Why Is Dystopia So Negative?

Have you ever wondered, why is it that so many dystopian books assume extreme negativity as the most dominant characteristic of the future (think 1984, Brave New World, Farenheit 451)?

This is on some level understandable. The future is an unknown, and for all we know it could turn out to be awful. Everything may go wrong and get worse. We may lose many of our cherished freedoms, our government may revert to worse and worse tyranny. See this story for thoughts on this: Why Are We So Obsessed With YA Dystopias

But while it's always possible that everything will get worse, it may be that the opposite will happen: a historical pattern of society gradually getting better in many respects may continue. If you were to look at the pattern of history over the course of the past 200 years you would have to conclude that in many respects society is less discriminatory, less corrupt, less violent, cleaner, safer and more democratic than ever. Don't just take it from me, see this Ted Talk where Harvard’s Professor Pinker lays out this pattern in exquisite and informative detail:

The Surprising Decline In Violence

It’s always easy to see the past through rose colored lenses, now that a lot of it’s ugliness has passed and it’s safely distant. When the people of importance in the past have died or gotten old it seems to imbue them with great wisdom and stature somehow. But in thinking this way too readily we’ll often forget that there were ugly sides to the past, and as bad as some public problems may seem now, in the past they might easily have been even worse.

History is rife with wars and other violence, torture, tyranny, corruption, discrimination, disease and filth. If you lived in the western world after World War II in many respects you lived in one of the best possible times and places by world historical standards. That didn't come for free either; it came from sacrifices, experiments, careful reflection and restraint from violence and raw self interest. What happened was that people, through long, frustrating and difficult endeavors have very gradually made our societies better and better.

Now that's not to say things will ever be perfect in the future. In fact not only will things not be perfect, but we'll have all sorts of new strange interesting problems as more and more technology emerges in our world. But like our new problems today in comparison to our past they will likely be nuanced, murky, grey, complicated and reflective of both good and bad social trends. We don't have a tyrannical government like Orwell feared in 1984, but we do have a government that wants to spy on our social media profiles. That strikes me as unconstitutional (and I am a lawyer so I can sort of claim expertise on that), however we must acknowledge some complexity here. For one thing we don't have to go on any social networks we don't want to, or say anything on them we don't want to say. That doesn't make it entirely okay for the government to spy on what we do on there, but somewhat better that we are not literally inescapably being surveilled.

Indeed it seems unlikely that the US Government is constantly spying on people day to day, in their homes, wherever they go as Orwell suggested would happen. There are also many civil libertarians appropriately raising alarm about what the government has done and likely is doing in these regards. These civil libertarians may or may not succeed in seeking reforms to stop government surveillance, but the government seems to be tolerating their very public speech about the matter, speech against the government, even legal challenges to what they are doing. This again does not absolve the government, nor should it be too comforting, but it does suggests that our government is far less tyrannical than the sort of leviathan state that Orwell feared.

The issue of the government spying on our online activity is just one example of a new problem raised by technology in contemporary life, one that shows the need to stay alert to the fact that these new problems can arise. But it doesn’t help us address these new problems if we overstate the case about them melodramatically, assume the worst possible inferences about them entirely or that no reforms of these problems can occur.

I was trying to capture some of that complexity and nuance in this book. From an artistic standpoint I wanted it to be experienced foremost as a work of fiction, but to raise some substantive points through that vehicle. It raises substantive points in the reader's mind much more powerfully if those points are made accurately, and points will be more accurate if they're not exaggerated and overstated. When The Hunger Games and Gattaca and other recent Sci Fi books and movies seem to assume that any future US Government will become completely tyrannical, will undo decades of progress on the advancement of civil liberties, will create official caste systems and impose travel and residency restrictions, etc., etc., they are overstating their criticisms, and thereby making a less powerful criticism than they could be.

If you think about it, if I say that President Nixon was like Hitler, I haven't really made a very good point (and instantly broken Godwin's Law). But if I say that President Nixon was like Joe McCarthy then I have; by not overstating things, the latter criticism may not grab your attention as instantly, but ultimately it works as a far more trenchant comparison because it's so much closer to being a fair one. It's easy for Nixon’s apologists to deny the former, and pretty hard to deny the latter.\

Image (c) Jonathan Gales

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