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Imagine waking up one day unable to access your bank account because of your political beliefs. Imagine faking your facial expression whenever people were around to avoid committing "facecrime." Imagine if the economy ground to a halt like a train that ran out of fuel. Does it sound far off?
It may sound like paranoid hyperbole to say we are living in a dystopia. But the core of valuable dystopian fiction is exploring what elements of our society have effects that would, if taken to the extreme, destroy our freedom and go against human dignity.
My Out of Frame colleagues have analyzed the meaning and relevance of a variety of dystopian fiction: Demolition Man, The Hunger Games, Arcane, The Matrix, The Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, V for Vendetta. But what dystopia is most relevant right now? Here are three contenders (excluding examples that bear similarity purely due to the presence of a pandemic).
The sci-fi anthology series is packed with ideas that are as intriguing as they are nightmarish. But the episode "Nosedive" from 2016 stands out as relevant to our current world.
Darkly comedic rather than terrifying, as most Black Mirror episodes are, "Nosedive" follows Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), who lives in a society where everyone rates each other using an app after every interaction. Characters can see each other's aggregate rating, on a scale from one to five stars, through augmented-reality eye implants. If your score drops too low, your access to housing, transportation, healthcare, and work is restricted. Naturally, authentic human interaction has been blotted out in favor of cloying for social status. In the episode's opening shot, Lacie is literally practicing her fake smile and laugh in front of her bathroom mirror.
"Nosedive" is a pretty obvious metaphor for how humans vie for reputation, and how social media has made it even more competitive. You can draw parallels that range from Uber ratings to the People's Republic of China's social credit system.
Although the episode doesn't explore how a culture of conformity relates to political expression, it rings true regarding cancel culture and how people self-censor their opinions to avoid social backlash. Sixty-two percent of Americans have opinions they're not willing to share (77% among conservatives). This trend was evident when "Nosedive" was produced, but it has only gotten worse since then.
The episode's vision that people would be denied access to services based on socially disapproved actions also feels eerily prescient. Recently, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau froze the bank accounts of people involved in the Canadian trucker protest and cracked down on donations to the demonstrators. It's not hard to see how, as technology comes to integrate more aspects of our lives, the opportunity will arise for state and corporate authorities to monitor our actions and try to mold them.
Yes, I know as well as anyone that George Orwell's most famous work is the most over-referenced novel when it comes to authoritarianism. But the fact that some people beat a dead horse should not preclude me from drawing legitimate comparisons to the book, especially when going beyond its most commonly cited themes: censorship, propaganda, surveillance, and torture.
What makes Nineteen Eighty-Four great is how concretely it describes the psychological effects of living in an authoritarian society. Like in "Nosedive," this involves social conformity, only the consequences are much more severe. Citizens of the authoritarian nation of Oceania report their friends and neighbors, even their family, to the police for the smallest infractions. Characters keep their facial expressions under control at all times for fear of committing "facecrime" by revealing discontentment with the system, whether to the comrades or to the omnipresent telescreens.
Politics dominates life in Nineteen Eighty-Four, from daily "Two Minutes Hate" rallies to Big Brother posters on every corner:
"In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed. It was assumed that when he was not working, eating, or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreation: to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: OWNLIFE, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity.”
The paranoia of this reality both fills the protagonist with hate and makes him yearn for "ownlife," for an escape from all-consuming political dogma.
Though America of 2022 bears little resemblance to the Oceania of 1984, this desire is relatable. With political messages filling entertainment, sports, advertising, and the workplace, more aspects of life are becoming "culture-war" battlefields. Along with the animosity engendered by rising polarization, about two-thirds of Americans feel worn out by the degree to which they are required to pay attention to political and social issues.
Whether or not you're a fan of Ayn Rand's influential novel or her philosophy as a whole, Atlas Shrugged offers a lot to think about, particularly regarding America's struggling economy.
Over the course of the book, the government issues regulations to solve economic problems (and to satisfy special interests), but these actions only worsen the situation by discouraging competition and productivity. The government takes more and more authoritarian measures, including freezing wages and banning people from leaving their jobs. But it only digs the nation deeper into the recession, as it ignores the incentives that keep the economy running and causes entrepreneurs to get fed up.
Rand grew up in the Soviet Union and lived through the Great Depression in the US, and it’s clear these experiences influenced Atlas Shrugged. But the plot is also reminiscent of the most recent recession. For example, the current supply-chain crisis was in part caused by the labor shortage, which was caused by enhanced unemployment benefits, which were intended to remedy workers laid off when the government ordered businesses to shut down to stop the pandemic. In reaction to the supply-chain jam, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach issued fines to try to force carriers to get their cargo moving.
Each action only creates the cause for further actions, and the result is the same as in Atlas Shrugged: fewer goods on shelves and an overall reduction in quality of life.
It's easy to succumb to catastrophic thinking when comparing current events to fictional dystopias. But the entire purpose of the genre is to point out how our society is evolving in destructive ways. Quoting Orwell:
"It has been suggested by some of the reviewers of Nineteen Eighty-Four that it is the author’s view that this, or something like this, is what will happen inside the next forty years in the Western world. This is not correct. I think that, allowing for the book being after all a parody, something like Nineteen Eighty-Four could happen. This is the direction in which the world is going at the present time, and the trend lies deep in the political, social and economic foundations of the contemporary world situation. [...] The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you."