In science fiction literature, the future is usually portrayed as one of a binary set of options, a future that is either a utopia or a dystopia. But the differences between these concepts, if there are any, are not always clear. Some believe that there is also a third option: a protopia. Indeed, the protopia may be the future that we are already living in, a timeline we are fortunate to be a part of.
A Binary Future
Historically, when writers conceptualized what the future would look like, those visions tended to fall into two distinct camps: a dystopia or a utopia. Sometimes, the dystopian vision was clear-cut. Dystopian societies in popular culture include depictions in The Terminator, I Am Legend, Interstellar…etc. Generally, dystopias see progress rolling backward with scenes of empty cities, war, famine….etc
But not all depictions of dystopias are so clearly obvious. Indeed, what is a dystopia for some, may be a utopia for others. Certainly, for some individuals living in the future as depicted by Blade Runner, for instance, life is rather good. The same could likely be said for the inhabitants of the Capitol in The Hunger Games. Of course, the majority of people living in those fictional societies probably wouldn’t feel that way.
By the same token, even utopian conceptions aren’t always as they appear. The future presented in Brave New World is particularly notable. It’s a world that, on the surface is a utopia, as aging, crime, depression, disease, and wars are all eradicated. But it is a utopia that eliminates all that is human, leading its inhabitants to live dull, meaningless lives.
We might say that the difference between a utopia and a dystopia is in the eye of the beholder and depends upon one’s values. If technological advancement, for instance, is the sole measure of progress, then Blade Runner or The Hunger Games are not true dystopias at all.
I contend, however, that these are still dystopias because the world they depict is not sustainable. Indeed, they are both likely on the brink of collapse.
On Cliff’s Edge
The Capitol in The Hunger Games is an island of wealth, technology, and extravagance, surrounded by a sea of impoverished “districts.” Though not directly stated in the movies, it is strongly implied that the Capitol extracts wealth from the districts to sustain itself.
If history is any indication, such a future is actually not possible, at least not for not very long. Human progress is inextricably tied to the inclusivity of growth. This does not mean that the fruits must be redistributed through public policy, but rather that public policy needs to be designed to maximize everyone’s opportunity to partake in and contribute to progress.
For the Capitol to retain its prosperity, the districts would need to be included in its growth, but this is clearly not the case. Indeed, the technology and wealth enjoyed by the citizens of the Capitol would have not lasted for more than a few generations. Extractive societies can only lumber on for so long before extinguishing themselves. Perhaps the Capitol was in its death throes and its inhabitants blissfully unaware.
If utopias cannot exist and dystopias illustrate completely dysfunctional societies that have, or will soon, collapse in on themselves, what remains? The “protopia.”
“Protopia,” a term first coined by Kevin Kelly, is not a utopia, all of humanity’s problems and challenges have not been solved. But neither is it a dystopia on the brink of collapse. The protopia does not describe any particular future, but rather a society that is always working to solve its problems in an incremental fashion. The protopia is a society with a growth mindset and a “can do” attitude.
In some ways, the protopia resembles the modern world. In the past few decades, humanity has made incredible progress. We are more educated, living longer, and wealthier than at any point in human history. And the growing voice of the people in political participation has enabled more of us to share in this vast decentralized problem-solving network.
The result: Humanity has had a sustained human presence in space for decades now. Traveling the world can be done in mere hours, and each of us carries within our pockets a supercomputer that is linked to all of human knowledge. Our fingertips are now more powerful than the kings or queens of centuries past. For all of our flaws and challenges, we live in the protopia today.
A Fragile State
With that said, storm clouds are on the horizon. The protopia is a fragile state of existence. Global populist and extremist movements of all spectrums, seek to roll back the factors of progress that led us to where we are today. These movements threaten to slow or stop progress altogether. They threaten an empty planet, a technological and economic regression. If lured into the extremists’ trap, a true dystopia awaits us.
Protopia is a new word for me, steady and responsible growth is a good aim for society.