In your book Utopian Drama: In Search of a Genre, you distinguish two wellsprings of utopian thought. There is the early prose tradition, which includes texts like Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies,Thomas More’s Utopia, and perhaps also Plato’s Republic. Your research focuses on the second tradition — the theatrical tradition. This is something you trace back to the Old Comedy of Ancient Greece, and something that has been comparatively less studied. How do you think that the priority on prose has shaped Utopian Studies?
The frameworks of Utopian Studies, as they have developed over recent decades, have typically assumed the object of study to be prose fiction. So features of this early prose tradition have of course informed how interpretation has operated within Utopian Studies. Utopia, at least by default, is something described. It also generally gets constructed by a gaze that is located outside of that utopia. Thomas More’s Utopia, for example, needs to be set within the context of early modern travel narratives, and the whole range of colonial encounters which these describe.
Right, the traveller who visits a far away place or time, sees strange things, and learns just to rethink the institutions back home. Presumably that has played into the high regard with which defamiliarization is held, certainly within adjacent fields like Science Fiction Studies? But then, does it need to be that way? Couldn’t we get to know utopia through the experiences of characters who have always lived there and are deeply familiar with different aspects of utopia?
Another feature of the early prose tradition is that assumption of anonymity. More’s Utopia is again a good example. There’s a striking shift between Book One, where there is a conversation of sorts among various real and fictional people, and what happens in Book Two. In Book Two, Raphael recounts his travels on the island of Utopia, and suddenly all sense of character disappears!
So I think that’s very much a feature of the early prose fictional examples of utopia, and absolutely not in the case of dramas. In More’s Utopia,you don’t get to know individual Utopians. In later prose utopias, that does change, partly due to the emergence and development of the novel, but also as a response to accusations of the genre being boring — but even in the later utopias, there isn’t very much character interiority, or much of a sense of agency, et cetera.
You do sometimes get defences of a utopian rhetoric of generality, abstraction, anonymity. Like the idea that a wide range of readers will identify with an Everyman narrator. But of course, every ‘Everyman’ is really an ‘Actually Pretty Specificman.’ He is a particular subject position, elevated in a way that rejects the reality of other subject positions, or suggests that such differences are negligible. On stage, I suppose that Everyman myth might be even harder to sustain? Simply because there is always a very specific voice, face, body, occupying that role?
Yes, absolutely. The particularity. But also just the fact of a body on stage at all!— people on stage, humans, rather than a kind of distant description, a kind of external gaze. Another feature of the early prose fiction tradition is using setting as foreground. So in More’s Utopia you have long descriptions of the number of districts and the way that towns are laid out, housing, agriculture, et cetera. What’s usually registered as background setting in the novel becomes part of the foregrounded narrative in utopian prose. Character, if it figures at all, is there as background. So again, this is something that’s immediately reversed when you’re looking at a play, when you’re looking at stage drama.
In spring 2020, amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and the reignited Black Lives Matter movement, institutions were being called on to respond to deeply ingrained structural racism. Media organizations drafted commitments towards building more equitable and inclusive spaces for both creators and audiences. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D)publisher Wizards of the Coast (WotC) issued their version of a commitment to anti-racism on June 17, 2020. The announcement, ‘Diversity in Dungeons and Dragons’ led to varied responses online, from praise and excitement for the coming changes, to warnings that WotC risks harming its product and alienating ‘true players’ to appease the current social conflict. The responses illustrate a familiar tension within ‘geek culture’ and gaming communities, marred by racist gatekeeping, and yearning for an imagined past where social and cultural diversity are conversations for ‘the real world’ and the fantasy worlds of games and play are for escape.
Some players appealed to their agency to adapt and extend official rules (‘homebrew’) to create the fantasy worlds they want to play in, partly, as some have suggested, to distance themselves from the conversation regarding diversity in D&D. Yet as well as the risk of foreclosing diversity, homebrew content can allow players to develop characters and worlds in ways not offered by D&D’s standard rules, an opportunity which for marginalized individuals allows for a kind of visibility and player agency still rarely seen in mainstream media, and going substantially further than the changes made by WotC so far. While some responses to WotC’s commitment to diversity suggest a player’s relationship to homebrew content insulates them from shifts towards more inclusive content, I argue the practice of developing homebrew content positions players as active participants in D&D’s political and cultural economy, and that they are therefore affected by similar tensions around diversity and inclusion that WotC has committed to addressing.
Roleplaying game scholarship has focused on the history of racism in D&D‘s commercial content and other RPG products or on the experiences of players during gameplay. In her examination of gamers with marginalized identities, Adrienne Shaw argues ‘representation is part of a process of meaning making, but textual analyses tend to focus on the finished product’ and proposes that more attention should be paid to representation within play practices. Tanner Higgin urges that research about racism in representation must turn its focus toward the industry that produces content rather than only documenting and evaluating practices of racial representation. Antero Garcia similarly argues that games ‘cannot be studied as if [they] are isolated from the cultures that influence them or in which they are embedded.’ Yet there is a paucity of research that addresses the community of homebrew creators despite their crucial role in the development of D&D content and culture.
I situate this research between well-developed feminist game studies scholarship which critiques the long-standing tradition of white cishetero patriarchy, and critical fan studies scholarship engaged with unpacking racism and marginalization in fan spaces and cultural production,, to examine the vast community of D&D players that tell stories based on rules in a book, extending those rules to create sprawling social cultural fantasy worlds.
I begin by framing the discussion within broader contexts of racism in the fantasy genre, and within D&D specifically, through the case study example of Arcanist Press’ Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e (A&C). While A&C is by no means the only homebrew publication that responds to social issues in D&D in this way, it has been chosen as a relatively recent and popular example — at the time of writing, it is listed fifth among the most popular titles on DriveThruRPG with the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ tag.
Homebrew is distinctly part of tabletop roleplaying games, and has long been an encouraged practice in D&D. Where video game modding and writing fanfiction have at times been clouded by conversations about authorial control and copyright infringement, homebrewing elements of your D&D game is part of creating new and different worlds to play and tell stories in. The Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, official rulebooks published by WotC,both include caveats that the rules are guidelinesmeant to give your game a sense of structure and balance. With the release of the third edition, WotC went further, encouraging third-party publishers to create content based on D&D‘s ruleset using their Open Gaming License (OGL). This is distinctly different from players deciding among their friends at the table to adopt certain ‘house rules’ or abandon published rules that don’t fit with their home game. The System Reference Document offers D&D players foundations that they can develop into their own commercial D&D products. WotC makes space for the active homebrew community through their partnership with OneBookShelf on the homebrew marketplace Dungeon Masters Guild, and the Guild Adept program. Homebrew is not only encouraged as a legitimate way to engage with D&D products, but includes a significant proportion of the D&D player community. Therefore, while WotC’s diversity statement addresses the changes they’re making to their commercially available products, this only goes part of the way in addressing discourses of harm and marginalization in the D&D player community. By examining homebrew content as a legitimate extension of D&D’s transmediated franchise, and by positioning creators within the wider D&D labour economy, we are better able to examine discourses surrounding inclusion and diversity in the D&D player community.
In a shareholder ‘fireside chat’ with Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks (former president of Wizards of the Coast from 2016-2022), and Cynthia Williams, the current CEO and president of WotC, both parties outlined Wizards’ four-quadrant strategy for investment growth with D&D: offering blockbuster entertainment, AAA high-end gaming, products for tabletop gamers, and products for the more casual fan. Williams begins her response about Dungeons and Dragons by saying, ‘D&D has never been more popular, and we have really great fans and incredible engagement, but the first thing I saw with it is the brand is really under monetized.’ From their new acquisition of D&D Beyond giving them market insights into personal games, to creating an environment which encourages ‘recurrent spending,’ much like paid DLCs and pay-to-play models of digital games, Wizards is working towards taking advantage of D&D’s 50-year legacy but also its position as ‘a cultural phenomenon right now.’ By ‘engaging and surrounding the consumer’ with game products, entertainment media, and personal accessories and collectables, Wizards is building a unified lifestyle brand, under the codename One D&D. Wizards has already seen the success of D&D becoming a ‘generic trademark,’ where Dungeons and Dragons has colloquially become the shorthand or stand-in for the genre of tabletop roleplaying games. With more brand recognition than their most profitable property, Magic: The Gathering, Wizards is working to expand beyond manufacturing simply TTRPG ‘products,’ and instead capitalize on fandom in all its forms – from film and video games to actual play performances and lifestyle accessories.
While the shareholder seminar focused on how to increase spending opportunities for consumers to increase profits, WotC’s outward facing PR has instead – since at least 2014 – marketed the D&D lifestyle as a community, one which sees Wizards’ products as secondary to fostering a community of players and game masters (GMs). In the opening pages of the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook, Mike Mearls writes, ‘Above all else, D&D is yours.’ After the recent controversy with proposed replacement of the Open Gaming License (OGL), Kyle Brink echoed a more sheepish form of this sentiment, saying, regardless of whether the community trusts Wizards again or not, “either way, play your game with your friends. You don’t need to have [Wizards] at the table if you don’t want to. You know, your game is for you. We’ll make stuff for it, and if you want it, we’ll be over here making it. You can come get it. But, honestly, we should not be messing up your game. You should be playing your game.’ Statements put out by Wizards, Dungeons and Dragons, and D&D Beyond often invoke the community, while often simultaneously diminishing their own role in shaping that community. Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is actively and aggressively working towards, not just strengthening Dungeons and Dragons as a brand, but more importantly, pushing towards greater monetization of Dungeons and Dragons as a lifestyle. The first part of my work in this chapter is an analysis of published game materials, public statements, and recent events since Wizards of the Coast’s commitment to diversity in 2020.
Ultimately, this work aims to uncover what benefits are afforded to Wizards as a result of their push towards diversity and inclusion as part of rebranding and how this commitment allows greater control over reconciling D&D’s problematic history with monetization plans for the future. This reconciliation, tied with a unification and tightening of the ‘community’ of D&D fans, works more towards the security of D&D’s brand than as a platform for political progressivism. While there should not be any expectation for social change emerging out of a multi-million dollar corporation, the importance of my chapter’s intervention is to demonstrate how Wizards has used the language of social justice and progressivism to create an appearance of a utopian D&D community. My focus in analyzing WotC and D&D is not whether WotC’s revisions of game materials to move away from their racist, sexist, and ableist origins are beneficial to the brand. Rather, I investigate whether these utopian moves are demonstrably present in D&D products, in WotC as a workplace, and in the types of social relationships the game promotes.
In the tabletop roleplaying game The Treasure at the End of the Dungeon is an Escape From This Dungeon and We Will Never Escape From This Dungeon (hereafter The Treasure), players enter the game’s imagined world, a dungeon, knowing that the ‘treasure’ they seek by playing the game is impossible to acquire. The game cannot be won, only perhaps eventually abandoned. It may seem counterintuitive to discuss utopia in a game that announces from the beginning that its systems and structures are permanent, and that any attempt to escape them is ultimately futile. However, it is through this surrender to the process that players learn the lessons of continued hope, perseverance, and community that serve as a foundation for much of contemporary utopian thinking. For these reasons, in this chapter I describe The Treasure as a utopia, while also recognising that it may appear dystopian.
The Treasure can be understood as a process for utopia that, through play, invites the players to build their own counternarratives about what is valuable in the world they enter into, and also work together to change that world, even knowing that practically they will never ‘win’ the game. It is necessary to adapt an in-flux knowledge of utopia through a queer and feminist understanding of a future that will never reconcile the painful past. If the players cannot escape the dungeon, then the focus shifts to developing their characters’ relationships through roleplaying. The absurdity of the players’ situation, the cycle of endless dungeon rooms, and the descriptions of characters and rooms, encourage a sense of camaraderie and community. In this sense, the game reflects the structure of utopian hope. For the players, the importance lies in fighting the cycle even when the outcome may never change for, as the game states in the world description, ‘We will never escape this dungeon. We will always try to escape this dungeon.’ It is possible to work towards utopia while being pragmatic in the knowledge that a perfect future does not exist. In the rest of this chapter, I examine the function of archetypal characters, the utopian dimensions of the players’ roleplaying, and how the game mobilises themes of pragmatism in relation to its feminist and queer utopian ideals.
Utopia is a complex term, and how different pieces of media create and present utopia varies wildly. For this chapter, I approach utopia as a practice stemming from discontent that arises from problems in the present, and exploration of possible futures where these problems are solved or nonexistent. Later in this chapter, I will explore how this vision of utopia shifts into focus through a queer and feminist lens. As suggested by Lucy Sargisson’s Fool’s Gold?: Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century (2012)and Erin McKenna’s The Task of Utopia: A Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective (2001), utopia can present visions of a future in which deeply entrenched social, economic and political problems are resolved or transformed. Sargisson writes that utopia is working towards ‘identifying core problems with today […] and placing them in a new imaginary context. They thus imagine how the world might be if the core “wrongs” identified by the author were transformed.’ McKenna explores utopia in relation to the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, and also emphasizes the centrality of hope in interacting with utopian ideals: ‘Utopian visions are visions of hope that can challenge us to explore a range of possible human conditions.’
Utopia is ostensibly where problems are fixed. The creation of a completely separate and carefully integrated fantasy world has often been central to utopian thinking; and not just that it is separate, but that it is totalising. Fredric Jameson describes the movement away from causal utopias as either obsolete due to an inability to solve any and all social disintegration or due to the unparalleled global wealth and technology; however he argues using utopia as an idea to examine politics is still useful. Thomas Moylan in Demand the Impossible similarly describes this developing idea of utopia as imperfect and rejects utopia as blueprint, he describes utopia as ‘[f]igures of hope’ through opposition where utopia is ‘produced through the fantasizing powers of the imagination, utopia opposes the affirmative culture maintained by dominant ideology’. The completely separate utopian world — with readily available solutions for all the problems it seeks to overcome — has fallen out of favor. As Sargisson writes, ‘Most contemporary utopias tend not to offer visions of complete worlds. And most contemporary utopias avoid depicting a single solution; they decline to offer one complete and finished vision of the good life.’ In contemporary society, where political, religious, social, and environmental issues have remained at least as divisive as they have been historically, the idea of a perfect utopia that solves all the major conflicts of our current society seems impractical. The Treasure is fundamentally focused on creation and exploration, while providing enough character descriptions to spurn new identity formation without homogenising identity experiences. For example, there is no perfect solution to climate change, and scientific consensus on its causes has not translated to broad political and public agreement, but this does not preclude the struggle for environmental justice. So progress must be made in a more improvisatory, patchwork way. Similarly, contemporary utopias usually don’t try to articulate one single vision of society that is so compelling nobody could refuse it.
This article contains moderate spoilers, so please do watch the film before reading!
Yen: Everything Everywhere All At Once is a 2022 film by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. I watched it on a quiet weekday morning at a lush cinema with only two other people in the room. I laughed out loud and cried real tears, many times throughout. It’s a habit of mine to stay to the end of film credits to appreciate the number of people (who made it and those who didn’t) it took to make the film, and this time, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in the cinema to try and hold on to my feelings a little longer.
The film was bumpy in places for me, but it felt like quality entertainment that was nutritional for my soul. I couldn’t articulate why that was the case, so I reached out to an East and Southeast Asian writers network that I belonged to in the UK, Bubble Tea Writers, and crowdsourced some thoughts:
“I loved how funny and wacky it was, whilst having a super simple mother-daughter relationship at its heart. It made me think of my mum…” Martin Ngwong
“In many ways the film was something that I’d both never seen before and yet it was uncannily familiar.” Arianne Maki
“I’ve seen it twice and loved it!! Thought it was a really original film that didn’t feel predictable.” Nozomi Tolworthy
Everything continued to nibble away at my thoughts, so much so that I couldn’t help but mention it to Christy. I knew that she would be able to help me analyse how the narrative structure plays into the success of the film and why I’m so taken by it. I was also curious as to how she (who’s not from an Asian diasporic background) would experience the film. A couple of weeks later, I received an email from Christy titled: Seen Everything! We quickly got together to chat and afterwards, it was clear that we both had a lot of thoughts about the film, and we wanted to share them. We continued our conversation on a shared document, and this is the result.
To start the journey, I find myself licking the ‘y’ key on my keyboard to jump into Christy’s world!
Multiverses & Multiplicity
Christy: Yen! Hey, I was listening to the Script Apart podcast, and the Daniels say It’s a Wonderful Life is a multiverse film. One way it does this is through exploring an alternative universe, in which the protagonist was never born. I would add another way it is a multiverse: the movement of the protagonist from their assumption things will inevitably end up bad, to shifting perspective and chasing a different path. There is the verse of closed thinking, and the verse of ‘optional thinking’… or optional thinking creates another verse!
Although the degree to which a game of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is required to contain a meaningful narrative differs amongst player groups, D&D’s facilitation of storytelling is now widely acknowledged. According to Jennifer Grouling, ‘something about the TTRPG [tabletop roleplaying game] invites a narrative response’. This is especially true of livestreamed, podcasted, or edited ‘actual play’ D&D – games that often include actors, comedians or other creative professionals, and that are consciously performed, recorded, produced, and distributed as a serialised fictional narrative for their audiences.
If ‘play’ is often associated with make-believe and the unreal, could there be something oxymoronic about the term ‘actual play’? It implies some kind of authenticity, but the nature of this claim cannot be easily summarised. Evan Torner traces the term’s origin to indie game design discussions in the 2000s on the influential forum The Forge. During this time, ‘actual play’ referred to written reports, used for ‘seeing the system in action through the lens of a game facilitator or player […] public, critical probing of a game’s text and rules through play.’ More recently, the term has come to refer to TTRPG gameplay as a kind of performance: players still enjoy a game amongst friends, but the act of play is also ‘geared toward an outside audience who become invested in the characters, narrative, storyworld, and meta-play behaviours of the players.’ These actual play broadcasts tell two stories at once, the story set in an imaginary world, and the story of that story being created. The blurring of these two kinds of stories can open up new creative possibilities. While any D&D game can provide an avenue for storytelling, Matthew Mercer – whose own livestream Critical Role is perhaps the most famous game of its kind – argues that games are often broadcast when ‘people […] find something that’s lacking in the space of storytelling, that they want to convey’ (10:17-10:22). The known presence of an audience and ‘reader’ means that some streams use D&D for the creation of narrative with deliberate authorial intent, for instance to address real world issues and political concerns.
Second, Fission, the new annual fiction anthology from the BSFA, will shortly open to submissions. Editors Eugen Bacon and Gene Rowe say:
We’re excited to read your original science fiction stories (genre benders welcome)! The submissions window opens at midnight on 1 February, and closes at 11:59 pm on 15 March. Please submit to email@example.com and put “Fission #2 submission” in the subject header. We invite original stories of up to 5,000 words, and offer a contributor payment rate of 2 pence per word. You don’t need to be a BSFA member to submit. We will also be inviting submissions for cover art.
What has the Vector site has been up to this year? Quite a bit, it turns out! Most of the reviews were originally published in The BSFA Review ed. Sue Oke, and some of the articles originally appeared in Vector print editions. Going forward, fiction reviews have moved to the BSFA main site.
By Monica Evans. This academic article was first published in Vector #291.
Abstract: This article examines the relationship between digital games and science fiction. Digital games are predisposed to science fiction content for two reasons: game developers, at every historical point, have been science fiction fans, and therefore tended to make games with science fiction content; and digital games’ dependence on rapidly-changing technology makes them a natural fit for science fiction content and themes. Furthermore, even games that may not have overtly science fictional themes at the level of content can still be interpreted as examples of science fictional culture, through their capacity to mobilise interactions between technology, mechanics, narrative, and the imagination and emotion of their players. Game developers, science fiction authors, and the increasing number of creators who are both at once, have a great deal of territory to explore, to continue discovering how best to use this naturally science fictional medium to express what it means to be technological, computational, and human.
Review: This article underwent editorial review from two editors.
License: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
Citation: Evans, Monica. 2020. The Needle and the Wedge: Digital Games as a Medium for Science Fiction. Vector #291, pp.15-24. Summer, 2020.
Keywords: digital games, video games, science fiction, speculative fiction
In 1962, four computer science students at MIT, looking for something interesting to display on their new PDP-1 minicomputer, turned to science fiction. According to Steve Russell, the group’s core programmer, they started with “a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships” (Brand 1972). Before long, two ships – one long and thin, the other a squat triangle – could engage in an interactive, physics-based dogfight, and Spacewar!, the world’s first digital game, was born.
Spacewar! may have been the first, but it was hardly the last. A staggering number of successful, influential, and critically-acclaimed games can be categorized as science fiction (Krzywinksa and MacCallum-Stewart 2009), from classic arcade games like Asteroids and Space Invaders to major franchises like Metroid, Halo, StarCraft, and Mass Effect; critical trailblazers like Portal, Half-Life, and Bioshock; indie darlings like Thomas Was Alone, Soma, and FTL; and recent critical and commercial favorites like Horizon Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata, and even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In the absence of science fiction, an equally staggering number of games can be classified as fantasy, horror, or broadly speculative – to the point that it’s uncommon, if not rare, for a digital game to be set in a non-speculative, mundane world.
Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Workis crafted as a response to fears over an automated future in which humans are made obsolete by technological developments. Written by John Danaher, senior lecturer of law at the National University of Ireland, Galway, the text consists of two main sections, which cover automation and the possibility of a utopian future, respectively.
After outlining the scope and purpose of his research, in the first chapter Danaher forecasts the obsolescence of humankind in an automated world. But this is not as catastrophic as it may sound since, for Danaher, “Obsolescence is the process or condition of being no longer useful or used; it is not a state of nonexistence or death” (2). In the rest of the automation section, Danaher responds to two propositions: that automation in the workplace is both possible and desirable, and that automation outside of the workplace is potentially dangerous and its threats must therefore be mitigated.
After making his case for why automation should be conditionally embraced, in the second section Danaher turns to two possible, ‘improved’ societies with automation fundamental to their economies, the cyborg and virtual utopias. While the cyborg utopia enables humankind to remain valuable members of the economy, occupying the cognitive niche that has historically provided an initial evolutionary advantage to the species, Danaher posits that such a future will likely maintain the degradations of employment, enhance our dependency upon machines, and disrupt humanist values while, due to the technological advancements it requires, ensuring no worthy improvements to human wellbeing in the near future.
Following up this analysis of the cyborg polity, Automation and Utopia concludes with a presentation of what Danaher views as the ideal, improved society, the virtual utopia. This improved society, in which humankind ventures into the virtual world to enhance its flourishing, is presented by Danaher as an ideal goal towards which humankind may aim since, as the author posits, it will ensure human agency, pluralism, stability, a myriad of alternative utopias, and a meaningful connection to the non-virtual, real world.
Pivotal to Danaher’s assessment of automation, and a possibly utopian future, are his views on labor and the avenue he identifies as optimal for human flourishing, the virtual utopia. For the purposes of his argument, he adopts a definition of work which he acknowledges as unusual and likely controversial, since it excludes “most domestic work (cleaning, cooking, childcare)” as well as “things like subsistence farming or slavery” (29). Defining work as “any activity (physical, cognitive, emotional etc.) performed in exchange for an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving an economic reward,” Danaher builds the case that obsolescence is almost certain and could result in as low as 10% or as high as 40% of the future population remaining employed (28). Such a development is framed as a positive result since work, he emphasizes, has a negative effect upon employees and improving it in the current economic milieu is, according to him, a more difficult route to take than shifting towards a virtual utopia. Specifically, Danaher argues that improving work, which often involves fissuring, precarity, colonization, classic collective action, domination, and distributive injustice is unlikely in our current system since it “would require reform of the basic rules of capitalism, some suppression or ban of widely used technologies as well as reform of the legal and social norms that apply to work” (83). Though this dismissal of the possibility of improving working conditions is short-sighted and ignores the likelihood that labor organizing will prove necessary as technological advances continue, this weakness of the text stands on its periphery. More important to Danaher’s vision of the future is his adoption of an approach that is interestingly more radical than such efforts to protect workers: the introduction of a universal basic income and the normalization of technological unemployment in current economic systems.
Danaher envisions this radically different distribution of economic power as a salient feature unique to the virtual utopia. Danaher rejects the cyborg utopia, believing it will threaten the prospect of universal basic income and technological unemployment and ensure the continuation of work and the injustices endemic to capitalistic systems. In considering the virtual utopia, Danaher’s audience must consider the ethics and consequences of a nation in which utopian games and escape become a salient feature of its culture. This ideal society is marked by its focus upon virtual worlds as the mechanism by which human flourishing may take place. By venturing into simulations that are shaped to satisfy the desires and needs of individual users, it avoids the problems of a single utopian ideal that must be enforced upon all citizens. It can therefore, as Danaher explains, “allow for the highest expressions of human agency, virtue, and talent… and the most stable and pluralistic understanding of the ideal society” (270).
Yet as with the cyborg utopia, the virtual utopia is plagued with ethical complications. The question of what actions are permissible in such a simulated environment is closely related to the ethical considerations surrounding cyborgs and artificial intelligence. In very briefly confronting this topic, Danaher asserts that the same moral constraints that shape human interactions in daily life will impact those occupying the virtual world. He supports this argument by pointing out that some of the characters inhabiting the simulation will be operated by human players and that interactions with such players will have ethical dimensions. In addition, he asserts that other actions may be deemed intrinsically immoral even without a corresponding ‘real-life’ consequence. Danaher asserts that, though there will be some moral frameworks unique to the virtual utopia, there will be no major alteration to human ethics. The virtual utopia, he claims, is therefore a reasonable goal for the post-work society since it enables human flourishing and protects values such as individualism and humanism.
Danaher is also keen to emphasize that “the distinction between the virtual and the real is fluid” (229). He rejects the “stereotypical” science fictional view of virtual reality, as something that is only produced within immersive technological simulations, like the Matrix or Star Trek’s Holodeck. On the other hand, he also rejects the “counterintuitive” view that everything humans experience is virtual reality in that our reality is constructed through language and culture. Instead, Danaher offers a middle position. Some things may be more virtual than others, but nothing is wholly virtual or wholly real. He sees virtual utopia as being filled with emotionally and morally meaningful interactions, but in the context of relatively inconsequential stakes (rather than survival, or struggle for hegemony). A Holodeck-style simulation is only one of many ways this could be accomplished.
Automation and Utopia delves significantly into the topic of possible futures at the intersection of ethics, technology, and humanism. It is a valuable resource for scholars, students, and laypeople engaged with conversations surrounding the advancement of automation in the 21st-century, its impact upon economics and workers, and optimal approaches to accommodating such new technologies through the advent of a post-work society. The work continues discussions at the intersection of technology and labor, but necessitates broader considerations related to the virtual utopia Danaher proposes. Namely, it does not convincingly explain how virtual utopia will avoid the ethical pitfalls outlined in relation to the cyborg utopia. It also does not thoroughly discuss how such simulations may be safeguarded from economic exploitation at the hands of those owning or operating these systems, or address the potential for intersectional inequalities. Finally, Danaher does not comprehensively discuss how such escapism and the further minimization of human interaction in the natural world may impact climate and the environment. Though it is difficult to accurately predict, estimations of both the ecological and psychological effects of a society in which the main mechanism of human interaction is not within nature but instead within a virtual world are vital to identifying optimal utopian aims.
Overall, Automation and Utopia productively dives into the topics of technological advancement and labor policy, proposes thought-provoking socioeconomic policies related to the challenges of automation, and necessitates further discussions concerning ‘the ideal society,’ its connection to technology, and the impact it may have upon human psychology and the environment.