine that can run forever with the energy that it produces. With a perpetual motion machine you always lose more energy than you get from it, which is due to friction. In utopia there is too much friction between individual spheres and the collective one that holds them together. For it to really function, everyone should have their own custom-made “society”. That is why these projects had never lasted long before they failed. In recent discourse there has been an image of technological emergence that will cause complete automation of all processes, a post-scarcity economy without labour.
The herald of this new economy is China where more and more production is steered toward automation, where even the cheapest labour force is not cheap enough anymore. Webshops like Alibaba, Banggood or Dealextreme sell cheap electrical goods with free postage. Even the infrastructure for such an operation is an engineering endeavour in and of itself. The profit is derived from the sheer number of transactions and money circulation. This is a real example of economic alchemy, how to make money where others cannot.
The other important factor for the revival and reconceptualization of the old idea is the unsustainability of the existing economic system that is coming to an end of its progress. Neoliberal capitalism is based on an ever-expanding competitive market. There is a limit to the growth, a breaking point when the constant striving for optimization and cost-cutting reaches a point where the whole process gets automated and substituted by machines. The race for ever-cheaper goods and labour will result in a lack of human jobs and the old free market paradigm of money circulating in the economy will stop to function. Without consumers, the whole system fails. It is becoming obvious that we need to resolve a near future problem, how the lack of labour will influence the future economy and how to improve the human condition. What happens when the constant growth and progress stop, when work becomes unnecessary and scarcity is not an issue? We are entering a post-capitalist era.
Prototopia (Proto + Utopia)
The new tools of this immaterial economy are smart contracts, decentralized currencies, and asset ownership in blockchain. DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) corporations are the future. We are all legal entities, individual companies, and corporations of one. We are traded on the market, based on our personal belongings, creditworthiness of our social profiles and the net worth of our data spheres.
In today’s economy, speculating became the new production. This is the new capital and gossip is the new currency. Generating capital based on whim, a temporary trend, misinformation, social networking… The capital is not generated by physical production anymore. Physical products are only the by-product of speculation. The real economy is based on belief, it is a construct, a personal projection made by participants. As long as you believe in it, it exists.
We generate content – the world of big data that is being mined, bought and sold, traded and protected. Most of the discourse of the last several years has been around privacy and who is collecting what. At the same time our personal spheres have closed in one way (filter bubble) and disappeared in another (social networks and data mining). Information is the ore of today. The more of it you have the richer you are. You just need to know how to use it. Anything can be valuable. It only depends on your abilities to interpret it. With this knowledge you can predict trends, see hidden patterns, natural laws that no one had noticed before, your personal “weather” forecast. These things are the World Wild West for the digital opportunists, for the ones that want to harvest as much of the e-gold as possible before others even notice it is gold.
It is becoming clear that in this post-work society there is no problem if there is no work. In speculative belief-based economy the flow of assets is the same as production. Businesses already rise and fall in milliseconds based on speculation or a technical glitch. This is the paradigm of the future. The majority of money is made in speculation, not production. High frequency trading (HFT) established these rules some time ago. HFT uses supercomputers and algorithms to collect data and autonomously buy and sell stocks. Different companies compete with each other in speed and algorithm sophistication to gain advantage and make more money. These systems are completely autonomous.
Your browsing habits, your Facebook posts and your Instagram pictures influence the global economy, but the real enlightenment will come when we get rid of work altogether. In the near future all of us will be participants in this jobless economy. Just by existing you will be a market entity.
Can Utopia be collectively imagined and built
as a collaborative political project?
As a by-product of this decentralization and new collectiveness, we have a number of theoretical and radical political think tanks that work on the edge of reason, anonymity and on the opposite poles of political discourse. Radical ideas of the post-scarcity economy like Fully Automated Luxury Communism and Universal Basic Income (UBI) do not sound that far-fetched anymore.
One of the early examples of such a project was Project Cybersin, short for cybernetics synergy. Prominent cybernetician Stafford Beer worked for the government of Chile from 1971-1973 on the project of the first algorithmic city, the predecessor of big data, that was supposed to collect real-time data from factories around the country and display them in the operational control centre for coordination and production. It was imagined as a distributed decision system. The project never fully came to life and was destroyed after the military coup.
· The Dark Enlightenment
The Dark Enlightenment movement, an alt-right cluster of Internet-based political thinkers, calls for a new feudalism, a return to monarchy. They want to reverse the Enlightenment and go back to a pre-liberal democracy time, to the “good old days”.
Anarcho-capitalism advocates the elimination of the state and prioritizes the freedom of the individual, private property and the free market. Its proponents believe that without the state the system will self-regulate and achieve equilibrium. Because of the primacy of private property and of the “I”, this political construct is the highest realization of the self over the collective.
· Transhumanists / Extropists
Transhumanists, or their older siblings, extropists, desire to prolong their lifespan to a near-immortal state and exist in a world where artificial intelligence and robotics have made work irrelevant. Their purpose in life is to increase the overall happiness of all creatures on Earth through cooperation. In that sense it could be perceived as very utopian. The extropists are fighting entropy with technology, trying to defy death and project humans into the new realm of posthumanism, where we would be free from our bodily limitations as a species.
Polytopia (Poly + Utopia)
Maybe the realization of a personal utopia will appear soonest in the form of Virtual Reality. Virtual reality is not limited by the laws of physics and can be customized to individual preference. It is the perfect polygon for the realization of a personal utopia. The word utopia comes from the Greek οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”) and means “no-place”. What is more of a non-place than VR, better yet, a UR – (U)topian Reality / (You)topian Reality, a space of absolute personal freedom, without any limitations or concerns for others, a space of You, an ultimate realization of the Ego.
Extropy vs. Entropy
Extropy is the opposite of entropy. Extropy is life, entropy is decay. Life is organization, collectiveness. Society organizes individual spheres in a collective machine through a set of rules organized in a system. An individual is a part of the collective, but not above it. A fixed set of rules in a world of exponential change is not sustainable. Pure utopia could only exist if there were complete freedom for all individuals of the collective. When one of the cells in our body starts to follow its own path and starts to multiply, we call it cancer. The paradox with utopia is that it is only possible through a system. But in order to really become polytopian it has to be divided into autonomous individual cells. The friction of the personal spheres decomposes it and transforms it into entropy. It has to decompose to realize itself fully, and yet, to decompose means to die.