Dystopia is everywhere. No longer just a narrative form in the vein of 1984 or Soylent Green, the very word is seeping into our daily news and culture, invoked as readily in the pubs of London as the checkpoints of Gaza. Far from “an imagined … society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic,” dystopia is now used to describe Facebook, Brexit, biometric data, militancy, antibiotic resistance, and HQ Trivia.
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Of course, the Western political and economic upheavals of the past few years are about as dystopian as a party balloon next to the reality of life in, say, North Korea, whose government sums up the rights of its citizens with a simple phrase—“One for all and all for one”—better known in the West for a book that is probably not discussed much in Pyongyang. Like Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany before it, the totalitarian oppression of the DPRK feels so remote that it becomes almost pantomime. The hysterical weeping of party officials at the death of Kim Jong-il and the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s defector brother, with the killers allegedly told it was part of a “prank” show, feel closer to fiction than fact—stories to be marvelled at, rather than profound human truths. Propaganda and history collide, blurring the lines between fiction and reality; as these lines move, so does our cultural understanding of dystopia.
Perhaps the sci-fi anthology show Black Mirror has been a catalyst for shifting the definition of dystopia away from Mad Max–esque cannibals and dehydration to a new conversation of insecurity, intrusiveness, horror, and internalized, personal calamity. Here, dystopia becomes an everyday experience in which the promises of freedom, equality, and basic human rights are corrupted by the very structures we have built to empower us. Your digital assistant is a torture device; your aspirations to be a good parent destroy lives; your cartoonish satire is the tyranny of tomorrow.
Yet historically speaking, we’ve never had it so good. We beat smallpox and polio is on the verge of eradication, solar power grows in leaps and bounds, and humans have never been richer or lived longer. As for the internet! The advent of mobile data gives us more knowledge and power in our hand than the crew of the Enterprise could have dreamed of. The world is awesome.
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Animal Farm is one of the few novels that explores how the final tyranny of its world is created, from the subversion of a utopian ideal into a dystopia that favors the select few. Black Mirror picks up on this theme and asks, What if through our utopian ideas and technologies we are creating the very opposite?
In his book Ordinary Men, the historian Christopher Browning examined how men from across 1930s Germany were transformed from harmless next-door neighbors into the Einsatzgruppen, working behind Nazi lines to murder approximately 2 million people. The conclusion he reached was depressing in its universality. These were not special men with violent tendencies. They were told that Jews were less than human, other, but more importantly, they were commanded by authority figures and pressured by the camaraderie of the unit, to kill. Our moral compass collapses with devastating speed, and it is easy to obey, and to walk into darkness.
Link to the rest at Slate