Dangerous visions: How the quest for utopia could lead to catastrophe

Futurist Monika Bielskyte on our dangerous addiction to utopia and dystopia — and how to build an inclusive future

By Émile P. Torres

Contributing Writer

Published July 29, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Futuristic city with an organic architecture (Getty Images/3000ad)
Futuristic city with an organic architecture (Getty Images/3000ad)

Visions of utopia are ubiquitous throughout Western history. They've inspired great works of art and literature, motivated countless believers to obey God's commandments and driven some of the bloodiest conflicts in the collective biography of our species.

Utopian visions are also a central feature of the hype around artificial general intelligence, or AGI. In an article titled "Why AI Will Save the World," the tech billionaire Marc Andreessen writes that advanced AI systems will enable us to "take on new challenges that have been impossible to tackle without AI, from curing all diseases to achieving interstellar travel." The CEO of OpenAI, Sam Altman, similarly declares that with AGI "we can colonize space. We can get fusion to work and solar [energy] to mass scale. We can cure all diseases." Utopianism is everywhere in Silicon Valley.

The problem is that utopia has a menacing underbelly. First, its pursuit can cause profound harms to those who happen to be standing in the way. This is why utopian fantasies have fueled some of the worst atrocities in history: If the means are justified by the ends, and the ends are quite literally a utopian world of infinite or astronomical amounts of value, then what exactly is off the table when it comes to realizing those ends?

We can already see this sort of thinking in the race to AGI: Companies like OpenAI have engaged in massive intellectual property theft, resulting in a slew of lawsuits, and systems like ChatGPT are built on the brutal exploitation of people in the Global South, some of whom were paid $1.32 per hour to sift through some of the most horrendous material on the web. These harms are surely worth the benefits, given that, in Altman's words, "we are only a few breakthroughs away from abundance at a scale that is difficult to imagine." 

Second, the realization of utopia could also have catastrophic consequences, as most utopian visions are inherently exclusionary. There is always someone who is purposely left out in any imagined utopia — some undesirable group whose presence in paradise would disqualify it from counting as such. If the Christian heaven were to include atheists, for instance, it wouldn't be heaven. Hence, one should always ask who a particular utopian vision is for. Everyone, or just a select few? If so, which people are allowed in and which are banished to perdition, if not sentenced to be annihilated?

One should always ask who a particular utopian vision is for. Everyone, or just a select few? If so, which people are allowed in and which are banished to perdition?

Although religious belief is rapidly waning in the West, utopianism is not. That makes it important to understand the nature and potential dangers of utopian thinking. To get a better handle on these issues, I contacted my colleague Monika Bielskyte, a brilliant futures consultant who counts Universal Studios, DreamWorks and Nike among her past clients. She also consulted on the blockbuster movie "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," and over the past decade has given talks about the future at major media and tech conferences around the world. Subverting a term from the tech guru Kevin Kelly, she developed the "protopia futures" framework, which proposes a regenerative and inclusive vision for the future as an alternative to the utopia-dystopia binary.

In our phone conversation, we discussed a range of topics, including the origins of utopian thinking and whether the tech elite are "true believers" or are merely using utopianism as a "smokescreen" to distract from their destruction of the planet. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I've become very interested in this claim that utopia is inherently exclusionary. I heard you say on a podcast that marginalized peoples are often better off in imagined dystopias than utopias. Could you elaborate?

It's not even that they're better off in dystopias than utopias — they literally don't exist in utopias! Almost without exception, marginalized people are outright erased from all but the most recent utopian visions. Pretty much the only place where marginalized peoples exist in sci-fi and futurist visions have been in dystopias (and their presence is often perceived as a signifier of dystopia), because there's literally no place made for them in utopia, given the eugenic and exclusionary nature of utopianism. For example, the presence of queer people, disabled people and neurodivergent people in some way denies the very nature of utopianism — because if disability still exists (let alone is celebrated), is it even utopia? There's a whole set of superficially inspiring futurological visions that outwardly celebrate this erasure.

"The presence of queer people, disabled people and neurodivergent people in some way denies the very nature of utopianism — if disability still exists (let alone is celebrated), is it even utopia?"

Then you inevitably have to ask the question: how did we arrive at the point where all of these people of marginalized backgrounds are literally gone? Was there a targeted genocide? A kind of eugenic elimination of those particular identities? So that's why these visions create this really difficult situation where a lot of creative people from these marginalized backgrounds end up having that preference for the dystopian genre, because those were the only sci-fi visions in which they saw themselves as kids or teenagers. 

So we start thinking, "Well, is that the only story of the future that we can be telling as marginalized peoples — of never-ending oppression and struggle?" Consequently, this creates a narrowing of possibilities of actually imagining a future where people of marginalized identities are not in this continued or even expanded state of oppression, but actually become the leaders, visionaries and healers of the kind of world that, right now, we should be hoping and dreaming of and working toward.

For example, I have this conversation with some peers of mine who are in the field of future-making as writers, directors, etc.: people from the Global South — by which I mean the Majority World and its diaspora — along with queer folks and the disabled and neurodivergent communities, who still too often feel that it is only within a dystopian framework that we can tell our stories. But the continuous regurgitation of dystopian inevitability reinforces our lack of agency in imagining a radical shift of any social, cultural or political narrative — thinking that we can invent all these "magical" technologies and imagine all these extraordinary scientific advances, and yet we still cannot see a pathway towards a future that is beyond racism, homophobia, ableism, xenophobia and so on. We do not have the luxury to fetishize dystopia, because we, or our ancestors, have already lived through it.

So why do we endlessly rehash these exhausted narratives and visions of the doomed future instead of using our time, energy and talent to envision what an actual liberation for oppressed peoples and a regenerative, life-centric society could look like? This is what the real danger of both utopian and dystopian visions is: They can have a toxic effect upon our imaginations, by distracting us away from both present-day oppression and liberatory future possibilities. It's why we started the Protopia Futures collective, to counter dystopian escapism as well as the utterly unrealistic and profoundly misinformed techno-solutionist narratives, and actually work toward what could be those shared "yes" visions of the future.

The particular utopian visions discussed by techno-futurists today — transhumanists, longtermists and the like — are fairly novel, as they deal with advanced technologies that weren't discussed much or at all before the mid-20th century. Yet these visions didn't come out of nowhere. They have a lineage, a genealogy, that goes back to traditional religion. Could you help us understand the history of utopian thought in the West?

So much of it has roots in Christian ascensionist narratives, a binary vision of paradise and hell (which is the predecessor of today's cosmic heavens and earthly soil utopia-dystopia binary) and its way of "sorting" who gets into each. This narrative is fundamentally settler-centric and human-centric. Only a narrow group of humans have the potential to reach paradise, based on a very homophobic and colonial idea of "morality," and no space at all is reserved for non-human species in "heaven." (This version of heaven, containing only humans, would be a kind of hell for most Indigenous people.) So Christian paradise, as the origin story of western utopianism, already has dystopia and exclusionism embedded within it.

We need your help to stay independent

I'm reminded of a term that's started to go mainstream: the "Eremocene," or "Age of Loneliness," which describes a time when we have extinguished so many other species and become increasingly isolated as a human species on this planet — a kind of existential isolation and loneliness that results from being separated from the biosphere through this violent genocide of species and the extinction of their sensory worlds, as one of my favorite authors, Ed Yong, writes in his brilliant new book "An Immense World."

Many historical conceptions of utopia have also been exclusionary around these very lines of sexuality and ability anchored in settler-colonial "morality." Nazi Germany's justification for the utopian vision of the "Aryan Lebensraum" expansion provides an obvious example. The genocide began with the targeting of disabled and queer people and led to mass extermination of Jewish and Roma people and other minorities who were also associated with moral and physical "failures" for the purpose of dehumanization and expropriation.

Similarly, the Soviet Union, especially under Joseph Stalin, justified mass ethnic cleansing, imprisonment, torture and genocidal campaigns to justify the achievement of communist "Fatherland" utopia — i.e., Holodomor [the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s]; Stalin's purge of Jewish people; the ethnic cleansing of the Crimean Tatars; the suppression of Indigenous cultural traditions and their forceful replacement by Communist ideology across Russia's colonial realms, including Siberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia; the criminalization of homosexuality; utilizing mental health facilities and mental health justifications to eliminate opponents of the regime; and so on, as well as environmental destruction on an unprecedented scale.

I think the easiest way to measure the genocidal capacity of any given utopia is to look at how it treats marginalized peoples, especially those at the intersection of indigeneity, queerness and disability.

"Our lack of historical literacy of racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic and anti-Indigenous biases, built on scientific grounds and amplified by technology, predisposes us to ignore how these discriminatory tendencies persist into the tech world today."

The key point is that this toxic legacy is still with us today. Our lack of historical literacy of racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic and anti-Indigenous biases, built on scientific grounds and amplified by technology, predisposes us to ignore how these discriminatory tendencies persist into the tech world today, and suffuse the scientific community. These narratives are like the water that we swim in, and hence are invisible to many people within these milieus. Even today, I see so many "progressive" people, with often the best intentions, unknowingly echoing eco-fascist talking points in their desirable future visions that disregard the access needs of disabled people, or environmental justice issues between the Global North and Global South. 

You've said in some of your talks that designing the future must always be a cooperative endeavor — that it doesn't work if one group of people aims to dictate what the future will look like, even if they express concern for the wellbeing of other groups. Could you elaborate on this point?

That's right. If you're hoping to design something that's not harmful to start with — let alone something that is useful or actually beneficial — you can never design for somebody, you can only design with them. And by "with," that doesn't mean that you just choose one "token" person and then pretend that you're inclusive. You actually have to work with communities that are at that bleeding edge of harm, you need to ensure that key leadership consists of the most impacted groups. Because otherwise we just end up with harmful tokenization — that is, predatory inclusion. This was exemplified by last year's push for crypto in the Global South and diaspora communities. When Spike Lee released a commercial about how crypto is the new money, it utilized a lot of really talented, prominent Black, brown and queer creatives to promote a vision that is fundamentally about extracting from their very communities. So even though some of the people involved may have benefited from those ads, their communities were ultimately harmed by the crypto push. That's one of a million examples of predatory inclusion.

A central feature of the techno-utopian visions influential within Silicon Valley today involves a narrative about humanity "transcending" itself. Our biological bodies are often derided as "meat-bags" that must be cast aside, replaced by robotic or computer hardware. Ultimately, the aim would be to replace biology altogether by "uploading" our minds to the cloud. I wonder how much this is influenced by the legacy of Christianity, which saw the body as sinful. After all, there are some cultural traditions — for instance, some Indigenous traditions — that don't see our bodies this way. Could you elaborate on how some of these traditions envisioned the future?

First of all, Indigenous accounts of what would constitute an aspirational future or present are not uniform — there is a considerable diversity of views, of course. But, fundamentally, from the Indigenous perspective, you don't see yourself as apart from either your body or the other bodies you are codependent with. By "other bodies," I mean all other life, including bodies of other humans, but also plants, fungi and so on. All the transcendence and all the joy and pleasure that one experiences is not through being removed from this. It is, in fact, by deepening our interdependence with it.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

This is where there's this fundamental clash in civilizational visions, you could say, between the colonial TESCREALists — advocates of the TESCREAL bundle of ideologies — and Indigenous perspectives. So, if TESCREALists say that they know better than the Indigenous people about the aspirational future we should aim for, then, again, it's the same "manifest destiny" colonialism all over again. Not just in this desire to go out there and subject all these complex ecosystems to our own will, but even in this very notion that we should aspire toward removing ourselves from our own bodies and from the ecosystems within and around our bodies, and even from Earth itself. Some harmful olden-day futurist notions persist, such as Buckminster Fuller's "Spaceship Earth" metaphor — it seems appealing on the surface, but fundamentally misunderstands the fact that neither our home planet nor our very bodies can be engineered down to component parts, let alone zeroes and ones. As Indigenous people have always known, consciousness is not reducible to mathematical calculations, it's embodied, interconnected and inseparable from the matter that is life. 

So the way I see it, the techno-utopian visions of a colonized cosmos and transcended Earth are really just about finding ideological ways to justify compounded human and biosphere genocide happening today — a way to say that in light of those grand visions, extinction of species or languages is ultimately "not that important." That is absolutely false. It's not that we shouldn't aim to learn more about the cosmos, but that we need to refocus more energy to understanding and regenerating the damage we have wrought upon ourselves and this planet — improving soil health and the health of our oceans, rewilding, etc., are more future-worthy endeavors right now. Instead of fantasizing about machine or alien consciousness, we should prioritize understanding non-human animal consciousness, because we are rendering species extinct before we are even able to learn about their perception and sensory experience of the world we share. 

Finally, to what extent do you think the tech elite actually buy into their techno-utopian vision of being digital posthumans and colonizing space? Are they true believers? Or might they be exploiting the promise of utopia to "justify" their greed and ruthless quest for power in the present?

"The way I see it, techno-utopian visions of a colonized cosmos and transcended Earth are about finding ways to justify human and biosphere genocide happening today — in light of those grand visions, extinction of species is ultimately 'not that important.'"

This is where I sometimes think that you and I might have slightly different views on the matter. It seems to me that some of the tech gazillionaires that sell us these grand civilizational fantasies of intergalactic colonialism are just doing it to obfuscate and justify much more banal goals of personal enrichment and keeping up their scams. Elon Musk's Tesla edifice has been collapsing for a long time because it was sort of "crypto" before crypto, by which I mean that it is built on a pyramid-scheme type of hype, as detailed in Edward Niedermeyer's book "Ludicrous." Musk was being called the wealthiest man on Earth but it was fictional, inflated stock money dependent on false promises he can't keep up with anymore — and in order to keep up with the scam in an increasingly competitive market, you need to stake increasingly unrealistic claims and hope you won't get called on it. In general, this is also how most tech bubble/hype cycles work — they're predicated on the majority public's lack of future literacy and the media's willing participation in pumping up these sensational headlines with little critical inquiry behind the claims of those set to profit from them.

So my sense is that the talk of humanity becoming "multiplanetary" is just a way to put a sci-fi smokescreen up to the media and general public—capitalism always needs a new frontier, so space colonialism is this kind of deus ex machina to detract us from the reality that there is no "infinite growth" on a finite planet, and that we need fundamental restructuring of our societies and economies based on principles of equity and justice.

I'm sure there are some "true believers" in the transhumanist, cosmist, longtermist movements. But I think that for somebody like Musk, the much more immediate goal is to develop the means to reach and, through robotic peripherals, mine the asteroid belt, to extract platinum, gold, diamonds and other rare minerals, especially those needed for batteries, microchips and so on. When Musk realized that his self-driving cars, his vision for Tesla, actually would not deliver on the promises, he still had to keep up with these grand visions of humanity's future, because he had gotten used to that level of power, influence and adulation. He has to keep inflating his vision by selling this fantasy, and because of the lack of future literacy, people keep buying into it. That being said, he might just be a delusional apartheid heir who has a dream to bring back the hierarchical structures of apartheid South Africa on a cosmic scale. Either way, whether he's a true believer or just a cosmically greedy man, the fact that he possesses so much influence on global future narratives and economies puts the rest of us in grave danger.

"Many of the richest and most influential men in tech never really grew out of that teenage phase of being fanboys of particular sci-fi authors, movies or series. They cling to these sci-fi fantasies of eternal lives in the cosmic matrix."

In my talks, I often say that ultimately it's those who control the fantasy who control the future. So many of the richest and most influential men in tech never really grew out of that teenage phase of being fanboys of particular sci-fi authors, movies or series. They cling to these sci-fi fantasies of eternal lives in the cosmic matrix and other fictional stuff, even though the bleeding edge of scientific research suggests that minds cannot just be reduced to a digital program, because our consciousness is embodied and interconnected with an ecosystem that it's codependent with.

But if they admit that all they want is, ultimately, to mine the asteroid belt, then all of a sudden they're going to have much more intense scrutiny. Who should have the right to go and mine asteroids? Could a single company in the Global North have this right? What kind of neocolonial relationships could that perpetuate between the Global North and Global South? Similarly, with AI, the more you talk about these visions of artificial general intelligence, the easier it is to divert attention away from the real issues of how these very fallible yet increasingly dangerous AI tools are being designed, used and abused. What bias gets embedded within them, whose data gets expropriated for it, who gets the access and what type of behavior and manipulation does this allow and to whom.

So I tend to think that these people are not as "smart" and "visionary" as they're often perceived, but also not so foolish — especially someone like Peter Thiel — as to actually believe that the utopian fantasies they're peddling would not spell dystopia for most of the rest of us. It's not that they don't know how to read dystopian narratives critically, or that they fully buy into technology being the magical panacea for problems that are fundamentally social, cultural and political. It's that they actually see how dystopias (sometimes disguised as utopias) can be used as product roadmaps, not just because there's money to be made while the world burns, but because there's money to be made by setting the world on fire.

Dystopia is not a bug, it's a feature. It will take all of us to resist it, and to fight for the kind of future that is actually livable. We must do all we can to resist these lures of eschatological tech theologies and accelerationist fantasies, because they are designed to benefit the few, while harming, if not outright extinguishing, the rest of us.

By Émile P. Torres

Émile P. Torres is a philosopher and historian whose work focuses on existential threats to civilization and humanity. They have published on a wide range of topics, including machine superintelligence, emerging technologies and religious eschatology, as well as the history and ethics of human extinction. Their forthcoming book is "Human Extinction: A History of the Science and Ethics of Annihilation" (Routledge). For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter." For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter.

MORE FROM Émile P. Torres

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Apocalypse Disability Dystopia Futurism Interview Monika Bielskyte Neurodiversity Philosophy Queerness Utopia