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What's your best alternate history utopia?

by Kaj_Sotala1 min read22nd Feb 202133 comments


Fun TheoryWorld Optimization


  • Same level of technology as today
  • Basic human psychology is the same
  • But you are allowed to change prevalent institutions, cultural assumptions etc.

So e.g. if you think that the modern school system is oppressive and traumatizing, you can describe a world that has something else instead. But you should describe the alternative at least a bit - what kids do with their time instead and how they learn skills and are selected into jobs. Don't just say "no school", give us a positive alternative vision.

Within those constraints, you're allowed to change as much as you like and can think of.

What's your utopia like?

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11 Answers

  • The CIA didn't support the 1953 Iranian coup d'état. Instead, the Shah continued its process of political liberalization. By 2021, Iran has become a shining example of liberal Islam, with ripple effects on the surrounding region.
  • Much of education is rote memorization. The backbone of rote memorization should be spaced repetition software instead of paper assignments and paper-like assignments. In particular, spaced repetition software with judicious use of machine learning on the backend. Technically this breaks the rule of "Same level of technology as today" but I feel it should count on the grounds that I am personally inventing this technology using off-the-shelf infrastructure.
  • Wider (but not total) spread of religions promoting vegetarianism, kosher and halal.
  • Redesign US cities by reducing free parking, increasing bicycle lanes and eliminating zoning laws that separate work from home.
  • Everyone (worldwide) drives on the same side of the road.
  • Electrons are positively charged. Protons are negatively charged. Positrons are called negitrons.
  • Don't kill all the passenger pigeons, dodo birds and Galápagos tortoises. Eliminate the social prestige of eating endangered species.
  • Establish an effective international governing body for maximizing the sustainable harvesting of oceanic fish.

Technically this breaks the rule of "Same level of technology as today" but I feel it should count on the grounds that I am personally inventing this technology using off-the-shelf infrastructure.

Yeah I think that "something that's perfectly doable with today's technology without requiring novel breakthroughs, nobody has just bothered putting that particular application together" is within the spirit of "same level of technology". 

The 1953 Iranian coup strengthened the Iranian monarchy and overthrew Mossadegh the Prime Minister. And Britain would have got Mossadegh out anyway - they were fighting on the ownership of oil installations. If a British-backed coup ended up failing, Iran would probably have been pushed into the arms of Soviet Union. (Just like Nasser in Egypt after the Suez crisis) We could have ended up with an Arab conquest of Israel - if Iran allowed Soviet forces to move into Soviet-leaning Iraq and Syria in 1967.

In particular, spaced repetition software with judicious use of machine learning on the backend. Technically this breaks the rule of "Same level of technology as today


I'm pretty sure this definitely exists today in apps like Duolingo and Khan Academy, at the very least the originator of spaced repetition wrote an article about it in 1998: https://www.supermemo.com/en/archives1990-2015/english/ol/nn_train

An allegedly effective manual spaced-repetition system: flashcards in a shoebox with dividers. You take cards from the divider at one end and redistribute them by how well you recall. I haven't tried this, but maybe I will since notecards have some advantages over a computer at a desk or a phone.

(It turns out I was trying to remember the Leitner system, which is slightly different.)

The FairTax proposal of 1999 rapidly gained steam among the public due to Steve Jobs embracing it and touting how all sides would benefit, through a groundbreaking commercial campaign which made it obvious the income tax system benefited tax lawyers above all others. Politicians on all sides found themselves forced to support it or face the wrath of constituents. The bill passed, and America prepared for the century-old income tax system to be replaced with something modern and computerized.

Starting on Jan 1, 2001, every American citizen received a monthly tax rebate of the exact same fixed dollar amount instead of a yearly tax refund. (They also got their final income tax refund or made their final income tax payment around April.) Some people complained, but most people simply put it in their savings or checking accounts and hailed the end of the FICA payroll tax.

When the planes knocked down the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, a recession started. But a marvelous thing happened: it didn't hurt the underclasses as much as previous recessions. The monthly "prebate" acted as a guaranteed income stream for people out of work, and the burden on unemployment and welfare systems was substantially reduced. The tax burdens on small businesses were not as onerous, because the big companies that could pay for legislative loopholes in the past didn't make out like bandits and leave small business to pay the tab. Used goods such as thrift stores boomed. Even as income inequality rose, standards of living rose for the lower classes.

As the country's economy rebuilt, the startlingly positive outcome resulted in numerous books and papers hailing the FairTax's success. The prebate had functioned as a "national dividend" which some called "universal basic income." A side effect was noted: the national treasury had been decoupled from labor. The futurists who'd been warning of automation's ills realized that half of the problem had been solved.

Another startling reform gained steam: universal welfare. The plan was to replace all means-tested welfare with a flat welfare check for all, spending on the people an amount that would have gone to bureaucrats to prevent those well-off from receiving public funds that had been extracted from their businesses by taxation.

It passed in 2006, and the income went through the same channels (paper checks and direct deposit) that people received the FairTax. Individual housing became more affordable for all families of every background.

There was no crash in 2008.

The foreclosures weren't as severe, and the assets never became toxic. Instead, America started paying down its debt, as the more people spent on consumer goods and services, the more taxes the government collected. Other countries started adopting similar programs, and similarly thriving.

Income inequality began being seen as a good thing, because the "whales" paid for everything. The more the billionaires thrived, the more the people got.

Cribbing from my answer to Top Time Travel Interventions

Voting theory got started earlier and got further. Bentham, Condorcet, and Borda all talked more, and more publicly. By the time of the founding fathers of the United States of America, better voting methods than plurality were known, and known more fully. Democracy in the USA is set up with a better voting method, and this becomes the template for better methods in other democracies around the world.

The USA never develops a two-party system, instead developing a multi-party system which represents many viewpoints. Politics is overall more sane, as it depends less on us-vs-them mentality.

As a result of saner and better politics, all manner of better policies get implemented. When economics gets good at giving advice, governments get good at listening.

(Perhaps a bit optimistic. And not nearly enough detail.)


Public education develops along a different path, which keeps certification authorities separate from educators. This means it's rarely necessary to take a class if you could already pass the final exam. There's still a rat-race for certification (employers still look at certification as a sign of employee capability, so, you still get the general public competing for who can get more certification, even when it's unrelated to the jobs they eventually get); but, smart people can much more easily skip past a bunch of stuff, study on their own, etc rather than wasting time sitting in classes that aren't doing them any good.

What voting method in your opinion is superior to single-member district plurality election with one vote per voter? Ranked Choice Voting, Approval Voting, Score Voting?

2abramdemski10dI don't have very much to say that's not been said already by Jameson Quinn ( lesswrong [https://www.lesswrong.com/s/ZBNBTSMAXbyJwJoKY]; medium [https://medium.com/@jameson.quinn]). My opinion about single-winner elections is mostly summarized by this chart [http://electionscience.github.io/vse-sim/VSEbasic/]. (See also this page [http://electionscience.github.io/vse-sim/VSE/], which includes a similar chart but with more voting techniques compared.) Instant runoff is markedly better than plurality, but both methods tend to result in two-party systems (for different reasons), so instant runoff isn't sufficiently better for my fantasy here. (Quinn complains that "ranked choice voting" is a poor term for instant-runoff, since it makes it sound as if all voting methods in which you rank the choices are instant-runoff.) For the sake of the fantasy, score voting seems like a realistic choice: if Bentham and Borda talked more, they might have invented it to respond to Condorcet's critique of Borda's method. And score voting is pretty great [https://www.rangevoting.org/]. STAR voting or 3-2-1 voting would be even better, but probably would not be invented by an early cabal of voting theorists. It would be even better if improved multi-winner election methods [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/v9hhEiQJFbEEuJyKv/practical-post-on-4-prorep-methods-proportional] were invented and used, optimizing the legislature to be representative, rather than merely optimizing each individual legislator to represent their individual base well.
1Teerth Aloke10dSo, if you had to choose an election system for USA, what would you choose?
4abramdemski10dFor presidential elections, and other single-winner elections, it's a bit of a toss-up between 3-2-1 [https://electowiki.org/wiki/3-2-1_voting] and STAR [https://electowiki.org/wiki/STAR_voting] voting. I am partial to STAR, personally, because (as you can see in the graph [http://electionscience.github.io/vse-sim/VSEbasic/]) it outperforms 3-2-1 by quite a bit in the 100% honesty case, while only slightly underperforming 3-2-1 in the worst voter model. Quinn argues that 3-2-1 is better because its efficiency depends less on the voter model; it squeezes the different scenarios together more, making for more reliable quality. It's also important to consider which is less confusing. Again, I personally find STAR pretty intuitive, but Quinn tends to think 3-2-1 is simpler, so "more research is needed" I guess. Here's how STAR works: everyone gives a 'star rating' to each candidate, from 0 to 5 or 0 to 10 (whatever granularity you like), much like score voting (aka range voting). (If you leave someone blank they get 0.) The top two candidates are chosen by total score. Then, these two candidates are compared in a virtual runoff election (a lot like instant runoff): each candidate gets a "vote" for each time they are rated higher than the other candidate on a ballot. (This ensures that everyone gets a strong voice in the choice between the final two candidates, so long as they rated them any differently on their ballot.) Here's how 3-2-1 works: a voter rates each candidate "approve/neutral/disapprove". Take the three candidates who each have highest approval. Then eliminate the one candidate out of these with highest disapproval. Then compare the remaining two candidates in a virtual runoff, like in STAR, where people are assumed to vote for candidates who they rated higher. For multi-winner elections, IE legislative elections, it would be great to use methods which aim for proportional representation; but, I don't really have anything to say about what differentiate
3Blackjay9dWe have had a multi-winner election system in Tasmania since 1896. It is called the Hare-Clark system and has its drawbacks. 1. Candidates compete mainly with members of their own party. 2. Urban areas are favoured over rural areas in the same electorate because that is where the votes are. 3. There are no bi-elections. 4. The parties are usually very evenly balanced in numbers leading to hung parliaments. 5. The balance of power is often held by extremist groups or eccentric individuals. 6. Electorates can be very large geographically making campaigning difficult and with little commonality of interest between remote areas.
2abramdemski9dYeah, I haven't looked at any statistics, but anecdotally it seems like I can't support the claim that better voting methods are that much better in practical terms. Many places have systems which seem better than that of the USA, without markedly better political results.
1Teerth Aloke9dHowever, in my country, where we use FPTP, we have frequently got extremist parties in power. If seats had been given proportionally, they might not have got power, or would have to operate in Big Tent coalitions. In the last general election, 486(!) parties fielded candidates. Of course, most of them would not reach the threshold for representation in PR. But some of them will. That would almost always cause hung parliaments. Upside is, minorities like Muslims will get better representation. They are heavily underrepresented in legislatures due to their dispersal.
1Teerth Aloke9dIRV has the problem that (a) many votes would get exhausted. However, if to control for that you impose a minimum number of choices, you would get a higher number of invalid votes. Or even donkey voting - just filling out at random. Score voting, in my opinion, better captures the reality of human preference.

One Eliezer, a member of an obscure tribe in the Middle East, found himself dissatisfied with all religion, and especially that of his own people. He pondered deeply over the question of how to attain real knowledge of the world, and wandered through many countries observing how such things proceeded there. Eventually, having arrived at tried and tested conclusions about what methods systematically lead towards truth, he fetched up in ancient Greece in the time of the great philosophers. Here, it seemed, there might be some few people capable of understanding what he had discovered. He was successful in persuading them to take seriously the idea of working with their own hands to experiment and observe, to "entangle themselves with the world", and got SCIENCE!! started two thousand years earlier.

According to Plutarch in "The Obsolescence of Oracles", when Eliezer visited the oracle at Delphi it prophesied, "HE IS HERE. THE ONE WHO WILL TEAR APART THE VERY STARS IN HEAVEN. HE IS HERE. HE IS THE END OF THE WORLD." The oracle never spoke again.

Keep in mind that around the time of the enlightenment, these ideas had an application.  They were paying rent.  It meant better mathematics for sailing ships, later steam engines, better guns - critical advancements that were made from the basic practice of writing down your proposed procedure, doing it, and writing down the results, measured in an objective way.  This leaked into the development of the things that mattered to the European powers, like ocean navigation and firepower.  

If you go back 2k years and introduce the ideas, th... (read more)

7Richard_Kennaway10dThe ancient Greeks also had sailing ships, metallurgy, and even steam engines of a sort. More generally, one can always look at the past and find reasons for how things were. That does not demonstrate that they could not have been otherwise. One can also look at the present and find reasons for how things are. But there have always been those who have seen how things might be different, and made them happen.

The Bretton Woods conference adopted Keynes' Bancor as the currency of international trade rather than the US dollar.  This encouraged industrial development much more evenly across the world and prevented large amounts of the imbalanced financial flows that have given certain countries exorbitant power over others, driven others into the resource trap, and driven still others into foreign-denominated debt spirals.

Somehow (don't ask me how...) humanity developed a much stronger shared identity and the dominant 'affiliation' most people have is to all of humanity.

I think it's obvious this would change just about everything else...

Hopefully we actually get there in reality one day.

Oh I know how!

When Einstein figured out spacetime, we rethought not only physics, but also other faulty conclusions from our false assumption that reality is three-dimensional. Everything is moving through four dimensions, including us, and that means we're four-dimensional too, although our consciousness is limited to three-dimensional moments.

We started to see ourselves as growing through time like four-dimensional snakes. Or branches, really, since we've all branched off our four-dimensional others when we were born. And by simple recursion we realized ... (read more)

3Avi11dHaha - you've clearly thought about the mechanism more than I have!! Very interesting (and entertaining) - thanks.

How far back  can I change the institutions? Once you change institutions enough you do change the technology and perhaps the psychology. Something like the Glorious Revolution happening in Rome or any sufficiently centralized ancient state and restoring the Republic on a more sustainable foundation probably results in an early Industrial Revolution.  Technology takes off as soon as people see they can benefit from their investment instead of having it all confiscated by an autocratic state, or by bandits if the state is too weak.

Slavery never getting a foothold in the US probably does not change the technological frontier much, but results in the South being as rich and technologically advanced as the North throughout most of US history, in addition to obviously being freer. Also results in more democratic design of federal government. Probably results in earlier elimination of things like malaria and hookworm from the South, and higher GDP per capita and more secure voting rights there today.   More tentatively, makes the US a more appealing model for post-colonial states to design their governments around, so maybe more of them develop separation of powers and end up democratic and prosperous, and fewer ever become communist.

A major nuclear power plant accident doesn't happen (no Three Mile Island, no Chernobyl, no Fukushima). Nuclear power remains popular despite continual objections from a small contingent of radical activists. As a result, we stop using other sources of power and most climate change effects are avoided. Also, we have abundant power to do cool things with.

I think in Europe at least, Chernobyl had a bigger impact than Three Mile did.

4G Gordon Worley III10dUpdated to just say that a "major nuclear power plant accident" doesn't happen.

Hmm. I am not convinced that safety issue is only drag on nuclear power. They have a significant cost-competitive issues when there is low-cost gas or coal available as an alternative. Even in 1990 (when we were pretty sure there was climate problem), LCOE of nuclear doesnt look good against FF. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1465-7287.1990.tb00654.x (fig 1)

1Gerald Monroe10dKeep in mind that safety issues and cost are tightly coupled. To make nuclear cheaper, you need to make the parts more efficiently, and to build the reactors more efficiently, and to build more of them. All of these things increase the risks of an incident. Redesigned lower cost parts sometimes will be less reliable than the proven old design - see automotive for examples of this, 80 years after the invention of the automatic transmission, redesigned versions of it sometimes end up horrifically unreliable. A more efficient construction process involves less labor which means less eyes to spot a mistake. More reactors multiplies the small odds of a meltdown per reactor by more reactors.
1AnthonyC9dA large portion of the cost to build nuclear power plants is a function of regulation driven by those accidents. Build time (driven by regulatory and political hurdles, increasing from a few years in the 1960s to well over a decade in the 70s and 80s) increases the cost of financing the project and the complexity of the project tremendously. Also, there are the second order effects here a reduction in building nuclear plants drives reduced investment in funding and scaling improved designs, fewer people becoming nuclear engineers, and so on. There are a lot of designs out there with a lot of potential to be both cheaper and safer, but no one can build them. See https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421516300106 [https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421516300106] for an analysis of nuclear plant cost trends globally from the 1950s to the early 2000s.

Not a paradise of mine (that I'm researchin'), but here's an utopia with past tech* I thought you might be interested: "Walden II" by Burrhus Skinner, conceive a "small-time" utopia-like fictional effort, inspired by science, without any "alternate history" (in the law-and-politics scale). Just sheer enterprising.

As a genre of fiction, it's quite cool. It inspired quite a few hopeful real-life "utopian communities" as well. Some with stories that can be read online: of both failures and achievements. Some ongoing right now, and can be visited with the proper previous announcement and subsequent consent (people's homes, after all).

If anyone reading this becomes interested in some planning, and would like someone akin to periodically talk to, no bets attached, I can be found online for message exchange.

*current tech, when written. The passage of real-time and new techs are addressed on a fiction-continuation article, "News from nowhere, 1984" by the author.

Aldous Huxley's introduction to the unfinished 'Hopousia' by JD Unwin was always inspiring, I can't come up with a good block quote to leave here, but if you're into utopias, you might like it. I haven't gone and read the rest of the book, so maybe as far as forwards go, it isn't so great.


Starting in the 1960s, the neoclassical economists took certain conclusions and assumptions much more seriously. 

Milton Friedman's suggestion of a negative income tax became accepted best practice and led to a small but growing UBI throughout developed world. There was much less pushback against globalization, free trade, or automation, since everyone directly benefited from rising GDP.

Paying more attention to the risks of market failures leads to requirements that all companies buy generalized externality insurance. (This was inspired by Fall of Doc Future mentioning such a thing, but the mechanism I'm proposing is my own off-the-cuff spitballing). You pay an insurance premium, and any time someone can prove that an action you take imposes costs/harms on some group of people or companies, the insurer sets up a fund to pay out claims to them, and your premiums go up. Any time you can prove you are creating a positive externality for another firm, their insurance company pays yours and your premium goes down (or you get a rebate). I suspect this would be too complicated for individuals to carry such insurance, so the government acts as the insurer who pays for positive externalities that accrue to individuals instead of companies. This makes the overall system positive sum for companies that actively and effectively strive to make others' lives better.

By 2010, globally, compared to our world, rGDP per capita was 30% higher, carbon emissions per capita were 50% lower, average hours worked per lifetime were 20% lower (some people have shorter days or four day weeks, some have longer annual vacations, some have mini-retirements between jobs, some take off for 5-10 years to raise children). 

Schools and colleges (first private, then all) are forced to pay for the secondary effects of their own practices on children's mental health, and downstream effects on crime and poverty rates, and not just in their own districts, enabling efficient distribution of funds across geographies to optimize the societal benefits of education. 

Anyone who can prove that companies' practices lead to governments competing to provide corporate welfare forces said companies to pay it all back in premiums, eliminating the practice and letting communities reinvest their tax revenue in themselves instead.

Developing countries successfully obtain compensation for exploitative actions, leading to more humane and sustainable development and further accelerating the trends towards automation, resource efficiency, and dematerialization.

I may be stretching the point about changing human psychology here, but: 

Education is widely considered to include learning how to be a emotionally well-adjusted and responsible adult. Schools teach things like mindfulness and intra-personal conflict resolution. For example, kids learn how to recognise when they are reacting from anger, and therefore how to take a breath and try a more mature reaction. They learn about concepts like how stress can make you start catastrophising, and how to apply some cognitive behavioural therapy to oneself or a friend to head off mental health problems before they get started. All of this is considered as normal and basic as learning how to read: it is assumed that almost any functional adult will have these life skills. 

The consequences for later life are immense and flow through every part of society. A more responsible and well-adjusted population is happier. Workers are more productive (although this may be expressed by the same amount of work being done faster so everyone has more time for the important things in life). Every kind of destructive behaviour is much less likely, whether in mild forms like chronic worrying through to extremes like domestic violence or addiction to hard drugs. People expect political leaders to be sane and reasonable, and will strongly reject those who pander to the worst human tendencies, meaning that most countries are better-run and have wiser policies.