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What I learned from a year in utopias

2019 saw a flood of interest in idealized ways to live. But to what end?

A rendering of an idealized neighborhood with modern buildings made from timber and people walking on a waterfront promenade and flying kites.
Sidewalk Labs’s proposal for Quayside, a ground-up “smart” neighborhood in Toronto, is a prime example of techno-utopian thinking that’s influencing urban planning.
Sidewalk Labs

I spent the last year consumed by utopias. Or at least the idea of utopia, of people imagining an idealized place and trying to make it a reality. If you listened to Nice Try!, Curbed’s podcast on failed utopias, you might be familiar with the stories of some notable attempts to build a version of a perfect world—for better or worse.

It seemed like everywhere I looked in 2019, there was a story about a utopia staring back at me. Plans for a techno-utopian neighborhood in Toronto; a floating utopian park in San Francisco; David Byrne’s American Utopia production; a New York Times deep dive into Italian industrialist Adriano Olivetti’s worker-focused utopia; and the Ford Foundation’s Utopian Imagination exhibition. When North Korea completed its new planned town of Samjiyon, state media billed it as a socialist utopia. There’s even a Utopias beer, which might come in handy to wash down any utopia fatigue. In a dark year, we looked for something brighter.

A utopia, by definition, doesn’t exist. (The word, coined by writer Thomas Moore in 1516, is derived from Greek words meaning “no place.”) However, the utopian impulse—the desire to work toward an idealized place—can be productive. In this incrementality, there’s space for evolving ideals, and forward, progressive momentum is what we need. It’s all about the journey—more a direction and less a specific destination, to borrow from queer futurist José Esteban Muñoz.

The utopian stories I came across while researching Nice Try! were about people who tried to solve issues of affordable and equitable housing, to figure out how to build modern cities that worked better than what came before, and to create community for groups who were oppressed and ostracized by the mainstream. But really, they were stories about about justice, liberation, free will, freedom of thought, happiness, wealth, agency, and ideology. They were also cautionary tales about the consequences of dogmatic prescriptions for how to live and the hubris of individuals who think they alone have the ability to create utopia.

In Oneida, the attempts by John Humphrey Noyes to create a “free love” commune turned into the policing of sex and relationships, and charges of statutory rape. New Harmony, a small town in southern Indiana, became the site of two utopian experiments in the 1800s. The first, founded by a Christian Perfectionist sect, failed after hostility from their neighbors and remoteness from like-minded groups forced them to relocate. The second, established by the social reformer Robert Owen, failed because it couldn’t attract like-minded members with practical knowledge about how to farm or build. (Utopia is hard work, after all.) Casting a wide net to bring more bodies to the town led to ideological differences that ultimately doomed the experiment.

The issue of like-mindedness in utopias is a complicated one. We’re all shaped by our experiences, which limits what we can imagine. And, more dangerously, this blinds us to ways that our ideals can harm others, as was the case with some of the women’s lands we came across while researching our Herland episode. These separatist communities—which swelled during the broader back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s—were created by queer women who sought safety to be their true selves and love who they wanted. Their utopia was about liberation. But many of these spaces replicated the very systems of oppression they were breaking away from, like racism and gender essentialism. Women of color didn’t feel welcome, and some lands excluded trans women or the sons of women who were part of the communities.

And then there’s the issue of totalitarianism, which we explored in our episode about Germania, the capital city the Nazis wanted to build to as proof of the superiority of their world view. Some ideologies are just flat-out dangerous and pursuing them is deadly. One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, created the phrase “ustopia” to describe this phenomenon: “the imagined perfect society and its opposite,” she wrote, “because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.”

In the series, our host Avery Trufelman landed in Michel Foucault’s idea of heterotopias, or spaces that allow difference to thrive as a more ethical alternative to utopia’s prescriptive ways of being. Instead of imposing one worldview for all, could we create room for individuals to grow, and fail, and thrive in all their ever-changing and self-determined pluralities?

In his 2005 book Archaeologies of the Future, the theorist and literary critic Frederic Jameson explored the work of the British speculative fiction writer Olaf Stapleton. In Last and First Men, Stapleton wrote about space and time travelers who steadily became aware of only being drawn to new worlds where the cultures were like their own, which limited their explorations. “[A]t best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment...therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively,” Jameson asserted.

For humans—as inherently imperfect beings—attempting to achieve a perfect world is futile. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon hope for something better. “[T]he slogan of anti-anti-Utopianism might well offer the best working strategy,” Jameson wrote; acknowledge the flaws of utopias, but also the value of imagining what a utopia could be.

Thinking about utopias forces us to hold a mirror to who we as a society are, prompting questions about our values and our ethics. An ideal place, or even a better place, is wildly subjective. By exploring what that could mean, we expose what afflicts us in the present and try to prescribe a remedy.

But for everyone outside of the ivory tower, it’s the smaller everyday gestures that really matter. The futurist Kevin Kelly coined the phrase “protopia” to describe this incremental progress toward improvement: “a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better.” This could be finding ways to live more sustainably, trying to fight climate change, or making small gestures to improve your city.

I think we need to hope for and imagine a better future. Taking small, actionable steps forward can make those musings feel less like a frivolous pipe dream—and is infinitely better than backsliding.