10 min read

Eutopia Pre-mortem

All efforts to describe permanent happiness, on the other hand, have been failures. Utopias (incidentally the coined word Utopia doesn’t mean ‘a good place’, it means merely a ‘non-existent place’) have been common in literature of the past three or four hundred years but the ‘favourable’ ones are invariably unappetising, and usually lacking in vitality as well.
- George Orwell, Can Socialists Be Happy

We've seen the negative sentiment attached with utopia and explored some techniques to shift this sentiment. It's valuable to now look at why previous visions of utopia have failed to capture the imagination to inform how we might avoid the same fate. I do this using the pre-mortem method, a strategy introduced by psychologist Gary Klein in a 2007 HBR article whereby you imagine that your project has failed and explore the most likely reasons for the failure, such that you can plan for them in advance. In our case I ask what are all the reasons that our vision of an ideal future world may prove either inaccurate - as in, not describing a eutopia - or uninspiring - not motivating members of the community to push for necessary change. We'll see that this exercise gives us confidence in our approach while raising many important considerations that will make the project more resilient.


The political economist Albert Hirschman, in his book The Rhetoric of Reaction, proposed that social change and eutopian visions are attacked on three dimensions: perversity, that seeking utopia will land us in dystopia; futility, that it is an impossible vision; and jeopardy, that it endangers an existing, 'good enough' state. I'll explore each possibility in detail.


The plot of almost every dystopian sci-fi movie. Some start in utopia before everything goes wrong. Others start in dystopia and flash back to show how the cause of the downfall was a fatal flaw in humanity's utopian vision. This is a failure mode we should not take lightly.

The primary consideration is to consider the risks or unintended consequences of each aspect of our ideal future visionand strategy for achieving it. For example, we have acknowledged how the desire for a common set of values could restrict diversity of culture, and therefore established that our core shared values should be limited and born from moral philosophy to ensure they have universal justification. We have postponed assessing whether galactic expansion should be a part of our eutopian vision as there are strong arguments on both sides and a more thoughtful consideration of the risks is necessary. In as much as the creation of What Future World? is a component of the strategy, I assessed the potential risks and downsides of the project here. I will add 'consideration of risks' to the Principles of WFW? to codify this approach for every recommendation made.

The perversity dimension should also keep us vigilant for 'ends justify the means' thinking, the dynamic seen in many a dystopian story. Strict utilitarianism dictates that only the consequences matter, and many a despot have used this rationale to justify horrendous acts in the name of the 'greater good'. For example, a strict utilitarian could justify a near-existential catastrophe killing billions of people if it were the only way to guarantee a infinite eutopian existence for the survivors and future human race. Thankfully few utilitarians are this extreme but it shows the need to use our pragmatic approach to ethics when evaluating our approach to achieving eutopia.


The idea of our vision being impossible to achieve raises important questions, the primary one being: is that okay? As a Hirschman 'failure mode', it seems it isn't okay, but I would challenge that assumption. The risk of futility comes with the population not believing the vision is possible and therefore either dismissing it entirely, or at least becoming less motivated to strive for it. However I have been very clear that our vision is dynamic, not static. A direction, not a destination. As long as we own the fact that we will never 'arrive' at the vision as presented, and are transparent in communicating this, we should maintain the motivation to work towards that vision as a direction. We cannot have it be completely unrealistic - we won't be adding unicorns to the picture until we have both early scientific validation of its feasibility and a thorough ethical exploration of whether we should create unicorns - but we don't need to justify the path to achieving every sub-sub-bullet point of the vision.

It also brings up insights from goal-setting. Research has shown that the best goals - those that motivate contributors to achieve the best possible results - are set much higher than people initially believe is possible. One study of large organisational transformations found they delivered 2.7x more value than senior leaders thought was possible. And that isn't even to say that these goals are always achieved, in fact, for the optimal goal, it shouldn't be. The ideal target is one that is likely unachievable, yet is seemingly within grasp enough the contributors squeeze out that last drop of effort trying to make it a reality. They don't see it as a failure to not hit the target and instead are rewarded for achieving something even the goal-setters didn't believe possible. I think the same approach applies here. Our ideal future vision should feel aspirational but 'within reach'. As we drive closer to it, our vision will evolve to stay always at the tip of our fingers, keeping motivation as high as possible.


This mode is concerning, and requires greater investigation. Those that would claim that 'pursuit of our future vision is not worth risking the status quo' are likely to either not understand the vision, or disagree with its core shared values. Our few core shared values are justified by moral philosophy, and we can therefore deem any disagreement with them as 'wrong'. For example, certain religions, regimes, and communities have values that reduce the rights or freedoms of individuals based on demographic factors, and we would deem these values as 'wrong'. We are yet to determine what should be done when a direct conflict arises, but we should anticipate attacks and attempts to undermine our mission from those we can identify as holding conflicting values.

The strongest risk of this in my mind is the likely resistance from those who currently have high wealth and income and who don't align with our shared value of equality. We have explored how our eutopian vision will have significantly greater equality of income and wealth than our present day society, both globally and within each nation, meaning these individuals will lose these instruments of status and power in our transition towards our eutopian vision. An important question, possibly the most important question for our research agenda, is how we persuade those with power in the present to choose to relinquish it to enable our eutopian vision. There are no easy answers to this one. I believe that my proposal for a 'veil of ignorance' experience could play a significant role, but I don't believe it is in any way sufficient. I'll be returning to this much more in the future.

Hirschman's framework shows us that there are many causes for concerns and vectors for attacking and undermining our mission. However in doing so we have learned how we can make our vision and strategy as robust and resilient as possible.


As robust and resilient as we can make this project, it will mean nothing if it is communicated in a way that doesn't inspire action. Utopianism is culturally out of favour, meaning there's an even bigger obstacle to surmount. Not only do we need to make the vision compelling, but we must make it so compelling that it overcomes any initial scepticism of the reader.This section draws on the excellent writing of futurist and author of the Cold Takes blog, Holden Karnolfsky. I highly recommend you read his three-post series on utopias to dive deeper than I will here. We know that the more specific the vision of the future, the more likely it is to inspire change and motivate action. Karnolfsky agrees that this is important - "it's hard to picture, so it isn't very compelling" - but warns that specific descriptions of utopia often fail to inspire because they sound dull, homogenous, and alien.


"Challenges and conflict are an important part of life. We derive satisfaction and meaning from overcoming them, or just contending with them" Karnolfsky writes. He also posits that most of our important relationships are born from jointly overcoming a conflict, which I don't fully agree with. Still, it is true that there is challenge in uncertainty, uncertainty provides variety, and variety is the spice of life. A lot of utopian visions, absent this challenge, can taste like an unseasoned dish. This also raises an interesting question over our innate desire for conflict and suffering. I believe it is a reflection of the role and value of status in our society that makes this comfort with a winner vs loser culture so predominant. While our vision will do without this, we must be aware of this barrier to appreciation of the vision in the short term. Karnolfsky concludes, "when I think about my life as it is today, I think a lot about the things I'm hopeful and nervous about, and the past challenges I've overcome or gotten through. When I picture most utopias, there doesn't seem to be as much room for hope and fear and challenge."


A point we have explored multiple times - our world is rich with diversity and when utopias often assume a convergence of ideas, it's hard to create a detailed vision of the future that accommodates this kind of diversity. "If you take any significant change in lifestyle or beliefs and imagine it applying to everyone, it's going to sound like individual choice and diversity are greatly reduced". When we suggest that meditation practice is a objectively ideal activity for individuals and picture a future where everyone robotically meditates for, say, an hour every morning, it brings up ideas of uniformity and lack of choice. However I feel this is a minor cognitive bias. With little thought we can appreciate that in fact individual choice is not being reduced. There could well be diversity between those that do and don't practice meditation. Uniformity of action through shared understanding of benefits is not a dystopian idea. We (almost) all brush our teeth twice a day after all.

I'm least concerned about this reservation. I think we can create a eutopian vision that converges on core values, yet leaves lots of space for diverse expression in art, culture, music, communication, and many other forms. Personalities will differ in eutopia as they do today. I believe our vision will picture many more rich cultures than we have today, all enacted through personal choice. I think this resonates largely through lack of imagination of previous utopian thinkers and often an unnecessary overstepping of shared values/culture.


Everyone has an inherent level of 'conservatism' or tolerance for the new. Descriptions of new things - interpreted as closer than they realistically might be - are therefore met with baseline negativity, varying from 'virtually non existent' in progressives to 'actively hostile' in Conservatives. "We tend to value a lot of things about our current lives - not all of which we can easily name or describe" Karnolfsky writes. "When a world that is "too many steps away" is described, it's hard to picture it or be comfortable with it". Or imagine it this way, how far back must you go for a description of today's world to sound like a horrible dystopia to a majority of people? 100 years? Less? Given we're experiencing accelerating societal change, we must be sympathetic for people's desire to slow everything down to a pace they're more comfortable with.

Visualising Eutopia

Karnolfsky believes that this all "points to a kind of paradox at the heart of trying to lay out a utopian vision. You can emphasize the abstract idea of choice, but then your utopia will feel very non-evocative and hard to picture. Or you can try to be more specific, concrete and visualizable. But then the vision risks feeling dull, homogeneous and alien." He doesn't suggest that it is not a noble effort because of this, just that it deserves and necessitates more thinking.

Using this continuum from conservative (minimally compelling, dull, homogenous, and alien) to radical (radically compelling, dull, homogenous, and alien) he proposes laying out a range of visions along this spectrum in the hope that one will resonate with each reader. He also proposes a meta-utopia that gives everyone the option of selecting which utopia on the spectrum they want to live in, and a protocol for reevaluating this choice, which can feel more compelling even if none of the individual visions feeling so. He's also thoughtful to avoid specificity, since he believes he can't overcome the mistakes that all others have fallen into, but also to avoid abstraction to keep things compelling.

Karnolfsky also posits that the forces of incremental change do a lot of the heavy lifting to overcome the hesitation toward a radical eutopian vision, as long as there's a point on the spectrum that someone feels compelled by. He writes "I think this explains some of why "radical" utopias don't appeal: it seems entirely justified to resist the idea of a substantially different world when one hasn't been through an iterative process for arriving at it."

This gives me confidence in our approach to envisioning the future. While we're only envisioning one eutopia, our dedication to both pragmatism and dynamism should translate to individuals seeing a version of eutopia, a step along the path towards our 'direction of eutopia' that they are compelled by. We will reinforce this by communicating the milestones of our strategy that we hope and expect to achieve, which will provide these necessary 'interim' eutopias. By communicating the biases all people have against the radical and how less radical this full vision will feel after a significant amount of incremental change, we can further quell any initial concerns.

I have further confidence given Karnolfsky's finding from his survey on fictional utopias that "it was much easier to get widespread agreement (high average scores) for properties of utopia than for full utopian visions. For example, while no utopia description scored as high as 4 on a 5-point scale, the following properties all scored 4.5 or higher: "no one goes hungry", "there is no violent conflict," "there is no discrimination by race or gender."". This aligns closely to our approach. We may experiment with descriptions of our ideal future world vision in time, but for now we just list the properties of this eutopia that we have identified. My guess is that people prefer to acknowledge these properties as eutopian and 'fill in the gaps' themselves, so to speak, while many descriptions of utopia have to prescribe a greater number of properties than is optimal to make a coherent picture. Other interesting findings from the study include "(a) the popularity of Utopias that emphasize “freedom” rather than “pleasure”; (b) surprisingly small, differences between people who lean left vs. right politically; (c) the difficulty of finding any Utopia with near-universal appeal". Further food for thought for our project.

We can have greater confidence in our approach after this exercise, yet should return to it often to ensure our vision is not falling into the traps of perversity, jeopardy, or, futility in its accuracy, and to keep it compelling by avoiding it being dull, homogenous, or alien. All easier said than done, but we now have the strategies and considerations to keep in mind as we continue to develop it. I believe that just because this task is hard, and that humans seem predisposed against the idea of developing a eutopian vision, we shouldn't shy away from this necessary and achievable task on the path to creating a better future.

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