A question of Utopia

Of the critical comments I’ve received on my work so far one of the most amusing to me is the question of a utopian future.  I will admit that I am an optimist, and that works into my writing at times.  While I certainly don’t think that a utopian future is guaranteed, I think it is certainly possible if we want it.  I’d argue that it will take a change of attitude, especially among Americans if we want to achieve such a future, but what we might lose will pale in comparison to what we can gain.

So what do I mean by utopia, and why do I think it is possible despite all the horrors of our modern world and the pessimism that pervades so much of our media?  First let me start with my definition of utopia, as there’s certainly a large room for interpretation.  As a foundation, I’d take a page from Roosevelt’s 4 Freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.  A utopia must have this as a basis, for any violation of these four principles would to me create a dystopia at its core.  In addition, for this to be a full utopia, I would argue that meaningful choices for each person would need to be maximized.  What I mean by meaningful choices is things like being able to choose their relationships, work, education and lifestyle as freely as possible.  Naturally, there needs to be limits to what any person could do so as not to infringe unduly on the freedoms of others, and some choices have more importance than others when balancing this.

So why do I think it’s possible?  Why did I cast 24th century Earth, as governed by the Coalition, as a Utopian world?  First, I believe in the dream of a world that fits my definition of Utopia.  Second, I see the foundation of technology we need to achieve it taking place around us right now.  How’s that for realistic optimism?  Okay, okay, it is an outrageous claim in these days and with that I should probably elaborate on just why I think it is technology that grants us this chance at more freedom and opportunity for personal fulfillment than ever before.  As you may be aware, I am a software engineer.  I’ve been dabbling in technology for most of my life, taking things apart to see how they work and I’ve taken a keen interest in history, society and the workings of economics.  I’m by no mean an expert in any of those things, but that’s a bit of background that you’re free to dismiss as you tear apart my arguments later.

So how does it work, how can technology breach this gap between the rough world we have now and this utopia that I envision?  As I’ve said, I see many of the pieces falling into place all around us, all of the technologies that we’ve been promised for decades are now starting to actually come to fruition.  I get that there is a lot of skepticism because of that very fact.  We’ve been denied and disappointed for so long that it’s easy to dismiss just how far we’ve advanced and just what we can use that technology for.  So what technologies am I talking about?  Well it runs the gamut, from voice recognition technology that allows us to talk to our phones, to self-driving cars, to robots that can walk across random debris fields, to computer programs that can better diagnose patients than doctors can, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  All of these things are actually happening now, and just imagine what another decade or two’s worth of research and development will get us!  I know I sound like a cheerleader here, but we are on the verge of having self managed automation and computer controlled systems that can take over every physical task required to get a finished product into your hands.  Just the other day we had Amazon proposing the use of drones to deliver packages.  That may not come to fruition, but an automated future is upon us.  Within a decade we will see the beginning of this revolution begin to take hold, not because it will advance humanity but because it will be more profitable.  And therein lies the rub, the engine that has pushed us to this point can also be the engine that brings us dystopia over utopia.

Okay, so what am I talking about?  Well, if I haven’t raised hackles yet, then this is where I’m likely to do so.  The basic issue is, I can see a world in the not too distant future where virtually all physical labor is done by robots or autonomous systems, that means your clothes are made by robots, your food picked by robots, your car washed and detailed by robots, store shelves stocked by robots, and so forth.  Humans may cling to some areas where we just aren’t comfortable with robots, but it will be an incredibly shrinking area.  Robots are the perfect workers, they don’t complain, they don’t show up late, the work at maximum capacity with only short breaks for maintenance, but most important of all, they don’t ask for raises, they don’t want pension plans or go on strike.  Once you can get a general utility robot for $100,000 you’ll see people being replaced left and right as fast as companies can do so.  This already happened once when the first generation of automation appeared in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  The coming revolution will put upwards of 40-50% of current workers out of work within the next few decades.

Now, we have the choice, and it is the biggest one we’ve had to make as a civilization in a long time, probably up there with when we decided to stop hunting and gathering and chose to start farming.  We will have robots and autonomous systems that can provide us all with the necessities of life with absolutely minimal human involvement.  We could provide every person on earth with decent shelter, clothing and food by allowing these automatons to proliferate and work for us and not a single person would need to lift a finger to provide this bounty once the system was established.  No one would need to be a slave to another and yet everyone would be able to live a good life without working.  Work would become a matter of choice, and I would argue that we would reap a Renaissance of art, culture and science as people are allowed the freedom to truly pursue the endeavors of their hearts.  How many people give up on their dreams today to put food on the table?  Why shouldn’t we seek to establish a world where we need not do that, especially when we have everything we need to make it work?

The crux, at the end, is of course resources.  The same companies that will gladly cast off their human workers to save money will be loath to share the bounty of robotic labor with the rest of us.  If you need any proof of that statement, look at how voracious companies have been to take profit from our earlier rounds of automation, firing workers and reducing the pay of those that remain.  If we follow the current American model of capitalism, when the revolution is fully upon us we will be facing 50% unemployment and rock bottom wages for those workers who are needed, because the capitalists at the top will gladly use the throngs of unemployed to keep those lucky few who do work as leverage in any negotiation.  So do we choose to allow that?  That is the biggest question to me, the technology is coming, but can we change the culture of submission to capitalism’s insatiable demands for profit?

In point of fact, I’m unconvinced that America can do it, though I think other countries can and probably will manage to pull off the transition to a more utopian model.  While I don’t go into it in detail in Forgotten Battles, that is the core issue that spawns the third world war.  America and her capitalist allies fight against a resurgent Utopian Europe and Asia over the future whether it will be a fascist capitalism dominating us or a socialist utopia that grants us a better form of freedom.  Capitalism as we know it cannot survive against an established utopia as I’ve described above.  How many people if truly given the choice would choose the desperate competition and unequal rewards of our current system with the freedom from want, the security and dignity that can be gained from life by the alternative?  I don’t think many would without a steady stream of lies and propaganda being streamed to them to get them to hate the possibilities that utopia provides.

Now with all that said, I’m sure many will call me a dreamer, a socialist and certainly an idiot.  Well, nuts to that, if I can’t dream of a better life than the one we know now, what’s the point?  Sure, there are still pieces of technology we need to make this kind of utopia possible, and certainly there are questions of human nature to be addressed by this forthcoming revolution of automation, but we can do so much more with the technology we have in our hands right now.  If we continue to develop what we have, within a few decades the impossible will be well in hand.  It’s up to us if we want to live in a world where we truly are free from want, and allow us to step forth without fear of poverty and hunger to truly embrace freedom to choose our own destiny without the compromises we must currently make just to survive.  I choose to seek out that vision, to work towards such a world, to build my utopia, in both my fiction and in my reality.