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(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part two.)

Illustrations by Robert Crawford

The Technological Utopia

The development of information processing, robotics, synthetic materials, and biotechnology increases productive capacity so much that questions about the distribution of wealth become irrelevant. National borders also become irrelevant, as the whole world is connected by a web of fiber-optic cables.

THERE is a tendency to exaggerate the rate at which our lives will be changed by technology. We still have a whole year to go before 2001, but I doubt that Arthur C. Clarke's vision of commercial flights to the moon is going to come true by then. Individual technologies reach plateaus beyond which further improvement is not worthwhile. For instance, the experience of riding in commercial aircraft has not materially changed since the introduction of the Boeing 707, more than forty years ago. (The Concorde is an exception that proves the rule; it has never paid for the cost of its development.) Computer technology clearly has not yet reached its plateau, but it will -- probably when the miniaturization of solid-state devices runs into the limits imposed by the finite size of individual atoms. Successful technologies also tend to be self-limiting once they become available to the general population. I doubt that it is possible to cross Manhattan from the East River to the Hudson River faster by automobile today than it was by horse-drawn streetcar a century ago. The Internet is already beginning to show the effects of overcrowding. I tremble at the thought of two billion air-conditioners in a future China and India, each adding its own exhaust heat to the earth's atmosphere.

From the archives:

"Warm-Blooded Plants and Freeze-Dried Fish," by Freeman Dyson (November, 1997)
When emigration from Earth to a planet or a comet becomes cheap enough for ordinary people to afford, people will emigrate.

"Beyond the Information Revolution," by Peter Drucker (October, 1999)
The author uses history to gauge the significance of e-commerce -- "a totally unexpected development" -- and to throw light on the future of "the knowledge worker," his own coinage.

More on technology & digital culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

Still, however long it may take, new technologies will inevitably bring great changes to our lives. Far from leading us to utopia, some of these changes may well be frightening. Technology certainly gives us the power to wreck the environment in which we live. Also, I can't imagine anything more destructive of common feeling among the world's people than a new medical technology that would extend youth for decades but would only be affordable by the very rich.

Then there is the problem of what people would do with themselves if technology freed most of them from the necessity of work. As Freud taught, our greatest needs are love and work. Work gives us a sense of identity and the dignity of earning our living, and it gives many of us our chief reason to get out of the house. In "The Machine Stops," E. M. Forster imagined a world of perfect comfort whose people are isolated from one another within an all-caring machine. Their lives are so appalling that the reader is glad when the story's title comes true.

Some utopians imagine that the problem of work will solve itself. Wells vaguely suggested that after technology had brought universal plenty, everyone would become an artist, and Bellamy thought that when workers retired at age forty-five, many of them would take up the arts or the sciences. I can't think of any better way to spread general misery. Even a lover of the arts can read only so much new literature, hear only so much new music, or look at only so many new paintings or sculptures, and in trying to choose the best of these everyone will tend to be drawn to the same works. Consequently, whatever joy they took in the work itself, the great majority of writers, composers, painters, and sculptors would spend their lives without having anyone else notice their work. The same would apply to scientists. By now it is impossible for a theoretical physicist to read all the papers even in some narrow subspecialty, so most articles on theoretical physics have little impact and are soon forgotten.

Morris excluded modern technology from his utopia not only because he was in love with the Middle Ages but also because he wanted to preserve work for people to do. Although modern technology has made work more unsatisfying for many, I think that Morris was wrong in supposing that this is inevitable. The mindless, repetitive quality that makes routine jobs on assembly lines so hateful is also just the thing that would allow them in the future to be done entirely by machines. Technology creates better jobs, from auto mechanic to astronaut. But there is no guarantee that the advance of technology will provide all people with work that they like to do, and in the short run it converts the badly employed into the unemployed.

One of the things that attract some people to technological utopias is the prospect of a world unified by technology. In the utopia of Wells's The World Set Free all national boundaries are dissolved; there is a powerful world government, a single world language (English, of course), worldwide adoption of the metric system, and interconvertible currencies with fixed exchange rates. There is still a United States in Bellamy's Looking Backward, but its citizens look forward to eventual world unification. Physicists (who invented the World Wide Web) already participate in an early version of world unification. For instance, throughout the world we share a typesetting code for mathematical symbols known as LaTeX, based on English. I recently did some work on the quantum theory of fields in collaboration with a Catalan physicist who was visiting Kyoto; we sent our equations back and forth between Texas and Japan by e-mail, in LaTeX.

I am not so sure that world unification is an unmixed blessing. It has the side effect of shrinking the psychological space in which we live. A few hundred years ago large areas of the map were blank, leaving the imagination free to fill them with strange peoples and animals. Even Queen Victoria, who, it is said, tried to taste every fruit grown in the British Empire, never had a chance to try a mango or a durian. Now we can fly anywhere, and we buy mangoes in our local supermarkets. This is not my idea of utopia. Wouldn't it be more exciting to eat a mango if it could be done nowhere but in India? What is the good of getting somewhere quickly if it is no different from the place one has left?

More is at stake here than just making travel fun again sometime in the future when everyone can afford it. Isolated by language differences and national boundaries, each of the world's cultures represents a precious link to the past and an opportunity for distinctive new artistic and intellectual creation. All these are put at risk by steps toward world unification.

Now I have said hard things about five different styles of utopia -- so what do I have to offer? No easy solutions. There is no simple formula that will tell us how to strike a balance between the dangers from governing elites and those from majority rule or free markets, or between the opportunities and the hazards of new technology. I can't resist offering a utopian vision of my own, but it is a very modest one.

Illustrations by Robert Crawford

The Civilized Egalitarian Capitalist Utopia

Production remains mostly in the hands of competing private corporations, overseen by a democratic government that is itself overseen by independent courts; these corporations continue to use high salaries along with status and authority to attract workers and managers with special talents, and dividends to attract capital. Those who receive a high income are able to keep only part of it; to prevent the rest of their income from being simply taken in taxes they give much of it to museums, universities, and other institutions of their choice, reaping benefits that range from moral satisfaction to better seats at the opera. These nonprofit institutions use the donations to invest in business enterprises, eventually replacing wealthy individuals as the owners of industrial corporations.

NOT very original? No, it is in fact a natural development from some present trends. Nonprofit institutions have been the fastest-growing sector of the American economy over the past fifteen years. But the tide of American politics now seems to be flowing in the opposite direction. We are in the process of giving up our best weapon against inequality: the graduated income tax, levied on all forms of income and supplemented by taxes on legacies. A steeply graduated income tax, if accompanied by generous allowances for the deduction of charitable contributions, has another virtue: it amounts to a public subsidy for museums, symphony orchestras, hospitals, universities, research laboratories, and charities of all sorts, without putting them under the control of government. Oddly, the deductibility of charitable contributions has been attacked in whole or in part by conservatives like Steve Forbes and Herbert Stein, even though it has been a peculiarly American way of achieving government support for the values of civilization without increasing government power.

I don't offer this modest utopia with any great fervor, because I have doubts whether men and women will be content with an individualistic life of love and work and liberty and equality. People have seemed also to need some exciting collective enterprise that, even if destructive, would lift them out of the everyday round of civilized life.

The individualistic lives of propertied European men at the beginning of the twentieth century were about as pleasant as one can imagine: these men moved in a world of elegant cafés, theaters, country houses, and relatively unspoiled countryside; their comforts were seen to by deferential women and servants; and for those who cared about such things, there were exciting innovations in science and the arts. Yet there is plenty of evidence that many of these men were afflicted with such boredom and directionlessness that they felt as they went off to the Great War, in 1914, like "swimmers into cleanness leaping." Now war has become intolerable. Perhaps someday we may find a better common cause in the colonization of the solar system, but that is far off -- and even then most people will be left here on earth.

Can we change ourselves enough to be satisfied with a civilized society? The dream that behaviorists and Marxists had of changing human nature seems to me the worst sort of exaggeration of the capabilities of science. In Three Sisters, Chekhov has Baron Tuzenbach reply to Vershinin's utopian dreams.

Well, maybe we'll fly in balloons, the cut of jackets will be different, we'll have discovered a sixth sense, maybe even developed it -- I don't know. But life will be the same -- difficult, full of unknowns, and happy. In a thousand years, just like today, people will sigh and say, oh, how hard it is to be alive. They'll still be scared of death, and won't want to die.
Facing a new millennium we can share some of Vershinin's hopes for utopia, but when it comes to judging the chances of really changing the way we live, no doubt most of us would side with Tuzenbach.

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part two.)

Steven Weinberg teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979 and the National Medal of Science in 1991. Weinberg is the author of The First Three Minutes (1977) and Dreams of a Final Theory (1992).

Illustrations by Robert Crawford.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; Five and a Half Utopias - 00.01 (Part Three); Volume 285, No. 1; page 107-115.