Why is this interesting? - The Utopia Edition

On culture, experiments, and our fascination with utopias

Anita Schillhorn van Veen (ASVV) is a Strategy Director with TBWA/Chiat/Day in Los Angeles after a decade of New York agency life. She loves digging in to culture, data and story - and also crushes on fiction writing, with a few short stories and essays floating around on the internet and in actual physical books. (This is our second excellent contribution from Anita, who replied to one of our requests for guest editors. Please let us know if you’d like to try your hand at writing one. - Noah)

Anita here. Failed utopias: They’re everywhere. There’s a new podcast—Nice Try!—about attempts at utopia, a New York Times article about an abandoned worker’s utopia in Italy, and the successful Wild Wild Country Netflix series about Indian mega-guru Osho’s utopian cult in Oregon.

The New York Times subhead calls its story “both a cautionary tale and evidence of a grand experiment,” an apt tagline for all these moments of ebullient overpromises and starry-eyed faith in an ideal or an individual. 

Why is this interesting?

Image Credit: Architectural Digest & Auroville.org

The 60s and 70s were an era of experimentation and possibility that birthed modern utopias now falling into disarray.  And I’ve visited my fair share of them. Here’s a couple: 

Arcosanti (left) is an experiment in architecture and design in Arizona that was built to house 5,000 people in a self-sufficient urban ecology. It’s had a steady population of 50 people who are wholly dependent on the nearest city, Phoenix, and was recently rocked by sexual abuse scandals. It felt strange, abandoned, and full of good ideas halfway built out until some ennui hit and it seemed easier to just look at the desert horizon. 

Auroville (right) is a town in India built on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, and has a mixed legacy of contested, sometimes violent, relations with its non-utopic neighboring villages, along with reliance on the Indian government for funding, and on its very European populations’ savings. It had more vibrancy than Arcosanti, like a lively yoga retreat that you never have to leave, but local violence, and constant dependence on outside sources have eroded the safety and self-sufficiency core to utopic living. 

Although none are failed, they limp along, reliant on tourists, ex-pats, and other sources of funding to maintain delusions of self-sufficiency and exclusion from the burdens of capitalism. I’m fascinated by the devotion it takes to build a society from scratch, to dispatch with what you know and embrace a wholly different life. But I’m also a cynic, and relish the current spate of media that’s lifting the hood on utopias and questioning them. 

If utopia is a perfect world for one group of people, there’s inevitably another group for whom it’s not. The first iteration of utopia is Thomas More’s 1516 fantasy book about an island built on equality between men and women and across religions, with only 6 hours of work a day. Sounds nice, right? But the island was supported by slavery, punishment of premarital sex, and other behaviors that clearly cross moral boundaries. Our culture is increasingly suspicious of power dynamics, examining who’s hurting and who’s benefiting in situations like the MeToo movement. One question that’s become more pressing is “a utopia for whom?”

The current skepticism of utopias also arrives as it’s become impossible to imagine a place on this earth untouched by geopolitics, threats to the climate, and global market forces. There’s a bit of rubbernecking at the trainwrecks caused by people who think they can live outside of the paradigm, as they’re still tethered to the same here and now as everyone else. Unless you have a sweet bunker in New Zealand, the world feels under threat. (ASVV)

Chart of the Day: 

The relative metalness of words, courtesy of Degenerate State. Note the least metal words include agencies, measurement, and administrative. (ASVV)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Anita (ASVV)

PS - Happy (almost) birthday to my Mom, who seems to make it to the bottom of nearly every edition. (NRB)

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