Inside Every Utopia Is a Dystopia

Cover2John Crowley at the Boston Review:

Inside every utopia is a dystopia striving to get out. World-changing plans to bring all human life and activity under beneficent control devolve inevitably into regimentation and compulsion. Edenic life-affirming communes descend into chaos and waste. Our presently evolving techutopia has barely reached its peak, and yet in it this horror-movie process has already begun: information must be free, and so lies and manipulations proliferate; common human connections are degraded; limits on power and self-dealing erode. Inequality increases with differential access. And all this in less than a single generation.

The utopian promises of the mid-twentieth century (modernism, broadly understood) stayed alive for longer, largely because its projects, which depended on design, manufacturing processes, materials, and city planning, took years or decades to be fully realized, while the world seemed to stay much the same. In 1939 the greater part of America was still a land of Toonerville trolleys, boarding houses, balky mules, door-to-door salesmen, pump handles, iceboxes, A&P’s, nerve tonics, kerosene, two-bit haircuts, hand-rolled cigarettes, incurable diseases, and patched inner-tubes, even as the idea of the future was brought closer with every newsreel and skyscraper and issue of Life or Look.

While older utopias often were predicated on returning to the virtues of an imagined past, a key figure behind this utopia of the new was Norman Bel Geddes, a theatre designer turned industrial designer. Bel Geddes is best known for designing the General Motors Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, a huge and hugely celebrated vision of the world of 1960, full of towering modernist skyscrapers in new cities and lots and lots of cars.

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