The No Ideal World

While imagining new worlds we should be careful not to ignore our neighbors.

There’s this common itch to design the ideal city, the ideal nation, the ideal world. In Classical times it looked like Plato’s Republic. In present times, it looks like startup incubator YCombinator’s New Cities initiative and the Seasteading Institute. The former was an effort, announced in 2016, to “design the best possible city” and then build it. The latter is a think-tank that seeks to establish new nations on artificial islands. The idea behind any Ideal World project is that there’s an optimal, perfect form of society, and that if we think hard enough, we can know what it is.

In her book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell points out that Ideal World projects are flawed because they try to “substitute design for the political process.” It’s frustrating, after all, to live in a big community full of people with lots of different ideas and feelings, and even more so when they bunch up into groups and manipulate each other. So thinkers are drawn to imagining society as a ship in a bottle, an artistic medium they can sculpt and perfect in seclusion.

The problem with trying to design the Ideal World is that unlike the inert figurines on the miniature ship’s deck, people in real life do exist, and we have desires and feelings, and we want to participate in the never-finished work of making society. So at best, these projects mine for ideas to bring out into the collaborative, political world later. And at worst they’re a sandbox for Fascist tendencies—like a venture capital-backed, real-life Civilization video game.

I felt a little bit of a crisis after reading Odell’s book and thinking about how design over politics can end up silencing people for whom politics is the only avenue for change (meaning city council meetings, local school councils, etcetera). It bummed me out that something I enjoy so much—imagining stuff, figuring out new and better ways to do something, creating things—could be destructive, or at least lead us astray from truly constructive work. But I’ve realized that it’s not that design is bad; it’s that Ideal World projects are bad design. You’d never do a large-scale design project that doesn’t incorporate real-world feedback from users (who are, in this case, your co-designers). Ideal World architects may have years of public policy experience, but experience is just that. It doesn’t give us access to sacred knowledge about the perfect form of government, or anything else. It just gives us clues to the next best thing. Our next thing to try.

Social justice activists show us how to follow those clues. Like Ideal Worldists, they have values and they encourage us to imagine radically new ways of living. But they don’t pretend that we could ever finish the work of making life better. They don’t claim that we could ever fully root out the causes of oppression and the things that make life suck. And they certainly don’t try to get everything right on paper before putting things into practice. They show us that ideals are only useful as North Stars, guiding lights to inspire us as we figure out how to do the real work of implementation.

Then, when they do that real work, they incorporate a wide range of voices; they cope with messiness; they respond to the collective’s actual needs instead of getting tunnel-vision for their chosen winning theory. (Ideal Worldists, conversely, seem to say, “Ugh, I wish I could just do this myself.”) KC Tenants, a tenant union in Kansas City, Missouri, started as the vision of just a few activists. But today its policies are, as a rule, the product of group meetings in which every union member is titled a leader. Egalitarian models like that aren’t easy to implement at large scales or in groups that aren’t bonded by a shared experience like tenancy, to say the least. But they show us what it’s like to treat ideals as a starting point instead of an end. To design society in public instead of in our philosophers’ lairs.

It’s temping to think that the Declaration of Independence should have cured Americans of the Ideal World tendency because it makes such frequent reference to change and flexibility. No matter how badly some Originalists want you to believe otherwise, the Declaration (and the Constitution) were written with mutability in mind—with the idea that society is in constant flux and that its rules require amendment or even reinterpretation as people’s ways of thinking evolve. (The Declaration, after all, even gives the public the right to revolt!) But even that institutionalized reverence of change hasn’t been enough to prevent people from feeling like they can “crack the code” of urban planning, wealth distribution, and other aspects of society by finding their ultimate form. It’s just too tempting to strive for a place where we don’t need to strive anymore, where it’s all been figured out and we can finally just live instead of arguing how to live.

And to be clear, that there are no codes to crack does not mean there aren’t monumental shifts to be made. There are exciting new programs to discover, and elegant solutions to social problems waiting, sometimes tantalizingly close to the surface. (I think of Jane Jacobs’ observation that lots of crime can be prevented by pointing apartment complex windows toward the street, for example.) Other times they’re far off, and they require serious questioning of the things that we’ve always taken for granted. I would never want to lend my voice to the ugly chorus of voices that says we shouldn’t try to imagine those things, and that we should always aim our sights low, even when that means accepting the unacceptable. The point here is to avoid the arrogance that comes from thinking we can treat social policies like divinely appointed, theoretically airtight laws. They are hypotheses, we are fallible, and we ought to remember that while we’re doing world-bettering work.

In light of this, it seems like the more worthy object of our effort and of startup incubators’ resources are projects that figure out how to make pluralistic rule less frictional and more equitable. In Silicon Valley-speak, they might call it “improving citizen experience,” where citizens are both the creators and the users of society. To YCombinator’s credit, that’s sort of what they had in mind with their New Cities initiative. Among the questions they posed in the project announcement blog post were “How can we make sure a city is constantly evolving and always open to change?” and “How should citizens guide and participate in government?” But it’s worth noting that conspicuous “should” in there. Shouldn’t citizens guide and participate in government in whatever ways they want to guide and participate in government? If the question was meant to inspire new tools that help citizens do just that, then that’s great. But it has the smell of Ideal World thinking to it—of prescription and pre-engineering instead of empowerment.