I am presented with a dilemma of sorts. Part of this is due to my reorientation towards the natural world and considerations of science fiction. I have long understood the libertarian leanings of my technical colleagues (the ones who tend to drive GTIs and wear chronographs) as well as those more liberal leanings of my more technical, even scientific colleagues (the ones who tend to ride recumbent bicycles and follow NASA events). In my early years, I was more influenced by the latter than the former. In fact I do have an autograph from the late Dr. Paul McCready; I had him write it on a sheet of quadrille that I had folded into a paper airplane.
The world is feudal. That is because it is a world of scarcity. I say that Earth's scarcity is fundamentally intellectual. Most of us know how to survive, but not well. In seeing that we might possibly live well in the leveraged modern world, we apply ourselves in various ways to gain access to the privileges accorded those who know how, whether or not we know how. The industrial revolution and the information revolution have left our cultures with this problem of leverage - most of us haven't learned enough to be self-determined. The easily gotten commodities of our world society aren't quite natural to us yet. Our cultural world needs constant re-application and relearning. It keeps changing, and so people have to pay money and tribute in order to gain access to the lessons of modernity. Thus we are feudal.
Many years ago when I considered myself to be a poet I wrote something to the effect that we were all monkeys, hands and feet-hands poking and prodding the infostream whose jets have twisted our fingers all backwards. Almost every time I listen to NPR I get that queer feeling of 'why would anybody want to know this?'. We have an information surfeit that we try to bank on. What's green? Solve the Geo Quiz. Recognize the strange intellect of Sarah Vowell or David Sedaris. A quixotic journey rewarded by a voicemail message recording by Carl Kasell. These are surely class signifiers of a feudal sort and speak of a poverty of knowledge and command over the natural world. Ahh but if you're Randy Newman working for Steve Jobs you don't necessarily need to be so much well-informed as properly informed. The value of your information is relative, the quality of your knowledge is random. And so we have scarcity, for surely not just anyone can play piano and rant.
At our human best, we reflect on human difficulties and conspire ways to alleviate suffering, for surely we suffer from chasing information whose value we cannot ourselves determine. In a world where it's possible to be Simon Cowell, surely the definition of frustration is trying to figure out which pop song and what interpretation of that already invented thing is worth anyone's time at all. There is, after all, a world of already existing knowledge that suit our humanity perfectly well. Those who hew closely to some list are generally called conservatives. One could call this species of virtual utopian problems one of finding one's way through the dreck of relativism to those absolute precious values which endure as long as the human form itself. Yet there remains plenty that proper science can reveal. There is a great deal of progress which can yet be made in solving age-old and newly discovered problems, including those arising unexpectedly like deadly pollen from the flowers of our prior success. Were only the cutting edge easily accessible.
But if necessity is the mother of invention, surely there must be a big mouthed sister in the family. What, after all, is the point of creating something to benefit mankind if mankind can't get to it? We must presume that at some point, despite all feudal roadblocks, dissonance and other bottlenecks in the distribution of useful natural knowledge, our culture will eventually get it. And so, in consonance with the concept that 'the future is already here' awaiting GPL or some such open source distribution we must accept some inevitability of progress. And in this lies the heart of my dilemma.
What is utopia? Is it achievable? Without being exhaustively complete, let us presume that there is some optimum path towards that fraction of utopia which is achievable within the space of a human lifetime. Let us further presume that most people's paths are suboptimal, and some of course, like minions of the Church of David Sedaris, all wrapped in the corduroy of the faithful, are on a bizarre tangent. Of course we must also presume that another group are 180 degrees opposed and seek to sabotage the advance of the human condition, Al Qaeda springs to mind.
The problem of the virtual utopia is then, a dilemma of choosing whether or not to believe if human progress is inevitable. The proper life, is it to be pursued with the assumption that we enable the achievable utopia? Or should we relent and live in the relative utopia of today?
If it is possible to alleviate suffering through the establishment of a better society, is it more noble to accept those betterments achieved by prior sacrifice or to make additional sacrifices in the attempt to make what's already good better still? At what point does it all become hubris? Should we make plastic surgery affordable for everyone, so that everyone can look beautiful, or is the very idea a conceit? Should we make university education affordable for everyone, so that everyone can be informed and smart, or is that chasing rainbows? Should we strive to improve air quality so that nobody will have their life cut short by lung disorders or are we playing God here? One man's trash is another man's treasure, on man's floor another man's ceiling. And it's all here, all now, merely unevenly distributed. We have a scarcity problem. Some people are already living in utopia.
I pose this as a problem of 'utopia' rather than as a problem of class because I am thinking of the possibilities of a post-scarcity world. Americans, for example, have no scarcity of calories. Pollan spells it out. As the nature of work and learning is undergoing massive change, we cannot necessarily depend on our current understanding of class. There are conspiracies afoot to make many things post-scarce. Surely the upper classes will see them first, but as they pass through society, they lose their class significance. As they become commodified, they lose their marginal significance. Like ATM cards. 30 years ago, almost nobody could get cash out of the bank on Saturday. Electronic funds transfer is a commodity today. So is Viagra, something men have killed every beast, plant and fungus possible to find.
Somewhere, somebody is thinking that we might control another variable in human existence, and so we prepare in our conduct to salute a new regime. A non-smoking future perhaps. Is that right?