Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Many philosophers think that a Utopia, a perfect society that everyone would clearly benefit from, is impossible. Even the name comes from the Greek words for "No Place."

Novels have been written on the idea, and yesterday I read a series of articles proclaiming that all of them were inherently drab, dull, and crappy. Part of this is because happy, pleased characters aren't interesting to read about -- interesting stories are about conflict, drama, pain, and anguish.

However, the other side is that it's hard to make people really, truly happy. Most previous attempts at describing Utopias mostly described the absence of what annoyed the writer the most. Medieval descriptions of heaven revolved around opulence and leisure, the precise opposite of most people's existences that consisted of drudgery and poverty. So people angry about unfair conditions in employment have Utopias of every single human being independently wealthy. People angry about social injustice have Utopias about resolutions of these problems. George Orwell said that if there was a writer with a chronic toothache, his Utopia would be entirely about free dentistry. And this is not the whole picture, of course.

Utopia would clearly be a place of varied experience, since we as humans are very homeostatic -- we rebound to any condition we are thrust upon, and experience whatever the status quo is as normal. Discomfort would still exist, but it would be brief, and the escape from it joyous. Coercion hurts people, so every action that occurred would be voluntary. This is starting to sound very familiar....

In fact, this is utterly reminding me of a story I read on Kuro5hin, "The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect," in which humankind has this situation abruptly thrust upon them by a strong AI who, through a speculative loophole in physics, achieves apotheosis for the explicit purpose of achieving Asimov's three laws.

For reference:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The AI in that story interprets the first law as meaning that no human can ever be allowed to die, experience pain without their definite consent, or be imperiled in any fashion. The ending of that story really truly pissed me off.

I also recall a second incident in which people reacted poorly to Utopian results. There is an online game that I play regularly, and in the past, two devastating bugs were discovered at once. In one, currency could be underflowed. (This means that losing money while possessing none would wrap around to having the maximum possible amount of money.) This was compounded by the creator's choice of a very large variable for currency values, a quadword (4 bytes), so this maximum was about 15 quintillion. The second one allowed arbitrary item duplication. The net result of this was a brief period in which nearly every player was mind-bogglingly rich and in-game items were as common as dirt. In short, the techno-communism similar to "Star Trek" and other science fiction works.

Now if this could somehow happen in reality, I'd hang up this blog, call it a day, and sit back to enjoy the opulence. Alas, in the game people complained endlessly about not being able to make more money, about the loss of status, and endlessly complained that the newly wealthy's new wealth was fundamentally unfair, even though they failed to hold onto this wealth when the bugs were fixed about a month later. The game maker's response was to provide in-game actions to reduce the amount of currency, which is now almost back to normal. A few large pools of wealth remain, but the wealthiest people are some of the least active participants in the game's economy.

So if somehow every human became wealthy, but rather than leading to inflation, goods still got produced in record numbers, would people complain about this situation? In a word where everyone is wealthy, Veblen goods are useless. (Veblen goods are things that are bought more when the price is raised, on the sort of snob-appeal that the "riff-raff" cannot afford them. Things like expensive perfume, top-end luxury cars, and the like. Decreasing the price actually ruins the snob appeal.) You do not have the right to Veblen goods, you never did, and you never will. What makes them Veblen is the exclusion, and what makes their existence tolerable is their non-essential-ness.

In short, if Utopia can't happen, it's because people are greedy, spiteful, whining jerks.


Solace said...

Awesome Post!

Just found this blog when searching about automated farms, pretty cool stuff you've got here.

In order for a utopia to exist ego's would need to be eliminated.

The average income in the USA has doubled in the past 20 years (taking into account inflation) yet people are no happier than before.

This is simply because in order for an ego to be appeased it must be better than others in some way.

Hence why expensive frivilous items exist, they are to please the ego. If everyone could afford them they wouldn't be special, would have no effect on the ego and thus would not make people happy.

10 years ago if you had a cell phone you'd feel awesome, because you have the latest and greatest new thing, now that everyone and their dog has a cell phone it's provides very little happiness.

themadengineer said...

Thank you for your kind words.

I never thought of it in terms of big egos, but that aptly describes the problem.

If you liked the automated farm stories, you might also enjoy this post, in which I describe a contained underground farm, my attempt at describing automated farming, not very successful since much of what can be automated already is, and this one, in which I propose brining earthly plant life to another planet.

If you have any ideas of further plans I could draw up, I would like to hear them.

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