Nineteen Eighty-Four. Brave New World. We. Fahrenheit 451. Classic dystopian novels, through which authors engaged with their readers by depicting worlds that were not only visions of some distant, sci-fi future, but futures that were not actually all that unimaginable, with themes firmly rooted in the political, economic and social tensions of the 20th century. Whilst such novels focussed heavily upon political themes, describing totalitarian, authoritarian regimes in which the individual is both brainwashed and stripped of their power of free thought, the modern dystopian archetype leans more heavily towards our dependence on technology. “Black Mirror”, the TV series created by British director Charlie Brooker, is a great example of a contemporary imagining of dystopia. Each episode portrays a different story, as Brooker explores themes of corruption, relationships and freedom of speech throughout the series, interpreting detrimental elements of our modern lifestyle in a way that is, quite simply, genius. Interestingly, whilst Orwell and Zamyatin may have written their novels well before the advent of the Internet and social media, they did made interesting allusions to the power of technology, the death of the written word and the control held over the individual by exterior and unseen factors even then.
So what do these visions of dystopia have in common, and we can we define the terms utopia and dystopia? The problem with creating any standard definition of such terms lies in the fact that utopia and dystopia can be different for everyone, and each person’s perception of what constitutes a perfect world, or indeed its antithesis, is inherently different based on social circumstance. For some, we may already be headed for the kind of dystopian societies monitored by dictators and robots that were heretofore only imagined, as progressions of what had been experienced under fascist and communist governments across the globe. And for some, we may already be there.
What, then, of utopia? If we consider that the component parts of a dystopian society are derived from a fear of actually knowing our own limitations, and understanding the fundamentally human hunger for power and ability to sin, the idea of utopia is even more abstract, in that we must try to imagine perfection. Perfection is far more obscure and subjective perhaps than its converse. As we consider creating a world in which each person considers their lives to be ‘perfect’, we come to realise that this is an impossible goal. In the same way that utopian values undermine those of freedom of individuality and, so too does the term ‘perfection’ undermine our very humanness and uniqueness. In order for utopia to exist, cultural diversity could not, and so we circle back to dystopian themes of monotony, homogenisation and the death of the individual.
Furthermore, philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky outlined the fact that it is not actually in the interests of everyone within our current societal structure to create utopia. If living in a utopia means that everyone is equal, and that everyone has equal opportunities and equal rights, the power dynamic present in today’s society would need to shift entirely. Without leadership and the hierarchical class structure that is so deeply engrained into our social mentality, it could be assumed that anarchy would take its place and order would be disrupted. Equality is simply not in the interests of the super rich and super powerful. As such, utopia is not only an impossible dream due to our own shortcomings and inability to create, at least create an illusion of, perfection, but also due to our very lack of will or desire to create it.
I for one, however, will not accept that, even with a current political climate that fosters fear, hatred of the ‘other’ and separatism, we are headed towards the dystopian worlds imagined 50 years ago. There are so many aspects of modern life that we can be grateful for, and so many aspects that we can still improve upon – importantly, we have the right to do so. This sentiment, and the knowledge that there are people in the world who truly believe in and fight for the rights of others, restores my faith that we can all create our own version of utopia, in which kindness and solidarity can prevail.