Is utopian thinking dead? Attitudes to the future

Sunday 23 October, 17.30 - 18.45 , Garden Room Utopias


Video and audio of this debate are available at the bottom of this page.

From a spate of global terrorist attacks and natural disasters to major political shocks across the West and even the unexpected deaths of a number of cultural icons, a range of voices have lined up to declare 2016 ‘the worst year on record’. Others insist this shows a severe lack of perspective, and point to books like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature or Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, which show that, by almost every measure, global violence is in significant decline and living standards are on the rise. Nevertheless, other leading rationalist thinkers, from Stephen Hawking to Yuval Noah Harari, are lining up to issue dark warnings about technology’s threat to humanity and humanity’s threat to the well-being of future generations.

But there are still those who argue not only that humanity can survive, but that we will continue to transform our world for the better. 500 years after Thomas More’s Utopia, the philosophical debate over whether the concept represents an unattainable ‘nowhere’ or the kind of idealistic ambition that can lead to change in the real world is live and kicking. Tech entrepreneurs’ claims to be ‘making the world a better place’ with niche apps, are a source of much mockery in shows such as Silicon Valley, but on a more serious level, there has been growing anxiety about the slow rate of genuine innovation in the West. The likes of Robert J Gordon and Larry Summers have used the term ‘secular stagnation’ to express their pessimism over the prospects of radical economic or technological progress in the foreseeable future. Some argue there are too many barriers to innovation, from state regulation to a lack of funding to a dearth of intellectual ambition. But is the real issue that utopian thinking has always been unrealistic, even self-indulgent? Should we accept that it is normal for things to stay pretty much the same, and celebrate the joys of small-scale innovations like the latest smart phone?

Why do debates around technological progress seem to vacillate so wildly between utopianism and dystopianism? When innovation has never seemingly been more celebrated and culturally valued, why is it perceived to be in a state of crisis? Is utopianism simply optimism divorced from practicality, or an example of necessary blue-sky thinking? Are the constraints on innovation a matter largely of investment and official focus, or are there cultural and intellectual issues too?