Is Utopia more than wishful thinking? Ever since Thomas Moore lost his head (quite literally) in the 16th century, his story of Utopia has been tethered to the realm of idealistic impossibility, as (an oftentimes disparaging) framework for a better, happier world. Contemporary perspectives lean towards using Utopia for its critical capacity. Rather than an ideal place, it’s a place of ideas. Its function is as a medium in which ideas are its real currency.
Fatima Vieira, associate professor of English at the University of Porto and president of the European Utopian Studies Society notes that, “Utopia is a very important study because it is an important tool to change society. It’s about wanting to go forward, it’s about wanting to go beyond the place we are. In fact, it is about a very near future, it is not about a far, non-visible, non-reachable future. It’s about a new future which really concerns us all. So, Utopia is about not accepting our fate, it’s a very important means for overcoming the crisis that we are currently living.” Beyond the world of literary criticism, Utopia is being extrapolated into other disciplines for its utility. “It has gotten bad press for a long, long time. It is a pejorative term,” says Craig Bremner, professor of Design at Charles Sturt University, “but slowly over the last few years its incidence in media and commentary is rising. And it is, in a sense, escaping its pejorative framework. It’s there sort of reminding us that we were able to, at one stage, imagine a better world. We’re now confronted by sets of issues, in which our historic practices and processes have created sets of conditions or limits (about which our imagination isn’t necessarily geared) but we are being asked to still think of tomorrow as potentially still a better place, in which, I think the incidence of the citation of Utopia is a reminder to us that it still functions and still has an important role in how we consider how we’re going to live on the one island that we share, called Earth.”
Outside of the world of academia, Utopia is lurking between the lines of leading thinkers, including famed science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, who is promoting an idea he calls ‘Design Fiction’; an approach to design that speculates about new ideas through prototyping and storytelling. Expanding on the idea, he says that it’s “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change. That's the best definition we’ve come up with. The important word there is diegetic. It means you’re thinking very seriously about potential objects and services and trying to get people to concentrate on those rather than entire worlds or political trends or geopolitical strategies. It’s not a kind of fiction. It’s a kind of design. It tells worlds rather than stories…It’s really a new set of tools that, I think [are] giving futurism a second wind in some ways. Instead of talking about grand, overarching things like futurism in the 1960s—we need a new consciousness—it suits the tenor of our own period. What kind of business model would that work in?”