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Niether dystopian nor utopian, it's protopian

Thanks yet again to the From What If to What Next podcast, we’ve learned another term that we didn’t know we needed: protopia.


Monika Bielskyte, the guest on FWITWN’s Episode 95: What if we became better Protopians?, credits Kevin Kelly of WIRED Magazine with coining the term protopia and explains that it’s neither a dystopia nor a utopia, but somewhere in between. Protopian futures still have their problems and challenges, but they’re a step (or three) in the right direction.


The term utopian comes with a lot of baggage. For starters, it’s meant to describe the “perfect” society, which is always out of reach. And even if perfection were achievable, one person’s idea of a utopian society is another person’s hellscape. As Bielskyte writes:


A non-whitewashed history tells us a horror story of 20th century top-down dreams of the “perfect society” morphing into eugenic, genocidal nightmares. We must remember that the Third Reich’s extermination of Jewish, Roma, Queer, and Disabled people was seen as a means to achieve an “Aryan Utopia”. As recently as 1994, apartheid was the Utopia for Afrikaaners, with the price paid by everyone “one shade darker” than white. The most recent chapter of these “Utopian” nightmares features Silicon Valley evangelists peddling technology to “connect all humanity” which has quickly shifted to extreme surveillance capitalism — commodifying every interaction, radicalizing us for clicks, exploiting us as products, and tearing at the very fiber of our social fabric. (Bielskyte, Monika. ”Protopia Futures,” accessed 12 Feb. 2024.)


And dystopias, which have found such popularity in literature and film, no longer serve as cautionary tales, Bielskyte argues, but rather feed into our despair and serve as product roadmaps to capitalists whose primary goal is to extract as much profit from our misery and the degradation of the Earth as they can. (“What if we became better protopians?” From What If to What Next, Ep. 95.)


Which brings us to protopias. Kevin Kelly of WIRED magazine, who coined the term in 2009, described it thus:


Protopia is a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict. [...] Today we’ve become so aware of the downsides of innovations, and so disappointed with the promises of past utopias, that we now find it hard to believe even in protopia — that tomorrow will be better than today. We find it very difficult to imagine any kind of future we would want to live in. [...] But I am hoping that our current future-blindness is only a passing phase and that we will again begin to generate plausible visions of a desirable future, ones that are slightly better than today. These protopian visions won’t be as thrilling as either dystopias or utopias, but they might be thrilling enough to aim towards. (“Protopia," The Technium, accessed 12 Feb. 2024)


But whereas “Kelly believes protopian progress is a natural product of technology’s acceleration,” we, like Bielskyte, believe that it must be an intentional, human-driven process that centers social, cultural, political, and environmental justice. Bielskyte believes “the road to protopia must be rigorous and inclusive, particularly of marginalized people — including those working at the intersection of L.G.B.T.Q., Indigenous and disability justice.” (Needelman, Joshua. “Forget Utopia. Ignore Dystopia. Embrace Protopia!” March 2023: New York Times, accessed 12 Feb. 2024.)


Mantha, Lydia, and I knew when we started this magazine that we weren’t looking for utopian visions of the future, but we did want better–better than what we have now in terms of inclusivity, equity, accessibility, and sustainability. We wanted to create a space for marginalized voices to be heard about what it could look like for them to not be marginalized, for their needs and experiences to be known and attended to the way that most cis-het, white, able-bodied, neurotypical, and amatotypical people’s needs and experiences are known and attended to in mainstream U.S. (and many other western) cultures.


What we want are protopian visions of the future that inspire us to work toward them.


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