“If utopia is to come, it must exist already.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin
Utopian ideas for dystopian times.
Culture I/O is a platform for utopian ideas founded during the global pandemic of 2020-2021.
If the last ten years have taught us anything, it’s that the world-system we begrudgingly took for granted is unstable. It wobbles like the spinning top at the end of Inception, its future state growing more uncertain with every revolution. Take your pick on what to call this wobble: The Weirding. Late Capitalism. Early Jackpot. However you frame it, something big and important is happening, it’s happening at an accelerating pace, and a lot of things are going to change very, very fast—faster than we can keep up.
This decade is shaping up to be one of the most turbulent and heated in living memory as the massive systems that surround and envelop us depart from uneasy equilibrium. The climate emergency isn’t on the horizon anymore—it’s here. Fascism, that ugly beast we thought had been slayed—or at least put on permanent life support—has woken up and even stretched its legs, surveying this newly unstable landscape with hungry eyes. Global inequality has skyrocketed to levels that are difficult for us to even process coherently. So what to do?
Rebel. But rebel intelligently, acknowledging the reality of our time and place on this planet and fighting the battles of the 2020s, not the 1920s or 1960s:
The vehicle of revolution in Weil and Camus’s day—communism—long ago turned into a rusting hulk. But the world is heavy with other vehicles of immoderation, and the fumes are thicker than ever. They seem to bleed into the thoughts and words of most everyone; they risk poisoning not just those who first wield it, but those who rightly seek to defeat it. What Camus took from Weil merits our attention more than ever: “The logic of the rebel is to want to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness.”
Rebellion in the service of universal justice, of truth over falsehood and happiness over misery, is a fine idea. If only we had an organizing principle, a banner to rally around, a goal to pursue that was unburdened by the sins of the 20th century and decades of dogmatic quicksand. If only we had something to work towards, instead of just fighting fires and staving off disaster.
It turns out that we do—we’ve always had it. And it has a name: utopia. But it does us no good as an idea if we can’t apply it to our present time and predicament. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:
If you built castles in the air, your work need not have been lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
To be utopian today doesn’t mean rejecting messy reality for idealistic daydreams, or believing in the ultimate perfectibility of human society. Utopianism is simply the conviction that the world we have isn’t the only possible world: things can be better, and we can make them better. It’s the suspicion that we have all the knowledge and tools necessary to ensure a decent life for everyone on this planet—not a perfect life by any means, or even a happy one (we’re human!), but a decent one. What does that life look like? What does that world look like? And how do we get there?
We’re not blind to the fact that utopianism has let us down before. Our approach is rigorous and necessarily skeptical—but never jaded. Call it utopian realism, if you want. Utopia decoupled from “progress”.
As a utopian undertaking, Culture I/O takes a cue from Murray Bookchin’s lecture at the Toward Tomorrow Fair in 1978:
The simple fact now is that I’m not only not an environmentalist, I’ve got some hot news—I’m not a futurist. I’m not a futurist at all. I’m a utopian. I want to see this word revived. I want to see us use it. I want to see us think utopian. Not think futurism.
Clearly envisioning and describing the world we want for ourselves is the first and most important step in making it real. With utopia as both destination and point of departure, Culture I/O mines traces of our utopian past, maps the towering obstacles ahead (along with the dystopian shadows they cast), and explores the pieces of it already around us, working to bridge the gap between what is and what could be.
Culture I/O transmits from Los Angeles—the last city, accidental cultural capital of the planet, and as Moxie Marlinspike puts it, a place that “is like living at the end of the world, the end of history. All the decisions have been made. This is the world we get.” California’s flirtations with utopia (and its mostly opposite results) are a story we’ll keep returning to.
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This is just the beginning, friends. ☼