Utopian hope versus reality

by Mitchell_Porter11 min read11th Jan 201254 comments

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I've seen an interesting variety of utopian hopes expressed recently. Raemon's "Ritual" sequence of posts is working to affirm the viability of LW's rationalist-immortalist utopianism, not just in the midst of an indifferent universe, but in the midst of an indifferent society. Leverage Research turn out to be social-psychology utopians, who plan to achieve their world of optimality by unleashing the best in human nature. And Russian life-extension activist Maria Konovalenko just blogged about the difficulty of getting people to adopt anti-aging research as the top priority in life, even though it's so obvious to her that it should be.

This phenomenon of utopian hope - its nature, its causes, its consequences, whether it's ever realistic, whether it ever does any good - certainly deserves attention and analysis, because it affects, and even afflicts, a lot of people, on this site and far beyond. It's a vast topic, with many dimensions. All my examples above have a futurist tinge to them - an AI singularity, and a biotech society where rejuvenation is possible, are clearly futurist concepts; and even the idea of human culture being transformed for the better by new ideas about the mind, belongs within the same broad scientific-technological current of Utopia Achieved Through Progress. But if we look at all the manifestations of utopian hope in history, and not just at those which resemble our favorites, other major categories of utopia can be observed - utopia achieved by reaching back to the conditions of a Golden Age; utopia achieved in some other reality, like an afterlife.

The most familiar form of utopia these days is the ideological social utopia, to be achieved once the world is run properly, according to the principles of some political "-ism". This type of utopia can cut across the categories I have mentioned so far; utopian communism, for example, has both futurist and golden-age elements to its thinking. The new society is to be created via new political forms and new philosophies, but the result is a restoration of human solidarity and community that existed before hierarchy and property... The student of utopian thought must also take note of religion, which until technology has been the main avenue through which humans have pursued their most transcendental hopes, like not having to die.

But I'm not setting out to study utopian thought and utopian psychology out of a neutral scholarly interest. I have been a utopian myself and I still am, if utopianism includes belief in the possibility (though not the inevitability) of something much better. And of course, the utopias that I have taken seriously are futurist utopias, like the utopia where we do away with death, and thereby also do away with a lot of other social and psychological pathologies, which are presumed to arise from the crippling futility of the universal death sentence.

However, by now, I have also lived long enough to know that my own hopes were mistaken many times over; long enough to know that sometimes the mistake was in the ideas themselves, and not just the expectation that everyone else would adopt them; and long enough to understand something of the ordinary non-utopian psychology, whose main features I would nominate as reconciliation with work and with death. Everyone experiences the frustration of having to work for a living and the quiet horror of physiological decline, but hardly anyone imagines that there might be an alternative, or rejects such a lifecycle as overall more bad than it is good.

What is the relationship between ordinary psychology and utopian psychology? First, the serious utopians should recognize that they are an extreme minority. Not only has the whole of human history gone by without utopia ever managing to happen, but the majority of people who ever lived were not utopians in the existentially revolutionary sense of thinking that the intolerable yet perennial features of the human condition might be overthrown. The confrontation with the evil aspects of life must usually have proceeded more at an emotional level - for example, terror that something might be true, and horror at the realization that it is true; a growing sense that it is impossible to escape; resignation and defeat; and thereafter a permanently diminished vitality, often compensated by achievement in the spheres of work and family.

The utopian response is typically made possible only because one imagines that there is a specific alternative to this process; and so, as ideas about alternatives are invented and circulated, it becomes easier for people to end up on the track of utopian struggle with life, rather than the track of resignation, which is why we can have enough people to form social movements and fundamentalist religions, and not just isolated weirdos. There is a continuum between full radical utopianism and very watered-down psychological phenomena which hardly deserve that name, but still have something in common - for example, a person who lives an ordinary life but draws some sustenance from the possibility of an afterlife of unspecified nature, where things might be different, and where old wrongs might be righted - but nonetheless, I would claim that the historically dominant temperament in adult human experience has been resignation to hopelessness and helplessness in ultimate matters, and an absorption in affairs where some limited achievement is possible, but which in themselves can never satisfy the utopian impulse.

The new factor in our current situation is science and technology. Our modern history offers evidence that the world really can change fundamentally, and such further explosive possibilities as artificial intelligence and rejuvenation biotechnology are considered possible for good, tough-minded, empirical reasons, not just because they offer a convenient vehicle for our hopes.

Technological utopians often exhibit frustration that their pet technologies and their favorite dreams of existential emancipation aren't being massively prioritized by society, and they don't understand why other people don't just immediately embrace the dream when they first hear about it. (Or they develop painful psychological theories of why the human race is ignoring the great hope.) So let's ask, what are the attitudes towards alleged technological emancipation that a person might adopt?

One is the utopian attitude: the belief that here, finally, one of the perennial dreams of the human race can come true. Another is denial: which is sometimes founded on bitter experience of disappointment, which teaches that the wise thing to do is not to fool yourself when another new hope comes up to you and cheerfully asserts that this time really is different. Another is to accept the possibility but deny the utopian hope. I think this is the most important interpretation to understand.

It is the one that precedent supports. History is full of new things coming to pass, but they have never yet led to utopia. So we might want to scrutinize our technological projections more closely, and see whether the utopian expectation is based on overlooking the downside. For example, let us contrast the idea of rejuvenation and the idea of immortality - not dying, ever. Just because we can take someone who is 80 and make them biologically 20, is not the same thing as making them immortal. It just means that won't die of aging, and that when they do die, it will be in a way befitting someone 20 years old. They'll die in an accident, or a suicide, or a crime. Incidentally, we should also note an element of psychological unrealism in the idea of never wanting to die. Forever is a long time; the whole history of the human race is about 10,000 years long. Just 10,000 years is enough to encompass all the difficulties and disappointments and permutations of outlook that have ever happened. Imagine taking the whole history of the human race into yourself; living through it personally. It's a lot to have endured.

It would be unfair to say that transhumanists as a rule are dominated by utopian thinking. Perhaps just as common is a sort of futurological bipolar disorder, in which the future looks like it will bring "utopia or oblivion", something really good or something really bad. The conservative wisdom of historical experience says that both these expectations are wrong; bad things can happen, even catastrophes, but life keeps going for someone - that is the precedent - and the expectation of total devastating extinction is just a plunge into depression as unrealistic as the utopian hope for a personal eternity; both extremes exhibiting an inflated sense of historical or cosmic self-importance. The end of you is not the end of the world, says this historical wisdom; imagining the end of the whole world is your overdramatic response to imagining the end of you - or the end of your particular civilization.

However, I think we do have some reason to suppose that this time around, the extremes are really possible. I won't go so far as to endorse the idea that (for example) intelligent life in the universe typically turns its home galaxy into one giant mass of computers; that really does look like a case of taking the concept and technology with which our current society is obsessed, and projecting it onto the cosmic unknown. But just the humbler ideas of transhumanity, posthumanity, and a genuine end to the human-dominated era on Earth, whether in extinction or in transformation. The real and verifiable developments of science and technology, and the further scientific and technological developments which they portend, are enough to justify such a radical, if somewhat nebulous, concept of the possible future. And again, while I won't simply endorse the view that of course we shall get to be as gods, and shall get to feel as good as gods might feel, it seems reasonable to suppose that there are possible futures which are genuinely and comprehensively better than anything that history has to offer - as well as futures that are just bizarrely altered, and futures which are empty and dead.

So that is my limited endorsement of utopianism: In principle, there might be a utopianism which is justified. But in practice, what we have are people getting high on hope, emerging fanaticisms, personal dysfunctionality in the present, all the things that come as no surprise to a cynical student of history. The one outcome that would be most surprising to a cynic is for a genuine utopia to arrive. I'm willing to say that this is possible, but I'll also say that almost any existing reference to a better world to come, and any psychological state or social movement which draws sublime happiness from the contemplation of an expected future, has something unrealistic about it.

In this regard, utopian hope is almost always an indicator of something wrong. It can just be naivete, especially in a young person. As I have mentioned, even non-utopian psychology inevitably has those terrible moments when it learns for the first time about the limits of life as we know it. If in your own life you start to enter that territory for the first time, without having been told from an early age that real life is fundamentally limited and frustrating, and perhaps with a few vague promises of hope, absorbed from diverse sources, to sustain you, then it's easy to see your hopes as, not utopian hopes, but simply a hope that life can be worth living. I think this is the experience of many young idealists in "environmental" and "social justice" movements; their culture has always implied to them that life should be a certain way, without also conveying to them that it has never once been that way in reality. The suffering of transhumanist idealists and other radical-futurist idealists, when they begin to run aground on the disjunction between their private subcultural expectations and those of the culture at large, has a lot in common with the suffering of young people whose ideals are more conventionally recognizable; and it is entirely conceivable that for some generation now coming up, rebellion against biological human limitations will be what rebellion against social limitations has been for preceding generations.

I should also mention, in passing, the option of a non-utopian transhumanism, something that is far more common than my discussion so far would mention. This is the choice of people who expect, not utopia, but simply an open future. Many cryonicists would be like this. Sure, they expect the world of tomorrow to be a great place, good enough that they want to get there; but they don't think of it as an eternal paradise of wish-fulfilment that may or may not be achieved, depending on heroic actions in the present. This is simply the familiar non-utopian view that life is overall worth living, combined with the belief that life can now be lived for much longer periods; the future not as utopia, but as more history, history that hasn't happened yet, and which one might get to personally experience. If I was wanting to start a movement in favor of rejuvenation and longevity, this is the outlook I would be promoting, not the idea that abolishing death will cure all evils (and not even the idea that death as such can be abolished; rejuvenation is not immortality, it's just more good life). In the spectrum of future possibilities, it's only the issue of artificial intelligence which lends some plausibility to extreme bipolar futurism, the idea that the future can be very good (by human standards) or very bad (by human standards), depending on what sort of utility functions govern the decision-making of transhuman intelligence.

That's all I have to say for now. It would be unrealistic to think we can completely avoid the pathologies associated with utopian hope, but perhaps we can moderate them, if we pay attention to the psychology involved.

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History is full of new things coming to pass, but they have never yet led to utopia.

I don't know - imagine a time traveler going back 500 years, and trying to convince an average European nobleman about the benefits that would come from improvements in science and technology, by describing today's Western Europe - warm water, light, and quality clothes for everybody! Even a peasant can afford to travel to the other side of the world in a few hours! People live to eighty years old, with much less diseases and crippling injuries! Death by violence is rare and scandalous, and there haven't been any wars in Western Europe for over sixty years! Nearly everybody can read, and watch amazing shows from the comfort of his home!

It would probably sound like Utopia to him, and even more so to a peasant of the time. Current western civilization looks a lot like Utopia Gone Right to me, at least compared to the wide majority of human history.

(Note that actually getting those results may not actually be a matter of science and technology; the progress we got may mostly come from things like improvements to agriculture which allowed a larger portion of the population to do something else - the actual causes of the great improvements we saw are debated)

As Eliezer wrote:

Once upon a time, there was a man who was convinced that he possessed a Great Idea. Indeed, as the man thought upon the Great Idea more and more, he realized that it was not just a great idea, but the most wonderful idea ever. The Great Idea would unravel the mysteries of the universe, supersede the authority of the corrupt and error-ridden Establishment, confer nigh-magical powers upon its wielders, feed the hungry, heal the sick, make the whole world a better place, etc. etc. etc.

The man was Francis Bacon, his Great Idea was the scientific method, and he was the only crackpot in all history to claim that level of benefit to humanity and turn out to be completely right.

[-][anonymous]10y 13

I don't know - imagine a time traveler going back 500 years, and trying to convince an average European nobleman about the benefits that would come from improvements in science and technology, by describing today's Western Europe - warm water, light, and quality clothes for everybody! Even a peasant can afford to travel to the other side of the world in a few hours! People live to eighty years old, with much less diseases and crippling injuries! Death by violence is rare and scandalous, and there haven't been any wars in Western Europe for over sixty years! Nearly everybody can read, and watch amazing shows from the comfort of his home!

Can you name a change in culture or norms that he would approve of? I'm pretty sure this isn't just a case of eutopia being scary but more a case of "well those paper clip maximizers are warm, healthy and can travel the world, but my value system is practically extinct, so I'm not too pleased with this future".

Also for some strange reason some LessWrongers think that his values extrapolated to encompass a better understanding of the natural world would converge with our own. Oh sure he'd probably say slide more forager on say the farmer vs. forager continuum of Robin Hanson than he did in his time, but moral change in the past few centuries can not be separated from peculiar historical forces.

Can you name a change in culture or norms that he would approve of? I'm pretty sure this isn't just a case of eutopia being scary but more a case of "well those paper clip maximizers are warm, healthy and can travel the world, but my value system is practically extinct, so I'm not too pleased with this future".

Maybe only a small minority would recognize that promise as a Utopia, but for them, it'd still be a case of a Utopia that does actually happen. (I'm not sure it would be that small a minority, those who care a lot about abstract principles - nerds like us, religious fanatics, political activists - are a minority)

I find it quite likely that widespread immortality or uploading, or presence of a powerful Friendly AI would severely alter norms and culture, yet I still think those would be mostly good things (though for uploading, I think I'd rather avoid a Hansonian em scenario). Norms adapt as the conditions of life, the economy in the broad sense, change.

[-][anonymous]10y 5

(I'm not sure it would be that small a minority, those who care a lot about abstract principles - nerds like us, religious fanatics, political activists - are a minority)

This is a great point. I'm pretty sure that if people thought about it rationality most would prefer Brave New World to what we have. I don't think I would, precisely because I'm part of the weird group that is pretty attached to some abstract principles. However please note that on average person in the Middle Ages took religion very seriously.

However please note that on average person in the Middle Ages took religion very seriously.

What is the evidence for that? How do we know about the attitudes of the peasants toward religion?

Right. I personally prefer the aesthetics and morals of the past, their sense of dignity, to the technological comforts of today. This is admittedly said in comfort, but I would never willingly trade away virtue for comfort, or fun. Like Hofstadter, I remain somewhat disgusted at the aesthetics of transhumanism, and think of myself as fundamentally opposed to what they stand for. And I remain annoyed that people who think superintelligence is possible still think death is something permanent. Yeah, it's bad, but you'll get to see them again after the resurrection if you don't end up in hell. Less Wrong, I ask you again: why do you worship the Fun god? Do you truly have no greater vision than the one produced by Eliezer's contemptible aesthetics? (Sorry Eliezer, but thank you for having the good sense to be meta about their significance.)

I suspect that if you articulated an equally concrete alternative and invited comparison, you'd discover that support for what is articulated in the Fun Theory sequence isn't nearly as strong as you imply here. But being concrete about it is the tricky part.

It's easy to endorse a Fun-based morality when we only think about it in the context of a vaguely defined post-scarcity environment, just as it's easy to endorse a God-based morality when we only think about it in the context of a vaguely defined eternity. As with most moral frameworks, the difficulty comes when we come back out of the clouds and try to apply it to our actual lives.

If you have succeeded in doing so with your own life and your preferred moral framework, I salute you. If you can articulate that moral framework and how it guides your choices, even better.

Only vaguely relatedly: personally, I think the primary danger of terms like "Fun," or "God's Will," or the various other words we've made up over the centuries to refer to the terminal value(s) that supposedly underlie all the values we know about is that talking about them too much makes it easy for us to believe they exist, even when we don't have much evidence supporting that belief. Since I'm pretty skeptical that any such thing exists, or that the closest analog to it that exists is coherent enough to make having a single word for it useful, my feelings about it are mixed.

Yeah, it's bad, but you'll get to see them again after the resurrection if you don't end up in hell.

Could you elaborate? Do you use the terms "resurrection" and "hell" as they are usually understood?

"Usually understood" is a pretty tricky thing to pin down. The popular conceptions of these ideas are definitely not the same as the Catholics' conception, nor do the popular conceptions do justice to the amount of uncertainty that the Church freely admits to having. People seem to have a lot of trouble with words from a different literary genre than the one they're used to: they tend to either assume that words from different genre must either be designating entirely different things or the exact same thing, rather than differing but complementary and comparable designators of a shared underlying reality. So when I talk about "angels and demons" and "transhuman intelligences" as if they were very similar things people seem to suspect that some sort of word game or trickery is afoot wherein connotations will be unfairly snuck in. Given this epistemic situation I can't really honestly answer your question in a way that doesn't make me look transparently stupid or willfully obscurantist. I will say that when I think about resurrection I think about it in terms of superintellgience and quantum information theory rather than in terms of God and Revelations.

PS: Typed on iPhone keyboard, sorry for all the mistakes.

When and where in the past are you talking about, and what do you mean by dignity?

All of the past up until roughly the dawn of rampant consumerism and advertising. I'm not very familiar with the relevant history but it seems to have been a gradual change starting largely around 1900.

Dignity, propriety, Christian morality, pagan virtue, noble savagery, bestial dharma... things that so many atheists, humanists, and transhumanists throw aside because they don't see why they're there. Conservatism. Chesterton. Monogamy. Applying good taste to the living of ones life, acting as if one were to be made a final cause, as if ones actions had a real effect on eternity. Having real principles. Self-restraint. Having a reason for existence greater than the temporary gratification of misunderstood desires, e.g. serving God or attaining enlightenment. Unsophisticated but rigorously applied common sense as opposed to elaborate rationalization or unreflective endorsement.

Actually caring deeply about what morality might be and how one should act on that knowledge.

What's bestial dharma? Google doesn't turn up anything useful.

I just made up the phrase, it's not a very good one. I meant basically how animals are at least true to their natures and instincts and don't pretend to be something they're not. Wolves have more of it than dogs. Chesterton talks about a similar phenomenon among humans when he talks about how pagans did what they did soulfully and authentically, as opposed to modern anti-Christians who only take up paganistic and heathenish ideals and practices more out of a sense of rebellion. I like how folk like Hofstadter and probably a lot postmodern lit geeks and analytic philosophers I don't know about manage to avoid the insincere orthodoxy versus inauthentic rebellion dilemma by jumping out of the system. I'm being vague. I get access to a real keyboard for the first time in weeks later today.

They don't have to agree with our value system for this to be a utopia. They just have to agree that the benefits of living like that outweigh the costs of them having different values. The more religeous people would be against it, but I suspect that at least a large minority of the people would want to move there.

[-][anonymous]10y 3

They don't have to agree with our value system for this to be a utopia.

Actually they do, in order for us to consider the benefits of living like that to outweighs the costs, it has to match some of our values. There is still some overlap between a Medieval peasant and the modern world, this is why we can imagine a fraction of them preferring this existence.

it has to match some of our values.

Our world does. Our values do not. I would consider a world full of happy paperclip maximizers a utopia. Their values in no way match my own.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

I wouldn't.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

They might approve of the elite not being driven by boredom to constantly murder each other in useless duels. They might approve of the wealthy elite sharing the power rather than consolidating it with a king or emperor. They'd probably approve of Cinemax After Dark.

[-][anonymous]10y 6

They might approve of the elite not being driven by boredom to constantly murder each other in useless duels.

You mean an elite that dosen't care about their honour?

They might approve of the wealthy elite sharing the power rather than consolidating it with a king or emperor.

The wealthy elite is sharing power?

They'd probably approve of Cinemax After Dark.

Maybe.

The wealthy elite is sharing power?

With each other, yes.

[-][anonymous]10y -3

And you are certain this is a good thing?

We are not discussing what I think are good things. We are discussing what an average European nobleman 500 years ago might think. I think they would be pleased to hear how much more straightforward it is to buy influence these days, and how unlikely it is that buying that from the wrong person is likely to end up with your head in a basket.

[-][anonymous]10y -2

Depends on who the European nobleman is. A noble-blooded merchant from Venice in the 14th century would have a different perspective to a Frankish Knight of the 8th century.

The set of average european noblemen from 500 years ago does not include 8th century anyones. Yes, I am aware that different people hold different opinions. You asked a very speculative question about what an average member might think. So, thats all I have to say about it.

[-][anonymous]10y 1

Overall I think the nobility in Europe 500 years ago was probably closer to martial values than mercantile values. The difference between these two is what I tried to illustrate, with the example.

BTW A 14th century Italian also isn't someone who lived around 500 years ago either. The example wasn't directly about our 15th/16th century nobleman. Even more the average nobleman, was I think a knight, since they where the lowest and pretty common nobility.

They might approve of the elite not being driven by boredom to constantly murder each other in useless duels.

Apologies, historical pedantry follows...

"Useless" duels started out as a way for nobles to legally murder each other (a mark of class distinction from the commoners who would actually be committing a crime when killing each other -- useless only in the sense that status signalling is useless), but the elites weren't stupid. Dueling evolved from sword-fights to the death to sword-fights to first blood, and then to gun fights with rules that tended to minimize fatal outcomes.*

*A legacy of this is the difference between fencing rules in foil/sabre and epee. IIRC, the former have highly structured rules about advancing and retreating (because being ignoring such things in early duels would get you killed); the latter is much less structured because it is based on duelling after the change from to-the-death to first-blood.

**Though this varied by time and geography. The Russians, for example, had a nasty tendency to toss the "civilizing" rules out the window. The Wild West variant as well.

We are talking about a specific time and place. 500 years ago in Europe a lot of duels were still deadly.

Also, just because duels may have been necessary for gaining and maintaining status at that time doesn't mean that individuals would prefer that the most successful status seeking strategies were so dangerous. Today, you do not risk your life in the status games, and yes I think that would appeal to many average noblemen even 500 years ago.

When I was very young, I was something of a Maoist. Nowadays, not so much. Nonetheless, are you familiar with the notion of labor-aristocracy?

Current western civilization looks a lot like Utopia Gone Right to me, at least compared to the wide majority of human history.

I am imagining a hypothetical Spartan: "Current Laconic civilization looks a lot like Utopia Gone Right to me, at least compared to the wide majority of human history."

He is, of course, ignoring the existence of Helots.

today's Western Europe - warm water, light, and quality clothes for everybody! Even a peasant can afford to travel to the other side of the world in a few hours!

Certainly. However, do they not rely on cheap labor from other nations?

Certainly. However, do they not rely on cheap labor from other nations?

At the moment they USE cheap labor from other nations. Do they RELY on it?

If American factories can be automated to the extent that a few people paid pretty well "babysit" a tremendous amount of production from machines, then this could be done in foreign factories as well. Not everything can be automated, but as long as there is plenty to automate, we can afford to pay people better for the things that (so far) can't be automated. We pay them with all the stuff produced in the automated factories.

A modern American home has no maid or butler or groomsmen or stable boys. Instead it has insanely reliable cars, machines to wash clothing, dishes, clean floors. It has stores that produce meals ready to eat and other machines to enable those meals (ovens, microwaves, crockpots). The point I want to make is we CAN have a much higher standard of living without RELYING on cheap labor. The fact that as long as labor is cheap we will USE it is just pure microeconomics: do things the cheap way.

Even as Asia climbs the ramp of average wage towards 1st world levels (and China is still far behind the West), we have a mass of poor humanity in Africa. I predict that 50 years from now, China will have already risen as a cheap car producer and now be the producer of the best cheap liuxo-cars, having displaced Korea from that category, and the cheap cars will be coming from Africa which by that point will have about the same GDP per capita as China does now.

And by the time Africa gets rich, MANY MANY more things will be automated, and the stock of automation that the human race collectively owns will be gigantic.

We are in a utopia in many ways, and our paying our poorer non-utopian world-mates to do stuff is just what utopians do to help out non-utopians.

We are in a utopia in many ways, and our paying our poorer non-utopian world-mates to do stuff is just what utopians do to help out non-utopians.

Paying our poorer non-utopian world- mates to do stuff is just what utopians do that helps out non-utopians. It certainly isn't to help out non-utopians. In fact often consumers have a slight preference for local made products over products made in (not remarkably high status) other countries. Some (the USA) even subsidize local products so as to beat foreign competition. So this is doing stuff that helps out non-utopians despite ourselves. Thank economics, not us!

Are you saying we should not buy things from poor people?

I am certainly not saying that.

What I am saying is that many of the products we buy every day are produced by cheap laborers whose lives are not-so-great. (This is obvious, of course.) It is not apparent that Western Europe could have its quality of life without this cheap labor. To only take into account Western quality of life when deciding our current society's utopia-status without taking into account the quality of life of our foreign laborers is, well, just not cricket.

Obesity is a worldwide problem, not just a first world one. Imagine: we can now count as a problem having too much food. Food was rationed in Britain just sixty years ago. We have better problems than we did in living memory.

Certainly. I have no problem with modern global society being considered more utopian that all previous societies. Technology is cool like that.

Yes but this trade benefits both parties. While the labor is "cheap" it pays better than if there weren't so many foreign companies building factories in that labor market. So in terms of aggregate quality of life I do not think this can be much of an objection in itself - the fact that all sorts of exploitation typically accompanies such trade not withstanding.

I understand what you are saying though: the total cost in person-hours to maintain a particular standard of living should maybe be taken into account - although I think this can be misleading. For example in places where labor for personal servants is very cheap there are a lot more of them - some of my peers who are from India had several servants working in their home, driving their cars etc. It was almost looked at as an obligation to hire these people. In every other way to measure wealth they made more money after immigrating to the US but of course could not afford such services here.

I am not arguing against globalism. Let me try to make my point more clear.

To only take into account Western quality of life when deciding our current society's utopia-status without taking into account the quality of life of our foreign laborers is, well, just not cricket.

I do not see our foreign laborers as being separable from our current society in such a way that our quality of life could be maintained. As such, when evaluating our society for utopia-status, the existence of these laborers should be taken into account. That is, given our society's current workings, these laborers should be considered members of our society. Under this interpretation, statements such as this:

Nearly everybody can read, and watch amazing shows from the comfort of his home!

are false. Now, I'm not saying that we are not a utopia. However, we certainly are less utopian than was implied by Emile's post.

tl;dr: Society is still a pyramid, the bottom half has now been exported overseas. One mustn't only examine the top half when evaluating for utopia-status.

Interestingly, slavery was a feature of Utopia as described in Thomas More's original book, which happens to have been written by a nobleman, about 500 years ago (it was published in 1516).

I'm not really making any claims about the utopia-status of our society, I'm merely saying that promises of Utopia are not inherently off-mark; the enlightenment people had a lot of mistakes in their expectations for the future, but overall, their optimism and enthusiasm was warranted (my argument depends more on what counts as a "promise of Utopia", rather than what counts as "Utopia").

It's admittedly easier to find examples of Utopias that went horribly horribly wrong (especially in the past century), but when something went right for a society, you can find people that were working towards that goal; the US founding fathers are another example, at that time, nobody expected the US to succeed as a republic (the established wisdom was that democracy may sometimes work for small city states, but of course it could never be functional for a large country).

When I was very young, I was something of a Maoist. Nowadays, not so much. Nonetheless, are you familiar with the notion of labor-aristocracy?

Not much, and wouldn't mind a condensed explanation of the concept, as well as of other concepts in the area you think are useful (I've seen some stuff of value in the general region of Marxist thought, but overall I find that there's too much implicit normative judgement that bleeds into the description; I prefer things to be nice and clean and descriptive).

I find that there's too much implicit normative judgement that bleeds into the description

I'm enjoying this clause a lot.

First, I apologize for the late response.

Old-school Marxists thought that Western workers would rebel. They, as a rule, failed to rebel. When they did rebel, they generally did not violently overthrow the state and install a socialist regime. Nonetheless, they did achieve better working conditions. So, Marxism is wrong, right? Probably. I mean, this is a straight-up falsified prediction.

But nonetheless, revised Marxist theories are still held. Third-Worldists hold that first-world workers are not, let us say, true proles, but are instead labor-aristocrats. That is, they live in relatively close geographic proximity to the bourgeoisie and oppose it being overturned. In exchange, they reap benefits which the true proles, third-world workers, are not exposed to. This forum post seems to be a fairly good summary:

www.revleft.com/vb/another-view-third-t140405/index.html

Simply put, Third Worldism is an attempt to reconcile Marxism with the events of the twentieth century, particularly the latter half, since history has not proceeded exactly as the Marxists originally envisioned. Despite a continuing expansion of the productive forces and the concentration of capital into fewer and fewer hands, the conditions necessary for a new social order have yet to emerge. Far from triumphing, socialism has been beaten back at every turn. In addition, the so-called “advanced” nations, the First World, have found it possible to provide their citizens with all manner of luxuries that earlier generations could not have dreamed of, both in the form of commodities and social services, apparently giving lie to the Marxists' prediction that capitalism's development would push wages, and thereby the working class's condition, ever downward. And far from destroying the middle class, at least in the First World nations, it has preserved it, expanded it and enriched it.

Third Worldism offers a solution to this apparent problem, namely the theory of Labor Aristocracy. This term was originally applied by Engles to describe the leaders of trade unions who peddled opportunism and collaboration with the bourgeoisie. Third Worldists have expanded this to include all workers who have been bribed into servility. Under this expanded definition, the majority of First World workers can be called labor aristocrats. Bribed by access to goods, services and credit, their material interests appear to come closer into alignment with that of capital, precluding viable revolutionary action in the First World.

Ignore most of the forum post, by the way, unless you are interested in Marxism from an anthropological perspective. In fact, even the portion I quoted has a pretty significant amount of incorrectness. And yes, even the descriptive facts has a ton of implicit normative judgement.

Now, I am neither Marxist nor Maoist. I am not even particularly left-wing. I merely hold that our society has as part of its underclass, if it has an underclass, third-world workers. Their standard of living ought to be taken into account when determining our utopia-status.

We may be more utopian than any other society throughout history. Sure, fine. However, I do not see why our local lumpenproles should be considered members of our society when evaluating for utopia-status, but not our foreign proles.

(Apologies for the slang. The words are convenient for talking about this subject.)

[-][anonymous]10y 0

It would probably sound like Utopia to him, and even more so to a peasant of the time. Current western civilization looks a lot like Utopia Gone Right to me, at least compared to the wide majority of human history.

This too shall pass.

Edit: Am I being down voted for my pessimism?

I have noticed lately that we are living in what might be considered a technological utopia by the majority of our ancestors. However, people tend to nearly instantly take new enabling technologies for granted. People are generally just as stressed about their jobs despite the fact that they need relatively little money to achieve to obtain a relatively high level of material wealth by historical standards. Everybody remains just as unhappy and un-actualized. It's a relatively common trope in science fiction to depict a highly technological future where everybody is just as stressed and unhappy as they are now.

This TED talk in particular was illuminating to me:

http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html

I think this was the last straw in eradicating my belief that merely improving people's standard of living will make them happier.

Yes but one of the reasons this is true is we tend to greatly discount all the suffering for ourselves that has been alleviated. Even if we are cynical, there is still less suffering.

This was a good essay. One piece of constructive criticism: it might help to put a summary of your argument at the very top, so that the reader can orient themselves in advance to what you are trying to say.

I should also mention, in passing, the option of a non-utopian transhumanism, something that is far more common than my discussion so far would mention.

This is worth more attention, I think. Look back at the archaeological record and it comes out that phase changes in human lifestyles are often successful for decidedly non-utopian reasons. Skeletons from before the Neolithic Revolution, for example, are taller (a common proxy for nutritional quality) and older at death than those from after; as best we can tell, it looks like early agriculture led to a decline in quality of life. (Neither of these proxies consistently made up the lost ground until the 20th century, although life expectancy caught up somewhere in the Middle Ages if infant mortality is factored out.) Agriculture succeeded anyway because it allowed much higher population densities, pushing the older hunter-gatherer societies to the margins.

There's no anthropological consensus on the causes of the Neolithic Revolution, but it's very unlikely that the first Fertile Crescent tribesmen to domesticate grains did so with eight thousand years of labor and disease in mind. The analogy to transhumanism is fairly straightforward. I don't think we can usefully proclaim any specific outcome (like Robin Hanson's ems, for example) to be historically inevitable, and I certainly don't think the argument's strong enough to support a general precautionary principle (quality-of-life proxies since the Neolithic have largely trended upward, bar a few blips, and we can probably attribute most of that to improved technology). But if you're looking for something to temper utopian hope, you could do worse.

Thanks for writing this, it is a very good analysis of what I sometimes find to be a pretty creepy trend. It helps me understand some of my reservations about this story link that was posted recently.

History is full of new things coming to pass, but they have never yet led to utopia.

This is not convincing because 10,000 years is a pretty small sample size.

[-][anonymous]10y 4

This is vague. While reading, it wasn't clear to me what point you were making. Up until about halfway through the article I wasn't sure whether you were going to simply analyze general cultural attitudes towards utopianism or make a judgement about it yourself. I guess you ended up doing the latter but still, at points I wasn't sure if you were talking in your own voice or in the voice of a hypothetical person possessed of non-utopian psychology (or maybe a cynical student of history).

As I'm criticizing the form I should probably admit that I disagree with the content. In the end what I got from your article is a, once again, vague and overly general condemnation of utopian hope. There are possible specific problems and failure modes associated with hope about the future but you're spreading the criticism too wide. Like when you label some belief about the future as a disorder or say things like "utopian hope is almost always an indicator of something wrong" it seems as if you're accusing all people with hope for the future of constant, useless escapism.

First of all, very good post, and timely. Thank you.

Second of all: this may surprise (perhaps even disappoint) people, but I do not actually want to live forever. I think it’s a reasonable goal, but not one that I’m personally motivated by.

I focused a lot on death in the ritual sequence because I want to establish that this is the bar I'm ultimately setting for humanity. I disagreed with anti-deathism when I first read Eliezer’s take on it, but I was still completely floored by the notion that I’m allowed to look at something as fundamental as death and say “yeah, that’s a problem, we’ll need to fix that eventually.” I love being a 21st century human. There’s loads of amazing things to do that I haven’t even begun to get bored of yet. I care about futurism because I know eventually I’ll have modified away from my current values and want more, but I’m in no particular rush to modify myself that way.

I set the bar so high for humanity (and by extension myself) because I think we strive harder when the bar is higher. My ultimate metric for “is this good” is “is this the thing that will most steer the future towards the ideal?” I don't want to get too attached to any given cause. But given that metric, I think most people should probably be working on object-level projects that they are personally invested in, if only because they'll be more effective at it.

The question’s obviously a lot more complicated than that, but I wanted to make this clarification.

An excellent essay: I commend you, sir.

From time to time is necessary to remember what is hope for. Even here on LW we encounter people with celestial aspirations, speaking of what is good for us combat our enemys. Big questions rapidly come down to rationalizations and unwarranted optimism if we are not careful, one wrong step is sufficient.

In the combat to death research specifically, I think that the best we can do is signup for cryonics and hope for best results.

To be fair, living as one person for 10,000 years wouldn't necessarily let you experience everything that any one of many people did during the same amount of time.

If my goal was to maximize the diversity of my lived experience, I suspect I would not sign up for a several-thousand-year linear lifetime (that is, a lifetime where I remembered all of my past experiences as one sequence of events) at all.

I would far prefer, in that case, to "reset" periodically and live new lives, as well as to experience the recorded lives of others in the first person, depending on what was technologically feasible.

I hate to admit it but sometimes I hope that is what I'm doing.

A total enough "reset" seems to differ from what demonstrably happens entirely in terms of what the label "I" attaches to.