When I say that I think we should open all of the borders, split the world into city-states, turn NATO into a world government, and franchise Singapore’s government, most of my readers get what I am doing. But every now and then I’ll get a comment like “that’s not possible” or “how dare you think we should do that!”

But my ideas are not meant to be possible and I’m certainly not recommending a blueprint I think we should follow. I am brainstorming. I am coming up with wildly speculative ideas for our future in hopes it inspires you to come up with wildly speculative ideas for our future too. 

I am also worldbuilding. I am writing a novel that takes place in a utopian future and I am researching that world in public. I am crowdsourcing it from you. I am asking questions like: What kind of government could we have? How might the economy evolve? How could technology progress? What might humanity be like? I’m asking: "What kind of future would we create if we weren’t limited to the one we already have?” 

This kind of work is not strategic, it’s imaginative. It’s not writing that says “here’s what we should do,” it’s writing that asks “what if we did this?” I am exploring every possible future we could create, not recommending the right one I think we should have.

This is different from most of the writing on the internet—modern journalism is very focused on the here and now. It reports on our present realities and the ways we should be outraged by them. We sit there feeling mad about the world and because we’re dealing with real people and real places every path forward feels very high stakes. We’re focused on the problems rather than coming up with solutions.

But when we’re brainstorming we’re dealing in hypotheticals. Instead of being mad about the way things are, we’re coming up with ways they could be. It’s more collaborative, more generative—we’re speaking in thought exercises. As Parag Khanna says in his book Technocracy in America, “Scenario-led thinking reduces the emotional tension of policy debates, creating a safe space for disagreement over hypotheticals.”

And we should absolutely be thinking in hypotheticals! That’s the realm of philosophy. 

As Joseph Heath says, “One of the major differences between philosophers and the general public is that most people find it extremely difficult to discuss any controversial moral or political issue without getting upset. Philosophers, on the other hand, typically draw a distinction between entertaining a proposition and affirming it, and so assume that one should be able to debate various questions in a hypothetical register, without triggering any of the emotional reactions that might be appropriate if one actually held them.”

Scott Alexander uses hypotheticals to incredible effect. In a recent essay he talked about the dangers of love. “People get their hearts broken all the time, or marry obviously incompatible people, or just never find love at all. Most female murder victims are killed by their romantic partners, and even for the male victims it’s pretty high up there. 

“Usually when something is this dangerous, we regulate it,” he said. “Here are some common-sense regulations on love that could be part of your chosen party’s platform at the next election:

  • Nobody is allowed to date without a license. These work like drivers’ licenses; you have to take a short class and pass a short test demonstrating that you understand consent and basic relationship skills.
  • Dating licenses can be revoked for sufficiently serious crimes—e.g. cheating, domestic abuse, or persistent alcoholism/drug use.
  • Three month waiting period for marriage.
  • Centralized government database of who is in a relationship with whom at any given time. You can check the database to make sure your partner isn’t leading a double life.
  • After three messy breakups, you have to take a remedial relationship skills class before you can date again.”

Alexander isn’t saying that we should actually regulate relationships this way. He’s using the hypothetical as a thought exercise to get us to think—about human emotion and how much that factors into our “rational” decision making, about where we should put up guardrails to protect us and where we should be free to make errors.

There are inherent risks to using this technique on the internet. We have become used to modern writing and context collapse means people can easily come across that post and take it all literally. In the comments, at least one person wrote to Alexander and said, “It would be impossible to regulate relationships, how could the government even track them?!” And at least one other person said, “How dare you think we should regulate relationships, the government has no place in our love lives!” 

I get responses like that to the things I write too and I know it’s because we are used to a certain way of thinking on the internet. We are stuck in the realm of reality and it feels impossible to imagine our way out. But that is exactly what we need to do! We need to re-train the way we think, to have big visions for the future like the utopian philosophers before us—to not be so focused on the trees right in front of us that we can’t see the whole forest and what it might become!

And the forest is vast! From the perspective of right now it might sound absurd to imagine that we might split the whole world into city-states and we have no way of knowing if doing so would be desirable or even good. But 5,000 years from now there probably won’t be a United States of America. It’s highly doubtful we’ll still have the EU. No empire has lasted that long and why should our current ones be the exception? 

Things will evolve. We will come up with new governments and design new economies and start new religions and invent new technologies just like we did in the thousands of years past. And why not come up with wildly speculative ways we could do so? Why not come up with far-flung futures we actually want to create rather than slumping toward the only one we can imagine?

Our utopian thinkers did. Even as they came up with wildly speculative futures, they brought some part of them to life.

Thomas More’s Utopia imagined an idealistic world without poverty or class, but he was also a statesman who reformed the justice system of his time, ensuring that the poor had access to legal representation and fighting against the bribery and corruption of the elite. Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis imagined a fantasy world where universities took the place of government, but in real life he pioneered the scientific method, advocating for empirical research and experimentation. Edward Bellamy and William Morris both imagined an end to capitalism but they succeeded in bringing some part of their proposed replacement to life. Morris fathered the arts and crafts movement, establishing a company that produced decorative arts and was a precursor to the modern design movement. Bellamy promoted the idea of a national currency and credit system, which we have today.

Given enough time and refinement, some of their more idealistic visions even inspired real-world developments when we reached key moments of inflection. Utopian themes like democracy and equality and social justice and state-funded science and education remained the realm of fiction for hundreds and even thousands of years before we tried them out and folded them into our reality. Some of those ideals worked—democracy has largely been a win for society despite Plato’s protestations against it. Some of them didn’t—socialism has thus far resulted in despotism and poverty despite Bellamy’s and Morris’ advocations for it.

We aren’t done yet and there is more experimenting we can do from here. There are more ideas to be had.

My work is only asking that we continue utopian thought from here. That we don’t assume the world as it is is as it will be. It won’t. We can come up with better futures from here. We might even inspire the world to build some of them. Because from our outlandish ideas came more actionable ones. From our visionary brainstorming we are able to decide what parts we want to keep. What may begin as hypotheticals could eventually become actuals. A wild dream become a lingering reality.

I hope you’ll join me. If I say, “What if NATO becomes a world government, could it end all war?” Saying, “we should never do that,” or “that will never work,” is antithetical to the process. Instead: Come up with one that will! Say: “I wonder if this government layer might be a better protector of world peace than NATO?” Or “Maybe we don’t even need a world government if we can get to world peace this way instead…” 

What I’m trying to understand is: “Is there a world in which we manage to end all war?” And isn’t that a utopian ideal worth pondering?

My ideas are not the right ones, they are merely kindling meant to spark better ones. Brainstorming is all about using ideas to come up with other ones. We bounce them off one another until we come up with something that will work, or at least is worth trying to see if it will. As Jack Antonoff says, “Great things are made by a small group of people yes-anding each other all the way to the moon.”

We have a place where we can do that here.

Not all of our ideas are good ones and we’ll throw many of them out in the brainstorming, but we still need to have them—every fantastical idea for our future we can come up with—without worrying about whether they are possible or even good! We need to be free to dream madly without restraint! To have a vision for our future that’s worth believing in. 

Only then can we decide what ones we actually want to create. And what we actually want to build.

So please: come up with wildly speculative ideas for our future. 

I know I will!


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