Re-Inventing the Failure: Dreaming Utopian with Children

In the fall term of 2015, as a member of Portland State University senior capstone class (Philosophy with Children), I worked with the Montessori Ivy School students on the topic of Philosophy of the City. Throughout the term, the two groups had been discussing philosophical issues concerning social identity and what it means to be a city-dweller. These discussions led to a project where students designed their own cities. The following narrative is based on observations and one-on-one conversations with one student. I’ve taken care not to read too much of myself into his thoughts, but based on our year-long interaction, I’ve included what I understand to be his attitude and reasoning within the work.

In 1516, Sir Thomas More coined the term “utopia” (Latin for “no place”) in the book of the same name. There are disagreements on More’s intentions behind the book, but two are explicit: First, More wanted his readers to imagine an ideal place where some of the more famous thoughts and theories of his time were at work, and second, to demonstrate how this place would compare to the political and social environment of Europe at the time. In this way, the work is both a political essay and social commentary. The particular approach of utopian writing came to be very influential on the works of those who dared to dream of a future radically different than their own.

Much like More, the student asks: What is a city for? Why do we live together? Are we working towards something? How should we live together? Like many philosophers, the student’s answer is happiness. Everything that the citizens of his city do and work towards is for the achievement of a social state of happiness. This means living in a place where there is no anxiety over life’s necessities and provisions. For this reason, the area of labor is inserted within the city, both in the sense of location and as the main function of the city. Tiered into two sections: city proper, where the inhabitants live, and what is underneath it, the mines where the citizens work on extracting minerals are one cooperating unit. The student reveals this by implying that the process of mineral extraction leads to the production of what everyone needs (e.g., food, clothes, and shelter). Due to the importance of this collective work, the most important role in the city is the position of observation and management.

The responsibility of management rests on a super-intelligent technological beings who govern every aspect of this city. The enormity of this responsibility makes it necessary to take into account the possibility that this super-being may malfunction or “go rogue.” Taking into consideration this possibility of error, the city will be able to accommodate and prepare for the inevitable. The thought here is that if we were to consider the fragility of a system as an inevitable possibility, then we are less likely to be surprised and blindsided by its malfunction.

In order to deal with this catastrophic possibility, the student introduced an almost infinite backup of intelligent beings who supervise the one in charge and kick in the moment it starts to malfunction. While he had a finite number of back-up intelligent beings in mind, the constant revisions and increase of that number during his presentation implied to me that he had in mind a number which would never actually be reached. What is impressive about this thoughts is that rather than choosing a god-like, eternal being, he went for the mathematical possibility, thus making his system thinkable and understandable by anyone.

At this point, a student asked a question: “Why not just have a person monitoring the super being?” To this the designer replied: “Because humans can go rogue, too.”

The philosophical problem is this: since we are fallible, how do we go about sustaining a secure political life? Underneath this concern, there is an implicit law: Every system needs to be sustained either internally or externally. Thus, since the internal parts (the citizens) are human and fallible, the student decided to introduce something which governs and monitors from the outside of the system, an external authority which is all-seeing, all knowing and all-powerful. The student was aware that while both the super-being and the humans are fallible, only one could be produced infinitely. As such, the goal of happiness is protected from both mortality and the limits of human mind.

At this point, the most touching moment of the student’s philosophy enters the picture, revealing the emotional depth within this seemingly authoritarian, artificial despotism: What is to be done with the thwarted intelligent being? He said: “It is better for the technological being to be than not be.” Even though this being is a created, artificial thing, it nevertheless yearns to exist and experience itself. So rather than punishing it with banishment or destruction, it will be sent to a simulated world where it can experience itself existing and continue a happy life. The student sees the naturalness of error in the world, but doesn’t retaliate it against it. Rather, he gives it a simulated world natural to it. This suggests that labor and other human activities are not the only aspect of the city which secure its goal. What we have here as a whole is a prototype of a social system built on the pillars of happiness and forgiveness. If as adults our initial understanding of this picture is one of naivety, then we’ll have to ask ourselves: “Why are these simple notions unthinkable in our world?”

In our time, the popular young adult literature gravitates towards dystopian nightmares (e.g., Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent, etc.). This should be of concern to us, because this knowledge gives content to our actions and shapes our projects. We need to be able to dream of political possibilities. As always, the effort must begin with the youth, and not just as passive objects of our education system, but as participants. Their constant disregard for the accepted could be that needed jolt that wakes us from our ideological slumber.

Post by Sean Namei, a PSU Philosophy Major and High School Ethics Bowl Coach

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