Can a scientific utopia succeed?
"There is no scientific law that prevents 100 people who found each other on the Internet from getting together for a month, or 1,000 people from getting together for a year. And when the numbers grow and reach 10,000, 100,000 and even more than that, and the time durations also get longer, we may start to find cloud cities in the network and eventually cloud states will also emerge out of nowhere." This is what Balaji Srinivasan, a lecturer at Stanford University, wrote in an online article in Wired magazine in November 2013. In a lecture he gave at the annual conference of Y Combinator, an organization that funds start-up companies in Silicon Valley, he revealed that his source of inspiration was the book "Retirement, Protest and Loyalty" by the late economist Albert Hirschman who claims that when economic companies, states or other organizations begin to degenerate and fade, the customers, citizens or members can take one of two strategies to bring about change: protest and express their opinion or withdraw and start over elsewhere.
What is the better approach? Depends on whether the change comes through a violent revolution or through a resistance movement. University of Denver political science researcher Erica Chenoweth and her colleague Maria Stephan compared violent and non-violent revolutions and reforms starting in 1900. They found that "around the world, from 1900 to 2006, the chance of the direct success of a nonviolent struggle was twice as high as that of a violent uprising." Moreover, "this trend increased over time, so that in the last 50 years non-violent struggles have become more and more common and successful. Violent uprisings, on the other hand, were less successful and became rarer." Only a small percentage of the population is needed to bring about change: "No struggle has failed if it managed to mobilize over 3.5% of the population for active and continuous participation." And the struggles that passed this threshold were all non-violent and "often more inclusive and representative in terms of gender, age, race, political party, social class or place of residence." The path to the magic number of 3.5% is faster if the struggle is more inclusive and the barriers to participation in it are lower. Also, if the struggle is not violent, there is no need for guns and expensive weapons.
We need to take these data into account when we seek to evaluate utopian plans. Theists and postmodernist critics of science often label the horrific utopias of the Soviets and Nazis as "scientific" utopias. But science was only a thin veneer that hid deep layers of pastoral and anti-enlightenment paradisiacal fantasies or racist ideology based on blood and soil, as documented in Claudia Koontz's 2003 book The Nazi Conscience (Belknap Press) and Ben Kirman's 2007 book , "Blood and Earth" (Yale University Press). Such utopias are able to kill the masses through a utilitarian calculation that assumes that in the end everyone will be happy forever. As psychologist Steven Pinker from Harvard University explains in his book "The Better Angels of Our Nature" (Viking Publishing, 2011), the people who oppose utopia "are the only thing standing in the way of a plan that might bring eternal good. How evil are these people? Do the math yourself."
And here we return to Srinivasan, who envisions techno-utopias in the style of "Star Trek", in which replicators (replicators) will produce anything anyone wants or needs (similar to the promise of 2012D printers today). Is this realistic? In his joint book with Steven Kotler from XNUMX, "Abundance" (Abundance, published by Free Press), the founder of the X Prize Peter H. Diamandis writes: "Humanity is now entering a period of radical change in which technology will have the ability to significantly raise the standard of living of every person , woman and child on earth. Within one generation, we will be able to provide everyone with products and services that were until now the exclusive property of individuals." Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal, helped finance the Seasteading Institute, whose vision is to "establish permanent and independent communities in the oceans that will allow experiments and innovations in a variety of social, political and legal systems." The CEO of Google, Larry Page proposed to single out areas in the world that would be designated for political and social experiments. CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk outlined a plan for colonies on Mars where new social systems will be tested.
I'm skeptical of these plans, but I'm not cynical. New ideas have to come from somewhere. As long as techno-utopia is based on reality, and everyone who participates in it can withdraw from it, there is nothing wrong with that. And as the English poet Robert Browning wrote: "Ah, but man must stretch out his hand beyond his grasp, / For otherwise, what is the point of heaven?"
About the author
Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com). His next book is, "The Moral Noah's Ark of Science".