Gallatin professor creates online version of Sir Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’

When Sir Thomas More wrote “Utopia” in the 16th century, he envisioned a perfect society, built on openness and transparency.

Gallatin professor Stephen Duncombe is bringing More’s ideas — and text — into the 21st century with “Open Utopia,” an open-access, online edition of More’s book. Duncombe created the site as an innovative way to read, understand and interact with “Utopia.”

“The guiding principle of More’s society [in ‘Utopia’] was that all property should be common property, so … by making it easily downloadable from the site, I’ve done my best to honor this ideal,” Duncombe said.

Duncombe had the idea for the site several years ago when he was asked to teach a seminar on political imagination at Moscow

State University. He reread “Utopia” in preparation for the course and reached a different understanding than he had in the past.

“I didn’t read ‘Utopia’ as a plan for a new society, but instead I understood it as a prompt for getting readers to imagine new societies on their own,” Duncombe said. “I came to realize that ‘Utopia’ is … an open work.”

Duncombe’s website includes a feature called Social Book, which was implemented with the help of the Institute for the Future of the Book, an organization focused on the future of books in the digital age. With Social Book, readers can add their own notes and ideas into the margins of the text for others users to read and discuss.

Along with Social Book, users of Open Utopia can express their ideas through Wikitopia, a wiki site designed specifically for “Utopia.” The site serves as a platform for collective authorship.

“Readers become writers, drafting individual and collective new visions of Utopian societies,”
Duncombe said.

Users have the option of creating a utopia of their own, which have lead to personal web pages like Promethealand and Techtopia. Users can edit and add to other users’ utopias, an option that keeps with More’s principle of all property, including ideas, belonging to the community.

“Open Utopia” includes audio book and e-book versions of More’s text, along with several other formats. The site also contains videos, pictures and maps that enhance the experience of “Utopia,” with more content being added regularly.

“I like the way this [‘Open Utopia’] takes advantage of the inherently collaborative nature of new media,” said Gallatin freshman Leor Freedman, who has used the site.

“Open Utopia” is available at theopenutopia.org.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 18 print edition. Jonathan Keshishoglou is a staff writer. Email him at features@nyunews.com. 

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