Friday, April 24, 2020

#115 / Utopia, Inc.

You could say I "majored" in utopia in college. Of course, that is not actually true. Stanford didn't give a degree in "Utopia." I actually majored in History, with a concentration on United States history, but it is true that I was enrolled in an Honors Program in Social Thought and Institutions that is described in the linked oral interview with Professor Charles Drekmeier, who founded the program. 

The Honors program in which I participated was designed around two years of study of a single word. In my third and fourth years at Stanford, in the Social Thought and Institutions Seminar in which I was a member, that word was "utopia." 

I am not much attracted to a "utopia" based on living in a yurt with semi-naked young children running around (not to mention semi-naked adults). I actually did have a brief, one-day experience with just such a utopian community, and I was glad to get out of there alive. Still, I belive that we do need to be open to the idea that "utopian" ideas can be achieved in the real world. I have found, from my personal experience, that this is, in fact, true. I should make clear, to avoid confusion, that I link the kind of utopian impulse that I endorse as deriving more from Hannah Arendt's idea of political freedom than from any notions encompassing or based on free love and drug use. 

The picture above (with those semi-naked children shown at rest) is from an article called "Utopia Inc," which I found in the online magazine, Aeon. It is a 3,900-word discussion about what makes a utopian community either work, or not. I am writing this blog piece to pass along one sentence, found in a "pull quote" in the article: 

With too few people, you implode. But with more than 25 people, it is hard to create intimacy.

I am with Margaret Mead in her celebration of the revolutionary and utopian possibilities found in small groups, and I think that the Aeon article is making an important point. Personally, I have found groups between ten and twenty people to be most effective in getting things done. I always recommend shooting for fifteen!

Small groups are the mitochondria of the revolution - of real life. They are the energy generators whose work is essential to achieve substantial social, political, and economic change. If you want to "think in utopian" terms (I recommend it), begin with thinking about how to precipitate ten to twenty dedicated persons who are ready to pledge their "lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" to achieve the utopian or revolutionary goal.

Trying to "scale up" is generally a mistake, which is why social media-based revolutionary movements don't work out so well. Check Zeynep Tufekci's TED talk on that, if you haven't already seen it. 

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