In 1973, Kurt Vonnegut said this, in an interview with Playboy magazine:
Human beings will be happier — not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia.
When we read the word “primitive” we often jump to visions of people living in straw huts, cooking over fires and foraging for food. And that makes sense, because the primary definition, as interpreted by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, reads “of, belonging to, or seeming to come from an early time in the very ancient past”. Another definition suggests that primitive means “not having a written language, advanced technology, etc”. Still another reads “of, relating to, or produced by a people or culture that is nonindustrial and often nonliterate and tribal”.
When Vonnegut made this statement in 1973 it would have been nearly impossible, despite his brilliance, to foresee the monumental leaps in human intellect that were to come in the decades following. The personal PC wouldn’t take the stage for some years to come. The internet was not accessible to a wide audience until the late 1980’s. By the time of his death in 2007, I can only imagine how he would have phrased a similar sentiment.
That said, I’m curious as to the true intent of Vonnegut’s words and his definition of “primitive” in this context. Surely he did not intend to suggest that humans would be better off living primordially, scavenging, hunting, fearing for the lives of our families in the wake of dangerous animals or marauding humans. That, by any objective definition, is not a utopia.
Might there have been alternative definitions of the word he was alluding to? Such as “primitive: having a quality or style that offers an extremely basic level of comfort, convenience, or efficiency”. Or a definition derived from the Latin word “primitivus”, meaning “first of its kind”, a word that later changed to its current spelling and was used to mean “original, not derived” in Late Middle English.
Read in the context of these latter definitions, Vonnegut’s statement resonates strongly with me. That’s my utopia too. Communities based on simple requirements of sustenance, shelter and mutual support. Placing weight on the importance of kinship. Finding peace in simplicity. Lack of concern over ownership and material possession. I know this because when I spend extended periods of time in the woods, away from the immediacy of media and connectedness, I feel a wholeness in me that I can only truly appreciate after I’ve lost it, as I return to the relative normalcy of text messages, social media and calendars.
There is something to be said for the incredible drive of humans to make things better, do things more efficiently, make more of something. But there is something else to be said, something not said enough, about being okay with “okay”. And maybe that’s what Kurt Vonnegut meant.