The Las Vegas experiment-cum-startup-utopia known as the Downtown Project got more than its share of press last week. It went kaput, depending on whom you ask. According to Re/Code, the collapse stemmed from the fact it was a business “run by kids.” Pando Daily simply called it “an unraveling.”
But is it really all that bad? This depends on whether you want to interpret the Downtown Project as a moonshot at utopia. I hold this view. Or whether you want to interpret the Downtown Project as an investment that hasn’t panned out.
The real heart of the matter is that marketing utopian idealism has been sideswiped by actual utopianism itself. According to the Ralahine Center for Utopian Studies at the University of Limerick, utopianism means a social reality and a way of envisioning change. The Downtown Project is both of these things. So was the experimental architecture town built in the 1970s, Arcosanti. And likewise, so is the current cool-kid morning sober party, Daybreaker. Each of these is an experiment about utopianism itself.
Yet the utopian experiment seems to go kaput when marketing utopian idealism sideswipes it. Some of the marketing that is involved in selling utopianism idealism can be seen at Daybreaker. The party begins as an organic, self-organizing, change-forward party. The party ends with shout outs to brand sponsors. Marketing utopian idealism swoops in at the end to sideswipe the utopianism itself.
Will the utopia of Daybreaker go kaput because of this at some point? It depends on whom you ask, as I said at the beginning of this piece. Utopianism is either a moonshot, meaning it doesn’t have to work long-term in order to give people a way to envision change, or utopianism is an investment -- meaning it must deliver utopia itself. The attention given to the Downtown Project proves it fell into the latter definition. Utopia was not delivered, which caused even the Downtown Project founder, Tony Hsieh, to disassociate himself with the social experiment.
Utopianism at its best delivers a radically human message about the power of your own will. Imagine the inner zeal created by bringing change to the world. People have been chasing this sensation throughout history in various forms: The Enlightenment, Industrialization, and now Start-up Culture. If Las Vegas truly goes kaput it will not be for failing to succeed at delivering this emotional product. It will be for failing to discuss the fact that not all utopian change is world-shattering, scale, or even (gasp), profitable.