February 4, 2017
I was recently struck by the description of a new movie in the Alien chain that is coming out in 2017. Alien: Covenant has as its current IMDB synopsis: “The crew of the colony ship Covenant discover what they think is an uncharted paradise, but it is actually a dark, dangerous world, whose sole inhabitant is the synthetic David, survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.” (1) We don’t know what this “paradise” consists of-whether it is technological, ecological or otherwise-but, we do know that behind even a surface utopia, lurks yet another dystopia ready for millions of global eyeballs to fret over.
Alien isn’t the only decades-old dystopian franchise still churning out (probably unnecessary) sequels. We may or may not be getting another Terminator movie (2); as well. Though if we can’t decide whether our aging movie stars can still sell dystopias, we have no reason to doubt that our young box office idols will continue find themselves in one nightmare or another as the “dystopian young adult genre,” exemplified by the Divergent, Hunger Games, and Maze Runner series, amongst other one-offs, continues to crank out titles. Our teenagers have been immersed in popular dystopias their entire lives. But, can you name an upcoming movie or book about a utopia? Surely they do exist, such another recent YA title, The Giver, but they do not easily roll off the tongue. Why are we so obsessed with horrible futures and so uninterested in better ones?
One shouldn’t dismiss the simple cinematic ease of dystopian stories. They offer an easy “hero or heroine (these are some of the best female roles these days) saves the world” template to follow. It’s also easy fodder for the special effects driven blockbuster world we live in where you figure out how much stuff you’re going to blow up first and write the story second. (3) Getting books and movies approved is the work of people driven by commercial imperatives and we all know one blockbuster spawns copycats.
Yet, beyond the fact that dystopian projects might be easier to get funded and more conducive to special-effects-driven mass entertainment, one cannot help but speculate there is something more going on here. Why are we in a particular cultural moment for dystopias, and should this cause us any amount of concern? Or, at minimum, should it occasion us to analyze this moment and compare it to the sci-fi futurism of pre-70’s cinema and TV featuring such positive futures as in Buck Rogers, Things to Come, and Star Trek or even the popularity of utopian literature reaching further back to the likes of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward or various works by H.G. Wells or the whole genre typified by John W. Campell’s Astounding Stories magazine? I will argue it should, and push back against what I think is a misunderstanding of utopias as naïve or impractical in favor of one that allows them to be forms of social criticism while still forcing people to consider a plan for where they think we as a humanity should go rather than wallow in doom and helplessness.
Dystopias and their popularity always seem to reflect a certain amount of social anxiety about technology, nature, government and other fundamental aspects of life. When people began to question whether science was inherently good for humanity, we got one of the great works of fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a book that could be labeled early science fiction and an early dystopia. In film this goes back, at minimum, to the movie Metropolis, a 1927 classic where the future does seem positive, but only for a select few. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey warned us about computers becoming self-aware enough to pose a threat to us, an idea mined in more recent masterpieces such as the original Terminator, War Games, Her and Ex Machina. Perhaps we simply turned a corner in our relationship with technology when atomic annihilation became an everyday consideration and when computers moved from hobbyist toys to bewildering machines the average person was forced to contend with for employment.
Movies where the climate goes out of whack like Waterworld, The Day After Tomorrow, and Snowpiercer, (even to an extent the unfortunately prophetic comedy Idiocracy) have become the equivalent in popularity to post-nuclear holocaust movies from the Cold War era like Godzilla or The Day After. Some people in our society are convinced that climate change is a hoax, but the ones who believe otherwise are flocking to movies that let them freak out about it. This seems an entirely rational, if morbid, and perhaps helpless reaction.
Likewise, we see the theme of dysfunctional or malevolent government recurring often, providing causality in a dystopian landscape which seems to reflect our current frustrations with the failures of the institutions of our democracy. In some cases, beating up on government bureaucrats or thinly-written ambitious politicians seems like a cop out way to create a villain, but it’s hard to blame citizens for being drawn to cinema that expresses frustration with, for instance, a United States Congress whose approval ratings are frequently approaching single digits. It’s easier to find people with fond feelings about automobiles produced by the Warsaw Pact countries or Olestra than those that love the US Congress. Foreign cinema is not providing any evidence of a much more rosy picture of other domestic polities and the idea that someone could be inspired by the United Nations Charter, as was Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in his vision of the United Federation of Planets, seems laughably remote
There may even be something more statistically tangible behind our society’s anxieties, found in the raw demographic data, which is just now getting analyzed by journalists and scholars. In 2015, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a shocking study that showed that middle-aged white Americans were dying at unexpectedly high rates, a statistically significant amount of which was attributable to heavy drinking, drug use and suicides–so called “despair deaths.”(4) Speculation about why a group that had previously been showing positive trends in so many indexes started heading south are varied. It could be a sense of relative loss as other minority groups advance; it could be stemming from economic stagnation while the upper incomes reap all the economic gains; it could be something deeper and more existential-we are also becoming less religious after all. Whatever it is, it’s not a huge leap of logic to say that these social trends are reflected in a popular culture that is spewing out dystopias as fast as special effects teams can produce the computer graphics to turn them into reality.
Is it a problem that we are obsessed with and entertained by dystopias? If the anxieties that drive dystopian worlds are real, why should our obsession with them be cause for consideration? Let me suggest three reasons why a glut of entertaining dystopias might be harming us and then look at why having some utopias as a countervailing force might force us to think harder about solutions and, perhaps, give us some hope in these dark times. First, dystopias frequently offer little in the way of solutions. Worry about Skynet, yes, but to what ends? Warn people about climate change in various scenarios, but what does a world that has addressed this problem look like? Second, it follows this worry without outlet fuels a sense of helplessness. A string of votes by in Western democracies has been characterized by retrospective voting to “punish” the previous government, the elites or the established order to get “change.” But change toward what? Neither the Brexit referendum nor the Donald Trump victory seem to have been based on an agenda coherent enough to survive several hours after the votes were cast, let alone years of building a visionary new system whether that was Reaganite/Thatcherite free markets, Clinton/Blair style “third way” compromises, or the return to an actively engaged state that victories by Barack Obama and parties of the European left seemed to signal. Do I want to blame too many dystopias for this current state of reactionary and raging voters? No, that’s obviously far too simple and overreaching, but if recent votes suggest a rejection of the technocratic and meritocratic vision of government of the center left, the closest thing to a vision on the corresponding right is the objectivist utopia of Ayn Rand. Rand’s radical vision of self-interested economic Darwinism brings us to point three, which is the tendency of helpless people to resort to nihilism, which was a frequent criticism of Rand’s literary works. The more negative people become, the more they absorb the narrative that their institutions are corrupt, that their planet is being destroyed, and that their status has been decimated, while having no program to address it all, the more they can retreat into a smaller, more personalized or tribal world of web surfing within a narrow echo chamber, escaping through fantasy and consumerism. The less of an idea we have of where we are going, the less we ask of ourselves.
So, if too many dystopias are driving us to nihilism, what is the case for literary, cinematic or academic utopias? II want to make the case on the following grounds. First of all, utopian thinking can be an important and powerful form of social critique. Second, utopias encourage imaginative thinking that can help people to think about how to solve problems, not just be consumed by them. Finally, thinking about utopias gives a chance for values clarification, which can be a powerful experience even when we are not actively seeking to construct a working utopia; we need utopian thinking not because we are intending to produce a perfect world, but because it helps us clarify our own values, establish real policy goals and shape society in a direction with the sort of overlapping constituencies needed to steer large groups of people towards positive outcomes.
Let’s look at utopia as a form of social criticism. Arguably the first example of a literary utopia is Plato’s Republic. (5) In dialogue fashion, Socrates, by this point more of a literary figure than a representation of the historical person, describes a perfect city-state or polis. The Republic is an enigmatic work, which many readers take to be allegorical rather than a practical template for how to set up an ideal society. Read allegorically, it uses the political state as a metaphor for the individual, where the wisdom of philosophy brings the human spirit out of the famous cave of shadows and into the light. Read traditionally, as a genuine plan for an ideal political society, The Republic is an authoritarian state of rigid social hierarchy with philosopher-kings in charge so that “truth” can be pursued while the masses are kept orderly with “noble lies.” Plato seems to have become disillusioned with an Athenian democracy that put his mentor, Socrates, to death, so he allowed him, as a literary construct, to voice the architecture of a government that would be ruled by philosophers instead of having them drink hemlock. It would preserve the social space necessary for philosophy as a human endeavor to exist and thrive. Yet, even read in this way, which is not the only way to read the work, it’s hardly a convincing treatise as in Books VIII and IX it gives us the progression by which such a system is likely to quickly atrophy. Why even bother? Perhaps to warn Athens that there is worse than democracy, perhaps as a form of “comparative politics” suggesting that other poleis like Sparta or Crete, may have elements to consider, perhaps, simply as a way of conducting a philosopher’s thought experiment knowing full well it will never be realized. Whatever Plato’s goals with this text may have been, we have to imagine it was a great tool for getting his students to think in what for them must have been dark times as well. It forced them to think hard about Athens and all the other Greek city-states and their experimental forms of constitution. It forced them to accept or reject this rigid state. Perhaps they were asked to come up with their own Republic, we may never know, but it must have been a powerful text.
The second thing utopias can allow us to do is think imaginatively about how to address our current social problems. I draw on my own experience here in teaching a course in which students have been asked to construct their own utopias, as part of group, with a template that came from the back of a book titled Philosophy Looks to the Future, written in 1978. (6) The exercise has sections on “Education, Methods, and Beliefs;” “Politics, Authority and Freedom;” “The Good Life;” “Human Nature, Science, and Technology;” “Religion;” and “Art, Beauty, and Creativity.” It’s an ingenious and simple approach. What I’ve found, over the few times I’ve taught this class, is that students have rarely thought about what they would like in a society with regard to these questions. They haven’t been asked to thoroughly investigate such things. Furthermore, when they do, the conservatives, liberals, libertarians, socialists and others find there is strange overlap in what they hope to have in the future. They don’t reach a consensus, of course, that would be “utopian” in the negative sense of the word, that is to say, a pure fantasy, but they do find that some intractable debates have middle ground when we get outside of the normal partisan and ideological blinders political discussion often suffers from. Asking somebody to tell you what her utopia looks like means asking her to do more than tell you she wants Democrats to win the next election or to “Make America Great Again.” It means aligning your values with a vision of society. You have to think about what would happen with regard to such key issues as racial conflict, income inequality or the public underwriting of the arts.
To illustrate the third idea, that of values clarification, which is obviously something that thinking about your own utopia involves, I want to consider the movie Gattaca, which walks a fine line between utopia and dystopia and is a good example of how utopias can force us into values clarification. In the film, we see a world that looks fairly utopian, and in general, I would say it is. The cars and fashion are sleek and beautiful–still futuristic to this day, even though it was released in 1997. The frequency and ease of space travel is very much a positive element given the stalled nature of space programs in recent decades. Finally, the power of genetic engineering to improve the overall health of the human race is in line with predictions from those who are on the cutting edge of the real science of biotech and genetics. Yet, the protagonist is not a genetically engineered human and therefore has less value in society; in fact he is excluded from the space program unless, as he does with great effort, he can pass for a superior genetically engineered person, something he does by carefully cultivating blood, urine and other genetic markers to pass for his own. I have seen this film incorrectly labeled as “dystopian” simply because the protagonist, Vincent Freeman, is not the direct beneficiary of genetic engineering and must overcome being the product of “natural” conception to become an astronaut. Gattaca doesn’t seem to be arguing that genetic engineering will make Earth a horrendous place; it rather seems optimistic about how it will advance our overall condition and how progress in science will produce many positive changes. Even some of the most fantastic and enthusiastic science fiction of the early Astounding Stories era of the 1930’s and 1940’s would feel compelled to introduce elements of humanism to balance out the optimistic futures that the atomic and transistor ages might usher in. Nothing about saying we must still value grit, resourcefulness and guile means we shouldn’t go forward with biotechnology or a space program. We just need the values clarification that goes along with balancing utilitarianism with a place for imperfect humans like Freeman and, in the end, the morally flawed genetically engineered specimen whose identity he steals, Jerome Eugene Morrow. Gattaca makes us question how we value scientists and science in general as a society. More acutely, though, it makes us wonder how much we should consent to forms of social control, a question we’ve been wresting with from the Panopticon to the idea of “nudging” people with public policy. (7)
Where do we start to turn the tide and make utopias more relevant? On one hand, I would be happy to see a faithful adaptation of Iain Banks’s Culture Series and some rumors have bounced around from time to time of it happening. There are other such projects that could be started and maybe they will. Yet, let’s turn from art to life and hope that the two are in a sort of reflexive imitation. What about Elon Musk?
Admittedly, Musk’s outsized ambitions can make him seem a bit like Hugo Drax from Moonraker at times, but we need industrialists like Musk. Musk seems to come from a line of utopian industrialists like Robert Owen, who helped found the community of New Harmony, Indiana or even Henry Ford, whose Fordlandia in Brazil was an utter failure, but certainly didn’t lack for originality. We get excited when Musk has a press conference on how he’ll give us an escape from fossil fuels or even a workable plan to send humans to Mars. Is it all hype and slick public relations? Maybe, but look at how it injects a dose of hope into an otherwise beleaguered human race. Even if Musk’s ideas are never realized, he deserves credit as one of the handful of successful titans of industry who also inspire the whole of humanity while making himself wealthy.
In conclusion, I like others have found many dystopian books and films, from 1984 to Blade Runner to be incredibly powerful, occasionally prescient and sometimes just entertaining; I never would say we don’t need dystopias. But, I’ve also benefitted from asking people to think about utopias as well. I’ve found that we need these aspirational novels, films and games to help us recapture a sense of what path we want to contribute to putting our society on. Your utopia and my utopia might differ considerably, but when we try to have a dialogue about what those places look like with each other, we can see something different in that person, we can see her hopes, their idea of the good life, their most important values and how they want to realize them. We aren’t just tearing each other down, we are trying to see if there’s some overlap there when we think big. I don’t think we’re going to live in a utopia any time soon, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still need them.
1. “Alien: Covenant.” Internet Movie Database, accessed October 4, 2016, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2316204/?ref_=nv_sr_1.
2. “He’ll Be Back: Arnold Schwarzenegger Claims Terminator 6 is Coming.” The Telegraph, March, 19, 2016, accessed October 4, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/terminator-genisys/arnold-schwarzenegger-confirms-sixth-movie/.
3. David Foster Wallace foresaw this all, of course. His essay “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2,” noting wryly with his “Inverse Cost and Quality Law” how big budget special effects movies are likely to get worse the more money is invested in them due to the lower level audience needed to be targeted to recoup said investment. The article can be found in David Foster Wallace, Both Flesh and Not, Little, Brown, and Co. 2012.
4. Olga Kazan, “Middle Aged White Americans are Dying of Despair.” The Atlantic, November 4, 2015, accessed October 4, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/11/boomers-deaths-pnas/413971/.
5. “The Republic.” Plato. R.E. Allen, trans. Yale University Press, 2006.
6. “Philosophy Looks to the Future.” Peyton E. Richter and Walter L. Fogg. Waveland Press, 1985, Third Printing.
7. The reference here is to Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstien’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Yale University Press, 2008.