Dystopian fiction: Are there "dark future" scenarios today that are plausible?

Dystopian fiction: Are there "dark future" scenarios today that are plausible? ...

Since the "Age of Revolutions," philosophers and regular people have pondered this question: Could humans be coaxed into trading their freedom for security, their reason for fanaticism, or their individuality for sameness and "equality?"

The debate over human civilization's direction and destiny remains. Will we ever be able to live as a society that embraces everyone's desires of equality, freedom, and self-determination, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, culture, or creed? Or are we doomed to be slaved by robots, aliens, or ruthless elites who care only about power?

The prospect of a dystopian future for many ended with the 20th century and the Cold War. For others, it's a persistent fear that resurrected every so often. Any debate in an internet forum will inevitably devolve into accusations of Nazism (aka. Godwin's Law), Stalinism, and the casual use of words like "Orwellian."

For those who have witnessed totalitarianism and its effects firsthand, this is no trivial matter. Nor is there any possibility that such a thing would become a worldwide phenomenon, as Orwell himself stated in his enormous cautionary tale, 1984: "Imagine a boot stamping on a human facefor ever!"

Historical precedents

The notion that humanity might devolve into a "dystopian society" is valid in the present day. This is likely to be due to the advent of dystopian fiction as a distinct genre. However, the very beginning of that genre came from a growing awareness of how human freedom might be deposed, based on actual examples.

There were the Russian, American, and French Revolutions, as well as many others that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries. These revolutions were often motivated by demands for greater freedoms, independence from foreign rule, and/or recognition of basic rights. At the same time, many of these resulted in "revolutionary governments" that themselves committed crimes of great impunity, mass purges, and genocide.

Then there are the consequences and sufferings for many who accompanied industrialization and urbanization, which were unmistakable by the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Then there was World War I and II, which were so untold that some historians refer to the period from 1914 to 1945 as a "SecondThirty Years War."

The interwar years were also roiled with political and economic turmoil, including "The Great Depression," and the expansion of radical politics in many societies. One outcome of this period was how the turmoil enabled totalitarian governments to take power in many parts of the world.

Folly, slavery, genocide, show trials, and state control of all education and media were commonplace in every state that fell to one or another in the 20th century.

The Cold War era, at the end of World War II, spanned two superpowers engaged in a constant state of conflict and one-upmanship. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the number of states with nuclear weapons increased as various states developed their own nuclear arsenals or as a result of "proliferation" (nuclear powers distributing weapons to allied nations).

Civil conflicts and humanitarian conflicts have not been eliminated or continued into the 21st century, along with the development of economic inequality, divided politics, disease, and concern for the environment. Needless to say, humanity is no closer to living in a peaceful and universally prosperous utopia when the 20th century began.

The origins of the literary genre began in the 1870s, but developed rapidly by the 1930s, according to historian Gregory Claeys (University of London). He characterized dystopian fiction as consisting of "satires that aimed at eugenic ideals as well as possible negative outcomes of later nineteenth-century revolutionary movements."

Dystopian fiction has resurrected since the turn of the century, resembling many's fears that the future will be a "dark" place. These literary depictions are often inspired by real-world events and trends that inspire worries about what tomorrow might hold for us. At the core of this "future worry," there is the obvious fear that humanity will not make it out of the 21st century or that the worst will come.

Gleichzeitig, there is the fear that while humanity may endure in some form, its most valuable civilization ideals might not.

Early dystopian works

The most famous stories from the 20th century were published, but the genre grew in popularity in the late 19th century. One early example is H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895), a work of science fiction that was also a critique of English society, class structure, and class animosity during Well's time.

The Eloi are a time traveler who travels to a future society divided between a ruling class (the Morlocks) who live in brutal underground conditions. The Morlocks seek revenge by rising at night to capture (and eat) the Eloi they catch.

Wells' narrative is a model for dystopian fiction for many because of the way it transitions from a "perfect society" to one filled with dark realities. According to author and professor Mark R. Hillegas, Wells' is responsible for establishing the "anti-utopia" literary style that would inspire future generations of writers and social critics.

The Machine Stops, by E. M. Forster, is an early prototype. The story takes place in a future where the planet is virtually uninhabitable, and humanity has migrated underground. People live in isolated cells where their needs are supplied by the Machine, which they regard as an omnipotent being. Eventually, the Machine breaks down as the people no longer know how to maintain and repair it.

Some argue that Forster's story is the first example of a "technological dystopia" by Ana Cristina Zimmerman and Prof. John W. Morgan of the University of Cardiff.

"Dystopian societies are often characterised by dehumanization, and Forster's novel raises questions about how we live in time and space, and how we establish relationships with the Other and with the world through technology."

Classic dystopian novels

We, by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, is recognized as the "original" book of dystopian literature. Due to strict censorship regulations, the book would not be published until 1924 (in the United States).

The main character (D-503) is a mathematician who lives in the One State as a critique of the Soviet Union, and people live in glass apartments that allow for constant mass surveillance by the Bureau of Guardians (the secret police).

The novel, its themes, and the issues it addressed, would have a lasting influence and an important impact on other authors. These include, without doubt, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell (though Huxley denied ever reading Zamyatin's novel).

The story also critiques industrial management in the early 20th century, since life in the One State is governed by "The Table," and rationality is promoted, while emotion, pleasure, and sensual pleasures are forbidden.

Huxley's Brave New World was published in 1932, and it takes place several centuries later, in the year 632 After Ford (A.F.) - which corresponds to 2540 CE. Humans are genetically engineered for specific tasks based on a rigid class structure (Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas, etc.).

The novel also examines how eugenics, behaviorism, and modern industrial practices (along with Ford's assembly line and worker culture) are used in American society to anesthetize the population. These include mass-produced drugs ("Soma"), films that simulate physical sensation ("feelies"), and orgies.

George Orwell's 1984 takes place in London several decades after the publication of the novel (in 1949). Each of these superstates maintains total state control over all media, censorship, propaganda, torture, and disappearances.

As Orwell reveals, the Party and its counterparts in other states learned from history how to build dictatorships that would last for ever. Through endless war, society is kept on the edge of poverty while complete censorship and media control ensures they never know the truth. Constant surveillance ensures that people are kept in constant fear, and that all traces of them are erased forever.

Another classic, released in the post-war era (1953) was the threat of nuclear war and fears that new technologies (like television) would lead to a "captive society" where people no longer read. Firefighters were no longer responsible for putting out fires, but for triggering them in the form of book burning.

However, the act of book burning is rarely necessary in a society that prioritizes convenience and intellectual growth, according to the author. "Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary," he wrote.

A Clockwork Orange, a 1962 novel by English writer Anthony Burgess, is set in a near-future England in which a youth culture of extreme violence has developed, and politics is becoming increasingly totalitarian.

The Handmaid's Tale, a feminist dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, was published in 1985. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic and patriarchal United States (renamed the Republic of Gilead) where women have no rights, no control over their reproduction, and are used as breeding stock. The book explores themes of religious governance, social control, and everyday resistance to authority, according to Atwood.

A new subgenre called "cyberpunk" emerged in the 1980s that depicted a future in which "low life and high tech" converged. Examples include Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net, William Gibson's Neuromancer, Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers, and Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash. The common themes in these novels include digital technology, corporate control, and the Balkanization of society.

Octavia E. Butler's famous essay on climate change, race, and social inequality - Parable of the Sower - was published in 1993. Climate change, increasing wealth inequality, and corporate greed have resulted in the demise of society and the proliferation of city-states and corporate towns. Beyond these, vicious band of marauders roam the land, and hate crimes against women and non-white individuals are very common.

These and other fictional histories have remained with us throughout the years, presenting dystopian futures grounded on the present. In every period, dystopian authors explored contemporary themes by either interpreting them in a more extreme fictional setting (i.e., speculative) or by showing how they might become much worse if left unchecked (i.e., "cautionary tales").

Themes of Popular Art

To examine dystopian narratives from the previous century, one would see how they evolved to include issues at the time of their publication. Nonetheless, certain themes have remained prevalent and continue to appear in dystopian fiction today.

Authoritarian Rule: A regular and recurring theme in dystopian literature is the investigation of ideologies that attempt to justify the imposition of totalitarian rule. In all cases, the authors drawn inspiration from real-world examples to illustrate how hatred and the vilification of an "enemy," and fear of the "Other" can be used to impose state obedience.

Similar to those depicted in these stories, the rulers rely on fear to keep afloat in their ranks. This is achieved through secret police, torture, mass detentions, purges, and other brutal methods. Any rebellion or dissent that may be attempted may be stifled by the atmosphere of fear that creates (especially when combined with efforts to stoke hatred).

The fictional societies in many dystopian novels came about as a result of a catastrophic conflict or crisis that left society on the verge of collapse. Depending on the time in which it was written, this might have taken the form of a nuclear exchange, chemical or biological warfare, a super-virus, or ecological destruction. The reason for the tragedy was not so important as the way that it left human beings vulnerable and unable to resist the imposition of dictatorship.

Censorship: As essential as keeping a society captive with fear and hatred, fictional representations of totalitarian governments also include the control of information. In 1984, a recurring theme was how the Party maintained a monopoly on all media, reporting, and historicality by constantly censoring all records in accordance with the current narrative.

Citizens are unable to refute a totalitarians' reality by altering historical records based on who the current enemy was - i.e., "they had always been the enemy" - and dismantling all documentation of a person's existence once they had been removed (an "unperson."

Another common theme in dystopian novels is the possibility that reliance on automation and "progress" may result in environmental harm and human enslavement, reflected in concerns about automation, the substitution of human labor, and the use of technology as a substitute for human interaction.

Psychological Manipulation: If there is one thing that the 20th and 21st centuries have demonstrated, people can be easily persuaded by slogans, images, keywords, and phrases, which have the effect of bypassing rational thought, appealing to instinct, and provoking emotional responses. In dystopian fiction, the effectiveness of mass communications and how they can be used to mobilise (and intimidate) the masses have been thoroughly explored.

Another popular topic is how people may be able to be compliant and pliable through narcotics and other forms of chemical persuasion. Soma is a classic example of Huxley's Brave New World drug manufactured and distributed freely by the World State, which provides a euphoric experience and is chemically non-addictive. People are encouraged to take it regularly to alleviate stress or to avoid unpleasant emotions.

After more than a century of warnings and cautionary tales about the future, a question needs to be asked: Will it happen? While some might argue that humanity has already entered a dystopian nightmare, the answer to this question is highly speculative. However, if we take the position that we have not yet fallen into a dystopian reality, how likely are we to encounter it at some point?

Several options appear to be statistically more probable than others.

Overpopulation and climate change

Aldous Huxley presented a retrospective on his famous dystopian novel and how it had remained firm since its publication, most notably population growth and how tight and stringent government controls might result.

Huxley noted that the global population had increased from just under two billion to 2.8 billion in under twenty-seven years since the publication of BNW and BNW Revisited (1931 and 1958) - an increase of about 40% in the same time. By 1963, when Huxley died, the global population had grown to just over 3 billion people. By the turn of the 20th century, the global population had doubled to encompass more than 6 billion people, an increase of 100% in less than 40 years.

The population of Kazakhstan is estimated to be just over 8 billion people, according to UNDERESA projections, which include rising temperatures, sea levels, increased wildfires, flooding, drought, famine, and other ecological problems imposed by climate change.

Even as climate change disrupts the very resources we depend on for our survival, the global population continues to grow, putting immense strain on urban areas (which will continue to grow), and result in large numbers of migrants seeking to escape economic and environmental catastrophe.

What will these people do go to? They will likely go to countries where they can earn enough to work, such as Europe, North America, South Africa, South America, and Austronesia, where governments are debating whether or not to seal their borders due to fear of being "overrun" by refugees.

With so many people putting pressure on the planet's resource base, which is already overburdened (and unevenly distributed), strict population controls (including perhaps moving people to where they are most needed) and the use of force may become necessary in many parts of the world. Particularly in areas that cross borders, such as shared rivers and waterways

Totalitarian governments might emerge to forcibly restore order by enacting martial law and overruling the political process in this maelstrom. Once they have done that, it is only a small step towards ensuring their long-term rule by instituting police-state measures, cracking down on dissent, establishing scapegoats (like immigrants and refugees), and strict controlling the distribution of resources and information?

Privacy and security in the media are at the core of what we do.

As previously noted, dystopian literature focuses on how control of the media can result in the control of populations. These fears were largely inspired by technological advances in the early 20th century, such as the invention of radio and television, and the ability of mass media and advertising to rapidly reach vast audiences through these new mediums.

People who wrote advertising messages soon discovered that the most effective methods to elicit responses included forms of fear, insecurity, sex appeal, stereotypes, self-interest, and a desire for advancement. In the hands of totalitarian governments in the early 20th century, these strategies were often intended to increase sales and encourage consumers to purchase goods they hadn't previously purchased or desired.

With the advent of digital communications and the internet, totalitarian regimes like the Nazis and the Bolsheviks were experts at propaganda and the manipulation of mass media. This situation has become even more dangerous in the post-war years and since the turn of the century, as well as by nation-states to manipulate the democratic process through "election interference."

Media analysts have discussed the dangers posed by the monopolization of media ownership on many occasions. In his famous 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, American linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky argued that there are "five filters" to media control. These include:

And what about the future, where advances in artificial intelligence might imply a completely new set of "filters"? Search engines already employ machine learning algorithms to search for information and rank sites in order of popularity. In addition, there's also what is known as "search engine bias," where algorithms are designed to influence the user's experience and can be used to direct them towards corporate goals.

Deep fakes may one day be indistinguishable from "reality." That might lead to a world in which nothing can be trusted, and there's also a growing worry about the end of privacy in the digital age. Many of our activities and business are online, and those who manage our personal information are basically a few corporations.

Google and Facebook have grown to the point that they have direct influence on three-quarters of internet usage, including what they like, buy, and dislike. This information is used to direct advertisers toward individual users and drive them to buy goods.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the back-end provider for Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Peacock, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, MGM, and other major streaming services.

Due to Edward Snowden's revelations about the extent of domestic surveillance in the United States, documents were leaked in 2013. The "PRISM" program allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect user data from Google, Apple, Facebook, and other major IT companies and monitor it for suspicious activity.

The prospect of a techno-dystopia where "Big Brother" knows everything about everyone seems to be overly plausible, in a world where personal information is big business and ownership is in the hands of only a few people (who are not shy about sharing it with government agencies.)


The deliberate dissemination of misinformation and "pseudo-knowledge" is another threat to liberty and the rule of law. In his 2008 book, Counterknowledge, British journalist Damian Thompson discussed how the "information age" has increased conspiracy theories, fringe groups, pseudomedicine, and pseudoscience.

"Misinformation packaged to appear like fact, so effectively, that the twenty-first century is facing a pandemic of credulous thinking. Ideas that, in their original, raw form, flourished only on the fringes of society are now being taken seriously by educated people in the West, and are circulating with surprising speed in the developing world."

Thompson gives some examples, including the popular notion that the US government was aware of the 9/11 terrorist plot in advance (and did nothing), the "link" between immunization and autism, and the hypothesis that Chinese explorers traveled to the Americas before Columbus, and that the cell's structure is too complex to have evolved through natural selection (aka. "creationism."

Since the publication of the book, these criticisms have only become more prevalent. These include Pizzagate, the 2020 US federal election being "stolen," that the COVID-19 immunizations area is plotting to implant tracking devices, that school shootings are "false flag" operations by the government, and that the survivors are "crisis actors."

Similarly, the previously mentioned example of election interference highlights a particularly pervasive use of misleading information that has become common in recent years. In 2016, cyberattacks on US infrastructure were traced to Russian hackers working with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA).

Similar attempts were made during the 2017-18 general elections in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Sweden, as evidenced by evidence in 2020.

The rise of the "alt-right" as a political movement has been linked to the rise of "troll farms" and online influence operations. This term refers to organized groups that work in a coordinated fashion to promote provocative content on social networks.

Eastern European troll farms reached 140 million Americans every month in the run-up to the 2020 election, according to a Facebook internal investigation. These farms leveraged Facebook's own platform, fake accounts, and customized algorithms to push popular alt-right arguments.

If policy, elections, and individual freedom are swayed by misinformation, pseudoscience, and manipulation, then entire societies might be severely harmed. Why risk incurring invasions or direct assaults on a nation when otherwise free-thinking citizens may be forced to peacefully surrender their freedoms without even knowing it?

Amusement and distraction

Neil Postman's thoughtful book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, dealt with the issue of which dystopian vision - 1984 or Brave New World - has become most true. He concluded that Huxley's prediction was more accurate and that it's the amusement that is preventing people from being able to stay informed, disagree, and question authority.

Postman famously summed up this difference in a few simple words: "In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicted pleasure." "In short, Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love would ruin us."

"In terms of propaganda, early advocates for universal literacy and a free press anticipated only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true or incorrect. They did not anticipate what actually happened, especially in Western capitalist democracies, namely the formation of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, the more or less completely irrelevant.

"In a word, they neglected to take into account man's almost endless desire for distractions." "In the past most people never got a chance of fully satisfying this desire. They might long for distractions, but the distractions were not provided."

With the advent of modern mass media, the notion of depriving the masses has long been recognized. Is it possible to anesthetize people without using drugs?

Citizens might be forced to give up their intellectual autonomy because to the abundance of distraction, escape, and amusement that does not require thinking. As Bradbury argues, it was little necessary to burn books in a society where people had given up reading long ago.

Is it possible to determine which of the following is the most probable way of a dystopian society to manifest itself? Opinions will vary, but it's fair to say that these dangers could wreak havoc on the world as we know it! However, it seems fair to say that combining these possibilities might lead to something quite similar to what dystopian authors anticipated.

There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic as well. As global populations continue to grow, so do the number of people living in countries with democratic (or semi-democratic) institutions, which has doubled in the span of only 50 years!

Another encouraging statistic is the significant decrease in extreme poverty that's occurred since the 1990s. Between the beginning of that decade and 2018, the number of people living in extreme poverty rose from 1.9 billion to 650 million, with the number expected to rise to 500 million by 2030, reflecting economic growth in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Climate change is fostering innovation across many industries, including renewable energy, fusion power, carbon capture, and direct air capture (DAC), and is accelerating the path towards sustainable development and resource management. There's also the way that global internet trends are facilitating the rise of new industries, entrepreneurs, and "collaborative consumption" practices that are "disrupting" the central business model.

A note on Asia's "economic miracle" is projected to hit 11 billion people by the end of this century, but those same estimates suggest that population growth will have plateaued by then. Much of the expected African growth will be coincided with a level of economic growth that rivals that of Asia's "economic miracle."

It's entirely possible that the future will not be "dark" after all, thanks to the expansion of democratic institutions, or to the strengthening of sustainable economic policies. Still, as we enter the 21st century, with all the baggage we carry, a cautionary tale may be advised.

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