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In a Utopian Future, What Counts as Luxury?

Ben Sullivan

Ben Sullivan

We asked some science fiction authors to define luxury in a utopia.

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Sybaritic—a word meaning outrageously luxurious—derives from the ancient Greek city of Sybaris, known for its inhabitants' excessively piscine and indulgent feasts.

But as with language, meanings ebb, flow, and change in sync with the moving of our times. While the Merriam-Webster Dictionary's definition of luxury is "something that is expensive and not necessary," I consider items such as laptops and smartphones luxuries but also necessary for my job. Another item necessary for my job is tea, which is today considered an everyday staple in Britain but was once deemed opulent.

So if our idea of luxury a few thousand years ago was a hearty fish dinner, and a few hundred years ago a fine pot of black tea, what will it be a few hundred or thousand years in the future?

A smart place to start looking for answers is science fiction, and specifically utopian science fiction. While it may be easy to imagine what might be deemed a luxury in a dystopian future—think perhaps pets in Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep or privacy in Orwell's 1984—it's harder to imagine what could be luxurious in a perfect society.

"A personal space station, moonbase? A flying car? Life extension treatment?"

"Let's be optimistic and assume that there'll be an end to mass poverty, famine and so on, at some point in the future. After that, what constitutes luxury?" Alastair Reynolds, author of the Revelation Space series of novels and new book Revenger, mused when Motherboard posed him this question. "Personal access to space travel? A personal space station, moonbase? A flying car? Life extension treatment?"

In utopian futures, luxury becomes simultaneously much more tangible and harder to define. Sure, citizens will have unlimited access to life's good stuff in a perfect world, but then how will they get a kick out of feeling like they're part of an exclusive club? Isn't that what most people search for when looking for luxury? In a truly utopian world, luxury would lose its meaning.

As Reynolds put it, "The trouble with luxury items [...] is that they have a nasty habit of being democratized and made available to the masses."

As a prolific science fiction writer, the late Iain M Banks conjured up an impressive level of detail for his "Culture" utopia; a far-future, post-scarcity society in which the Culture series of books is set.

For Banks, the idea of an economy—and with it the concepts of supply and demand—would simply cease to exist in a future where self-replicating artificial intelligence could manufacture anything and everything with the unlimited resources that come about when travelling through hyperspace is just like hopping onto a bus.

Image: Flickr/Tom Page

Inhabitants of the Culture find themselves with a massive amount of time on their hands (thanks to 300-year-plus lifespans), with no hobby or leisurely pursuit out of the question. Banks, describing the Culture on his blog, explained how "human labour [is] restricted to something indistinguishable from play, or a hobby in the Culture."

Still, in this perfect world, thoughts of luxury can arise from exclusivity. Reynolds told Motherboard, "Even in a post-scarcity society like the Culture, there will be constraints on individual actions. For instance (I think it's examined in Look to Windward [one of the Culture novels]) there would be a limit to how many people could go to a public performance, so getting a 'ticket' to see a famous musician or actor or suchlike would constitute a kind of luxury since it would be denied to the vast majority. We have something similar today—I could 'afford' to buy a ticket to see Kate Bush, but I [don't] have a hope in hell of actually acquiring one."

So is the notion of luxury inextricably tied to having something that others cannot? As tangible products are democratized, perhaps luxury will shift into an experience, not an item.

Historian and author Ada Palmer agrees. Palmer last year penned Too Like the Lightning, a sci-fi novel set in the 25th Century concerning a society that lives on the ideals of the Enlightenment. It's definitely utopian. International travel is accomplished in mere minutes and the old ideals of borders and countries are abandoned. Still, it's physical space and exclusive opportunities that remain a luxury, according to Palmer.

"Since transportation makes it effortless to hop around the world, a lot of the most scarce and sought-after things are reservations or tickets to do or see something everyone wants," she explained. "A popular chef can still only cook so many meals at once, a physical room can hold so many people, a museum, a beach, a theater, a statue, these are all limited in how many people can enjoy them at once."

"Even if technology can create any object or food you want, it can't reproduce a geographic place"

Even today, however, the technology exists to enjoy many of these experiences remotely, thanks to virtual reality, augmented reality, and the ability to share once-solo experiences with the rest of the world through the internet. What technology can't reproduce, however, is a sense of realness, said Palmer.

"Even if technology can create any object or food you want, it can't reproduce a geographic place, nor can it reproduce the thrill of authenticity that comes from standing where Caesar stood, or seeing the canvas that Raphael touched," she said.

Image: Ada Palmer

No matter how unbounded by economies or technology our lives become, Earth will always have physical limits. Perhaps, soon, our Moon can be included in that too. Maybe, one day, Mars. But there's a reason you pay a higher house price for a bigger back yard.

"Simulations of beautiful places will, of course, exist, as they do now, and anyone who wants to will have copies of great masterpieces in their homes, but the copies of the Eiffel Tower or the Parthenon that exist today, while bringing people joy, don't stop people from wanting to see the originals," said Palmer.

It's not only physical space that limits us; time does, too. Reducing the time it takes to travel to destinations was once the luxury of those who could afford air travel over boat and then Concorde over a jumbo jet. Today, most of the add-ons we purchase when travelling or going to events involve saving time somehow, such as paying extra for shorter queues at theme parks or to sit further towards the front of an airliner to get off quicker (and enjoy the extra leg room, of course).

"The world of Too Like the Lightning has a lot of equality, so everyone has the same chance of visiting a desirable place and seeing a desirable thing (unless they choose to sell their chance to a rich person for a lot of money), but Distance and Time are still real barriers," said Palmer.

Time, like space, is ultimately tied to luxury in the sense that we all strive to have more of it.

Even then, however, time isn't an unlimited luxury in many future utopian fictions, and no matter how much you pay, it will always catch up with you. While life can be prolonged through medicine, delayed through time travel, or paused by cryogenic freezing, death is a physical law that cannot be escaped or cheated.

As Banks put it for his Culture citizens, "Death is regarded as part of life, and nothing, including the universe, lasts forever. It is seen as bad manners to try and pretend that death is somehow not natural."

Luxury Week is a series about our evolving views of what constitutes luxury. Follow along here.

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