Proposed Trope: Desire and Motivation of Individuals in Utopia

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In fictional utopias (which can also be considered dystopias, depending on the perspective) individuality is usually suppressed in one form or another and human desires are shaped to fit the functionality of society. Individuals are motivated to work for this society or at the very least to not work against it, and their desires are influenced by its nature.

Also important to the motivation of individuals is Maslow's Heirarchy which states that a human being is driven to satisfy basic needs such as shelter, safety, nutrition before needs such as family and pleasure, and ultimately seek to fulfill "self actualization" or enlightenment. As a whole, these desires represent what humans strive for and what drives them to make certain choices, particularly choices that would lead them to either rebel against or cooperate with a utopia/dystopia.

Most utopias are formed in protest against the mainstream society of the time. Some may protest the form of authority or even the existence there of; others are formed to seek enlightenment because individuals feel that the mainstream is constraining their intellectual potential. The 60's counterculture movement produce an outburst of the utopian communes seeking to make a new identity. Many felt that society had lost touch with nature and technology was the caused. These utopias pushed for back-to-earth practices and uses of technology that supplements people instead of consuming them.



Class Readings

Spring 2010

  • Return to Pleasure Island[1] can be read as a critique on human desire and how this can be manipulated. The three brothers who are central to the story are given a limited realm of experience from which to choose their desires that motivate them to work and live, and just as when the young visitors to the island indulge in their desires and become donkeys, so too do the brothers suffer in exchange for indulging in their desires.
  • The Machine Stops[2] examines a utopic world in which machines live for humans, replacing much of their humanity by allowing each person to live in their own bubble without outside contact. Despite the basic human desires for intimacy and novelty, this machine, created by humans, satisfies these desires by simulating them; allowing the inhabitants to contact one another and educate themselves on whatever they desire. The desire to explore is subdued by the fact that all cities and locations are virtually the same, so to visit offers no new experiences, outside of visiting an upper world that is supposedly deadly.

Spring 2011

  • Selection from Counterculture to Cyberculture [3] - In this excerpt from Turner's work, he documents the transformation of the 60's counterculture into the birth of hacker culture in the 80's. The early counterculture was lead by Steven Brand with his *Whole Earth Catalog,* which provided supplies and ideas to the new communes springing up in the early 60's. These communes were setup as a protest against the bureaucratic and centralized society/government. Many that followed Steven Brand's views felt that emerging technologies would allow humans to become self-sufficient and breakaway from the need from a central authority. However, most communes failed by mid-70's and led to the New Communist Movement which emphasized collaboration to change the system. Followers tried to the push society towards utopia by participating in it, rather than estrangement. Steven Brand and others became more involved with the Bay-Area computer culture and imagined establishing space colonies as the ultimate utopia. This last push eventually merged the "back-to-earth" counterculture into the computer culture at the time to form the hacker culture of the 80's.
  • Schismatrix [4] - Lindsay spends the entirety of the novel trying to establish various utopias. The novel opens with Lindsay at the end of his plot to start the Humanist Movement. The story's plot actually begins with Lindsay exiled to the sundog colony, where he attempts to create a pseudo-utopia as a cover for his ultimate plot to escape the colony. After leaving the colony, he ends up on a smuggler's ship that lands on a Shaper spy base. Here, he tries to establish another utopia between the smugglers and the Shaper spies. This eventually self-destructs because of the suspicion and greed of each group. After these failed attempts, Lindsay seems to create a stable, but superficial utopia with the introduction of the aliens to the Mechanists and Shapers. This becomes a "golden age" of the Mechanist-Shaper society, but this eventually crumbs like any other. The Mechanist-Shaper society slowly disintegrates as Lindsay begins create the ultimate utopia on Europa. Member of the utopia become completely self-sufficient through complete genetic alteration.

Other Media

  • In 1984 [5] human labor is directly shaped by believing in the government and sacrificing one's individual thoughts on the subject (or else be subject to the thought police). In such societies people are often molded to become more like machines, and in doing so these utopic societies forget to account for humanity - its flaws and drive towards individual expression. These failures lead to their demise.
  • In Brave New World [6] humans are reduced to their basic desires, which are provided for and encouraged. A society indulgent in hedonism to the point of passing out drugs and allowing young children to explore their sexual boundaries shows the extent to which human behavior can be controlled by society (whether it be utopic or dystopic).
  • Blade Runner [7] examines what defines "humanity" at its core (in what one may consider a dystopia), arriving at the conclusion that humanity is the expression of an individual persona and its desires, most importantly the will to keep living and to keep others living.
  • Fahrenheit 451 [8] in much the same way as 1984 is a critique on hedonistic societies that prevent critical thought. Bradbury's take on the subject is expressed through a society which outlaws books, fearing that they will cultivate individual expression and thus individual thoughts which will in turn bring down society and work against the "ideal" of this supposed utopia. The main character, Montag, is motivated to begin questioning and following his own individual ideals when he encounters a unique individual, perhaps a way of showing that human nature, even when suppressed, still values unique and novel ideals - and people. Societies, particularly governments, are always at war with allowing their people to be free, and restricting these freedoms so that they can remain in control.
  • Equilibrium The setting of this 2002 film is post fictional WWIII where the world fell under the control of Father and the Tetragrammaton: a government that outlaws all forms of art and emotion. Citizens are forced to take drugs that eliminate emotions. However, "Sense Offenders": citizens who resist the laws and operate underground are continually at war with the Tetragrammaton. One cleric who was responsible to maintain a steady state of numbness in society accidentally stops taking his medication which floods emotion and questions to his mind. He hides his emotion and joins forces with the resistance to ultimately find that the Tetragrammaton is full of propaganda and hypocrisy.

Comparison to other Intersections and Tropes

As is said in the trope Work, citing An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations [9], "Men with self love are more likely to work for the sole purpose to better themselves and their livelihoods. This is fueled by encouragement and motivation." Thus the motivation of individuals plays a key role in their productivity and desire to do work. This is a key component to the arguments presented in novels such as Brave New World which examine the balance between work and play in using hedonistic goals to motivate humans, and whether that is truly what drives humanity or there are other, deeper forces at work as Return to Pleasure Island also concludes.

On the flip side, Pleasure examines these very hedonistic aims of society, the emotions that drive humans to behave as they do, and whether this is enough to satisfy one's desires as an individual human being. In Return to Pleasure Island this is very much emphasized, as both the exploited children and two of the main characters give in to their indulgences and the third remains, having to take responsibility, but at the same time taking pleasure in the pursuit of family and love, which one can argue as less superficial.


  1. Doctorow, C. 2000 [1]
  2. Forester, E.M 1909 [2]
  3. Turner, F.
  4. Sterling, B. 1985
  5. Orwell, G. 2003
  6. Huxley, Aldous 1931
  7. 1982, Scott, Ridley
  8. Bradbury, Ray 1953
  9. Smith, Adam
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