About a year and a half ago, I read a book called 1984. I imagine that you’re familiar with it because there was a huge hype around the book around that time. There still is.
The hype is well deserved. It is robust, well-constructed, beautifully written and overwhelmingly scary. To this date, it remains as the best book I ever read.
For those who don’t know this book and what it is about, it basically portrays a dystopian reality. A dystopia could be described as a country or society living in oppression, usually ruled by a totalitarian regime. It would be the opposite scenario of a utopia such as the one Aldous Huxley imagined in his book The Island.
This dystopian novel is probably the most famous of its kind and even gave rise to its own genre.
“Orwellian” is an adjective describing a situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. It denotes an attitude and a brutal policy of draconian control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth (doublethink), and manipulation of the past, including the “unperson”—a person whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory, practiced by modern repressive governments. “
(yes, I took it from Wikipedia, deal with it.)
The story I’m trying to tell here starts exactly with the end of this book. When I finished my first dystopian novel, I was a bit overwhelmed by all the parallels I could establish between the book and reality.
So, I did the only rational thing to do: immerse myself in dystopian novels, tv shows, and movies. And If you stop a few minutes to analyze the themes of current bestseller books, the movies and tv shows that everyone talks about, you’ll realize the same as I did. Dystopias are so hot right now.
Coincidence? I think not.
Penguin Random House (one of the main editors of English books in the world) saw a 9500% sales increase for George Orwell’s 1984 since 2017. What could have sparked such a spike? You guessed it. Trump’s inauguration.
But this was not an isolated case. The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm, Brave New World or It Can’t Happen Here, are among the dystopian novels that benefited from the heightened anxiety with the state of American democracy.
All of the sudden, you have an entertainment industry that is producing movies and tv shows on dystopias. And with the rise of far-right policies, the polarization of nations and population segregation I predict that this new trend came to stay.
And the truth is, we can’t say we’re living in a dystopia. But can you draw a parallel between the core values of a dystopian society and our present values? Yes, you can. This is what scares us deeply and at the same time makes us immerse ourselves in more and more dystopian novels.
I bring you now, 5 similarities that I found during my last trips to dystopian universes. Warning, there are some spoilers ahead.
1. Big Brother is watching us
There’s a good chance you already heard the saying “Big brother is watching you”. It even gave a name to the famous reality show Big Brother. This expression came originally from – you guessed it – 1984.
In the novel, the government is keeping tabs on its citizens with surveillance cameras. The idea that they are constantly being watched, discourages them from doing something they aren’t supposed to. They remain obedient and quiet.
This concept might seem a bit farfetched to be applied to the 21st century, but if you look closely, you’ll see that something similar is happening. A lot of our daily movements, conversations, and transactions are being tracked.
Supermarkets track your purchases, so they can offer you discounts and promotions in products that are more likely to suit you. If you create a store card, they’ll ask you to fill in your date of birth and might offer you a birthday gift or discount.
The problem is, you won’t be asked for permission to collect your data every time. Information is being collected, sold and analyzed without your consent. Which is exactly what (allegedly) happened in the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Cambridge Analytica acquired user data through quizzes, to build psychographic profiles of users and their friends which were used to target political ads in the UK’s Brexit referendum campaign, as well as by Trump’s team during the 2016 US election.
Funny how you can take an innocent Facebook quiz to find out which Kardashian you are, and then – plot twist – your data is being used to influence your opinion on what to vote next elections.
2. Manipulation of information
In Fahrenheit 451, firemen don’t put out fires, they place fires. What do they burn? Books. From literature to philosophical texts and government policies. They burn anything that includes certain ideas that would contradict the propaganda of the government.
The symbolic firemen’s helmets reinforce the idea that the burning of books is for the public good. The ultimate goal is that people lose their critical thinking and end up accepting the only truth they know: the government truth.
And I do see this happening right now. As if there wasn’t enough amount of effort from the Trump administration to discredit journalists and the general media, in 2017 was launched a Youtube news channel. The “news anchor” of the channel is Lara Trump, Trump’s daughter-in-law.
Though the news channel is called The Real News, reports found that the information being passed down is bias and inaccurate. Followers and supporters don’t let this stop them and take propaganda as news.
Unfortunately, we see this happening in very different formats. Many times, people see the information on late night talk shows, tv debates or documentaries as news, and don’t question the source of the information. Whether it is bias or not. I was too, a bit guilty of doing so.
But unlike Fahrenheit 451, we are actually allowed to have critical thought.
3. Bias education and corruption of thought
In the movie, THX 1138 by George Lucas kids don’t go to school. Instead, education is provided through the injection of drugs. Each small tube contains the information about a different subject.
They don’t get to choose what and how they learn. Much less can they question what is passed down to them. It simply becomes an absolute truth.
Well, in recent years I struggled with this topic when talking to friends who are medical or pharmaceuticals students. In particular, when discussing the role of animal protein in our food diet.
The thing is, what is taught in medical school, is that we need all the elements in the food wheel to have a healthy living. What is not passed down in medical school is that the very first “food pyramid” was invented in the 1970’s in Sweden, as a way to educate people on what to eat when they couldn’t afford meat and dairy.
So, they came up with “basic” and “supplementary” foods. At the bottom of the pyramid were the basic and affordable foods that provided the essential vitamins and minerals for one’s well being. At the top, could be found the supplementary and more expensive foods which were not as essential for the functioning of the organism: meat and dairy.
Americans saw the success of the food pyramid in Sweden as an opportunity to influence and re-educate eating habits in America. So, dairy and meat got their own section and gained a lot more emphasis.
This wasn’t an accident. This model suggests that dairy is an essential part of one’s diet, which is not true since not only a lot of cultures lived healthy through the years without it, as do vegans and others today.
But this didn’t happen by accident. It was thanks to the lobbying efforts of the dairy and meat industry that we saw this modification in the food pyramid. There is actually not enough scientific evidence to support this decision. Just good lobbying.
4.Extreme reliance on technology
An award-winning episode that couldn’t have crept me any more than it did. Nosedive is the first episode of the (then) British tv show Black Mirror. Lacie Pound lives in a world where people rate each other according to their popularity.
Their rate on this (let’s call it) social profile, conditions what they can or cannot do in real life. Whether they can get on an airplane, get into a bar or talk to certain people. The person’s social score can move up and down, according to their behavior.
This is actually being developed and soon enough will become a reality. China is creating the Social Credit System. This will be a national reputation system implemented as an intent to standardize assessment of citizen’s and business’s economic and social reputation.
The program, announced in 2014, aims to reinforce the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful” according to government statements. It should be fully operational in 2020 but is already being piloted for millions of people.
The details of the methodology are still secret, but a few of the infractions include bad driving, posting fake news online or buying too many video games.
5. Hating of the unknown and misunderstood
In 1984, there’s a practice called the two-minute hate speech. What it is, is a daily period of two minutes in which Party members of the society of Oceania must watch a film depicting the party’s enemies and express their hatred for them.
The best part is: they don’t know who their enemies are, if they are real or why they should hate them. They just do. They scream out at this screen depicting a face (of Emmanuel Goldstein, their main enemy) because they were told they hate him.
This is one of the ways the party has to keep the society united and in control. Since they are focused on hating a common enemy, they remain side by side. Never questioning their intentions or the intentions of the party.
Currently, in a society driving a bit more apart each day, I would say that the hate that leads to many extremist movements and ideologies, is based on a fear and misconception of the unknown.
A very particular representation of this: North Corea. The few journalists and tourists that were allowed in the country, describe a school system that sparks in children a sense of hate for the USA and Americans.
They are taught that Americans ought to be blamed for the destruction of the country during the war. And since they live in a dictatorship that eradicates the possibility of contact with outsiders, that’s the reality they know and accept.