Utopia is creepy

Works of science fiction, particularly good ones, are almost always dystopian. It’s easy to understand why: There’s a lot of drama in Hell, but Heaven is, by definition, conflict-free. Happiness is nice to experience, but seen from the outside it’s pretty dull.

But there’s another reason why portrayals of utopia don’t work. We’ve all experienced the “uncanny valley” that makes it difficult to watch robotic or avatarial replicas of human beings without feeling creeped out. The uncanny valley also exists, I think, when it comes to viewing artistic renderings of a future paradise. Utopia is creepy – or at least it looks creepy. That’s probably because utopia requires its residents to behave like robots, never displaying or even feeling fear or anger or jealousy or bitterness or any of those other messy emotions that plague our fallen world.

I’ve noticed the arrival recently of a new genre of futuristic YouTube videos. They’re created by tech companies for marketing or brand-burnishing purposes. With the flawless production values that only a cash-engorged balance sheet can buy you, they portray a not-too-distant future populated by exceedingly well-groomed people who spend their hyperproductive days going from one screen to the next. (As seems always to be the case with utopias, the atmosphere is very post-sexual.) The productions are intended to present us with visions of technological Edens, but they end up doing the exact opposite: portraying a future world that feels cold, mechanical, and repellent. And the creepiness is only intensified by the similarities between the future they conjure up and the present that we live in.

The latest in this genre comes from Microsoft, and like its predecessors it seems to be the product of a collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. Make sure you watch it with the sound on, because the music in these videos is always richly creepy in itself:

I love the title of this video: Productivity Future Vision (2011). It’s so evocative.

18 thoughts on “Utopia is creepy

  1. Noetic Jun

    That’s probably because utopia requires its residents to [..] never displaying or even feeling [..] any of those other messy emotions that plague our fallen world.

    The key words here, I believe, are “plague” and “fallen”, and they hide among themselves a considerable causal link.

  2. Zeph Campbell

    I think what you’re experiencing is an aesthetic repulsion to minimalist styles :)

    Movies like _Minority Report_ and _I, Robot_ had a lot of that. Lack of warm colors, lots of austere designs.

    In demos like the one you linked, the technology and design language become the focus of the videos, and the humans become the background scenery.

    It’s not necessarily utopianism, just futurism as we design it presently (compare and contrast with futurism from the 1950s).

  3. Nick Carr

    Good comment on this from over at Hacker News:

    “One of the main problems about technological visions of utopia is that they so often assume that perfection is the absence of problems. Perhaps, but the more a world approaches that perfection, the more limited it becomes by necessity. Hence, the glimpse of Microsoft’s world of optimal productivity is a glimpse of an intellectual and spiritual desert: meetings without purposes, productivity with nothing to produce. Human ingenuity exists to solve problems, so it’s extremely ironic what emerges when we project to a world where technological ingenuity has vanquished the problems we deal with today.”

  4. Kelly Roberts

    Samuel Beckett: “Hell is the static lifelessness of unrelieved viciousness. Paradise is the static lifelessness of unrelieved immaculation.”

  5. Glen Hinkle

    “I think what you’re experiencing is an aesthetic repulsion to minimalist styles”

    Indeed. The video presented isn’t creepy to me at all. I find it comforting: representing a pinnacle of disciplined, human movement.

  6. Nick Carr

    I don’t know. Aesthetically speaking, I generally find minimalist styles attractive and pleasing. But there are those moments when minimalist styles blur into fascistic styles, which I do fine aesthetically repulsive. So maybe there’s some of that going on.

  7. Ianwallace

    It seems that even in this utopian vision, the Microsoft spellchecker still isn’t working – ‘Maintenence’ instead of ‘Maintenance’ at 02:57.

    It’s good to see some human flaws in this too perfect world…

  8. Pranav Shah

    It is an intriguing phenomenon. Visions and depictions of utopia are not that common, and when they are portrayed, more often than not they tend to depict some fascist underpinnings. One would think that such portrayals would get a dopaminergic response, much like when people view pictures of smiling children. Maybe there is a psychological resistance to believing that our lives could be without problems, challenges, grief; that somehow there is always something sinister, something dark, behind such visions (except when it comes to smiling children).

    We live in a world where we are forced to explain our very existence. One of the ways we do this is through our emotions, which include love, happiness, but also aggression, envy, jealousy, greed. Without the existence of all of these emotions, we either become closer to the animal world or the world of computers. it is hard for us to imagine human existence without these strong emotions.

  9. D

    I disagree. It doesn’t feel cold to me. A lot of the video is the mom keeping touch with her family and colleagues through technology. That’s cold? And I really like Microsoft’s embrace of the minimal “Metro” design aesthetic in general.

    Now what about all the asexual well-groomed people? Well, maybe. But what I learned being a creative inside a large corporation is that companies are wary of bias lawsuits (gender, race, sexual) so we get this exceedingly bland imagery where every business team is always smiling, multi-racial and wearing cleanly pressed khakis. Yes, kinda creepy because it’s not real life.

    I think the bigger issue is that there are interactive screens everywhere and we can’t escape. This won’t lead to productivity but shallowness, as you point out in your book.

    (p.s. I don’t work for Microsoft)

  10. Orionwl

    The video is the typical sci-fi cold, a bit like 90’s anime series. People communicate with each other but there is an invisible, large space between them, which feels lonely.

    That said, I don’t think it’s very scary or fascist. It is very, very bland. Very “Today with some extra gadgets”. An affluent Western male’s perspective of the idealized, minimal today.

    The futurism of the 30’s and 50’s was very bold in comparison. And pretty funny to read/watch in retrospect. Where they imagined flying cars, underground vacuum transportation tubes, weird machines in the home and such, our future vision seems to be satisfied with adding screens and projectors everywhere…

  11. Yves Trlt

    “Nice” example! So true …

    Our time is quite amazing in that in “parallel” to cybernetics explosion, we have the end of the cheap hydrocarbons explosion (that started around 1850), so that the above for sure won’t happen.

    For those who read french, a quite amazing quote of Salvador Dali below written in 1964, that truly sounds as a description of today’s “social networks” twitter environment :

    « L’éblouissement scatologique du sacré qui doit être la virgule pointilliste culminante de tout fête qui se respecte sera, de même que dans le passé, exprimé par le rite sacrificiel de l’archétype. De même qu’au temps de Léonard on procédait à l’éventrement du dragon des blessures duquel émergeaint des fleurs de lys, aujourd’hui on devra procéder à l’éventrement des machines cybernétiques les plus perfectionnées, les plus complexes, les plus coûteuses, les plus ruineuses pour la communauté. Elles seront sacrifiées pour le seul bon plaisir et divertissement des princes, recocufiant ainsi la mission sociale de ces formidables machines qui par leur pouvoir d’information instantanées et prodigieuses n’auront servi qu’à procurer un orgasme mondain et passager et à peine intellectuel à tous ceux venus se brûler à la flamme glaciale des feux de diamants cocufieurs de la fête supracybernétique. »

    (Journal d’un génie, 1964, page 218 édition l’imaginaire Gallimard, isbn : 2-07-073811-6 )


    And many similar other passages in the same book.

  12. Kyle French

    The only thing that really gets me is the fact that everyone moves so slowly, with such precise motions. It’s as if the post-production was done pre-, and then the actors were told exactly how to move. You get impression that all that technology only works perfectly if everyone is very careful to be exactly precise, which would be like a kind of invisible cage.

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