The sun’s tingling radiation penetrated my cheeks and warmly nudged me from a hypnotic lull. As my bed rocked me back and forth in a steady, calming rhythm, I peeked through groggy lashes and fixated on my reflection in the glass wall. Refocusing, the vast, sparkling oceanic horizon materialized beyond the glass, and I watched the salty foam as it lapped the arms of our floating community pod. Sometimes, I thought I could hear the waves, but it was impossible over the hum of the engine and electronics inside. I was always just a little disappointed when the glass transformed into a medium for status updates, so uniformly informing us. It broke the illusion of the truly remote life I sometimes fonxiliously, adventurously longed for.
I prefer mornings like this — waking up to natural light. I learned many years ago to listen to my body’s circadian rhythm and rise with the sun. The simulated evening sunrise just never quite did it for me… That’s not to say that the simulations aren’t useful. Sometimes, I do want to wake up elsewhere and pretend I’m on “fonxili” — as we’d dubbed the outdated idea of an “exotic” vacation. It was technologically easy to go anywhere one desired, but being busy often prevented travel, so instead we could pretend in the interim thanks to virtual reality. I could wake up nestled in a familiar cove on a Machu Picchu ridge, peering out over the sacred valley, or bouncing along the surface of mars in a simulated autonomous vehicle… or even to my custom design: the forest and birds from my childhood backyard that no longer existed except in my mind and 3D design…
But as enthralling as these simulated mornings were, it was always the caress of real sunlight and being witness to the world as it moved with me that really did it for me. It grounded me, and helped me remember reality’s layers.
I hopped out of bed as the glass wall began to glow in green circles that radiated outward. It was my best friend calling to see when I’d get into mainland today. I rubbed my eyes and raised my hand in a waving motion, as if to beckon the glass toward me. The sensors responded, answering the call for me.
“Hi,” I smiled meekly beneath raised eyebrows while plucking a cherry tomato from my personal bedside hydroponic system.
“Still sleeping?” he asked in a whimsical, teasing voice. Over the ten years I’d known him, he’d never failed to get up before sunrise. His energy, sometimes intimidating in its sagacity, seemed to come from some mystical world he once discovered and never wanted to leave behind. It inspired me to find something similar.
“No, I’m awake,” I replied between tart tomato bites. “I just need some coffee.”
“Okay, well I’ve got a good spot at Open Eye; the night owls are just starting to clear out and a few others are trickling in, but it shouldn’t be too crowded this morning. Don’t forget to bring–”
“Got it. I’ll be there in an hour.”
I swiped my hand in a downward motion and his face disappeared from the glass, leaving an outline of his endorsing smile in my mind’s eye. The ocean outside the glass returned and swelled with greater intensity, dancing with aquatic life in its stable embrace.
There was a time when we worried it would all suffocate.
Nearly fifteen years ago, humanity witnessed the devastating chain reaction of dying coral reef around the world. Through virtual reality, documentaries brought us face-to-face with pale, lifeless coral cities. Those reefs had previously been thriving communities of concomitant species, sharing and creating space together. Rising ocean temperatures accelerated coral bleaching at rates from which the reefs couldn’t recover. It was devastating.
The degradation wasn’t isolated to aquatic ecosystems – whole villages disappeared, particularly throughout Asia, India and Africa. Fishermen came back empty-handed and small farmers tilled exhausted soils. Children starved and remote families died of thirst. Meanwhile, nearby factories were still allowed to divert freshwater to produce soda. They were still allowed to ship carbon-dependent friggs across the ocean—just to satiate a culture that was dying in a saturated, consumerist- infected market. We felt the crisis of too much junk and not enough necessities, like nutrition and healthcare…
The last coral civilization died. Then, the conversation started.
That’s why I was here, living off the coast of North Carolina in this community pod. Like others around the world, I was working to establish a new coral reef habitat. Breakthroughs from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Texas led to a genetic basis for heat tolerance in coral. We improved the situation, transplanting new coral foundations and cultivating the resurgence of aquatic ecosystems.
“Take me to Open Eye,” I told my artificial intelligence system as I put on my combat boots. I never could let go of that sentimental grunge aesthetic. These boots had hiked the Rockies and sat through class lectures with me. They deserved a cup of Joe from Open Eye. Within a few seconds, the glass ceiling of my room slid open and an autonomous drone hovered overhead. Opening its bottom hatch, a chair lowered down into my pod, inviting me to take a seat. Last night, I had told my AI to set my morning pickup time for four minutes ago; if I’d waited sixty more seconds the drone may have been diverted to a newer ride hail. I plopped down and got comfortable as the chair ascended back into the hull of the autonomous drone and we headed for the nearest oceanside bullet train platform destined for the city.
Approaching the shore side station, a line of 40 windmills twirled in the seabreeze. Beneath the ocean’s surface, kinetic energy from the waves was also captured. All of the electricity was routed back to shore, where, like all major cities now, the electric “grid” was composed of interconnected micro-grids, all using 100% renewable energy. The micro-grids used electricity produced locally by solar and wind first. If there was excess energy and no outside demand, energy was stored; if a neighboring community needed additional electricity, the energy would be routed there. The network of micro-grids helped prevent single points of failure.
The drone docked at a charging station attached to the train platform, and I quickly switched modes. Riding the train was always a pleasant experience — strangers sat together in booths, chatting about their latest research endeavors or their kids’ accomplishments. Everyone used the train — it was the most practical means of long distance travel. Traveling at 400 mph, I’d be in Carrboro in less than an hour. The magnetic levitation technology allowed the trains to hover at 10 cm above the tracks, propelled by electrically charged magnets. As we approached the hub in Raleigh, the train slowed down, recovering kinetic energy through regenerative braking.
When I got off the train in Raleigh, an autonomous carpool vehicle destined for Chapel Hill and Carrboro was waiting. Like me, a few others had organized their travel plans ahead of time through their personal AI interfaces. Our AI planning assistants didn’t operate in silos- the network allowed for harmonious planning for everyone. That was the shared goal in everything that we did as humans now – we worked together and participated in the actualization of each other’s happiness.
After the coral crisis fifteen years ago, the UN Sustainable Development Goals were given new life. They had been established five years prior to the crisis, in 2015, when the age of retrospection was just hitting its stride, but motivation to meet the goals wasn’t universal at the time. After the virtual reality documentaries were released, and people witnessed the real damages of climate change and pollution, the global community finally pledged to work together. Each of the 17 goals was re-evaluated and evolved to create a new conception of how we organized our resources and related to each other.
Whoever could help build this new foundation, did. The entertainment market merged with education to create new forms of media – like the coral reef virtual reality documentaries that started it all. This helped more people access critical concepts and engage in problem-solving together. Before physical school infrastructures could be built in remote areas, virtual reality headsets were delivered to all children, granting them access to live classroom feeds with professors half a world away.
Revolutionaries around the globe participated in the digital transformation, as decentralized information technologies emerged, allowing for more open, transparent and publicly verifiable systems to take form. The experience of value-exchanges, contract fulfillment and data sharing across industries changed for the better, thanks to startups like BLOC. Smart contracts developed on blockchain technology and MAS protocol systems handled data in a ‘trustless’ system, meaning trust was built into the system and the concept of distrust between actors slowly faded.
Sensor technologies took off – we began putting sensors everywhere! There was definitely pushback. Big brother fears lingered, but things were different. The data wasn’t owned by anyone. It was open to the public, existing in a distributed ledger network that everyone had access to, that couldn’t be shut down or covered up. Peer to peer nodes interfaced with oracles collecting sensor data to deliver real-time progress reports and enable a new mode of public investment. Everything from wind turbine performance to carbon emissions of shipping containers could be traced, allowing for the development of more efficient systems. Net neutrality became the standard.
Coal mines shut down as wind turbines and solar arrays were installed, at first driven by crowd-funded investments in community profiles. As self-sustaining communities around the world took form, their data was shared with the larger global community so that others could learn from their methods and adapt inspiration and technology to local contexts. It started with the islands, but before long, every city had a closed loop infrastructure, recycling water, composting waste and growing fresh food wherever it could grow for whoever was hungry. Green monoculture lawns no longer existed, because the drive to demonstrate one’s success via possession of food-barren land was irrelevant. Success no longer needed to be proven, Each person could pursue the development of their unique talents and passions. For some, that was the pursuit of a STEM education and career; for others, it was the pursuit of philosophy and art; and for many, it was a combination of passions made possible by free education.
Basic income paired with universal healthcare made everyone’s dreams a possibility and revealed that human nature is generally good. Scarcity had created conflict; poverty contrasted by accumulated wealth created a system of enslavement. This dehumanizing dynamic had painted human nature so dimly for millennia. Of course, there was still inequity. The nature of life is that we’re always moving and two participants cannot occupy the same space at the same time; someone will always reach point A faster than whoever occupies point B. Someone will always enjoy whatever accommodations come with point A. But the difference was that point B was no longer a poverty trap. Basic needs were being met, and because of that, people have become less distracted by their physiological and safety needs, are kinder to one another and are focused on bigger ideas. It is the age of empathy and self-actualization.
I blinked a few times and noticed the little boy sitting in the seat in front of me chatting with an elderly lady about a scavenger hunt he and his classmates had gone on around the city a week ago. His home is located on the same street as his school in the center of town and I recognized the area he was describing. Like most areas now, it was a mixed-use development that contained large community living floors as well as a combination of affordable apartments and regular apartments intermingled above businesses. But his neighborhood in particular had a community garden designed in the form of a maze! He had successfully found and collected all of the vegetables, fruits and herbs on his scavenger hunt list, which was celebrated back at school with a hands-on cooking class led by a local chef. This collaboration between schools, community gardens and chefs had become a regular part of the school curriculum, teaching kids the value of real food and hands-on cultivation. Because of the availability of fresh food, people relied on very little packaged food. In whatever packaged goods they did buy, 100% recycled materials were used and the materials returned to the recycling loop after use.
Kids here are very visible; they’re included in the everyday life of society and because of this, they’re more aware and more responsible. Every adult is a mentor, taking the time to explain the “why” as best as they can or offering advice to any child in need. Here, the community raises the child, and there is mutual respect among everyone. It’s not uncommon to see a child out fetching produce or picking fresh ingredients from one of the many community gardens on their own, safe in their connected community.
All of the streets in the city center are pedestrian friendly, thanks to the global movement to reclaim the streets from cars ten years ago. Many are pedestrian-only streets, while some exist as woonerfs, with all modes of transport sharing the space together. Planters are strategically placed in these streets to force cars to weave, thus slowing down. The roads that are devoted to cars all have separated bike lanes and then, offset by planters and trees, wide brick sidewalks.
But there weren’t many cars in the city; the public transportation allowed for connectivity throughout all districts. The train stations linked major cities, but within the city itself, the metro and the bus routes were well-planned to serve all commuters. Wherever the last mile issue would have arisen, electric bikes and autonomous vehicles filled the gaps. Because of this, there were very few parking lots in the city. Those parking lots that did exist were constructed with permeable pavement, reducing runoff and returning water to underground aquifers. They were also quite expensive to park in, whereas the public transit cards were affordable and even made available for free to those who qualified. Cities had realized that the cost of having a city designed for cars far overtook the costs of public transit; moving people between opportunities in an energy efficient way that allowed for more shared, public open space just made sense.
As we arrived in Carrboro, my friend texted me to say he’d moved up to the green roof patio. He knew I was about to arrive, thanks to the automatic update he received when I was within 2 miles. It was a feature of my AI organizer that I had opted into, so that when I made plans to meet someone, not only was my transportation organized ahead of time, but the person of interest was kept in the loop. This allowed me to focus on my surroundings better and be more present in every face to face interaction. Most people felt the same way, enjoying the social capital generated by our fleeting interactions and shared experience of public spaces.
The electric carpool van pulled up next to the bike station where I changed modes one last time before reaching my friend. I so enjoyed biking in Carrboro. The city had always been a regional leader in biking infrastructure, but over the past few years bike culture had really taken off, “Copenhagenized” with the installation of the bicycle greenwaves. As long as I kept a relatively constant speed, I was able to hit only green lights on my trip down Franklin and Main street. Lights embedded in the lanes indicated whether I was going fast enough to make the next green light. Additionally, sensors beneath the pavement tracked the number of bikers at any given time, and if seven or more bikers were approaching a light together, the AI would trigger a green light by the time they arrived at the intersection. If no cars were in route to cross the intersection, the light simply stayed green, which was often the case here in the urban centers. This greatly improved the biking experience for me, allowing me to keep my momentum by avoiding unnecessary braking.
I pulled up to Open Eye, hopped off the bike and headed in. Each step up the old wooden staircase produced a heavy, creaking vibration. Although some buildings would have replaced their creaky stairs, I rather appreciated the sensation of feeling myself move through a space, as a participant in that space. Reaching the roof, I stepped out into the now fully risen sun’s rays. My friend sat at a picnic table surrounded by cherry tomatoes and I joined him. Glancing over the side of the building, I noticed someone hop on the bike I had parked and head toward Chapel Hill. Since I hadn’t reserved the bike for the day, as soon as I spent more than 2 minutes away from it, it became available to the network again. It didn’t matter- there were plenty of bikes.
“What are you reading?” I asked, squinting at my friend who was engrossed in an old paperback.
“1984,” he replied, pausing to read my reaction. I simply smiled and looked away, gazing out at our own city. It was nothing like the authoritarian dystopia of 1984. We were well educated and encouraged to debate among each other. We enjoyed our city as a self-sustaining hub, generating local electricity and food, while not treating these resources as strictly “ours”. We were connected to other hubs in a peer-to-peer system that shared resources fairly. Most of the time other cities operated at full efficiency, but if there were to be a shortage, neighboring cities automatically helped. We humans supported one another, and that was reflected in our societies.
“Did you bring-”
“I did,” I laughed, noting his excitement.
“Thank you, you can have this book by the end of today,” he replied as I unzipped my backpack and pulled out a copy of A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari. I remembered discussing the rhizome many years ago in a class — the concept that life is less like a tree with branching hierarchies, and more like an intertwined root system, a rhizome. Everything in life affects the existence of everything else, and a single actor cannot be plucked from its contextual existence; life must be considered holistically, as an interaction of systems containing systems. Our political ecology professor, Arturo Escobar, noted that a question to keep in mind as we go through life was “how to be mindful and effective weavers of the mesh of life.”
It felt like we were on the right path for this.
We still look forward to Utopia – to that place where everything is okay. We haven’t realized that this is Utopia for centuries ago. Maybe it doesn’t matter. What matters is that things can change; things can always change – that’s the nature of life: constant motion. The moment we stop changing, perhaps we will lose a little bit of what makes us feel alive.
Utopia isn’t a static place we can catch up to; it’s that imaginary place, the feeling we get when we think there’s something better on the horizon and that we just need to work together to get ourselves there. Utopia is what lives inside us, reminding us to grow in a way that helps not just ourselves, but everyone around us as a collective whole.
3 Replies to “Looking Toward Utopia”
I loved the story, so descriptive I could visualize the world you were in!!!
Thank you Steven!
Hopefully soon I can improve the experience with VR thanks to my Emergent Technologies class this semester 😉