In an article published last week, the current TV Editor proposed that the dystopian futures shown in contemporary sci-fi are no longer necessary, for a wide range of reasons. I disagree: the purpose of this article is to highlight instead the value of these forms of entertainment, especially in the present day.
Sci-fi as a genre is successful when it anticipates the social impact of technological developments on humanity. The article last week made the point that currently, TV shows such as Black Mirror are too close to reality to be valuable in that role. On the contrary, the fact that these programmes can predict the potential horrors of the near future so accurately perfectly describes their necessity. If a piece of media allows for the discussion about a future technology or its use, then that is an incredibly valuable function.
“As much as technology has the potential to improve, it also has the potential to destroy”
The author also seems to propose that reality is already much worse than posited within Black Mirror, or any dystopian sci-fi, particularly with respect to misinformation, or to quote someone famous: “Fake News”. I would disagree again with the specific points the article makes, in that I believe economic inequality and lack of opportunity, coupled with an effective election strategy that actually targeted young people as opposed to neglecting them, contributed to the large rise in political engagement. Fake news has always been a problem, ever since the ability to identify with and spread ideas was invented. The problem is not with technology, it is with people’s need to self-validate their ideas, a point which the article makes. Social media does give increased access to other communities that share similar views, but when I was researching the impact of social media and the internet on terrorism in the UK, I came across information that suggested that it was the physical social group that truly drove their warped views forward. I am not saying that this can necessarily be applied to other ideological groups, but certainly I think that by attributing these issues solely to social media, we miss a significant portion of the problem.
The article goes on to reference classic dystopias, such as The Matrix or, my personal favourite, 1984. Exploring the differences between these two dystopias results in the consideration that there are two kinds of dystopia: the first type are mostly self-satisfying stories, with examples including The Hunger Games, or the film Elysium. They give into the illusion an individual’s choices are important in the face of a seemingly all-powerful state or AI that inexplicably has a fundamental weakness. A true dystopia, for me at least, is the absolute horror of the Western World: that individualism is an irrelevant philosophy. Choices mean nothing in the face of a powerful state, caste, or organisation using technology to engineer the perfect societal succession. This is best represented in 1984 or Brave New World, one exploring the impact of terror and surveillance to keep people in order, the other relying on genetically engineered castes and the happiness drug soma.
These two novels underline the narrative and philosophical value of dystopian sci-fi. It allows the author to place characters in a context completely alien to us and examine their reactions. It forces us to compare our current values with those of another hypothetical social order, that is not interested in the good of the individual. That is the true horror of dystopian sci-fi: it forces us to come to terms with the answers to awful questions, such as 1984 ’s what is love when compared to pain, or Brave New World’s unsettling vision of a society where happiness is universal, but freedom is extinct. In the end we must love Big Brother, or swallow our soma tablet.
I think the article’s point about optimism when it comes to technology is well founded: it is important not to be too pessimistic about technology, as some of the advances have the potential to improve our lives. I, however, am a pessimist and believe that as much as something has the potential to improve, it also has the potential to destroy. Whenever technology advances a large amount, an economic revolution occurs, changing the established order. This in turn renders some jobs extinct. This occurred during the industrial revolution with the extinction of the European cottage industry, and is occurring now with the increased automation of the workplace. The net result is greater wealth for those that own the machines and the methods of their manufacture, and destitution and poverty for those whose livelihoods are destroyed. A question that no one currently has an answer to is how exactly society and capitalism will function when 80%, 90%, or even 95% of individuals don’t have a job due to AI? Is democracy a feasible system of government in the face of an elite that possesses all of the wealth as opposed to merely most of it? Is there a point in maintaining a large population of essentially useless mouths for those that possess this vast wealth?
To conclude, there are big questions to be answered about our future, the role that technology will play, and how our society will adapt to it. If we believe that the values we currently hold dear are important to pass on to future generations, dystopias must be a part of the current media environment so that we can properly anticipate the challenges that the future will bring. Dystopias do not provide answers to these questions, but they make us realise no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. We must fight to keep the world the way we want it to be.
1984 can be found at your local library or downloaded illegally from bigbrotherstotallylegitimatebooks.com