Building Weirdtopia

Fol­lowup to: Eu­topia 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.

Eco­nomic...

  • 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: _____

Sex­ual...

  • 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: _____

Govern­men­tal...

  • 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: _____

Tech­nolog­i­cal...

  • 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: _____

Cog­ni­tive...

  • 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