Utopian visions are powerful. In an era of change and uncertainty, they’re a motivating story about how things could be better. Subcultures that share strong utopian visions can rally to bring about their version of the future.
I made a map of different kinds of utopian visions based on their relationship to technology and change. They’re charted along an x-axis of Restorative to Transformative, and a y-axis of Anarchist to Authoritarian. The farther right a utopia is along the x-axis, the more wholeheartedly it embraces transformation in the form of technologically driven rapid development and change. The farther left, the more it seeks a return to nature or tradition, and is resistant to high-speed development and change. The higher up a utopia is along the y-axis, the more it accepts or embraces authoritarian models of social organization. The lower it is, the more anarchist and anti-authoritarian it is.
This is supposed to be a map of the technological landscape rather than the political, so you’ll find people from the right and left in each quadrant.
I call these “utopian subcultures” as if I could define a relation to a main culture, but I can’t actually identify any mainstream and widely shared positive vision of the future. At the current rate of change, anyone who belongs in the “center”, with no utopian vision to speak of, is being dragged along by society’s fanatics, with a sense of resignation that comes from realizing they will probably end up living in a depressing version of someone else’s failed utopia.
Even if a faction succeeded in bringing about their utopia, every utopia is someone else’s dystopia. Examining the landscape of contemporary utopianism, it’s clear that different people’s visions of the best life are at odds, and sometimes directly contradict each other. There are irreconcilable differences between the directions people want to go. The best we can do as a society is probably to let people live out their visions in different parts of the world, but the internet brings everyone together, making our differences more visible. Today we live in the global village, the utopia of instantaneous, ever-present global communication envisioned in the 90’s. Where to next?
When examining utopian subcultures, I’ve tried to ask: What are they for, what are they against, what do they find beautiful, what symbols do they tend to love?
The restorative utopian perspective seeks a return to nature or tradition, and is resistant to the speed of development and change. It views the current world as unnatural and out of balance. A restoration of older ways of life would restore harmony and equilibrium.
Top Left Quadrant, Restorative Authoritarian
Traditionalist worldviews often do not see or present themselves as utopian, but they long for a drastically different future that is nearly unobtainable. Their future just happens to look a lot like the past. Technological progress is viewed with suspicion because it is a primary driver decimating traditional ways of life. The fundamentalist wing of most mainstream religions belong in this quadrant. They like some aspects of civilization, but would like to turn back the clock a few centuries. Authoritarian traditionalists would like to enforce their vision on all of society, whereas the more anarchist wing would simply like to be left alone, like the Amish.
The traditional worldview believes things like: The past holds time-tested principles which we have departed from. We should return to traditional religion, traditional gender roles, traditional ways of life. Beautiful things include: churches, women caring for children at home, tight-knit communities. Trees – family trees, hierarchical tree-based mental maps of the world, the deep rootedness and imperviousness to change of living trees.
(Cathedrals, European villages, classical western architecture, paintings of women with babies)
Bottom Left Quadrant, Restorative Anarchist
A primitivist is the most extreme kind of restorative anarchist. For them, civilization was a mistake. Modern life and technology does more harm than good, and drains the vital spirit. The primitivist fantasizes about a catastrophic end to civilization. Turn back the clock a few thousand years. Ted Kaczynski was right.
Beautiful things include: Hunter gatherers, paganism, nomadic warriors (Vikings, Mongols). Tribal pack animals like wolves and reindeer.
Consumerism and capitalism is destroying the planet. There is no infinite growth in a finite world. We must collectively draw down our consumption. It’s in the anarchist quadrant because it’s mostly voluntary, but it’s near the top because authoritarian approaches to de-growth exist.
Beautiful things: Permaculture, ecovillages, salvaged things, buy nothing day. The snail is a sort of mascot, representing slow growth and minimal consumption.
Localists are anti-globalization, pro-decentralization. They’re found on both the right and left politically, and if their vision were fully realized they could probably coexist within their local communities without bothering each other. Traditionalists like the Amish who simply want to be left alone are essentially localists. What differentiates a localist from, say, a solarpunk, is the relative importance new technology holds in their worldview. A localist is happy to make do without solar-powered algae farms in their utopia.
The global systems that have interconnected us are centralized, fragile, oppressive. We should move towards local food systems, communities, and politics.
Beautiful things: Homesteading, local governance, self-sufficiency. Local currencies. Don’t tread on me snake.
The transformative worldview is defined by its embrace of technology, acceleration, and flight from the past. The accelerationist motto, “the only way out is through”, is emblematic. Whether they love or loathe the changes brought by new technology, they think the only way forward involves more technology. The restoration of a mythical past is not possible, we can further transform the world and transform ourselves. Harder, better, faster, stronger.
Bottom Right, Transformative Anarchist
The solarpunk aesthetic was first described in a viral Tumblr post. It resonated with people because it described a version of environmentalism that wasn’t authoritarian or technophobic. I like the term, because I think it describes something that already existed – there’s always been a solarpunk thread in computing, going back to the whole earth catalog. Solarpunks try to strike a balance between nature and technology. Green and urban and scifi. A techno-environmental aesthetic that envisions non-authoritarian green development based on renewables.
Beautiful things: Solar and renewable energy, multiracial art deco cities, plants around buildings and computers, jungle brutalism. Algae, bioluminescence. Fermentation technologies.
“I like to think– Richard Brautigan
(right now please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms”
The original cypherpunks were technologists who saw the way the web was developing into a panopticon of centralized control and didn’t like the authoritarian direction. In the decades since they’ve been hard at work building privacy tools, breaking down information silos, and attempting to re-decentralize the web.
The decentralized web movement is essentially localism online.
Beautiful things: private, personalized, local computing. Locks and keys. Rhizomatic technologies. Octopuses, slime molds, fungal networks, and other decentralized organisms.
Frontier futurists want a new physical frontier to explore. There’s a sense that the pressure and inertia of modern society can be overcome by moving outwards. Most widely embraced as space futurism. Our destiny is to get off the planet and colonize space. But also, sea futurism. Explore the ocean depths, do seasteading for new social experiments. It envisions a proliferation of governance experiments in these new lands.
Beautiful things: Ships, spaceships, rockets. Colonies on the moon and Mars. Autonomous zones like burning man. Dandelions, pollen.
Top Right, Transformative Authoritarian
The most extreme transformative voice. Embrace ever-accelerating change, up to and beyond the limits we can cope with. “The best way out is through.” Xenofeminism: “If nature is unjust, change nature.” There’s a bit of the accelerationist in every technology lover, but the true accelerationist embraces development without regard for consequences. There’s also the political accelerationist, that wants an increase of the instability that will bring about the collapse they long for.
Beautiful things: Speed, inhuman scale, the speed of light, terminal velocity.
Cyberpunk always seems to entail what I call hyperbolic urbanism – city on top of city, more city than you can imagine. Towering buildings and flying cars. And not just the physical city, there’s the virtual city as well: enter the Metaverse. Cyberpunk is a gritty kind of aesthetic that accepts that giant corporations or powerful governments will be driving all this development. A cyberpunk is someone who read Snowcrash or watched Bladerunner and found it inspiring rather than dystopian.
Beautiful things: Megacities, flying cars, neon lights and urban haze. Holograms, VR, the Metaverse. Hong Kong.
Transhumanism embraces technology, but not at the expense of the human. The transhumanist mission is to achieve functional immortality, and augment humans to keep up with advancements in robotics and AI. “Death is a disease to be overcome.” The future will be better than the past because we will transcend our flawed humanity through technology. Embrace bioengineering and augmentations. Our destiny is to merge with the machines and improve ourselves, or become irrelevant. Humanity’s next greatest project is itself. The xeno-feminist strand of transhumanism seeks to abolish gender through technology. “If nature is unjust, change nature.” You might be a transhumanist if you’re taking hormones, you’ve got a magnet or RFID chip embedded under your skin, you’d sign up to be a Neuralink beta user, you’ve banked your stem cells, or have a cryogenic preservation plan upon death.
Beautiful things: Biohacking, cryogenics, nootropics, designer babies, prosthetics, implants. Cyborgs.
Fully Automated Luxury Communism
Star trek communism. Keep the factories, just seize them and redistribute.
Beautiful things: Universal Basic Income
https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-06-11/degrowth-and-the-emerging-mosaic-of-alternatives/ – “focus on growth, productivity gains and redistribution and tend to prefer vertical forms of organization, vs. anarchist movements that rely on self-organization from the bottom up and fundamentally question economic growth.”
Neoliberal urbanism is a worldview I was exposed to on Twitter that is pro-tech, but wants more human-sized cities. I placed it somewhere between restorative and transformative, because the technologies it wants are quite common elsewhere: bicycle lanes, a fast and efficient train system, walkable streets, cities with more room for families. It’s only a utopian vision in SF, where these things seem practically unattainable.
Beautiful things: Asian train systems and bicycle lanes, European streets and plazas, corner groceries. Singapore.
That’s my sense of the landscape. Clearly I know more about the right quadrants, because I belong over there. I’m very opinionated along the x-axis – transformative utopianism all the way. I’m most solidly rooted in the cypherpunk camp, but I sympathize with all anarchist visions, and could probably be happy in an authoritarian but transformative world. My dystopia is the world of the authoritarian traditionalist. I dislike the aesthetics, and think the vision of a future that looks more like the past is regressive and uncreative.
My research methodology is: meeting people, participating in scenes, and culture spelunking on Twitter. If you think I’ve missed something or have something totally wrong, shoot me line on Twitter @arcalinea.