It used to be that if you wanted to know something, you searched for it. Algorithms would determine the best results to show you, based on your query, you’d click on them, find out what you wanted, and the world was a happy place.
Then the algorithms improved. They started being able to guess what you were going to search based on your history, a few words, a cross-comparison with others’ search terms. At first it seemed helpful, because you found you could find things you wanted faster and easier.
But then, people began to be able to pay for their results to show up first. The obvious ones, of course, were labeled as ‘Ads’, but the sneaky ones passed themselves off as information, when in fact they were pushing an agenda, political or otherwise. South Park once did an entire season on this.
Of course, this was all contained within the realm of internet searches. So long as you didn’t search for something, it was unlikely that sponsored content would come your way, and of course if you got lots of porn spam, we all knew why. But then, the smart phone came out. Devices with cameras and microphones that started to listen continuously, waiting for “Hey Siri” or “Alexa”, or whatever other smart assistant you use.
And then, the true genius of the ad came into play. Under the guise of privacy, when an app – say, Facebook – requests access to your microphone, it’s a yes/no decision. If you want to use Facebook to live stream, record little videos, or communicate with people, you have to choose ‘yes’.
But there’s a more sinister side to this. Granting Facebook access to the microphone grants it access at all times – whether you’re using the app or not. And whilst Facebook has gone on record as stating that they don’t use the microphone to inform advertising, it’s entirely possible their hordes of advertisers are not so scrupulous.
I used to not believe this, until I noticed that certain items would show up in my feed, just minutes after discussing them in person with a friend or family member. It’s happened too frequently, and too specifically, to be a coincidence (me thinks).
I doubt that any information gathered via call logs or microphones will be used for malicious intent, and certainly would be inadmissible in the context of crime investigation, but it does get a little scary to think – what if something I say in confidence ends up determining what I see online?
The wider-reaching consequence of this, more likely, is that it supports confirmation bias – the idea that we only seek out information that agrees with our world-view in the first place. The more we talk about things we believe in, the more of that will be shown to us, reinforcing our belief – whether or not it’s misplaced.
The Bible might arguably be the first apocalypse novel out there, but throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, dystopian stories have thrived, encouraged by the trauma inflicted on the human race through events as far back as the French Revolution, the Crimean War, and of course, World Wars One and Two. Every time our existence is threatened we tell stories of it, imaginations of what it could have been like if the ‘bad guys’ had won.
But a common thread through all the stories, from Brave New World (1932) to Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Fahrenheit 451 (1953), is the perspective that this post-apocalyptic, totalitarian regime is nonetheless undesirable, that it should be railed against, fought tooth and nail to the last of our dying breaths, because it represents the total lack of all freedoms we have come to enjoy and expect in our civilization.
We enjoy these sorts of novels – and later, of course, films – because they present a thrilling view into a terrible society from a safe place. At worst, they offer a few hours of escapism from our otherwise mundane lives; at best, they offer insight into why we believe in freedom and justice, and why we should continue to prevail against what we perceive to be evil.
The realms of the disaster novel, the dystopian future, and the post-apocalypse, are of course more then idle entertainment. The very best of those authors carefully analyze visible trends in today’s existing society and extrapolate where they might lead if left unchecked. And in many of those cases, the spirit of the prediction, if not the letter, has come eerily true. Everything from CCTV and media propaganda to a distaste for all things intellectual and scientific was at some point predicted by some of the best science fiction authors the world has ever put forth.
And yet, for decades, we’ve relegated these stories to the file of ‘interesting, but couldn’t really happen’, simply because we like to believe that the real world is more grounded, that society’s checks and balances would kick in to prevent such a disastrous outcome. We like to feel that our privileged lives can’t be touched by the ugly realities that we’ve been warned about for over a century now. And we forget; we forget the true injustices of great wars and holocausts and genocides, because they didn’t happen to us.
So what happens when one day you wake up, and realize that the world you thought you believed in, the one in which you were safe from persecution, is gone? Worse yet, what happens when you come to the realization that for many, it never existed at all?
An imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice.
Let’s focus on this first part of the definition of the word ‘dystopia’. We don’t need to imagine such a state; our society, here in the United States, exhibits tremendous suffering and injustice. It has for centuries, was founded on the blood of indigenous people who were savagely conquered, and then built by the slaves who were ripped from their home and severed from all nationality, culture and family they ever knew. And despite movements to give these people equal rights dating back as far as the American Civil War, we continue to live in a world that judges men and women all the harsher for the color of their skin.
The worst type of society is not one in which discrimination is legal and supported; it’s one in which it’s professed to be abolished, and yet allowed to persist. It’s not one in which black people must sit at the back of the bus; it’s one in which they’re silently judged if they don’t. It’s not one in which a black person knows they’ll be treated worse by police; it’s one in which they fear it.
There is great suffering and injustice in this country, and the world over. The society we live in – the one I grew up in – is run by white men standing on the shoulders of black workers. The worst of it is that when President Obama was elected, people began to feel hope that a change was coming; people began to wonder – could a black person really make a difference to the world? And when his terms were over, the white supremacists retaliated, hard. They made damn sure to elect someone who could undo all the progress made in eight years, to find someone who would speak their language: the language of oppression.
And this brings me to the second part of the definition of a dystopia:
Typically [a society] that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.
For those of you who decry, “but we live in a democracy!”, I challenge you to look around you at your government’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests that are sweeping the nation. Let’s define totalitarian for a moment:
To • tal • i • tar • i • an /tōˌtaləˈterēən/
relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.
Definition from Oxford Languages
Let’s break this down. The United States government is heavily centralized, to the end that Washington is the be-all and end-all of the government itself. Representatives are elected from their states, of course, but all paths eventually lead to DC. It is exceptionally difficult to get a law passed in one state that is considered unlawful in others (look at the effort to legalize marijuana as an example), and federal law triumphs over all local and state laws.
And if you think the United States isn’t an elected dictatorship … a dictatorship is really nothing more than a form of government “characterized by a single leader or group of leaders with little or no toleration for political pluralism or independent programs or media”. Let’s think about the United States for a moment in this context: we have a single leader who has definitively demonstrated his lack of tolerance for any kind of political pluralism and independent media. From phrases such as “fake news” to the glorious “Fox isn’t working for us anymore!“, the president of the United States has never appeared more dictatorial.
And he requires – demands – complete subservience. Look at the violence instigated by the George Floyd protests, in which unarmed protestors have been viciously attacked by heavily militarized police, beaten, bruised and bloodied and left in the streets. Ask yourself, is a government in which police brutality is not only tolerated but outright taught not a totalitarian regime?
And finally, we are undoubtedly post-apocalyptic. From entire continents burning to deadly viruses and violence in the streets, one could be forgiven for thinking the end of the world is definitely upon us. And whilst practically speaking, of course, the world will keep on spinning with or without the human race, perhaps the end of the world is closer than we think – in a different sort of way.
And this is the only place that I feel I can draw any sort of hope. Perhaps the end of the world isn’t the end of all humanity, but rather the end of inhumanity. Perhaps … just perhaps the slew of apocalyptical events that have decimated 2020 can lead to a change, something that could bring people together, allow space for listening, allow for justice, a space where people stop rejecting science and embracing ignorance.
It’s hard to see, especially when you’re in the midst of it. But the very worst thing that could happen to the world, and to this country right now, is for us to simply pretend it isn’t happening, and that our lives can continue unaffected. For some, that may well be true – the wealthy and privileged, naturally, are the exempt in any good dystopian story – but for the rest of us, we need resist the status quo with every ounce of our strength.
Otherwise, to quote an otherwise questionable movie: “So this is how liberty dies … with thunderous applause.”