Tag Archives: utopia

The difference between utopia and dystopia is doing the dishes

I believe in public funding for science and especially revolutionary, high-risk/high-reward projects.  Most of those projects will fail. That scares the funding agencies. It looks like a lot of wasted money. But I think that’s the price for innovation.

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We need to fill the beginning of the pipeline with lots of good ideas. When something works, there will be plenty of motivation to move it down the pipe. There are big rewards at the end of the pipe. I think that’s great. I just want there to be more support at the beginning.

For projects that do have support (and not necessarily government support), I also see the little human weaknesses as a real problem holding back important projects. The two projects that come to mind are Open Source Ecology and Paul Wheaton’s Permaculture community.

This article (brilliantly titled The Post-Apocalypse Survival Machine Nerd Farm) reminded me of what it was like to live with roommates. Not everyone is equally motivated. Not everyone wants to volunteer their hours getting up early to build a DIY tractor. And not everyone knows that about themselves. It sounds amazing: sustainable agriculture, technical puzzles, building great things, sharing new technology with the world… Utopia! But the reality is pooping in a bucket and getting up at 6AM to troubleshoot a burst hydraulic line.

The Permies community ran into a similar issue. The Wheaton Labs Farm invited a bunch of people to come out and live and plant and experiment with sustainable agriculture. But people didn’t want to do dishes or do the hand towel laundry. A lot of the unsustainable parts of our culture are a direct result of our coping with these little irresponsible things. Why use paper plates and paper towels? Because nobody wants to take care of the dishes and laundry.

The bottom line is that there are natural resources and technology… but getting people to cooperate and do the unpleasant work is the hard part. That’s no surprise, I suppose. It’s just funny that the difference between utopia and dystopia… at the micro level… is  doing the dishes.

 

 

Utopian communities sharing their experiences online

I get the impression that there are not all that many people interested in Utopia (as a concept). Maybe we’re a bit more skeptical than folks were in the 1800s. Or maybe charismatic leaders just don’t gain so much traction in an era with electronic criminal records and background checks.

The good parts of living with room mates were really good. A built in social network and a always-on source of good conversation and affirmation? Yeah. Doing other peoples’ dishes… not so much.

I follow three projects with utopian visions:

Open Source Ecology

Paul Wheaton’s Permaculture community

Focus Fusion

I love that these folks are putting their experiences out there. It’s exciting to see folks trying to build something grand. It’s even interesting to watch the setbacks. I don’t know how much popular interest there is in this kind of thing.

 

 

 

The End of Hob: Dresden Codak, IEEE and the Singularity

The Hob Series at Dresden Codak seems to have resolved. I can tell you that it is a good story because I am still thinking about it. It’s funny that it would resolve today. Coincidentally, I was thinking about the Simpsons quote which I remember imperfectly:

Flanders‘ son: “What do taxes pay for, Daddy?”

Ned Flanders: “Why, taxes pay for all kinds of things! Roads, sunshine, the air we breathe, and all those people who just don’t feel like workin’, lord love em’.”

So, here’s the question (mostly hypothetical): If we could make a largely automated system that could provide basic needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, basic medical needs) to everyone with only 1% of the worlds population working (a volunteer force, effectively) would that be a good thing? There would still be lots of places for people to have gainful employment – entertainment, service, luxury goods, etc. But nobody would have to work at all if they didn’t feel like it. Would it be a better world, or a worse one?

When I was younger, I thought that would be a better world. I am not so sure any more. Utopia seems a lot more oppressive than it used to.

 

Dresden Codak’s Hob is a 24 page graphic novella. The author, Aaron Diaz, explores themes of futurism and psychology. The way he weaves his characters’ subtle family drama and childhood baggage into the story is quite remarkable. Of the whole story, this quote struck me as most poetic “[the thinking machines] can give you anything you want, save relevance.”

The futurist vision is the new synthesis of occult dreams and new science. The promise is whole new worlds and the time to explore them. Infinite wealth and immortality.

It is as abhorrent to some as it is seductive to others. IEEE spectrum wrote up a while issue on it; it’s not as fringe as you might think. They call it the Singularity. Will we ‘evolve’ to become one with machines? Will organic humans still be relevant? Relevance is the question on my mind when I read this. What makes people relevant?

I think it’s different from the things that make people “good” or “worthy” or “interesting.” Those don’t have the same grim connotation. People can lack any of those qualities and still we would keep them around. But what about irrelevance?

They say the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. That’s why I don’t trust Utopia anymore. I’m not sure that many of us could survive not being needed.

-Peter

green politics, chemistry, utopia and simplistic economics: greenwashing

Green is fashionable now, and that is great. “Green chemistry” is becoming a buzz word, and that is great, too: “green is the new nano!” Nanotechnology, as we all know, is derived from the Greek root meaning “successful grant application.”

If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have told you all about the Future when we would do away with material scarcity and people would have “enough“. I was young and naive. There is enough right now. And I’m not a communist: I don’t think the solution is taking it away from those who have in order to give to those who have not. The solution is not try to make more stuff, but to try to live a happy life. The solution is not to satisfy more wants, but to want good things. The solution is not for the rich to have less, but for people to see each others’ needs instead of their own desires. A happy culture is one that values service over material prosperity.

Where does Green fit into this? It’s hubris to think that we can grab the world by the carbon and shake the prosperity out of it. “Better living through chemistry,” is only half of the issue. We can make more stuff (e.g. chemicals, beef, plastic, homes, anything), but it has to be directed by a culture of service or it is just that: stuff. For it to be wealth, it has to represent substantive connections between people. Green can be just more stuff, or it can start to recognize the interdependent nature of the scientific game we are all playing. Our research means better living not through chemistry, but through the contribution we make to a safer, cleaner world – a goal that is only definable in terms of our connectedness to it and to each other.

The big upshot is that green is good, but look out for “greenwashing.” Greenwashing is where an organization cashes in on the Public Relations benefits of going green without making changes that reflect the rhetoric. It’s the same with the term ‘organic.’ It’s fine, but be careful that it represents what you think it represents. As Mark Bittman tells us in his TED talk while chilean farmed salmon fed organic chicken bones flown on ice in a huge freight plane from south america to your doorstep may be technically organic, it doesn’t represent the ideals. It’s elitist and unsustainable and the green sticker doesn’t change that.

-Peter