Utopia to Dystopia to Polytopia to Eutopia

philip horváth
7 min readFeb 10, 2020

How can we create a good place for all life?

If you have been around two year old children you have probably experienced them screaming out words in joy. They mischievously delight, especially at words they are not supposed to say. They play with words. Words have not yet become loaded with connotations and associations — especially not too many painful ones. Once we have had our heart broken, “love” for example has suddenly many new connotations it did not have before.

Words allow us to grasp the persistence of objects.

Kids learn this around the age of two. With persistence of objects now also develops a sense of time, the past and future become possibilities. We become “time-binders” as Count Korzybski called it.

Through words we can imagine what could be.

All creativity requires imagination. We have to allow ourselves to suspend our current reality and imagine what could be in the world in order to create it.

Humans have always done that. From the first cave paintings still using crude pictorial language to imagine the successful hunt — and consequently create it — , all the way to imagining and realizing space travel.

Throughout time we have created and told stories of possible futures.

Especially, when they are desirable futures, we call them utopias.

Utopia — The Impossible Place

There is nothing like a dream to create the future. Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow. — Victor Hugo

The term “Utopia” was first coined by Thomas More in 1516 in his book of the same title. He titled his work “A little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in the new island Utopia.

Seemingly innocent, utopias have led to the worst humans have done to each other.

Utopias cannot work.

There are two hints in this already even in Thomas More’s very work:

  • Utopia comes from “the Greek prefix “ou-” (οὐ), meaning “not”, and topos (τόπος), “place”, with the suffix -iā (-ία) that is typical of toponyms; hence the name literally means “nowhere”, emphasizing its fictionality.” (Wikipedia). Utopias describe a place that cannot exist. There is already doubt of it’s potential in its very name.
  • The innocuous word “should” in Thomas More’s title: “Should” nearly always leads to guilt and shame — and in the worst case to terrible expressions like the annihilation of a perceived “other” that does not fit with the desired future.

It is not surprising that in particular in the century of concentration camps, gulags, and reeducation facilities, utopias have got a bad reputation.

Sir Karl Popper showed in his seminal work “The Open Society and its enemies”, that utopias inadvertently lead to fascism. Any vision of the future implemented with precision leads to intolerance and ultimately attempts at extinction of anyone not fully in line with that utopia.

Not surprisingly, the rise of implemented utopias like Germany’s “National Socialism” or the soviet Unions version of “Communism”, both focused on creating a utopia for its people, also gave rise to two of our seminal dystopian works: George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias. — Oscar Wilde

Stories create reality.

Science fiction turned dark in the middle of our last century, in part in response to the atrocities committed in the earlier part, and in part due to technological complexity beginning to exceed the common man’s understanding (we fear what we do not understand).

Dystopia — Fear sells

As industry excels and life became mostly pleasant for most people in the Western post-world-war world, people craved excitement. We want the deviation from the norm. We want something that rattles us.

Dystopias do just that — until they become the new normal.

We are already seeing elements of both 1984 and Brave New World, e.g. in technological fascism currently being implemented in China and — with more makeup and glitter, as surveillance capitalism in the rest of the world.

Dystopias are meant as a warning (dys- Greek “ill, bad”).

In the absence of other possible futures, dystopias will become (and cost us) “flesh and blood”.

Polytopia — The joy of diversity

Huxley, who gave us Brave New World as a dystopic warning, was also fascinated with how we could evolve the human dynamics that would create a better future. His last book “Island” indeed described many of them in a utopian setting, and to this day, it is the one book I would take with me on a deserted island, as it contains many suggestions for how a society could actually function well.

[Spoiler Alert: even this utopia ends up failing — not because of itself — but in this case, because “even the most pious man can’t live in peace if the neighbors don’t agree” as Schiller put it in Wilhelm Tell’s words).

Huxley in many ways became one of the fathers of the hippie movement that in the 60s and 70s began to look into new ways of living together on planet earth (the first pictures of which originated right around that time).

One key meme ascribed to Hippie life was that “everyone could do their thing” — that there was no more ultimate right or wrong, that we got to find new ways to get along.

Hippie communes formed to allow these new ways of living. Without possessiveness or jealousy, where everyone could be who they wanted to be — a poly-topia (poly, from Greek for “many”).

Without guiding values, these experiments often quickly failed exactly due to egoic behaviors such as possessiveness or jealousy — these all too human features that couldn’t just be wished away.

Even the communes that established guiding values oftentimes failed — in this case, because they turned fascist around their values — either you were part of the group and followed, or you weren’t — in which case you better left.

The problem with values is that they are concepts we can aspire to, but never fully live.

As Ingeborg Bachmann beautifully put it, it requires us to continue to transcend ourselves. Values have to be dynamic:

“I, too, am aware that we have to stay within the order, that there is no exit from society, and that we have to prove ourselves against one another. Within these limitations, though, we have our sight set on the perfect, the impossible, the unreachable, be it love, freedom, or any other pure concept. In the interplay between the impossible with the possible we increase our possibilities. That we create this relationship of tension through which we grow, that, I think, is the important part; that we orient ourselves on a goal, which, as we come closer, removes itself further from our grasp.” — Ingeborg Bachmann

This understanding also brought popularity and new applications for earlier theories and concepts like Phenomenology and Construtivist reality.

Key to these theories being the overcoming of self-importance, and the continuous process.

Instead of as right and wrong, every dualism is seen as an invitation to evolve — Hegel’s concept of thesis/ antithesis and synthesis.

Nothing new, this had been described by every perennial wisdom tradition from Alchemy (Chymical Wedding) to Yoga (the very word meaning connection), and most obviously in the Tao (ying/yang) and in Tantra (masculine/feminine).

Being able to hold the paradox of “I” as a separate point of perception, and expanding the definition of self beyond those boundaries into a perceived “Other”, seeing oneself and other as aspects of a oneness that requires separation for experience to occur, could very well be seen as the process of “love” through which universe experiences “lila”, the cosmic play.

Eutopia — Moving toward Planetary Integration

Innovating and designing a regenerative culture requires us to live the questions and reflect on our participatory relationship with life and nature. — Daniel Christian Wahl

Eu-topia, a good place (Greek eu- for “good”), can always only be an inspiration. A notion we keep orienting ourselves on while continuing to explore for ourselves and collaboratively what good even means, ensuring the needs of the one are met as much as possible, as much as the needs of the many.

It will require a mindset shift toward turning interactions into opportunities for creating value.

When a key percentage of humanity grasps this, then maybe, we can create planetary well-being and a civilization where every individual is honored and respected as such, has all the resources available to unfold themselves to their highest potential, has loving and forwarding relationships with the world around them, and works in service to life.

I personally think that might be a good place to aim for.

The future belongs to those who create it. That is why I serve as a culture catalyst and planetary strategist for visionary leaders. Through my work with LUMAN and other projects, I provide frameworks, operating metaphors and safe containers to support leaders around the world in their individual evolution and in growing innovation capacity in their teams and organizations — all with the aim of a planetary society. I have worked with startups, NGOs and with global Fortune 500 organizations in a variety of industries around the world. More at http://philiphorvath.com.

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philip horváth

culture catalyst ★ planetary strategist — creating cultural operating systems at planetary scale — tweeting on #future, #culture, #leadership @philiphorvath