Distopian Trends in Culture

SLC Comi-Con Panel: Distopian Futures

One of the great panels at this year’s Comi-Con in Salt Lake City (rumored to have rivaled San Diego’s event in ticket sales!) was on the distopian trend in movies (aka Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Giver). The panel moderator was David J. Butler, an author, attorney, and quite possibly a Renaissance Man. Butler began with certain basics, such as defining a distopia from its Greek roots: dis-topos or “bad place,” as opposed to a utopia ou-topos meaning “no place.” A distopia is a place, generally set in the future, where there is little freedom of choice and government powers seek to control not only the actions of its citizenry, but also its thoughts as well. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are some of the best examples of distopias in literature. A utopia is “no place” because it is a depiction of a perfect world, which really exists nowhere on earth. A utopia is simply the social ideal. Plato’s Republic is perhaps the first literate attempt to describe a utopia, though the word itself was coined by Sir Thomas Moore in his essay of the same name.

Thereafter Butler referenced two articles published recently.  One article asserted that modern distopian literature and film is really nothing more than right-wing clap-trap. The second article lamented distopian literature and cinema because it made people afraid of technology. The moderator then opened up the panel to discussion, including audience participation, on each article and subject.

For all the nerdy geekdom that Comi-Con is known for, and rightfully so, this panel was surprisingly philosophical and well thought out. While panels down the hall were talking about the latest zombie apocalypse, or the newest in video games, this room was home to some heavy deliberating by both panelists and audience members alike.  Social, economic, and governmental issues were in play. It became clear that the room had both “right wing” and “left wing” adherents, but what surprised and even satisfied me the most was that both sides of the political spectrum came to the conclusion that both right and left wing policies and philosophies can lead to distopian realities. As a silent observer I breathed a sigh of relief as the room cogitated this conclusion. In our modern era, where every idea is suppressed and repackaged underneath political fundamentalism, people seem to forget than any ideology, left or right, can and usually does end in various forms of tyranny. History does not prove this point; history is this point.

As the discussion developed Butler would occasionally ask probing questions or make interesting comments, that neither countered nor applauded where the discussion was going; rather, he simply presented ideas as intellectual turning points in the discussion. From quoting Rousseau’s ideas of the Social Contract to interjecting paradoxical ideas of logic and morality leading to distopian constructs, Butler kept everyone on their toes.

Even as the first article was debated with some fervor, the second article seemed to elevate the intellectual and emotional playing field. In this article’s point of view, distopian themes make people afraid of the “all seeing eye” of big brother, or the possibility of artificial intelligence taking over the world. The author disparages such thinking, even as the NSA has been caught “wiretapping” pretty much the entire planet, and as Facebook has been caught doing their own creepy social experiments. Again, everybody in the room, left and right, seemed more than concerned about these trends, and both admitted that technology is not the thing to be afraid of, but the use to which it is put. This of course is the NRA’s argument with guns. An argument that satisfies many on the right and drives many on the left nuts. Yet, replace the gun with technocratic monopolies and both the right and the left go nuts. And rightfully (or leftfully) so.

I found this discussion even more interesting as I had just finished a book by Neil Postman entitled Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. I do not think the author of the debated article would approve of Postman’s work, though it is expertly argued and has frightening consequences of thought. Postman deliberates that cultures go through various technological stages, identified as “tool-making” cultures, where technology is directly employed to the problems at hand, to technocracies, where the tools suddenly become essential components in the thought world of the participants. In the words of Postman, “New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop” (20).

Of deep interest to this discussion is Postman’s third stage of techno-cultural development–the technopoly. A technopoly is where technology becomes the culture: “Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology” (71). Of prime concern of a technopoly is information processes. A school in such an environment is not a place to explore radically different ideas in a widening arena of information; rather, it is simply a tool for information control. The highest product of a technopoly is the meta-bureaucracy, bureaucracies are needed to manage bureaucracies, in which they not only solve problems, but create problems to be solved. More dangerously, meta-bureaucracies seek to control not just technical problems, for which they were created, but also all moral, social, and political problems as well. A meta-bureaucracy has no moral underpinnings and seeks only processing information which perpetuates the bureaucracy, and where individual participants “have no responsibility for the human consequences” of their decisions, as such responsibility is swallowed up by the bureaucratic machinery (86-7).

While perhaps further afield than the panel discussion at Comi-Con, the danger of technology to culture has always been real, and this is one of the essential themes in distopian literature. And this is why it is liked by all peoples across the social and political spectrum, for everybody outside of the meta-bureaucracy, right or left, inherently knows, senses, and sees its amoral structure and product.

Such was the discussion in this panel at Comi-Con. Quite frankly, it was more interesting than many of the graduate school lectures I attended, many of the religious services I have witnessed, and almost all of the entertainment programs offered within the technological buffet of TV land. The fact that it was attended by people dressed up as Thor, the Cheshire Cat, or the Brown Coats, only made the discussion all the more interesting.


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