Followup toEutopia is Scary

"Two roads diverged in the woods.  I took the one less traveled, and had to eat bugs until Park rangers rescued me."
        —Jim Rosenberg

Utopia and Dystopia have something in common: they both confirm the moral sensibilities you started with.  Whether the world is a libertarian utopia of the non-initiation of violence and everyone free to start their own business, or a hellish dystopia of government regulation and intrusion—you might like to find yourself in the first, and hate to find yourself in the second; but either way you nod and say, "Guess I was right all along."

So as an exercise in creativity, try writing them down side by side:  Utopia, Dystopia, and Weirdtopia.  The zig, the zag and the zog.

I'll start off with a worked example for public understanding of science:

  • Utopia:  Most people have the equivalent of an undergrad degree in something; everyone reads the popular science books (and they're good books); everyone over the age of nine understands evolutionary theory and Newtonian physics; scientists who make major contributions are publicly adulated like rock stars.
  • Dystopia:  Science is considered boring and possibly treasonous; public discourse elevates religion or crackpot theories; stem cell research is banned.
  • Weirdtopia:  Science is kept secret to avoid spoiling the surprises; no public discussion but intense private pursuit; cooperative ventures surrounded by fearsome initiation rituals because that's what it takes for people to feel like they've actually learned a Secret of the Universe and be satisfied; someone you meet may only know extremely basic science, but they'll have personally done revolutionary-level work in it, just like you.  Too bad you can't compare notes.

Disclaimer 1:  Not every sensibility we have is necessarily wrong.  Originality is a goal of literature, not science; sometimes it's better to be right than to be new.  But there are also such things as cached thoughts.  At least in my own case, it turned out that trying to invent a world that went outside my pre-existing sensibilities, did me a world of good.

Disclaimer 2:  This method is not universal:  Not all interesting ideas fit this mold, and not all ideas that fit this mold are good ones.  Still, it seems like an interesting technique.

If you're trying to write science fiction (where originality is a legitimate goal), then you can write down anything nonobvious for Weirdtopia, and you're done.

If you're trying to do Fun Theory, you have to come up with a Weirdtopia that's at least arguably-better than Utopia.  This is harder but also directs you to more interesting regions of the answer space.

If you can make all your answers coherent with each other, you'll have quite a story setting on your hands.  (Hope you know how to handle characterization, dialogue, description, conflict, and all that other stuff.)

Here's some partially completed challenges, where I wrote down a Utopia and a Dystopia (according to the moral sensibilities I started with before I did this exercise), but inventing a (better) Weirdtopia is left to the reader.


  • Utopia:  The world is flat and ultra-efficient.  Prices fall as standards of living rise, thanks to economies of scale.  Anyone can easily start their own business and most people do.  Everything is done in the right place by the right person under Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage.  Shocks are efficiently absorbed by the risk capital that insured them.
  • Dystopia:  Lots of trade barriers and subsidies; corporations exploit the regulatory systems to create new barriers to entry; dysfunctional financial systems with poor incentives and lots of unproductive investments; rampant agent failures and systemic vulnerabilities; standards of living flat or dropping.
  • Weirdtopia: _____


  • Utopia:  Sexual mores straight out of a Spider Robinson novel:  Sexual jealousy has been eliminated; no one is embarrassed about what turns them on; universal tolerance and respect; everyone is bisexual, poly, and a switch; total equality between the sexes; no one would look askance on sex in public any more than eating in public, so long as the participants cleaned up after themselves.
  • Dystopia:  10% of women have never had an orgasm.  States adopt laws to ban gay marriage.  Prostitution illegal.
  • Weirdtopia: _____


  • Utopia:  Non-initiation of violence is the chief rule. Remaining public issues are settled by democracy:  Well reasoned public debate in which all sides get a free voice, followed by direct or representative majority vote.  Smoothly interfunctioning Privately Produced Law, which coordinate to enforce a very few global rules like "no slavery".
  • Dystopia:  Tyranny of a single individual or oligarchy.  Politicians with effective locks on power thanks to corrupted electronic voting systems, voter intimidation, voting systems designed to create coordination problems.  Business of government is unpleasant and not very competitive; hard to move from one region to another.
  • Weirdtopia: _____


  • Utopia:  All Kurzweilian prophecies come true simultaneously.  Every pot contains a chicken, a nanomedical package, a personal spaceship, a superdupercomputer, amazing video games, and a pet AI to help you use it all, plus a pony.  Everything is designed by Apple.
  • Dystopia:  Those damned fools in the government banned everything more complicated than a lawnmower, and we couldn't use our lawnmowers after Peak Oil hit.
  • Weirdtopia:  _____


  • Utopia:  Brain-computer implants for everyone!  You can do whatever you like with them, it's all voluntary and the dangerous buttons are clearly labeled.  There are AIs around that are way more powerful than you; but they don't hurt you unless you ask to be hurt, sign an informed consent release form and click "Yes" three times.
  • Dystopia:  The first self-improving AI was poorly designed, everyone's dead and the universe is being turned into paperclips.  Or the augmented humans hate the normals.  Or augmentations make you go nuts.  Or the darned government banned everything again, and people are still getting Alzheimers due to lack of stem-cell research.
  • Weirdtopia:  _____



Part of The Fun Theory Sequence

Next post: "Justified Expectation of Pleasant Surprises"

Previous post: "Eutopia is Scary"

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Political Weirdtopia: Citizens decide it is unfair for a democracy to count only the raw number of people who support a position without considering the intensity with which they believe it. Of course, one can't simply ask people to self-report the intensity with which they believe a position on their ballot, so stronger measures are required. Voting machines are redesigned to force voters to pull down a lever for each issue/candidate. The lever delivers a small electric shock, increasing in intensity each second the voter holds it down. The number of votes a person gets for a particular issue or candidate is a function of how long they keep holding down the lever.

In (choose one: more/less) enlightened sects of this society, the electric shock is capped at a certain level to avoid potential fatalities among overzealous voters. But in the (choose one: more/less) enlightened sects, voters can keep pulling down on the lever as long as they can stand the pain and their heart keeps working. Citizens consider this a convenient and entirely voluntary way to purge fanaticism from the gene pool.

The society lasts for several centuries before being taken over by a tiny cabal of people with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain Disorder.

The society lasts for several centuries before being taken over by a tiny cabal of people with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain Disorder.

Wouldn't they get electrocuted before their vote counts for enough to take over?

The advantage they have is the ability to make highly-weighted strategic votes on issues they're personally indifferent to, like a series of tedious nitpicking revisions to bureaucratic procedures, the cumulative effect of which creates some critical loophole.

Economic Weirdtopia: The generalization of Internet blacklists -- think Spamhaus -- to general boycotts and strikes.

Anyone can publish their own blacklist on any basis or none at all. You can subscribe to any blacklist, which will block you from having economic relations with entities on that list. You won't see a blacklisted company's products offered for sale in a store. If you own a store, people on a blacklist you subscribe to won't be able to enter. If you subscribe to a list that just blacklisted your employer, you're now out on strike.

Some blacklists are defined on moral or ethical terms: the Sierra Club publishes one; so does Focus on the Family. Others are defined on reputational terms: Consumerist's is well-followed in certain circles. Again: Anyone can publish a blacklist. If I get ripped off by someone, I put them on my personal blacklist, to which some of my friends and relatives subscribe. Popular blacklists become more and more influential, and people endeavor to avoid being put on them.

Some blacklists block anyone who doesn't subscribe to them. Some blacklists block anyone who subscribes to certain other blacklists. Some blacklists are transitive. The Ku Klux Klan publishes a blacklist of non-white people and businesses that employ them. The Southern Poverty Law Center publishes a blacklist of everyone who uses the Klan's blacklist.

One very popular blacklist lists people who change their blacklist subscriptions too frequently.

Sexual Weirdtopia: Truly comprehensive sexual education.

Before you graduate high school, you've fucked and been fucked; flogged and been flogged; received at least one (purely experimental, rather innocuous) sexually transmitted disease and had it cured; experienced monogamy including (artificially heightened) jealousy; cheated and been cheated on; loved and lost. You haven't really been raped, or impregnated, or killed by autoerotic asphyxiation: but you've taken memory tape from people who have. You've been through Leather Week and Furry Week and BiPolySwitch Week and Transvestite Week and Cybersex Week and Quiet Family Week and Asexual Week.

So has everyone else, just as they've been to biology class and civics class and gym class. You've seen a cross-section of all the fetishes, kinks, perversions of human sexual experience -- their risks, their appeals, and the skills you'd need to learn to really enjoy them and be appreciated by others who enjoy them.

You are now expected to choose a sexual orientation in the same way that you choose a career: based on your talents, your interests, and what's in demand.

Guidance counseling is available.

The Groucho Marx blacklist blocks anyone who subscribes to it.

Can you also blacklist blacklists - prevent yourself from interacting with blacklists?

And then can you create a blacklist intentionally?

And then create a blacklist of all those lists that didn't blacklist themselves?

As I understand it, you are automatically subscribed to any blacklist you, personally, created. As such, a blacklist of all those lists that didn't blacklist themselves would effectively lock you away from any person, organization, or thing that participated in the blacklist system, including all your own material possessions, including food and the devices by which you might register intent to unsubscribe.

"Self-reference" would be listed in morbidity & mortality databases as a type of suicide.

You haven't really been raped

What if someone doesn't want to take this class (perhaps in the same way that they might not like biology, civics, or gym, but still doesn't want it?)

Perhaps you don't graduate -- same as if you didn't take any other required class.

Perhaps you just flunk sex ed, but graduate on the strength of your other grades.

Perhaps there's an opt-out for people with religious objections, as there was for sex-ed (er, "Family Life Education"; thank you, Commonwealth of Virginia) when I was in high school. Or as some high schools have for the evolution unit in biology.

Perhaps you're not required to physically participate but you must at least watch your classmates participate, as with the fetal-pig dissection in my high school biology class.

Perhaps it just never comes up.

Or perhaps Weirdtopians just have a notion of consent that deeply appalls us. They wouldn't be Weirdtopians if they weren't, you know, weird. This isn't a policy proposal; it's a discussion of a deeply weird alternative.

(Point taken, though.)

Perhaps there's an opt-out for people with religious objections, as there was for sex-ed

If necessary I'l found a new religion for the purpose. I'll set myself up as the messiah of not getting raped.

At last, a religious doctrine I can wholeheartedly support!

It's a high school class: the outside view would indicate the vast majority would be there non-consensually.

I really like your idea for comprehensive sexual education. Something I have said for a long time is that everyone should have their heart broken once, as part of being human, because once you know what that feels like, you understand the stakes of romance. I feel that this post takes that sentiment and expands and develops it much more fully.

Something I have said for a long time is that everyone should have their heart broken once, as part of being human, because once you know what that feels like, you understand the stakes of romance.

That's... horrible. You're advocating doing permanent emotional damage to people. Sure, most of the will heal, some will grow from the experience but none will be the same. It's torture.

Should people be allowed to have their hearts broken, ever, whether or not a society does it to them deliberately?

My own attempt at answering this question was to think for at least 5 minutes of ways in which a society could possibly avoid its people having their hearts broken, and evaluate the solutions on a do want/do not want scale.

The first method would be to never let anybody fall in love again. Either humans would be modified such that they would never feel love again, or they would be isolated such that they could never interact with the appropriate gender (so... straight men with each other, straight women with each other, gay men and lesbian women in single pairs, bisexuals by themselves, etc... if not just isolating everybody individually). This strikes me as completely unacceptable.

The second approach would be to avoid heartbreaks once a person has fallen in love. We consider the cases where a person might have his or her heart broken after that event: the other person might reject them initially, lie to them and string them along until revelation, love them back for a time but eventually stop feeling the same way and leave them, do something that causes first person to leave them while still being in love themselves (cheating, spousal rape, etc...), or be separated from the first person due to circumstances beyond control (death, physical separation due to economic circumstances, etc...). At least, those are all the ways I can think of.

Hopefully, by the time we can seriously talk about eliminating heartbreaks as an implementable policy, the latter will no longer be a serious consideration for people. The case of lying could be taken care of if humans were prevented from lying somehow, either in a specific case (humans can't lie to their partners while in a relationship/can't lie when saying "I love you"/some other constrain) or the general case (humans can't lie at all); I must admit that the former seems to me mildly attractive depending on how it is implemented. To handle the case of people falling out of love, humans could be modified such that they never fall out of love once they have become enamored of someone who loves them back and they have become lovers. This is definitely interesting; I can't see any immediate objections to that one that aren't part of the fully general "ick! You are changing me and taking away my free will" reflex. The rejection case could be solved by making it such that people reciprocate love once someone has fallen in love with them, maybe even changing orientations to do so; I don't really like this one. Comparing it with the last case discussed, the difference seems to be the difference between making a change and preserving a state; I'm not sure this is something I should care about much, so I will consider it more fully later. And the last case... oh, hell, I don't know. I don't think taking away the ability to do such things works without also removing the intentions, unless their partner never finds out about them.

The third way would be to let people fall in love, but only with people who would not break their hearts. It seems like creating human imitations who would always love one, a la Failed Utopia #4-2, is one possible venue of attack. It also looks like some ideas from the second set of situations coulde be re-applied with a bit of tweaking...

Aaaand I'm gonna stop there, because I just realized that on top of this, I have to consider all the cases for the polyamorists, too. Jesus Christ, people are complicated; Randall Munroe was right. Sorry if this seems confused, but that's mostly because it is; this is the first time I have seriously considered the problem. Still, I hope to have contributed something with my post.

Another possibility is to have everyone always being in love with everyone.

The rejection case could be solved by making it such that people reciprocate love once someone has fallen in love with them, maybe even changing orientations to do so; I don't really like this one.

A more elegant solution if you're going to be messing around with love, and modifying the whole courting element would be to have person 1 not fall in love unless person 2 was also in position to fall in love.

ie. when your system detects that a person is falling for someone, it deletes that, but keeps the fact on record. If the second person reciprocates, they're both allowed to experience love.

In such a world you could also help solve the heartbreak problem through the same means, once one of the two falls out of love, they both do.

That was more or less precisely the thought going through my mind when I was imagining how I would design the system if I was doing it from scratch. Though not with the "mark and delete" part, just "check to see if love is reciprocable before allowing process to proceed".

check to see if love is reciprocable before allowing process to proceed".

Does this mean extrapolating how person 2 will feel after they spend more time with person 1? Would you take into account the presence of a third person who might steal the affections of person 2? I guess we could solve love triangles by duplicating people.

Love also doesn't seem to me like a binary event, we'd want to allow relationships that would progress to any level on a mutual love spectrum and then stop people from falling deeper in love when their partner would not follow.

Here and elsewhere, I don't really see the "don't let things get too bad" solution as categorically separable from just bloody optimizing the process already.

E.g., sure, a generate-and-test mechanism like you propose for relationships is an improvement over the existing no-test version; agreed. But I see it as a step along the way to a more fully optimized system... for example, one where the people most likely to construct mutually satisfying relationships (which include reciprocal-love arrangements, if that's what you're into) are proactively introduced to one another.

I'm a bit surprised to see this topic being discussed here, but since it is, I'd like to mention a movie I saw recently (NetFlix streaming) that explored some of the complications that might arise.

Upvoted for thinking about the problem for five minutes.

Aaaand I'm gonna stop there, because I just realized that on top of this, I have to consider all the cases for the polyamorists, too. Jesus Christ, people are complicated.

Upvoted for exactly this.

A General Theory of Love has the plausible idea that social animals (especially humans, who are the only ones who die in infancy from isolation) need contact to regulate various bodily functions.

Heartbreak could presumably be prevented if those bodily functions can no longer be disrupted beyond a certain point. This would also mean that grief would be blunted a lot.

I think it makes sense that the positive side of love could still happen without the misery of losing it.

As someone who has experienced romantic happiness without having ever experienced romantic tragedy, I can confirm that love without heartbreak is pleasant and is not meaningless for at least one person.