What is utopia?

Ben Mann
6 min readJul 30, 2020
Is my backyard in San Francisco utopia?

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 realisation of Utopias.
Oscar Wilde

A friend recently asked, “Do you believe in utopia?” My short answer is yes, but the devil is in the details. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ll share my amateur opinions here. As we build the future, a clear vision can be our blueprint.

The experience machine

Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that could give us whatever desirable or pleasurable experiences we could want. Psychologists have figured out a way to stimulate a person’s brain to induce pleasurable experiences that the subject could not distinguish from those he would have apart from the machine. He then asks, if given the choice, would we prefer the machine to real life?

You might assume that the machine would only provide short term pleasure, or things that other people consider pleasurable, but like addictive drugs, it’d take its toll on you and your loved ones. For the purposes of this thought experiment, assume that the machine is aligned with your values, optimizing for your pleasure on the timescale you want and in the style you prefer. Take a minute to make the decision for yourself whether you want to enter the machine. Why did you choose what you did? What if the decision were irreversible?


Utopia concepts often focus on work (Mills), platonic love, or dignified suffering (Frankl). Each of these has a tight connection between input (sensation) and output (decision making), whereas some would interpret the experience machine as input-only (sensation). When I play games, outsiders might think I’m working. Yet there is no productive output or connection to the “real” world. Thus a video game is like an early approximation of an experience machine. A board game is, too, but a little more along the spectrum toward “real.” Where do you draw the line between games and the experience machine?


Most people who hear about the experience machine intuitively dislike it. Is it uncertainty about the machine and fear of the unknown? Status quo bias? A heuristic that you want to expand your range of experiences, and the experience box would cause information insensitivity?

Now imagine that you are already in the experience machine, and the “real” world is a torture hell where the only escape is your current reality. Would you exit the experience machine?

This is a classic system 1 vs system 2 conflict. Our emotions and intuitions have evolved and adapted to highly uncertain conditions. The experience machine, if it were 100% reliable, is different from all our other experiences. Take a trip to the Caribbean and maybe it’ll rain the whole time and you’ll lose all your luggage. Go to some random hole in the wall restaurant and eat the most delicious meal of your life. Maybe I had to suffer through that horrible relationship to grow. No matter what happens, there’s almost always some future event that could make it worthwhile, like in the Chinese parable of “the old man loses his horse.”

If all experience terminates in the mind, then what’s the difference between the experience machine and reality? What makes one better or worse than the other? What is the “real reality” bonus? If you want to explore new things humans haven’t thought of yet, that’s something you could do in the machine. If you want to make sure all the other humans also have the choice to live a good life or enter their own experience machine, that’s also fine. The question is: what’s the endgame?

Argumentum ad extremum

Before I explore a specific vision of utopia, I’ll motivate that it might exist. It’s difficult to argue that a particular vision of utopia is the best. Each person has their own unique preferences and values, often conflicting with one another. That said, there are some worlds most people can agree would be bad:

  1. Use all available energy for high-fidelity simulations of human suffering
  2. No life or conscious entities

If we can agree that these worlds are bad, we have an anchor from which to move towards something good. Key considerations around conscious entities:

  1. How many are there?
  2. Are they equally important?
  3. What is their hedonic experience (min, max, mean, variance)?

Considering these, we should account for not just our automatic emotional responses, but also our cognitive biases. My gut feeling is that a world with few happy beings is not that different in value from a world with many happy beings. But I think my gut feelings are flawed due to scope insensitivity.

Straw-man worlds


People discover how to modify their own preferences through intense meditation. When you come home from work, your toaster says, “Welcome home! How was your day?” You reply, “It was great. I failed over and over, got side swiped by a bus, and am now ready to feast on my potato gruel!” You smile as you throw your dirty disposable jacket onto a steaming pile of garbage next to your gruel dispenser.

Low variance

The world has a single unified government. It ensures everyone who wants it has a minimum standard of living. It knocks down those who try to climb too high, since that might cause too much inequality. Mass surveillance and censorship are key guarantors of societal stability, lest powerful weapons get into the wrong hands a la The Vulnerable World Hypothesis.

High variance

Global geo-politics shatters into hundreds of classic anarcho-capitalist states, where everyone does their own thing. Tragedy of the commons means things might collapse at any moment, but people are scrappy and resilient. Trade makes it hard to want to use force, since making a deal is usually more lucrative. A huge gap develops between the neglected poor and the compounding rich. Investment groups spring up to help those who are most likely to become valuable economic agents. A few of those with the most resources fund large, ambitious initiatives.


High fidelity brain-interface simulations become cheap and widespread just as brain-in-vat technology improves enough to support minds entirely. Large swathes of humanity digitize, living out their lives as emperors of their own universes or collaborating with other digital minds to build a common experience. Each person has their own shareable sandbox. Cognitive modification and enhancement bloom as people start manipulating the chemicals in their brains and attaching external compute and storage modules. In the holocaust of 2147, half of all universes are lost due to a malicious worm created by a mysterious hacker collective. The AI civil rights movement causes mass hysteria, but eventually AIs are granted equal rights.


In reaction to large swathes of humanity migrating into completely digital universes, a reactionary core decides that real reality is too precious to waste. They eschew all digital experiences, but occasionally interact with “meatbots” controlled by the digital humans to access their advanced technology and entertainment. Some factions endorse the use of drugs to give everyone “UBI for the mind,” where anyone can have a minimum hedonic experience without compromising their ability to live a normal life. The drugs are so cheap and food production techniques so efficient that everyone has an excellent minimum standard of living.

Servant gods

Multiple corporations successfully create superhuman artificial intelligence. Though there is mass unemployment, some of the corporations give away large amounts of resources to support the displaced. AIs that have been verified are turned towards recursive self improvement. Humans and AIs work together to ensure that as the AIs improve, they remain aligned with humanity’s goals. Eventually the AIs become good enough that people lean heavily on them. AIs give people’s lives meaning, structure, and nourishment. Humanity and their AI tutor/mentor/gods spread to the stars, building Dyson swarms to fuel the AIs figuring out what we’re doing here.

I love science fiction because it tries to tackle our biggest questions. Maybe creating AI to steel-man humanity’s destiny is unrealistic, but I hope that someday we might trust them like we trust a benevolent parent. Send me your favorite depictions of utopia! We need to dream bigger.



Ben Mann

Software engineer, tinkerer, aspiring mad scientist