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A world without discomfort is utopia. But it is also stagnant. A world perfectly fair in some dimensions would be horribly unfair in others. A utopia has no problems to solve, but therefore no opportunities either.

None of us have to worry about these utopia paradoxes, because utopias never work. Every utopian scenario contains self-corrupting flaws. My aversion to utopias goes even deeper. I have not met a speculative utopia I would want to live in. I’d be bored in utopia. Dystopias, their dark opposites, are a lot more entertaining. They are also much easier to envision. Who can’t imagine an apocalyptic last-person-on-earth finale, or a world run by robot overlords, or a megacity planet slowly disintegrating into slums, or, easiest of all, a simple nuclear Armageddon? There are endless possibilities of how the modern civilization collapses. But just because dystopias are cinematic and dramatic, and much easier to imagine, that does not make them likely.

The flaw in most dystopian narratives is that they are not sustainable. Shutting down civilization is actually hard. The fiercer the disaster, the faster the chaos burns out. The outlaws and underworlds that seem so exciting at “first demise” are soon taken over by organized crime and militants, so that lawlessness quickly becomes racketeering and, even quicker, racketeering becomes a type of corrupted government—all to maximize the income of the bandits. In a sense, greed cures anarchy. Real dystopias are more like the old Soviet Union rather than Mad Max: They are stiflingly bureaucratic rather than lawless. Ruled by fear, their society is hobbled except for the benefit of a few, but, like the sea pirates two centuries ago, there is far more law and order than appears. In fact, in real broken societies, the outrageous outlawry we associate with dystopias is not permitted. The big bandits keep the small bandits and dystopian chaos to a minimum.

However, neither dystopia nor utopia is our destination. Rather, technology is taking us to protopia. More accurately, we have already arrived in protopia.

Protopia is a state of becoming, rather than a destination. It is a process. In the protopian mode, things are better today than they were yesterday, although only a little better. It is incremental improvement or mild progress. The “pro” in protopian stems from the notions of process and progress. This subtle progress is not dramatic, not exciting. It is easy to miss because a protopia generates almost as many new problems as new benefits. The problems of today were caused by yesterday’s technological successes, and the technological solutions to today’s problems will cause the problems of tomorrow. This circular expansion of both problems and solutions hides a steady accumulation of small net benefits over time. Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year. But that few percent positive difference is compounded over decades into what we might call civilization. Its benefits never star in movies.

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