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

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

Since the "Age of Revolutions" and the industrial age, scholars and regular people have debated: Could humans be coaxed into trading their freedom for security, their motive for fanaticism, or their individuality for the sameness and "equality?"

The debate over human civilization's destiny and direction remains unresolved over a century later. Will we flourish as a society that finally realizes our dreams of equality, freedom, and self-determination for everyone, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, culture, or creed, or are we doomed to be subjugated by robots, aliens, or cruel elites who care about nothing but power?

Many believe the prospect of a dystopian future ended with the 20th century and the Cold War. Others believe the fear persists every once in a while; debates in an internet forum will almost certainly culminate in accusations of Nazism (aka. Godwin's Law), Stalinism, and the casual use of terms like "Orwellian."

For those who have witnessed totalitarianism and its effects firsthand, the prospect is no longer a mystery. Nor is there any possibility that such a thing might become a worldwide phenomenon as Orwell himself said in his famous cautionary tale, 1984: "Imagine a boot stamping on a human facefor ever!"

Historical precedents

The notion that humanity might be transformed into a "dystopian society" is timeless. However, the idea has become so prevalent within the 20th century. Part of this is due to the advent of dystopian fiction as a separate genre. But the very fact that humans can be suppressed - based on actual examples.

The Russian, American, and French Revolutions, as well as many others, were often inspired by calls for greater freedoms, independence from foreign rule or from a "out of touch" ruler or ruling class, as well as recognition of basic rights. At the same time, many of these resulted in "revolutionary governments" that committed massive purges and genocide.

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

The interwar years also saw political and economic turmoil, including "The Great Depression" and the growth of radical politics in many nations. One outcome of this period was how totalitarian governments came to power in many places across the world.

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

The Cold War era followed World War II, characterized by two superpowers engaged in a constant state of conflict and one-upmanship, and throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the number of states with nuclear weapons grew as various states developed their own nuclear arsenals or as a result of "proliferation."

Civil conflicts and humanitarian crises have not been eliminated or continued into the 21st century, despite the renewed optimism that accompanied the conclusion of the Cold War. These factors include growing 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 since the 20th century.

The origins of the literary genre began in the 1870s, and it spread to the 1930s, according to historian Gregory Claeys (University of London): Dystopia: A Natural History "targeted eugenic ideals as well as possible negative outcomes of later nineteenth-century revolutionary movements."

Dystopian fiction has rekindled its popularity since the turn of the century, reflecting many's hopes that the future will be a "dark" place. These literary depictions are often inspired by actual events and trends that evoke worries about what tomorrow might hold for us. At the core of this "future worry," there's the apparent fear that humanity may not make it out of the 21st century or that the worst will come.

Despite the fact, there is concern that humanity might withstand in some form, but its most essential civilization ideals might not.

Early dystopian novels

The most influential stories were published in the 20th century, but the genre actually gained widespread recognition and popularity in the late 19th century. An 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 antagonism in Well's time.

The book focuses on a time traveler who visits a future society split between a ruling class (the Eloi) who live happily and a subclass of workers (the Morlocks) who work in degrading conditions underground. The Eloi depend entirely on the Morlocks' labor to maintain their lives, and the Morlocks take their revenge by waking 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 evolves from a "perfect society" to one filled with terrible 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 regarded as an early prototype. The story takes place in a future where the planet has become largely uninhabitable, and humanity has moved underground. People live in isolated cells where their needs are provided by the Machine, which they consider to be anomnipotent being. Eventually, the Machine breaks down as people no longer know how to service and repair it.

Some argue that Forster's case 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 connections with the Other and with the world through technology."

Classic dystopian novels

We, by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, is recognized as the "original" example of dystopian literature. The work was not published until 1924 (in the United States) because of strict censorship regulations.

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

This novel, its themes, and the issues it addressed, would have a lasting impact on other writers. These include (arguably) Aldous Huxley and George Orwell (though Huxley denied ever reading Zamyatin's novel).

The story also criticized industrial management in the early 20th century, as life in the One State is regulated through technological means. All activities are governed by "The Table," all citizens are given alphanumeric designations instead of names, and rationalism is championed, while emotion, pleasure, and sensual delights are prohibited.

Huxley's Brave New World, which was published in 1932, 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 critiques how recreation and pleasure (and other examples of "mass culture") are used in American society to anesthetize the citizenry. These take the form of mass-produced narcotics ("Soma"), films that simulate physical sensation ("feelies"), and modern industrial practices.

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

The Party and its counterparts in other states learned from history how to build dictatorships that would last for a lifetime. Full censorship and media surveillance ensures that people never know the truth. Regular surveillance ensures that people are kept in constant fear and that rebels are eliminated before they can pose a threat (and all traces of them are erased forever).

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, is a new classic released in the post-war era (1953) amid the specter of nuclear war and worries that new technologies (like television) might lead to a "captive society" where people no longer read. In the future Bradbury envisions, firefighters were no longer responsible for putting out fires, but for triggering them in the form of book burning.

"Remember, the firemen are seldom necessary," he wrote in the book. "The public itself stopped reading of its own accord."

A Clockwork Orange, a 1962 novel by English author Anthony Burgess, is set in a near-future England where a youth culture of extreme violence has developed, and politics are 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 animals. The book explores themes of religious governance, social control, and everyday resistance to authority.

"Cyberpunk" became popular throughout the 1980s, depicting a future where "low life and high technology" converged. Examples include Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net, William Gibson's Neuromancer, Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers, and Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler's famous analysis of climate change, race, and social inequality in 1993, was released. Climate change, increasing wealth inequality, and corporate greed have resulted in the division of society and the formation of city-states and company towns. Beyond these, violent bands of marauders roam the land, and hate crimes against women and non-white individuals are extremely common.

Over the years, these and other fictional histories have remained relevant, presenting dystopian future plans grounded on the present. In every period, dystopian authors explored contemporary issues by interpreting them in a more extreme fictional setting (i.e., speculative) or by demonstrating how they might become much worse if left unchecked (i.e., "cautionary tales")

Themes of the Common Law

To examine dystopian stories from the past century, one might observe how they evolved to incorporate issues concurrent with the time of their publication. Nevertheless, certain themes remain constant and continue to exist today in dystopian fiction.

Authoritarian Rule: A regular and recurring theme in dystopian literature is the investigation of ideologies that attempt to rationalize 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," scapegoating, and fear of the "Other" can be used to forge obedience to the state.

Similar to the rulers depicted in these stories, they depend on fear to maintain an open society. This is achieved through secret police, torture, mass arrests, purges, and other harsh measures. Any attempt at rebellion or dissent can be stifled by the climate of fear that this creates, especially when combined with efforts to stoke hatred.

The fictional societies in many dystopian novels came about as a result of a horrific war or crisis that left society on the verge of collapse. This could take the form of a nuclear exchange, chemical or biological warfare, a super-virus, or ecological catastrophe. The cause was less important than how it left humans vulnerable and incapable of resisting dictatorship.

Censorship: As essential as keeping a society captive with hatred and fear, fictional depictions 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 historicity by constantly censoring all records to fit with the current narrative.

This consisted of altering historical records based on who the current adversary was - i.e., "they had always been the enemy" - and destroying all documentation proving a person's existence once they were expelled (an "unperson"). Citizens are unable to refute a totalitarians' version of reality, which changes in line with their current agenda.

Dependence on Technology: Another common theme in dystopian books is the fear that reliance on automation and "progress" might result in environmental harm and human enslavement. This reflected concerns about automation, the substitution of human labor, and how technology might substitute for human interaction.

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

Drugs:Another popular topic is how people may be transformed into compliant and pliable by narcotics and other forms of chemical persuasion. The classic example is Soma, a designer drug from Huxley's Brave New World, which is manufactured and distributed freely by the World State. It provides a euphoric experience and is chemically non-addictive, and people are encouraged to take it regularly to cope with stress or avoid unpleasant feelings.

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 claim that humanity has already gone into a dystopian nightmare, the answer to this question is highly speculative. But if we accept the possibility that we will someday be in a dystopia, how likely are we to be at some point?

Several possibilities 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 stable since its publication, most notably population growth and how limited resources might result in strict and severe government controls.

Huxley noted that the global population had increased from less than two billion to 2.8 billion people in just twenty-seven years since the publication of BNW and BNW Revisited (1931 and 1958) - an increase of about 40% in just twenty-seven years. By 1963, when Huxley died, the global population had doubled to over 6 billion people, a 100% increase in less than 40 years.

The population of the United Nations is expected to grow to about 8 billion by 2022, according to UNDERSEAA estimates. This includes increasing temperatures, sea levels, wildfires, flooding, famine, ocean acidification, and other environmental difficulties imposed by climate change.

Even as climate change disrupts the very resources we depend on for our survival, the global population continues to expand. This is expected to increase volatility in local and international markets, put severe strain on urban centers (which will continue to grow), and result in mass migrations by people seeking to escape economic and ecological catastrophe.

Where will these individuals go? They will most likely go to places where they can find employment - the world's wealthiest nations. These include Europe, North America, South Africa, South America, and Austronesia, where nations are already debating whether or not to seal their borders because of fear of being "overrun" by refugees.

Due to the number of people exerting pressure on the planet's resource base, which is already overburdened (and unevenly distributed), strict population limits (perhaps moving people to areas where they are most needed) and the use of force may become necessary eventually. In many parts of the world, nations or regions are more likely to experience unrest or conflict over diminished resources, especially those that cross borders.

Totalitarian governments may emerge to forcibly restore order by enacting martial law and overriding the political process in this maelstrom. Once they've done that, it's only a small step to ensuring their long-term rule by instituting police-state measures, removing discrimination, establishing scapegoats (like immigrants and refugees), and strictly controlling the distribution of resources and information?

Control and privacy of the media

As mentioned, dystopian literature often focuses on how control of the media can result in the control of populations. These worries were largely inspired by advances in communication in the early 20th century, such as the invention of the radio and television, and the ability of mass media and advertising to reach large audiences via these new means.

People who created advertising messages quickly realized that the best methods to elicit responses included techniques such as threats, insecurity, sex appeal, stereotypes, self-interest, and a desire for advancement. In the hands of totalitarian governments in the early 20th century, these techniques were often used to instill fear, hatred, loyalty, and intimidation in the masses.

Nationalist governments such as the Nazis and the Bolsheviks were experts in mass media manipulation and propaganda. The situation has become even more dire in the post-war years and since the turn of the century, thanks to the advent of digital communications and the internet. Nationalities have also used this manipulation to sabotage the democratic process through "election interference," to ensure specific outcomes or to sabotage society.

Media analysts have also discussed the dangers posed by the monopolization of media ownership on numerous 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:

What do you think about the future, where advances in artificial intelligence might result in a completely new set of "filters"? Search engines already employ machine learning algorithms to look for information and rank websites according to popularity. In addition, there's what is called "search engine bias," where algorithms are designed to affect the user's experience and can be used to steer him towards corporate goals.

It's becoming more difficult to distinguish deep fakes from "real" - which might one day be indistinguishable from "real." That might also lead to a world in which nothing can be trusted. In the digital age, most of our activities and business are online, and those who oversee our personal information are essentially a few corporations.

Google and Facebook have risen to a point where they control over three-quarters of internet traffic. This incredible amount of data that they have access to is mind-boggling. It's what three-quarters of internet users like to do online - what they watch, buy, like, and dislike - and uses it to motivate individuals to buy things.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the backbone provider for Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Peacock, Discovery+, Amazon Prime, MGM, and other major streaming services.

Due to Edward Snowden's revelations on the scope of domestic surveillance in the United States, people's information became a focus of attention. In 2013, documents were leaked about the National Security Agency (NSA) "PRISM" program, which allowed the agency to collect user data from Google, Apple, Facebook, and other major IT companies and investigate it for suspicious activity.

The prospect of a techno-dystopia in which "Big Brother" knows everything about everybody appears to be absurd - some would say it's already there!


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

"Misinformation packaged to appear like fact" - packaged so effectively, indeed, 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 moving at an astounding rate in the developing world."

Thompson cites the then-popular notion that the US government knew about the 9/11 terrorist plot in advance (and did nothing), the "link" between immunization and autism, and the belief that Chinese explorers found their way to the Americas before Columbus, and that the cell's structure is too complex to have evolved via natural selection (aka. "creationism").

These criticisms have only become more pertinent since the book's publication. In the past few years, there has been a notable rise in demonstrably false narratives that have enraged millions of people across the world. These include Pizzagate, the 2020 U.S. federal election being "stolen," that the COVID-19 immunizations area plotted to inject us with tracking devices, that school shootings are "false flag" operations by the government and the survivors are "crisis actors."

Similarly, the previously mentioned example of election interference highlights a far more widespread use of misleading information. In 2016, cyberattacks on US infrastructure were traced to Russian hackers working with Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Kremlin's Internet Research Agency (IRA).

Similar attempts were made during the 2017-18 general elections in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Sweden. Evidence also emerged in 2020 that similar attempts were made to interfere in the general election and primaries in the United States.

The development of the "alt-right" as a political movement has been linked to the proliferation of "troll farms" and online influence operations. This term refers to organized groups that work in a coordinated manner to post provocative content on social networks to sway public opinion.

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 used Facebook's own platform, fake accounts, and tailored algorithms to push popular alt-right remarks.

If policy, elections, and individual freedom are influenced by misinformation, pseudoscience, and manipulation, then entire societies may be ruined. Why go to the trouble of planning invasions or direct assaults on a country when otherwise free-thinking individuals can be forced to peacefully surrender their freedoms without even knowing it?

Amusement & Distraction

Neil Postman's thoughtful book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, explored the question of which dystopian vision - 1984 or Brave New World - has become the most true. Upon examining trends in modern mass culture, he found that Huxley's vision was more accurate, and that it is the pleasure that is preventing people from being able to stay informed, defy denial, 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, individuals are controlled by inflicted pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."

"In terms of propaganda, early advocates for universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or the propaganda might be false." This article is about the establishment of a large mass communications business, which is concerned in the majority neither with the true nor the untrue, and the more or less 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 craving."

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

Citizens might be forced to give up their intellectual autonomy due to such a wide range of distractions, escapes, and amusement that does not require thinking. As Bradbury noted, it was no longer necessary to burn books in a society where people gave up reading a long time ago.

Is it possible to discern which of these is most likely, after considering several of the dystopian societies' possibilities? Opinions are likely to vary, but it's fair to say that these threats may put the world as we know it! However, it's fair to say that combining these possibilities might result in something quite similar to what dystopian authors anticipated.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as well. While global populations continue to grow, so do the number of people living in countries with democratic (or semi-democratic) institutions. In fact, the number of people living in democracies worldwide has doubled in the span of only 50 years!

Another encouraging statistic is the dramatic drop in extreme poverty since the 1990s. Between the start of that decade and 2018, the number of people living in extreme poverty rose from 1.9 billion to 650 million. By 2030, the number will rise to 500 million, reflecting economic growth in Asia, Africa, and South America.

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

It's also worthwhile to note that while the global population is expected to quadruple to 11 billion by the end of this century, those same projections indicate that population growth will have plateaued by then. Much of the anticipated African growth between 2050 and 2100 is anticipated to coincide with an economic boom that rivals Asia's "economic miracle."

Between the expansion of democratic institutions, the reduction of poverty, potential fairer capitalism, and the expansion of sustainable practices, it's entirely possible that the future won't be "dark" after all. Yet, as we enter the 21st century, with all the baggage we carry, a cautionary stance seems appropriate.

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