Eutopia is Scary - for the author

post by Stuart_Armstrong · 2011-12-28T09:42:41.794Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 41 comments

As Eliezer makes the point that real utopias will be scary - certainly more scary that my latest attempt. Mainly they will be scary because they'll be different, and humans don't like different, and it's vital that the authors realise this if they want to create a realistic scenario. It's necessary to craft a world where we would be out of place.

But it's important to remember that utopias will not be scary for the people living there - the aspects that we find scary at the beginning of the 21st century are not what the locals will be afraid of (put your hand up if you are currently terrified that the majority of women can vote in modern democracies). Scary is in the observer, not the territory.

This is a special challenge when writing a fictional utopia. Dystopias and flawed utopias are much easier to write than utopias; when you can drop an anvil on your protagonist whenever you feel like it, then the tension and interest are much easier to sustain. And the scary parts of utopia are a cheap and easy way of dropping anvils: the reader thrills to this frightening and interesting concept, start objecting/agreeing/thinking about and with it. But it's all ok, you think, it's not dystopia, it's just a scary utopia; you can get your thrills without going astray.

But all that detracts from your real mission, which is to write a utopia that is genuinely good for the people in it, and would be genuinely interesting to read about even if it weren't scary. I found this particularly hard, and I'd recommend that those who write utopias do a first draft or summary without any scary bits in it - if this doesn't feel interesting on its own, then you've failed.

Then when you do add the scary bits, make sure they don't suck all the energy out of your story, and make sure you emphasise that the protagonists find these aspects commonplace rather than frightening. There is a length issue - if your story is long, you can afford to put more scary bits in, and even make the reader start seeing them just as the locals do, without the main point being swallowed up. If your story's short, however, I'd cut down on the scary radically: if "rape is legal" and you only have a few pages, then that's what most people are going to remember about your story. The scariness is a flavouring, not the main dish.


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comment by CaveJohnson · 2011-12-28T20:10:56.380Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(put your hand up if you are currently terrified that the majority of women can vote in modern democracies)

Of course I am! Terrified about the majority of men voting too.

comment by Multiheaded · 2011-12-31T09:10:57.069Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aren't you even more terrified about any currently known society where neither can vote?

comment by CaveJohnson · 2012-01-02T11:49:20.651Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Currently existing? Probably.

All possibly existing? All that existed in the past compared to more democratic forms of government in their own time? No way.

Take for example the Switzerland on 1960s, where men can vote but women could not. I prefer it to modern Iran where both women and men can vote.

Singapore seems a pretty decent place to live and I have no doubt at all that if you took away the right of voting from its citizens very little if anything would change if the citizens and the international community weren't irrationally upset over it.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2012-01-02T12:07:53.145Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I prefer it to modern Iran where both women and men can vote.

sidenote: The candidates in Iran are first vetted by the all-male Guardian Council.

comment by CaveJohnson · 2012-01-02T12:15:36.898Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's something useful to point out. Up voted.

But I'm sure the supreme court in the Switzerland of the 1960s was all male too. Are there actually legal barriers to a woman being on the council or is it just implicit in "a woman can't be a cleric"?

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2012-01-02T12:25:34.122Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm sure the supreme court in the Switzerland of the 1960s was all male too.

I'm sure it didn't vet candidates, so that's not the point. The point is in Iran candidates are vetted by a small (and also all-male) council -- which makes the democracy (both male voters and female voters in Iran) significantly smaller than in 1960s Switzerland.

comment by CaveJohnson · 2012-01-02T12:52:46.416Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are right that I missed the point. To give a different example of more vs. less democracy, I prefer 1960s Switzerland to modern Egypt.

comment by Multiheaded · 2012-01-02T11:55:43.537Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you read this article by EY? It explains why merely having the right to vote does a lot for the well-being of a democracy's citizen, as it's a permanent plausible threat to the political class.

comment by CaveJohnson · 2012-01-02T12:02:47.460Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I read that a few months ago and updated accordingly.

I still disagreed.

The right to vote creates far more dynamics than just that, and many are not very favourable to well-being at all.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-12-29T00:47:47.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A few thoughts about eutopias-- you took a somewhat more ambitious approach than Steigler did in "The Gentle Seduction"-- that one is about a highly transhumanist future, but it's almost entirely about a solitary character. It's much harder to talk about social arrangements than it is to talk about individuals.

Eutopia might be excellent for the vast majority, and still not so good for a few. Delany's "The Star Pit" and Trouble on Triton are about characters in pretty good societies who just aren't very good at living with people, but aren't temperamentally suited to living alone. Russ' "Nobody's Home" is about the plight of someone who's of what would now be considered average or a little better than average intelligence, but who's living in a society where everyone else is a great deal more intelligent.

comment by CronoDAS · 2011-12-29T02:34:32.267Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On that note... have you ever read the short story "A Defense of the Social Contracts" by Martha Soukup?

comment by Multiheaded · 2012-01-01T00:35:36.496Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Learn from her errors: her story is published herewith as a caution to all citizens. Had she sought help when she showed the signs of early madness, the uncontrolled brooding, the first small crimes, society would have been spared much labor, And much pain. Learn from her errors: all her mad rebellion bought was that pain. Learn from her errors: in the design of the social contracts, in our agreement to them, are the tools to keep us all on a calm and healthy path. Society is perfectable: it is a simple matter of codifying it to meet every human need.

This just leaves both my egomaniacal side and my terminal value of liberty whimpering, and deciding to override everything else. I reflected on it calmly for a few minutes and came to the conclusion that I'd likely be driven to murder-suicide if implanted there in my current state.

it doesn't (at least for me) give a feeling for why people might like living there

Aren't you, errr, understating?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-12-29T18:34:54.745Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've read it now.

It's an interesting story, but not for the way it addresses utopia-- it doesn't (at least for me) give a feeling for why people might like living there. Instead, it's presented as scary authoritarianism.

What I like about it is the way it undercuts "ignore all barriers" romanticism.

It might relate to a notion I've been playing with-- that one of the reasons people like systems with a lot of punishment is that they're afraid that effective methods of getting people to do what you want are too controlling. They want to leave room for rebellion.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2011-12-28T18:42:33.527Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This challenge/criterion is kind of awkward. I mean, what good stories are there set in ANY society where everything runs smoothly? A true Utopia could be awesome to be in without being at all interesting to write about, if its being interesting is tied up in 'had to be there' elements.

As for external difficulties, it could be a story of how only a set of people with their acts as comprehensively together as are in that utopia could have handled this challenge. Then it's about the utopia and the external challenge.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2011-12-28T18:49:31.322Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Consequently, I'd conclude, a society where everything runs smoothly is not a utopia.

"How were your holidays?"

"Utterly fabulous."

"Oh. Can you tell me about them?"

"Nothing much to say, really."

comment by Alicorn · 2011-12-28T19:27:39.475Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Bwuh? Things can be utterly fabulous in different ways! My family had different cookies this year than last year. Just because the lemon streusel bars were utterly fabulous this year and the almond apricot thingamabobs were utterly fabulous last year doesn't mean there's nothing to chat about. (These are examples of cookies, not exhaustive lists. We actually go kind of overboard on cookies in my family.)

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2011-12-28T20:16:47.987Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Bwuh? My point was that if you can't talk about it, then it's hard to see that it was great. You cookies and both great and talked about...

comment by Multiheaded · 2011-12-28T16:18:41.862Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Speaking about legal non-consensual sex (that's a bit closer to our invasive and insensitive conversation than to our rape)... I still utterly fail to understand it. What if the victim defends themselves in a way that would require the "rapist" to resort to force?

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2011-12-29T02:13:11.374Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I recall, STDs and unintended pregnancy were virtually nonexistent, and people were psychologically strong enough that it wasn't traumatic. I suppose if someone attempted rape and the victim defended themselves such that it turned into a fight, then it would be treated the same way as if the rapist had started a fight.

comment by Multiheaded · 2011-12-29T10:23:55.595Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suppose if someone attempted rape and the victim defended themselves such that it turned into a fight, then it would be treated the same way as if the rapist had started a fight.

Okay, that does make it quite alright from a more or less modern legal standpoint; "rape" is considered in the same light as a really offensive and provoking physical insult, so that the right of self-defense goes to the victim if they retaliate in a limited manner.

However, it makes NO sense socially; what middle ground is there between (reluctantly) letting someone use you as an object with no will of its own and fighting the rapist off?

Is the victim essentially stripped of the right to determine their consent or lack thereof during the attempt, with their only options in a socially complicated situation being to shut up and never appeal to the law afterwards, or escalate the conflict, which might be harmless for the "rapist" and a huge status hit to the victim.

Really, what about - in a VERY individualist and status-chasing society - the unseen stigma on refusing and reporting someone higher-status than yourself? Isn't that essentially society siding with the strong against the weak and disapproving if the weak stand up for themselves?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-31T01:05:39.522Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Think of it instead as a prank within their society. No one much wants to be pranked, but most of us can appreciate a prank's creativity or the effort to make it work. Between friends, a little rape would be fine, like a running joke, but if one rapes a stranger in the alleyway, that would be frowned upon, like squirting someone with a water pistol. And sure it's annoying, but failing to arrest someone for that is hardly "siding against the weak". Their law enforcement have larger crimes to worry about. And for cleverer rapes, they might even have candid camera humor shows for showcasing people's reactions. And from the other side, particularly horrible rapes would fall under other crimes, just like some pranks end up disturbing the peace or whatever.

comment by Multiheaded · 2011-12-31T08:04:16.164Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Think of it instead as a prank within their society. No one much wants to be pranked, but most of us can appreciate a prank's creativity or the effort to make it work.

Hmm... speaking of that, me, I simply LOATHE being pranked, and lots of introverted people would support me. "Most of us" sounds like blatant projection on your part.

Okay, so, imagine a (transgender) CEO, known as assertive and somewhat insensitive, but a celebrity in their field - think Steve Jobs - finding it hilarious to jump any employee who enters a workplace restroom, pin them down and attempt anal sex, or coerce themselves to give oral sex without getting anything in return.

The CEO isn't at all concerned about his partners getting any physical pleasure, zie just thinks of it as a way of reminding employees who's the boss in a non-stuffy way, and getting an orgasm in the process.

Wouldn't you agree that many employees who, being introverted, could find this extremely rude, invasive to their privacy (like they would think of an overly annoying boss with an incompatible sense of humor today, except worse) - yet, not wanting to work anywhere else due to how prestigious and innovative the company is, would be in a pretty tight corner? Social convention could make it hard for them to raise their voice at all.

(Sigh... this discussion is very 4chan-like.)

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-31T08:38:57.697Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's getting 4chan-like because you're being inflammatory. I don't condone rape in the real world, I was explaining how legal rape could follow from consistent rules and judgments within the story's society. You don't need to describe a rape to me, or use capitals, or bold text; I really, really do understand that rape is bad. Trying to evoke an emotional response in me doesn't change my estimation of the emotional response for the fictional people in the alternate universe. Also, "lots of people support me" is just as weak an assertion as "most people can appreciate a prank's creativity". Though I'd like to point out, that I am in fact one of those people who agree that it's not often fun to be on the receiving end of a prank, which is why I said "no one much wants to be pranked".

comment by arundelo · 2011-12-31T09:04:19.705Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I upvoted your comments, but this would really benefit from a hard-to-miss disclaimer that you're talking about (your guess as to) the worldbuilding behind a story about modified humans in the far future. (Or something.) If Multiheaded took it the wrong way even knowing the context, how will it look to a visitor whose first contact with the thread is "Between friends, a little [...] would be fine"?

comment by Multiheaded · 2011-12-31T09:06:18.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's getting 4chan-like because you're being inflammatory.

Huh? I was just trying to point out a (possible) social fact! Using bold letters and such to underline the key parts, big deal. I'm sorry if any of this came across as rude or emotionally manipulative, but my intent is strictly to convey a possible reaction of hypothetical people from that future. That's why I invented the example with the CEO. If you disagree with my priors or conclusions as depicted in the example, please challenge them without falsely projecting my intent.

I wasn't describing "rape" either, as in fact I quite agree that non-consensual sex in the world of 3WC only has its physical dimension related to our "rape" at all, and therefore I wrote of, in essence, social interaction that's pleasing for the initiating person and that its object finds annoying/insensitive but difficult and costly to avoid.

And the line about 4chan wasn't supposed to be disapproving at all, just a humorous comparison (playing more on the popular stereotype of 4chan than a real assessment of its discourse).

I am in fact one of those people who agree that it's not often fun to be on the receiving end of a prank

I... I fail to understand. Why would you support pranks, then? Doesn't your and similar people's negative utility outweigh, for you, the schadenfreude felt by people watching the prank?

comment by Costanza · 2011-12-28T16:55:11.392Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The story was pretty vague on the details. Maybe on one level, Eliezer was simply trying to put the reader in the shoes of someone from the 17th or 18th century, told that in the future, neither witchcraft or consensual sodomy would be crimes at all.

I don't know whether Eliezer had a fleshed-out vision of how nonconsensual sex could be a good policy. However, even under current law, assault (whether sexual or otherwise) is not just a crime, it's also a civil tort. A lot of violent criminals are indigent, of course, but in theory, every assault victim should be able to recover civil damages. The damages are supposed to be in such an amount as to "make the injured party whole." In practice, this is a clumsy, inefficient system. Ideally, however, a victim should be able to say: "I really, really didn't want to get punched in the face on the street. But he wanted to hit me, and did. But now I'm mildly wealthy. So, I guess I came out ahead."

comment by DanielLC · 2011-12-28T21:44:26.730Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Witchcraft only isn't a crime because it's impossible. If the government thought it was possible to sell your soul to the devil for supernatural powers, it would be highly illegal.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2011-12-29T11:39:36.223Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the government thought it was possible to sell your soul to the devil for supernatural powers, it would be highly illegal.

Or highly taxed / regulated. You can sell your soul to the devil only if you have permission of the state to do so, and then you must use a part of your powers in service to the state. For example, hunting and killing illegal witches. Now this could be an interesting movie.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-12-29T16:56:36.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It might be worth thinking harder about what work the words 'soul' and 'supernatural' are doing here.

After all, in the real world, it is certainly possible to exchange time and money for powers that not everybody has -- greater physical prowess, for example, or wealth, or status, or various abilities conveyed by technology. Some of those powers are illegal for individuals to possess, some are not. Some are highly regulated, some are not. Mostly the dividing line seems to be based on what the power lets one do, although there are various inconsistencies mostly due to historical reasons.

comment by DanielLC · 2011-12-29T23:53:22.638Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Selling your soul to the devil means being tortured for eternity right? I don't think they'll let you do that just to mitigate the other (non-soul) damage done by other witches. Especially if it means sending the other witches to be tortured starting earlier. You'd cause more damage than you prevent.

If it was just worshiping some god granted you powers, that would totally be legal.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2011-12-29T22:32:50.613Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

witch hunter robin was fairly boring even though it had this premise.

comment by gwern · 2011-12-29T02:11:30.655Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's an extremely good C.S. Lewis quote on that point:

comment by DanielLC · 2011-12-29T02:57:26.745Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I read that a little while before this. That's probably why I made that post.

comment by FiftyTwo · 2011-12-30T22:07:44.365Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My understanding was that what they meant by non-consensual sex wasn't the same as what we would mean by rape (notice the current generation don't use the word). Now if we imagine a society where violence is very uncommon, and the population is very sexually liberation non-consensual sex may not necessarily sound like a bad thing.

Assuming sex is something you think is always enjoyable, then 'non-consensual sex' would be the same as something you enjoy happening unexpectedly, analogous to a surprise party or being forced to have fun. So their definition of sex is sufficiently different that one would not object to 'sex' even against ones will, as 'sex' is by definition a good thing. [One would assume they have laws against violent assault that would cover sexual assault, but without the sexual nature being considered something special.]

comment by Multiheaded · 2011-12-31T08:07:18.984Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Assuming sex is something you think is always enjoyable

Um, what? How about being on the receiving end of oral sex without a say in the matter, and that being the whole of the act? Why would most non-masochistic people find it enjoyable?

comment by FiftyTwo · 2011-12-30T22:12:40.265Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If we say that characters within a utopia wouldn't find it scary, perhaps we can define a dystopia as one where some individuals within it find it scary or unpleasant. For example Winston in 1984, or the protagonists in 'brave new world. If 'Brave new world' had done its social engineering right there wouldn't be anyone within it who found it unpleasant, so would it then be a utopia?

comment by billswift · 2011-12-28T09:59:17.052Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One possibility is to "drop an anvil" on the utopia. How about When Worlds Collide set in 2060? How do the society and individuals in it react to an unexpected, outside threat? Especially an overwhelming one - a planet is orders of magnitude more threatening than the wimpy comets and asteroids of Lucifer's Hammer, Armageddon, and Deep Impact. Note that with an outside threat, you can still have a real utopia to write about.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2011-12-28T10:00:46.471Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, but the story is the outside threat, not the real utopia. It's still implying that your utopia isn't interesting enough to write about on its own.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-28T17:43:46.443Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And with it easier to write stories about bad things than good, that's a mark in its favor, though not evidence of practicality.

comment by DanielLC · 2011-12-28T21:47:08.296Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But it's important to remember that utopias will not be scary for the people living there

They might be. It was to the main character of yours. As Pinkie Pie once said, "Sometimes it's just really fun to be scared."

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2011-12-29T08:17:33.900Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A different kind of scary to the way Eliezer meant.