Utopia’s Garden, World, and Wall
Imagine that you lived in the “human quarter” of a vast city full of diverse aliens, all on a planet far from Earth. These aliens are quite strange and hard to understand in many ways, and so cannot simply be trusted, though your city does manage to usually maintain basic overall peace and law. As your human quarter is too small to be self-sufficient, it must trade and interact a lot with the rest of the city. Not just in physical goods, but also in work and social coordination. As a result, many humans participate in many alien-dominated orgs.
In this “human quarter in an alien city” scenario, your social concerns would come in three areas: (a) close relations between humans (b) global coordination among all species across a city or larger scales, and (c) humans interactions with aliens. That last area of concern is the one that seems the most interesting to me, and where I have the most to say.
Close human relations are harder to reason about abstractly, and can depend greatly on human nature and local culture. Global coordination is the sort of topic that many compete to discuss, making it unlikely that I can add much, or that the world would listen to me if I did. But it seems more feasible to find interesting and general things to say about how very different and distrusting species can usefully interact.
Consider this in terms of “utopia” (or “heaven”). If it were possible, we’d all like to built and maintain utopias. And utopias have three key issue areas, which I’ll call “garden”, “world”, and “wall”.
Well inside each utopia is a “garden”, full of rich detailed life, energy, color, aromas, passions, conflict, and play. Gardens give deep and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction, but depend crucially on complex opaque details of residents. Each utopia may have very different gardens, all full of life, but living very different lives. Making it hard to say much in general about how to manage gardens. Each utopia may have to mostly learn on its own here.
Utopias all exist in a larger “world”, a larger world that will try to coordinate in many ways, but will also fail to coordinate in as many ways. How exactly that grand coordination should be organized will always be a big political issue, on which many will compete fiercely to influence. Your utopia will want to play its part in this larger game, but can’t expect to have great influence there.
As David Lloyd Dusenbury argues in a thoughtful essay:
The basic intuition of all utopian fiction [is that] the perfect modern state—like the optimal city of antiquity—is sheltered by strong borders.
If your utopia is a small part of a nearby larger world, then to achieve many of their ends residents will want to interact with that larger world in many ways. And as those other parts of the larger world aren’t part of your utopia, you will have to be careful about how you do this. The world today is actually full of creatures that may look human-like and understandable, but are actually quite alien and inscrutable. You’d do better to treat them as aliens than as friends.
Thus your utopia must have a “wall”, i.e., an interface between it and the world. You can’t presume that those you interact with out there share your utopian norms, culture, attitudes, or feelings of utopian solidarity. And if you try to make your interactions depend on the details of their norms, culture, etc., you’ll need to do that differently for each of the different kinds of others with which you interact.
There thus may be a place for thinking in general about utopian walls. About how your utopia’s precious garden might be better promoted via the right levels and types of interactions with outsiders. And instead of using a different type of interaction for each different type of outsider, it may work better to find good general ways that people from different utopias and sub-worlds can reliably and useful interact. That is, utopias may well want to have rather similar walls, even if they have very different gardens.
This is how I’ve come to think about my work on “paying for results.” It is a hands-off distant relation, in which you admit that you don’t know much about how to judge the expertise you are trying to buy, and you don’t seek close emotionally-satisfying relations with such experts. Thus you are willing to consider simple general interaction policies, designed to let you get as much as possible out of the relation, while also allowing as much skepticism as possible about those strange outsiders and their odd and untrustworthy ways.
I fully admit that it isn’t enough for a utopia to merely have good walls, or to sit in a good-enough world. It will also need good gardens, and arms-length paying for results may be poorly suited for that. But good walls are an important element, and that is at least something where abstract thinking and analysis of the sort I’m good at may well have a lot to offer.
Added: In this Twitter poll, my answer is least popular:
Which design issue re utopia interests you most? Its garden (internal relations), wall (how parts of it interface with outsiders), world (how it participates in larger scale governance/coordination, or founding (how it gets started)?
— Robin Hanson (@robinhanson) July 5, 2020