The class will begin by studying the concept of utopia and historical utopian communities. While many students might be familiar with the term “Dystopian Literature,” as it is one of their favorite genres, most probably don’t even really know where the term came from or what a utopia is supposed to be. The opening lesson for this part of the unit will be brainstorming and defining the term utopia and discussing its origins. The whole class could read an excerpt from Thomas More’s Utopia,1 such as Book 2 Section 3, “Of Their Trades and Manner of Life.” The class will list the elements of a Utopian society envisioned by More, including occupations and how leisure time is spent, and evaluate whether they feel each attribute is conducive to a Utopian society. The same could be done with the lyrics to “Imagine” by John Lennon.2 Then students will then engage in group research projects where they study historical American utopian societies including the Hutterites, Amish, Shakers, or Tennessee Farm Community.3
Historical Utopian Communities
The Hutterites are a Christian anabaptist sect similar to the Mennonites that originated with the migration of the followers of Jacob Hutter during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Anabaptists are Christians who maintain that baptism, or accepting Jesus Christ as one’s savior, should wait till maturity when each individual can make the informed choice for one’s self. The Hutterites are pacifists and believe in communal property. They have strong religious beliefs and hold daily prayer services and longer services for festivals and rites of passage. Their salvation comes from correct living and doing good for the community. Primarily, Hutterites earn a living and provide for themselves via agriculture and currently number about 45,000 in the United States4. Interestingly, Hutterites are not against technology and at least one Hutterite community even allows its members to have iPhones.5
The Amish group originated in the late 17th century with Jakob Ammann whose followers split from the Mennonites. Like the Hutterites, they are anabaptists. Governed by the ordnung, or guidelines for daily life, they must conform to their group and lead a simple life with a minimum of technology in order to receive salvation. Initially almost all Amish were farmers though they have also branched into cottage industries. Young people are given a special period, rumspringa, to experience the outside world before they commit themselves to their community. Currently there are approximately 251,000 Amish people in the United States and Canada, the majority of whom live in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
While the Hutterite and Amish are conservative patriarchal societies with women's roles limited to domesticity, the Shakers were founded during the 18th century by a woman, Ann Lee, who split off from the Quakers in England and later emigrated to New York.6 There they gained many followers and developed their own simple yet radical lifestyle. In addition to shaking, or dancing during worship, they believed in pacifism, communal ownership of property, the equality of the sexes, and celibacy. They are also known for their distinctive American style of furniture. “Based on a belief that decoration was offensive to God, they developed a unique style of furniture for their own use that reflected both utilitarian perfection with visual simplicity and beauty.”7 At present, there is one very small active Shaker community left in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
The Farm in Tennessee was founded in 1971 by a group of 350 hippies who moved from San Francisco following their leader Stephen Gaskin. They believe in nonviolence and good works. Today, they consider themselves a model ecological community and have “become well known for many things, from natural childbirth and midwifery to healthy diet and vegetarian cuisine, creative arts and alternative technologies to its partnerships and assistance to native cultures.”8 The population of The Farm peaked with 1200 members but now numbers only about 200 permanent residents. Originally all property was communal but at present property is privately owned. They run numerous businesses and charitable programs including a nationally known training program for spiritual midwifery.
Students will choose one of these groups to research and create a brief audio-visual presentation for the class. In the presentation, students will identify the cultural group and its origins, locations, and beliefs, family life, and any additional information that sets the group apart from the larger society. They will synthesize the information by identifying a minimum of two benefits (utopian effects) and disadvantages (dystopian effects) members of the society have compared to nonmembers. The class will then compare and contrast the societies to analyze the common attributes of utopias. Finally, students will connect to the material by responding to a journal prompt about which of these communities they might consider becoming a member of, explained with specific details and reasons.
Anti-Technology: The Luddites of Yesterday and Today
At this point in the unit it will make sense to note the destabilizing impact of new technologies, and how this occurred with the coming of the Industrial Revolution (which students should be familiar with) as well as the digital technological revolution we are experiencing now. Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel The Hunger Games9 can be used to illustrate how technology can change a society and impact the economy, by discussing how the wealth and resources of the districts were being used to support the central government at the expense of the workers, and how technology was being used to control the population and reinforce the dominance of the ruling class.
Returning to history, there will also be a whole class reading on the Luddites in conjunction with a current article on the effects of new technology on the job market for these students’ own generation.10 During the late 18th century, thousands of textile workers in England feared the impact of new technological innovations on their jobs and livelihoods. These displaced skilled artisans smashed machinery in a vain hope to stop the process of industrialization, though ultimately the industrial jobs created resulted in a higher standard of living for many. In 1793 William Godwin noted that though technological innovation produces temporary distress, it is in the interest of the many; he also points out that utopian visions as early as the Spartans of ancient Greece relegated manual labor to slaves, while we relegate it to technology.11 In our own time, new robots are replacing not only factory workers and personal servants but also administrative positions such as secretaries and operators. More concerning is that this new wave of technology is not creating enough jobs for the displaced workers. The largest increase in the job market will be for the coding, design, and building of robots and artificial intelligence devices. The reading will be used to motivate a discussion on the costs and benefits of technology that will be ongoing throughout the remainder of the unit.
While it may seem obvious that digital technology has and will further reduce the need for menial human labor, overall there may be a class differential. In the popular young adult dystopian novel The Thousandth Floor, distinct high and low social classes have varying levels of automation. When an upper class boy asks his new lower class girlfriend who works at a snack bar “why her job even existed, why they didn’t just have bots at each monorail stop like they did at upper-floor lift stations. ‘Because I’m cheaper that a bot,’ she’d told him, which was true.”12 This is already true in some places in the world where it is cheaper to hire a human to pull you around the street in a rickshaw than to take a taxi. Conversely, in the New York Times article “Human Contact is Now a Luxury Good,”13 we read about digitized public school education for children and personal care attendants for the elderly as cost saving means for society to provide for the needs of lower income members of the community, while those in higher income brackets prefer to minimize the role of both robotics and digital technology in their own families.
As a culmination to this section of the unit the class will have a discussion and create an anchor chart which encompasses their understanding of the characteristics of a Utopian society. An attempt will be made to address the essential question, What qualifies as a Utopian society? Is putting the community’s needs ahead of individual needs a necessary characteristic of a utopia? Is monitoring and gatekeeping technology an important aspect of utopias, and if so, why?
We will also take a brief look at the early mission statements of some of the Silicon Valley tech conglomerates, noting how they appear utopian. For example, in 1998 Google’s mission was stated to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”14 This makes it seem like Google’s primary purpose is to make the world a better place for everyone, and ignores the profit motive and immense forces of data collection and analysis, and advertising, and their impact on searches for information. Facebook, as recently as 2017, stated its goal was to give people “the power to build community and bring the world closer together” yet in reality their information processing that controls which posts individuals see increase conformity. In recent years employees at Google and other companies have protested when they assisted in censorship and discriminatory policies.15 Finally, the class can view the cover of Time magazine from January 1, 200716 when they named “you” as the most powerful person of the year, with a picture of a computer on the cover, claiming that each of us controls the information age. The class can and discuss whether this prediction has come true: Are we more powerful because of digital technology? Do we control our own digital lives?