The Two Utopias

Scott Alexander of the Slate Star Codex blog wrote an insightful piece on liberalism’s big problem.

Basically, liberalism is letting people do whatever they want, so long as they don’t infringe on each other. What is infringement, though? Not every kind of trespass or annoyance can conceivably be banned, in any sense of the word. However, a lot of things that aren’t bannable do infringe on someone — in the sense that they are somewhat important (by tradition, common sense, rational arguments) for some people and yet somewhat unpleasant (against their tradition, common sense, rational arguments) for others. What can we do about it?

Please read Scott’s take on this; while longish, it’s well worth your time, as is almost everything he writes.

Of course the simplest answer is that we needn’t really do anything. Can’t we all simply promote tolerance and learn to be happy, regardless of how annoying others might be? To an extent, sure, this is the right way, even the only way. But only to an extent. At some level of annoyance — still below what can reasonably be regulated by law — it’s just too much, for some, to be tolerant about.

As everyone would attest, this is very much a problem in the present. But unlike many other problems of the present, this one is not going anywhere even in the most benign versions of the future. Because liberalism, in the long term, tends to make individuals and groups more diverse: more freedom means less uniformity, and less uniformity means more conflict — and less happiness.


Scott calls his answer to this problem Archipelago.

Admittedly it’s not a very realistic solution. More like a general approach that can, at times, be taken into account. But not very much — at least not at this time.

Archipelago is the ultimate liberalism plus unlimited space and unlimited mobility. The recipe is simple: if you don’t like your neighbors, move out.

Imagine there’s an unlimited supply of islands (they need not be literal islands — can be planets, virtual spaces, etc.) so that any group or individual can claim any free island for themselves to live on. And imagine that everyone can, for whatever reason, easily pack up and relocate wherever they wish. Won’t this be enough for everyone to live their lives in perfect contentedness — annoying no one and being annoyed by no one?

Kind of like Ray Bradbury’s reaction to American racism in Martian Chronicles (written in 1950):

“Did you hear about it?”
“About what?”
“The niggers, the niggers!”
“What about ’em?”
“Them leaving, pulling out, going away; did you hear?”
“What you mean, pulling out? How can they do that?”
“They can, they will, they are.”
“Just a couple?”
“Every single one here in the South!”
“I got to see that. I don’t believe it. Where they going — Africa?”
A silence.


It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. Obviously, in the current day and age we don’t have unlimited islands or lands to colonize. Also, for all the recent progress in mobility, people are rooted, relocating is hard, and most can’t and won’t move to some faraway land simply because they dislike their neighbors.

Then, even if a peaceful agreement to separate two communities is achieved, there’s that deep-seated conviction that whoever leaves, loses. Why exactly should we go and not them? Only because we’re less numerous? But hey, let’s call in our friends from other islands to settle here and tip the population scales — so we get to inherit this nice land and drive the icky ones away.

And even if inhabitants of each island are happy with each other, islands may be very not happy with other islands. This means hostility and, potentially, violence.

Scott’s answer to that is simple. He imagines some kind of World Government with an authority over all the islands; whenever necessary, the government’s agents descend upon the trespassers, block any violence, and generally arbitrate. The government is assumedly elected by some kind of democratic process: not perfect but (according to Churchill) better than the alternatives.


Another problem is more insidious. Liberalism is worth little if it only provides freedom to groups and not to individuals. Even in the ideal Archipelago, moving away is much easier for a group than for a single person. It’s not just that an individual will have harder time settling on an inhabited island. More importantly, an individual or a small group are much easier to lock in — not necessarily by force but by propaganda, brainwashing, manipulation, social pressure. Few can fight their own group when they’re alone; but even fleeing, instead of fighting, takes courage that not everyone has.

It gets real bad when you think about the children. There’s nothing liberal about a society where children are assumed to always live like their parents. But for a child, emigrating to another island — which might better suit her — is much more difficult than for an adult. Children are physically weaker and psychologically dependent; worse, they may not even know that there are other islands and other communities — because almost everything a child knows, she knows from the adults around her.

In his blog post, Scott acknowledges these problems. He’s got some solutions, too. Suppose Archipelago has freedom of movement enshrined as Article 1 of its Constitution, and the world government enforces this freedom just as it enforces non-violence — coming to the rescue of anyone who is locked in against their wishes. As for children, Scott proposes that at certain age, every child on every island attends a “class taught by a UniGov representative” that would enlighten her about the existence of other communities and other ways of life — even if the adults she lives with won’t own up to it.

Don’t get me wrong. With freedom of relocation and universal knowledge of the alternatives, Archipelago may be not just livable — it’s arguably better (less oppressive, more diverse, more happy overall) than any society that has existed so far. I’m just not sure about Scott’s methods of upholding these rights and freedoms. I think they will be much too easy to subvert and abuse.

For example, what if a community gives birth in secret and hides its kids from the government? What if they teach their kids, years before the government lesson, some purposefully distorted dialect of their language in which the words to be used by the UniGov person will have different meanings? What if they just refuse to teach their kids any universal language at all, and keep their own language secret? You can’t fix that with a single lesson — or even a dozen.


I don’t know, to be honest, if these problems are solvable. But I can, without too much effort, imagine them solved.

I started writing my book in 2008, long before I found Scott’s blog. But there’s uncanny similarity between my Everday and his Archipelago. Though distinct in tone and style, they are both visions of a centerless, amorphous, sparsened world — the two utopias of the ultimate freedom of association and freedom of movement.

And yet Everday is different. It is, should I say, less legalistic. It goes much farther in its utopianness: it is a society without any central government, armed police, or universal laws.

Everday takes a different approach to Archipelago’s vulnerabilities. Let’s take a closer look.

  • Preventing violence: Here, I have a rather conventional utopian answer. War breeds war; violence is dependent on culture — which, for all its diversity, has been suppressing violence for millenia. A history of peace and having most violence-breeding mental diseases fixed at the genetic level (Change) make war in Everday unthinkable. There are no governmental peacekeepers: if violence flares anywhere for any reason, it is put out by whoever happens to be near.
  • Ease of relocation: The great majority of people and social groupings in Everday are habitually nomadic. The humankind is demographically smaller than it is now; more importantly, its resource footprint on Earth is orders of magnitude lower. With mobile homes and eatfree lifestyles, you don’t need land to settle upon or live off: you are free to roam wherever you like, visiting your favorite spots and seasons but, always, leaving. You don’t need roads: you fly; and you don’t need to be alone to be a wanderer: in Everday, your whole collective (project, fandom) may occupy a castle which never ever lands.
  • Enough islands for everyone: For the same reasons, Earth, which seems so small to us with our jet travel, appears much bigger to the people of Everday. The planet is, by and large, a wilderness, used only sparingly for settlement and never for anything ugly and big; if you want to do something of large scale or large energy, just do it up in space (or down in Innerwald). Everday cares for Earth, is always working on making its landscapes more complex and diverse — so that there’s enough room (psychological even when not physical) for everyone to be in.
  • The leave/stay arguments: Everday has a whole culture of joyfully leaving, of not staying in the same place for too long, of cultivated nostalgia for the places you’ve been to in the past. Also, not being attached to land, the only material substance that a splitting community needs to divide — Arf — is itself perfectly movable. Uncharitably, one could say that Everday has degraded its foundational freedom into fleedom.
  • Preventing lock-in of children: Everday upholds a tradition of open childhood which “exerts a consensus force of a written law” and which treats a community’s children as pretty much public figures — that anyone can, reasonably, get access to. “The point is simply not choosing for those as yet unable to choose for themselves: open childhood affirms it a parental responsibility to go with your child even where you wouldn’t go yourself, experience together as many as different environments, lores, lives as may be practical, play not-your games and tell not-your stories — not unjudgingly but without prejudgement.” There are no government-mandated diversity lessons but anyone can be, and most would want to be, a teacher of the world to a curious child — for a minute or for a lifetime.


It’s not only about kids.

Let’s be real. No matter where the overall society stands, diversity means that some communities will rot — slide into isolationism, cult-like messianism, aggressive delusions. They will try to lure people in and block them from leaving with all kinds of distortion and indoctrination.

The world of Everday has no designated police to deal with those outliers. You know what? It takes liberalism seriously.

But that, of course, can only ever work where everyone is, or at least is willing to be, volunteer “police.” Where, instead of written laws and constitutions, there are some simple universal notions that span all community lores. And where, alongside the close-knit island communities, there’s a substantial demography of free agents — the at-large Stream that washes all the community cells.

Ungrounded, curious, perceptive, the Stream is those who come and go but are always trying to engage you: not necessarily to start (or win) an argument but to probe you, to shake you up, to seed different perspectives in you — and to pick up yours to be seeded elsewhere. Constant bombardment by the Stream minds, their quick gatherings at the troubled spots, their discovery, publicizing, never-ending debating of real and potential aberrations: that’s how Everday cures itself.

It doesn’t work quickly but, given time, Stream erosion flattens the ugliest of Angbands that pop up.

There’s also the Message: a collaborative, slowly evolving, always-on broadcast of the most basic and hopeful truths about the world and its intelligent inhabitants. It’s an eternal and eternally changing song that permeates the world: a call which anyone can hear on multiple wavelengths and modalities — which anyone, no matter how remote or locked-in, can receive and decipher with minimal equipment.

There is no quick and easy solution. There’s certainly no guaranteed solution that can be legislated once and for all. If solvable at all, it is only solvable as a dynamic equilibrium between the disease and the immune reaction of society.


No doubt, both the Archipelago and (especially) the Everday tend to seem extremely counterintuitive — almost absurd. We’re conditioned, by our entire social evolution, to see power in numbers, in uniformity, in solidarity: “divided we fall” and all that.

Geeks and roleplayers taking over the world? And tearing it to shreds? You wish!

Also, how is this not regress if what this kind of society looks most similar to is pre-state, pre-city hunter-gatherer tribes? (Well… minus violence/wars, if you’re willing to buy that claim. And, assumedly, plus some advanced culture and technology — but how long will those last if any tribal chief can easily turn them off?)

Again, I have no final and fool-proof answers to that.

I also see other dangers. Forking is freedom but it’s also death: a well-timed fork may revitalize a project — but more often, too much forking for petty reasons may kill it. If not counterbalanced, runaway splitting may grind society to a halt: when communities become too small, the motivation to actually do something evaporates. Death by atomization is real.

Then, if splitting off becomes really easy, people may be choosing their islands for all the wrong reasons. Human mind has exploitable vulnerabilities; I’m sure future humans will patch some of them, but more and worse ones may well be discovered — or even constructed. Would Jesus have had even that small bunch of apostles he attracted if not for the core of his message: that the time is near, that the Judgement is coming any day? If not for — to put it simply — blatant fear-mongering which, for most of his followers, obscured whatever he had to say about morals? Did he even have any moral teachings not reducible to “these being the last days, we must all double down on being good”?


And yet — and yet! — I do consider some kind of Archipelago or Everday to be not just a future worth working towards: I think it’s also the most likely version of our future. It’s just the general direction we’re all heading already. It’s a future that is natural — unstrained: not a belabored utopia or dystopia but simply the most probable eventual outcome, given where we’re now. “Just let everyone do what they want already.”

It may be a stable attractor — that final shore in the shining West that every civilization, after all the pain and stupidity and apocalypse, is bound to reach.

What does this imply about our historical present? Do we already observe signs of archipelagization — “balcanization”? Does it do us any good? For example, we’ve just created a virtual space of the Internet where it’s already free and effortless to make any number of islands for virtual communities. Did that make us more diverse, more peaceful, more content? Opinions vary but I rather side with those who say that yes, it did, overall.

I also think that, outside the Internet, the world is on the cusp of becoming more accepting towards separatist movements. Because, you know, fighting those who want to peacefully divide a country has precious little rational or moral justification. A breakup may be an inconvenience, but we are probably rich enough and safe enough, by now, to afford it — if only it makes someone happier.

In the end, sure, no one has ever predicted distant future with any believability. The kind of utopia you prefer depends more on your personal predispositions than on anything else. Perhaps Scott and I are deluding ourselves by imagining just the kind of society we would love to be in.

Wisest men can’t foresee the future. But even the most deluded can change it.


Everday statistics

No, I don’t have any statistics about the world of Everday, yet. (Looks like numbers don’t pass the contratemporal filter.) But here are some curious tidbits about Everday-the-book.

The current wordcount is 77578. Not a big book at all — though it used to be bigger: three years of copyediting squeezed it by more than 10%.

A more interesting parameter is what I call density: the number of unique words divided by total number of words. This currently stands at 0.17. Three years ago it was just 0.14: copyediting eliminated a lot of wordiness, redundancy, repetitiveness.

By the way, this level of density is at least twice as high as in a typical English fiction book of this size. Only poetry comes close. For example, a collection of Emily Dickinson (some 40K words) has density of 0.15. Shakespeare with his Sonnets (18K words) is the champion at 0.19.

And the top ten nouns, by frequency, are: world, Arf, minds, art, life, time, human, knowledge, past, sleep.

Everday visualized

Everday has many things, but pretty pictures aren’t one of them — at least not yet. But here’s something to gawk at. Made programmatically from the book’s text, this giant graph (click for a zoomable and clickable SVG image) surprised even myself by showing just how densely interlinked it all is.

Arrows are the cross-links. The size of each node reflects the size of the corresponding entry, and its color shows how many incoming and outcoming links it has (darker color means more links).

No algorithms (of those available in Gephi) were able to detect any clustering in this graph. This means in Everday, everything refers to everything else more or less symmetrically. However, there’s obviously a core of large and well-linked articles and a periphery of smaller and less linked scraps. It appears that the center of the book’s web is at Minds, which isn’t very surprising; I guess if there was an article on Humans it would have been linked even more.

The Tao of Everday

Everday starts with Adverbiality: the idea, or maybe just a common sense, of doing things in the least disruptive way possible — of letting things do their own thing and taking advantage of that. It’s one of the fundamental precepts felt throughout the whole quiet world of Everday.

Now, read this quote from Chuang Tzu:

Prince Hui’s cook was cutting up a bullock. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whshh of rent flesh, every chhk of the chopper, was in perfect harmony,—rhythmical like the dance of the Mulberry Grove, simultaneous like the chords of the Ching Shou.

“Well done!” cried the Prince. “Yours is skill indeed.”

“Sire,” replied the cook; “I have always devoted myself to Tao. It is better than skill. When I first began to cut up bullocks, I saw before me simply whole bullocks. After three years’ practice, I saw no more whole animals.

And now I work with my mind and not with my eye. When my senses bid me stop, but my mind urges me on, I fall back upon eternal principles. I follow such openings or cavities as there may be, according to the natural constitution of the animal. I do not attempt to cut through joints: still less through large bones.

“A good cook changes his chopper once a year,—because he cuts. An ordinary cook, once a month,—because he hacks. But I have had this chopper nineteen years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks, its edge is as if fresh from the whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice.

By these means the interstice will be enlarged, and the blade will find plenty of room. It is thus that I have kept my chopper for nineteen years as though fresh from the whetstone.

“Nevertheless, when I come upon a hard part where the blade meets with a difficulty, I am all caution. I fix my eye on it. I stay my hand, and gently apply my blade, until with a hwah the part yields like earth crumbling to the ground. Then I take out my chopper, and stand up, and look around, and pause, until with an air of triumph I wipe my chopper and put it carefully away.”

“Bravo!” cried the Prince. “From the words of this cook I have learnt how to take care of my life.”

The funny thing is, I didn’t read Chuang Tzu until well after I wrote Adverbiality. (I had read Tao Te Ching, though). So call this an independent discovery. Admittedly I was a bit late to the party… better late than never, though!


A new blurb for Everday on Goodreads:

Everday, a book from the future, is an encyclopedia of an imagined world — with entries on places and times, ideas and visions, discoveries and confusions, inventions and conventions, senses and sensations: tersely written, full of weird notions, idiosyncratic vocabulary, and cross-links. A “science nonfiction” tract that reads like fiction, it dances from sublime to bizarre to seemingly irrelevant, painting a picture of an enchanted world that may be our future.

A blend of futurology, philosophy, technological insights, and poetic asides, Everday offers its own unique take on artificial intelligence, Singularity, interstellar travel, post-scarcity social structures, transhumanism, Earth biology, and the future of our civilization. Everday refuses to play to the standard futurological precepts: it’s a future of strange dangers and strange joys, an uncommon look into what we humans may truly care about — and where that can lead us.

How Everday came to be

Once upon a time I was writing a science fiction novel.

It was my first major piece of fiction of any kind, and I rather liked how the first few chapters shaped up. I noticed, though, that my characters dwell too much upon the idiosyncrasies of their world. It was an unusual kind of a scifi world (why write a book that’s not unusual, anyway?), so I couldn’t get away with reusing tropes and cliches of the genre as much as some other writers do. I had to build — explain — everything from scratch.

And these explanations and infodumps were really getting in the way of plot and character development. I struggled to make them brief and unstrained, to inscribe them into conversations naturally, but that didn’t feel right. When something worked as part of a scene, it didn’t work as a world annotation — and vice versa. Narration and worldbuilding refused to mix. (In fact I can’t name any SF book where they would mix entirely satisfactorily.)


Eventually I decided to cull all those footnotes and in-text expositions and collect them in a glossary appendix. Back then I planned to spend a few weeks on that glossary, use it to flesh out my understanding of my own world (at that moment rather vague), then — armed with this understanding — continue with the novel.

Instead, something unexpected happened. The glossary just kept growing — wider, deeper, more complex. It totally immersed me. I had to admit I was having much more fun writing it than a conventional novel.

At some point I realized that the glossary was the book that really wanted to be written. It was the book I had always yearned to read myself — the book whose glimpses and echoes I had been catching all across art and philosophy and science but which I never knew could exist.

I abandoned my novel and never looked back.


It took me five years just to plow it to the end. During this time, the world of Everday underwent several deep transformations. The text was getting progressively denser and more hermetic as I struggled with it. Most entries had to be rewritten, almost from scratch, multiple times.

Admittedly it didn’t take that long only because it’s big and complex. I was being lazy; I was being distracted by all kinds of unrelated projects, not to mention having to earn bread for myself and family; above all, I didn’t find the right scope, style, tone until well into the book (so its first half was especially hardly hit with rewriting). I wasn’t much of a writer when I started it; I may not be much of a writer now but at least I learned something about how this particular kind of book needs to be written.

Finally, in 2013 I distributed a first version of the complete text — and got some encouraging feedback. At the same time, however, I could finally see the text as a whole myself and realized how painfully unready it was. Clumsy, pretentious, naive (in a non-cute way). I started what I though was a final copyediting pass — but which turned out the first of many, many copyediting passes that would take me three more years to finish.


Also in 2013, a friend suggested that my text needs some kind of a gentle introduction — that without it, the cliff is just too high for the reader to jump. So I condensed and developed some ideas I had into a prologue.

It explained a lot about Everday to myself.

The prologue is like an SF short story on its own; the rest of the book, however, is very different. It’s an alphabetic list of entries — an encyclopedia of customs, inventions, words, ideas, places and times, fears and joys: tersely written, full of weird notions, idiosyncratic vocabulary, and cross-links. The world it portrays can perhaps be labeled a utopia, though I worked hard to eliminate a tone of self-conceited soapiness; it is utopian in that most of the urgent-but-obvious problems we’re currently facing have been long resolved — so the really hard and important problems can stand out. The book tries to look at what will be troubling us after we no longer kill each other or pollute the environment.

It’s an image of a civilization that has largely stabilized. My book eschews most of the standard SF plot devices (no wars, no apocalypse, even no aliens) not because I consider them unlikely but because I felt it more interesting to look at what might happen if everything just “turns out okay.” It’s a future in which humankind has nothing and no one to face except itself — and no questions to answer except those it asks itself. Whether the outcome is inspiring, scary, or just bleak and muddled is for the reader to decide.

All I can say is, I really enjoyed writing it. That’s my world.

Now it’s yours, too.


Here are the three rules I set for myself early on:

  • Write only about things that move you. No filler.
  • No cliches. Keep rewriting until the text jumps to life and surprises itself.
  • Imply instead of describing. Describe instead of teaching. Teach instead of sermonizing.

Which perhaps can be compressed into a single commandment: Write for yourself. Write what you’ve always wanted to read. Expunge the notion that if others do something, you must do it too. You must not. (Unless you enjoy it — in which case, by all means, do it, don’t struggle to be original at any cost.)


And here are three metaphors that may give some idea of how I write.

  • Crystallization

    Long before I attempt to write up a topic, I begin by gathering material. It’s an intentionally amorphous pile, a scattering of all sorts of scraps — disjointed words and terms that may or may not relate, random expressions that “ring the bell” or just impress, vague and hastily scribbled ideas, quotes and pseudoquotes (quasia), notes for myself to research this or that in detail. A lot of that looks terribly silly and out of place — but, at this stage, I don’t erase anything. I accumulate. I don’t impose any structure other than very roughly sorting the stuff into topics.

    At some point, the critical mass is achieved — the solution is oversaturated — and the process of crystallization begins. Everything comes alive. Sentences and concepts get lifted, shuffled, sliced and trimmed, fitted into each other; new ideas pop up, words snap into place, deep connections reveal themselves. After the flurry — often surprisingly brief — is over, what I’m left with is a solid, if still very rough, piece of writing (plus some unused bits to be moved to other places or dropped).

  • Scaffolding removal

    You need to clear the scaffolding once the building is erect — so its true beauty (or ugliness) becomes visible. The problem, of course, is recognizing what is and isn’t scaffolding. As I reread my text, I realize that some parts of it were only useful for myself — were but rungs that helped me climb, auxiliary lemmas that got me to the main result but added little value of their own. So I go ahead and remove them — and oh, what a difference that often makes! So much more elegant, airy, impressive… sometimes the text seems positively smarter than its author.

    After the first draft, the character count of a text I’m working on generally only goes down, never up: I edit by removing much more than by adding. (One danger is removing too much, of course: an intelligent reader should still be able to get to the top somehow.) It won’t be a stretch to say that I have written two interwoven Everdays only to disentangle and erase the weaker one.

  • Zone melting

    Zone melting is the best metaphor I could find for the way I do copyediting. It’s hard work but it has to be done. Even if it may, at first blush, appear like it’s finished, careful reading reveals just how messy the text still is. Clumsy, unclear, or just overlong expressions, unnecessary technicalities, nonobvious connections, accidental tautologies, slips of tone and attitude, unnoticed bits of scaffolding — all these are impurities that need to be driven away.

    So I go through each chapter dismantling — melting — sentence after sentence: I doubt every word, test lots of alternatives, sift, sort, and eventually recrystallize again. As with real zone melting, I often end up with some dangling bits that, while nice by themselves, just felt out of place wherever I tried to fit them; this contaminated end of the crystal needs to be cut off and discarded — mercilessly.


Everday is a kind of book that really couldn’t have been written the old way — on paper. With the amount of editing it took, the freedom of electronic text was crucial. It’s one of those cases where quantitative convenience adds up to a new quality.

It’s also a metabook: many of its ideas — quasia, science art, nostalgia, even movable type — apply to the book itself as well as the world in it. Everday-the-book, of course, has entries on Everday and on books.

One key notion that goes through most of the book is evolution. The deceivingly simple recipe — randomize, select, repeat — underlies a lot of Everday concepts and entities. It’s a world where evolve is more often a transitive verb — where the intelligent beings finally have sufficient breadth of perspective, computing resources, and time to really look into what works and what doesn’t: to guide complexities instead of simply enjoying them.

I honestly didn’t set out to write a popularization of evolution — it kind of happened on its own. It, too, happened evolutionarily: evolution emerged as a winner from the pool of various other guiding ideas I had been playing with.

Because, you know, evolution is something that is known to work. It is a chunk of dry land in a world that’s anything but dry: in a fluid, relativized world with no governments, no universal ideologies, no material dearth — and no death. That’s a world where everything is imminently solvable, where so much is possible that you may skip doing it forever, where you know too much to be seduced into action by any single idea… but evolution is something worth spending an eternal life on: it is one of the very few things that can still surprise you.

Which, to me, is as noble a goal as anything.

My Everday surprised me. See if it can surprise you.