Friday, December 7, 2007

Thinking About Nowhere

Since I started this blog, I’ve spent quite a bit of time ruminating about different aspects of utopian vs. dystopian “life,” but I haven’t said much about what a utopia might actually “look” like, or what might go on there.

In part that’s because I’m still working on the book that prompted the blog, in preparation for putting it online (I bought the domains last weekend, actually). But since the book is in more or less its final form, I’ve begun to think about its implications, and how implementing it might actually happen. Throughout the time I’ve been interested in the idea of a good/no place (where things are somehow better than they are in the here and now, but remote in one way or another: physically, temporally, or philosophically), I’ve been asked about why I’m focused on this particular notion. Visions of utopia are usually relegated to the science fiction section of the bookstore—unless they’re concocted by political theorists or social critics like Thomas More, Edward Bellamy, William Morris, or even Aldous Huxley. To me they’re particularly valuable forms of speculation: thought experiments not unlike those that take place in a scientist’s lab. The conditions are laid out, and the writer lets the characters work through ideas rather than go looking for a cheese reward.

But people who think about utopia are most often considered dreamers, who lack a firm grasp of reality, or—even worse—are thought of as unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky seekers of the land of Cockaigne, the Big Rock Candy Mountain, the Golden Age, Shangri-La, or some other impossible and/or imaginary goal. The philosophical pursuit of utopia, however, goes at least as far back as Plato, who outlined his ideal state in the Republic, and whose heirs have included many of history’s most imaginative thinkers.

For me, the idea of utopia has long been the subject of intellectual inquiry, and when I was teaching and working on my since-abandoned doctorate at UT Dallas, I created a course called “Utopia and Technology” that considered the history of utopian thought and its relationship to technological development. Two other courses, one on the philosophy of technology and another on the Arts and Crafts movement, considered the ways in which thinkers responded to new technologies, either positively or negatively. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, and William Morris’s News From Nowhere, for example, represented opposing reactions the Industrial Revolution.

What seems clear now, early in the twenty-first century, is that many of the utopian expectations about what technology could do for us have not panned out. In fact, it’s becoming more and more apparent to me that we’ve completely lost control of our machines—in the sense that we’ve no real sense of where we’re headed. Problematic paths such as genetic manipulation, cloning, and nanotechnology are being pursued with no true assessment of what they imply or what they might produce were they to get out of hand. In addition, the frantic pursuit of fossil fuel sources has led to potentially irreversible destruction of vital ecosystems, and the potential unleashing of microbes or pathogens to which human beings and other species will have had no time to develop any resistance or defense.

In such a world, utopian thought experiments would seem to be a necessary antidote to the almost compulsive quest for economic “growth,” endless accumulation of material possessions, bigger and more complex everything, and less and less consideration of potential consequences.

I am greatly encouraged by the recent interest in sustainability and “green living” reflected in the popular press. I am, however, skeptical about its depth, because it may turn out to be just another economic fad destined to fade away when people realize how difficult it is to give up some of their treasured luxuries (especially their big cars and granite counter tops) in order to reduce their impact on the environment. As the blue recycling trash containers appear more and more frequently on curbsides in my very conservative town, I am reminded that most people around here are not actually recycling to save the planet—they’re doing it so that they won’t have to pay taxes to build a new landfill. I’ll become rather more sanguine about motives when I see the number of the larger green bins dwindle.

Sustainability must become a moral pursuit, and not just a tax dodge. People really need to spend time thinking about the consequences of their choices, rather than just pursuing life as usual, with the occasional token “green” choice thrown in. This will be especially difficult in a culture not given to introspection, except on a “personal growth” level directed by the latest self-help guru. We don’t teach philosophy in our schools, and although there’s a great deal of talk about critical thinking in educational circles, I see little evidence of its actually being taught. Most of my students are ignorant of basic reasoning principles because they’re taught to write according to a formula (the infernal Five Paragraph Essay) that leads more frequently to sophistry than to logic.

As a country we’ve become very concerned about the lack of math and science knowledge among schoolchildren, but the pundits seem unaware that reasoning develops within a much broader scope. If we just focus on math, science, and rote writing skills, we won’t be any better off than we are now, because thinking and understanding can only be done well within a much larger context that includes historical and cultural perspectives. Our children not only score badly compared to those in other “developed” nations in math and science, but they don’t seem to know much about the outside world, either. Geography is apparently no longer taught much at all, because my students (as bright and creative as they tend to be) come to me not even knowing how to read a map properly. My hope is that hot new technical toys like Google Earth will help to ameliorate this problem—but only if someone provides children with a reason to be interested in something outside their immediate life-sphere. But unless we stop insisting that every other country be just like us, it won’t make any difference in the long run.

Monocultures can be lethal in biological communities, but they’re dangerous to human communities as well. The intuitive understanding that cultural variety is important seems to lie behind continued efforts to foster social diversity in this country. But we’re creating a world for our children in which the same restaurants serve the same basic menus, people live in identical suburbs with no architectural variety (or interest, for that matter), view the same kinds of television programs, see the same kinds of films, etc. Our kids dress virtually identically to one another, thinking that this reflects their individuality. Malvina Reynolds warned us about this, back in the sixties ("Little Boxes"--nicely performed here by Raymond Crooke), but we don't seem to have learned much since then. I am reminded of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel, The Lathe of Heaven, in which a well-intentioned (but insufficiently imaginative) psychiatrist directs the hero (who has the power to effect change through his dreams) to create a world without conflict, and everyone turns the same shade of gray. To me this all seems entropic, as if we’re all slowly drifting toward identity with one another: all living the same kinds of lives at the same temperature so that conflict will no longer exist.

All of these problems and issues seem to provide fertile ground for utopian thought, and that’s more or less what I’ve been trying to do in this blog. The book, More News From Nowhere, has been my “laboratory,” where the parameters have been set up to allow the citizens of my eu-topia to address many of them in an effort to find a better way to live. Blogs have a way of generating conversations of the kind that precede my characters’ arrival in their ou-topia—and when I first began to write it (about ten years ago), I had no idea that this particular format would develop; nor had I any idea that internet forums would proliferate as they have. So it will be interesting to see, when I get the new website up and running later this month, if a little conversation about utopia can happen here.

Photo: A view of Big Pine, California, from near Uhlmeyer Spring. This is one of the settings for More News From Nowhere.


GEM said...

Oh, OWL - you have hit the nail squarely on the head, with sound reasonings. as a student back in the 60s, I was fascinated by BF Skinner's Walden ll, by Huxley, and drawn to Utopian notions. I was a high school teacher and could see clearly how our way of educating the young without relating knowledge areas, one to another, led to fragmented, disunified ways of thinking and living. The homogenization of ways of living is a lie promulgated for the gain of corporations. If we can have people ascribe to the same philosophy, same accessible 'comforts', same "aesthetics" without due consideration of geography, terrain,ecology, weather and philosophy arising from specific differences of where they live, the world, indeed, will be a bleak place, one i would not want to live within. I look forward to reading amongst your Utopian writings and thoughts.

Owlfarmer said...

GEM: I think you and I might have been cut from the same cloth. Our generation seems to "get" the problems inherent in homogenization better than my children's cohorts do, but I think they're beginning to catch on.

I'll be exploring the "entropy" question and its relation to globalization, as well as the necessity for interdisciplinary thinking in a future post, and heartily welcome your input.