Fear of the Happy Dystopia

When the team announced that dystopias would be the topic of their next meetup, I instantly thought of three classics of dystopian literature: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell; and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Like many, I read these works as a teenager, and they still influence my thinking decades later. In different ways, each explores the need for free speech, tolerance for alternative opinions, and social mobility. They also show how opposition to freedom can take radically different forms. For example, Orwell imagined the literal rewriting of history, Bradbury’s society possessed almost no written histories, whilst Huxley described a population indifferent to history. However, whilst all these stories belong to the dystopian cannon, comparison shows that the essence of dystopia is elusive. Is it possible that Western society has forgotten the hydra-headed nature of dystopia, and so allows itself to edge towards a dystopia that Huxley, Orwell and Bradbury might have identified, even though they could not have predicted it?

Turning to a dictionary, I find that Merriam-Webster says a dystopia is

an imaginary place where people are unhappy and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definition instead.

An imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.

Considering the aforementioned stories, these definitions are obviously inadequate. This is despite dictionaries being written by clever people who try to ensure they reflect how people actually use language.

Orwell’s Airstrip One satisfies the definitions offered. Orwell describes a hungry, impoverished land where any rebel should fear informants and torture. In contrast, Huxley was consciously parodying H.G. Wells, and so offered a society that confounds the dictionary definitions of dystopia. His World State is benevolent, the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants are happy, each is conditioned to enjoy their place in society, and shortages and degradation need not occur because the size of the population is controlled.

Bradbury’s city lies somewhere between the alternatives offered by Huxley and Orwell. Nature surrounds the city, though the people may not notice it. The people are superficially content, being entertained by the screens that dominate their parlor walls. Some deeper, unexpressed sadness is implied by the rate of attempted suicides, but it would be an exaggeration to say the people were afraid, or treated unfairly. Treating these three novels like points on a spectrum, the dictionary definitions appear hopelessly skewed in the direction of Orwell. They ignore the possibility of a dystopia that we might fear, but its inhabitants do not.

In some ways, it is easiest to imagine a dystopia that follows the Orwellian principle of a boot stamping on a human face forever. However, the simplest and most widespread fears are also the least manageable. Dictators may use violence to dominate, but brutality also fuels resistance, because the oppressed may choose to fight back in the hope of freeing themselves from constant fear. In contrast, if people choose their dystopia, the oppression will be stable because the individual internalizes it. Consider the fireman’s wife, Mildred, in Fahrenheit 451. The law demands the burning of books, but Mildred is not being compelled to give up anything she wants.

Mildred kicked at a book. “Books aren’t people. You read and I look around, but there isn’t anybody! …Why should I read? What for?”

A happy dystopia is the most frightening of all, for those few misfits who disagree with the masses. In Fahrenheit 451, Montag can escape to join similar book-loving oddballs who live in the forest beyond the city limits. In Brave New World, the only people who escape the World State are the savages who never belonged to it, and remain ignorant of it. Having removed herself from civilization in shame for giving natural birth to a child, Linda dreamed of returning but was shunned when she did. Her son never received the conditioning that others take for granted, so rejects ‘civilized’ values and ultimately takes his own life. However, there is no suggestion that Huxley’s civilization would ever choose to end itself.

In our present era, I would hope that science fiction could distill previous visions of dystopia, and remix them with new technologies. However we may delight in space flight, those advances were most prominent in the 1960’s. At the present time, the advances in information technology are most dramatically changing human life, and not just for a tiny elite. It is easy to put a relatively new twist on the Orwellian dystopia by having artificial intelligence occupy the role of a completely de-humanized Big Brother. Subtler fears, however, should orient around the Huxleyan danger of persuasion techniques so emphatic and pervasive that none can resist them.

In Brave New World, lullaby brainwashing causes each caste to conform. Today we have machines that can gather, store, and rapidly access previously unimaginable quantities of data about each individual. Machine intelligence may learn to categorize our nuances, and predict our behavior, with more precision than any human can. Whilst Huxley imagined a world where Henry Ford’s mass manufacturing techniques ensured uniform human beings rolled off production lines, we might now conceive of a society where every individual receives bespoke manipulation, tailored specifically to their personal history.

Are these newer dystopian stories being told, of worlds that free-thinking individuals would fear, but its inhabitants would adore? Perhaps they are; I would be grateful for any pointers in the right direction. But if they are, they are not seeping into the public consciousness like the aforementioned three classics. Perhaps that explains why dictionaries have failed to acknowledge the possibility of happy dystopias.

As somebody who has long written professionally about the intersection of technology and risk, I am bemused by the idiosyncratic responses of the public to real threats to their freedom. For example, one left-leaning campaign group encourages its supporters to reign in corporate power by submitting even more data to Google, although Google ranks amongst the most powerful corporations in the world. Following the Snowden revelations, surveys show that Americans are more likely to fear surveillance than to do something to avoid it. Even the backward-looking BBC asks not if, but when Big Data will turn into Big Brother, whilst the medical profession will encourage us to adopt 24/7 gathering of personal medical data, even for the unborn. Worst of all, Bradbury’s anticipated reduction in concentration span may mean the public no longer has the appetite to consider these complicated risks, and how to respond to them.

In this maelstrom of technological and social possibilities, many kinds of dystopia could emerge. Science fiction needs to inform public debate, just as the classics by Bradbury, Orwell and Huxley turned abstract concerns into concrete fears. Our definition of dystopia needs an upgrade, to reflect new realities. The worst imaginable dystopia no longer looks like a boot stamping on a human face. It looks like the everlasting smile of slaves too happy to notice their chains.