The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Heavens on Earth

published February 2014
Can a scientific utopia succeed?
magazine cover

“There is no scientific law that prevents 100 people who find each other on the Internet from coming together for a month, or 1,000 such people from coming together for a year. And as that increases to 10,000 and 100,000 and beyond, for longer and longer durations, we may begin to see cloud towns, then cloud cities, and ultimately cloud countries materialize out of thin air.” So says Stanford University lecturer Balaji Srinivasan in an article published online by Wired in November 2013. In a talk at the annual conference held by the Silicon Valley start-up-funding organization Y Combinator, he revealed his inspiration to be the classic 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty by the late economist Albert Hirschman: when firms, nations and other organizations begin to stagnate and decline, members or citizens can employ one of two strategies for change— voice their opinions for reform; exit and start anew.

Which strategy is best? It depends on whether the change is brought about through violence or resistance. University of Denver political scientist Erica Chenoweth and her colleague Maria Stephan compared violent and nonviolent revolutions and reforms since 1900. They found that “from 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies.” And: “This trend has been increasing over time, so that in the last 50 years nonviolent campaigns are becoming increasingly successful and common, whereas violent insurgencies are becoming increasingly rare and unsuccessful.” Only a small percentage of a population is necessary to bring about change: “No single campaigns failed after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population.” And if they surpassed the 3.5 percent threshold, all were nonviolent and “often much more inclusive and representative in terms of gender, age, race, political party, class, and the urbanrural distinction.” It’s a faster track to the 3.5 percent magic number when you are more inclusive and participation barriers are low. Plus, nonviolent resistance does not require expensive guns and weapons.

We should keep these data in mind when evaluating utopian schemes. Theists and postmodernist critics of science often label the disastrous Soviet and Nazi utopias as “scientific.” But science was a thin patina covering a deep layer of counter-Enlightenment pastoral paradisiacal fantasies of racial ideology grounded in blood and soil, as documented in Claudia Koonz’s 2003 book The Nazi Conscience (Belknap Press) and in Ben Kiernan’s 2007 book Blood and Soil (Yale University Press). Such utopias can rack up high body counts with a utilitarian calculus in which everyone is presumed to be happy forever. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker explains in The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking, 2011), people who oppose a utopia “are the only things standing in the way of a plan that could lead to infinite goodness. How evil are they? You do the math.”

Which brings us back to Srinivasan, who envisions technoutopian schemes such as Star Trek, in which replicators produce everything anyone could want or need (much like the promise of 3-D printers today). Is this realistic? In his and Steven Kotler’s 2012 book Abundance (Free Press), X Prize founder Peter H. Diamandis says that “humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standard of living for every man, woman and child on the planet. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them.” PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has helped bankroll the Seasteading Institute, whose mission is “to establish permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable experimentation and innovation with diverse social, political, and legal systems.” Google CEO Larry Page has suggested setting aside regions of the world for political and social experimentation. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has outlined colonies on Mars where new social systems could be tried.

I am skeptical of these schemes but not cynical about them. New ideas have to come from somewhere. As long as a technoutopia is based in reality and one can opt out, what’s the harm? As English poet Robert Browning wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?”

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9 Comments to “Heavens on Earth”

  1. Dayton King Says:

    I wholeheartedly concur. Science may have been born of our natural curiosity, but a main driving force behind it has been the desire to better our lives. We may never get it all perfectly figured out, but we should never stop trying. Ideals should not prevent us from making necessary compromises, but that doesn’t mean we should give up our ideals.

  2. Mirza I. Ashraf Says:

    I am skeptical of technoutopia. Scientific societies in the past have played hell on this planet. Today, though everyone is globally connected through cyber net, but no one is in charge. Societies have emerged because of spiritualism, not of scientific materialism. The first invention by the homo erectus was tools to hunt and kill. The same impetus is still alive and modern technology is day by day producing more horrible tools to create havoc. The only way out is through spiritual awakening, by creating a spirituoutopia.

  3. Robert St. John Says:

    . “Scientific societies in the past have played hell on this planet.”

    Where was there any “scientific society?” Of course, there hasn’t been any. If we can keep the politicians out of the way we may develop as “ABUNDANCE” predicts. We hear today that people will choose to works less in the bear future.

    It is good to be skeptical of any Utopia but don’t be too negative.

  4. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    I agree with Dr Schermer… I am skeptical of technoutopias but not cynical. I am surprised anyone thinks that there is some magical level of standard of living which would do away with human greed, envy, resentment, etc.

    Two hundred years ago – the intellectuals probably thought that a world that all but eliminated most of the worst diseases (through sanitation as much as through medicine) and replaced human & animal back-breaking labor with machines would be a utopia. And yet here we are …

    Maybe we’re closer to utopia than we realize. We see all of the short comings of our society … and then some. Our crime rate? Amazingly at low historical values – although few realize it. Corruption? Again, not gone but lower than in previous eras (although you could ask if it is possible for an absolute monarch, chosen by god, to be ‘corrupt’ rather just bad?).

    Technology has made much of the difference … consider that if Aristotle were transported through time to Galileo’s day – he’d see much the same world. Muscle power did most of the work. Life was precarious. Few could read, write or do math – most saw the world as a magical place beyond comprehension. Owning human beings was socially acceptable or even admirable – that is if one acknowledged them as humans. All Aristotle would need is to learn a new language and the fashions of the day and he’d fit it.

    OTOH: if Galileo were transported to 21st century Rome, he’d be hit by a car before he could say “Holy Sh-” He (or his ghost) probably would be stunned by all of the women running around doing as they pleased. He’d also be stunned that even homeless folks knew so much (science) about the world they live in. Even though inequality still abounds (as does slavery) it is not socially acceptable and thus on its way out.

    Science – and its offspring, technology – has transformed humanity by changing how we view the world (and our place in it) and how we think. Those changes have altered our behavior in profound ways.

    Maybe we’re already living in the early days of a science utopia … and future historians will be reading our writings to understand what it was like as humanity was in the process of throwing off the shackles of thought!

  5. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    ** Before anyone strains at a gnat – by ‘inequality’, I do not mean unequal wealth distribution. I mean, Institutional discrimination – the notion that some human beings are inherently less by virtue of race, creed, color, gender, religion, political party, etc…

  6. Roadster Says:

    I was struck by the statement that things formerly reserved for the elite would be available to the masses. C’mon folks, we’re already there. Super accurate watches are available for ten bucks. Even the econobox cars have A/C, electric windows, and automatic transmissions. PC’s are cheap. Air travel is within almost anyone’s grasp. The water is clean and I can get a vacuum cleaner at Goodwill for twleve dollars.

  7. Mirza I. Ashraf Says:

    It is lucky to be living in a highly developed country. Go out and see Africa, India, Bangla Desh, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and all over the world 90% of humanity is living in miserable condition. See how much devastation has been done in the Middle East only to plunder their resources and build a technoutopia at the expense of the rest of the world.

  8. Marc Schneider Says:

    No matter how well intentioned, any kind of utopian fantasy raises concerns. Obviously, we should always strive to improve the way we live and technology has been, on balance, a great benefit. But the idea of utopia bothers me. Nothing humans create is perfect. Although I don’t entirely agree with Mirza Ashraf’s comment, it does illustrate how science and technology have had both positive and negative benefits. That’s certainly true of the internet and social media. To pretend that a future exists when science and technology will banish human want and fulfill all needs is, to me, engaging in a dangerous fantasy. Why is it dangerous? Because once people start thinking at a utopia is possible, they start thinking about ways of overcoming barriers to such a utopia and that, in many cases, means people. I’m not suggesting that scientists are going to set up gulags or concentration camps for opponents, but already we see a kind of scientism developing, where humans are reduced simply to the sum of their biological and neurological processes. Learning about philosopy, literature, history becomes unnecessary because all we need is to follow science. I understand I am perhaps exaggerating a bit, but I find the talk about technoutopia more than a bit disturbing.

    In response to Mirza Ashraf, however, is she suggesting that technology in itself is responsible for the problems of developing countries. That seems rather absurd on the face of it. The problems of these countries isn’t technology per se; it’s political, social, and economic.

  9. Dr. Strangelove Says:

    “Can a scientific utopia succeed?”

    It depends on what you mean by scientific utopia. If you mean technological progress to uplift the standard of living, definitely yes. It’s obvious our standard of living is better than 100 years ago and still getting better. If you mean a society where evil does not exist and everybody’s happy, definitely no. This utopia does not exist even in a small community where everybody is holy. If you doubt it, just ask the priests in the Vatican.

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