Why are we so scared of tomorrow? [Part 1]
Why are we so scared of tomorrow?
To paraphrase the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, ‘humankind has never had it so good’. Well it’s probably more accurate to say that in many ways our collective-cultures have never been so advanced, with the potential of helping so many. So why do we find western culture obsessed with reflecting back the opposite? What is it that we dread about tomorrow – our future?
Popular culture is always a bellwether to many of our collective aspirations and fears. In particular, we use fantasy and sci-fi themes to express these through stories; and these are dominating the movies of today as a form of modern-mythology. As Alan Watts identified about the role of myths, ‘a myth is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world’. What we put our dollars behind suggests something about western-culture, and what we are trying to make sense of in the world.
Looking films from the last three years shows, the top ten earning ‘box–office blockbusters’, all sharing in common a narrative-thread of worlds that are undergoing strife; where these world’s very existence is in peril of the hyperbole’s of threats. Many of these stories involve themes of homes under threat or the struggle to reclaim homes from evil. What is driving the collective cultural-psychology to want to see these narratives? What do these say about our perceptions of our future? Of what will happen tomorrow?
Looking deeper, what are we trying to collectively understand through these modern-myths? There are several elements to this cultural-trend in thinking and storytelling that can be unpacked. The first is to recognise that these types of dystopia genre stories are not new, we’ve been watching them for a while; however, while the genre is consistent, the types of stories have changed. Since the new millennium, Hollywood has been busy showing us a range of environmental catastrophes from weather-change or meteors; to unknown plagues and man-made viruses – which has spawned the current Zombie apocalypse franchises. These are not just reflecting current concerns, they are also permeating culture, as evidenced in that more than one-in-eight Americans in a Yougov study in 2013 believing that there was some chance of a zombie attack happening .
The appetite for these dystopian futuristic films has been growing from the 1970’s; the main difference is that they are getting increasingly urban and technological in recent times. Many of the earlier films of this genre were focused on the fantasy of pristine ‘nature’ . If films are a reflection of current social concerns, technology and the nature of our conurbations are what we are trying to reconcile within ourselves:
As Teresa De Lauretis states, ” Under the guise of the science fiction genre–a mere pretext, as the futures of science fiction have become less and less distant from the present of writing–the film documents, both thematically and formally, the history of its (our) present. It shows us the cinema in its twofold aspect of virtual reality and biotechnology.”
What are the characteristics of the dystopian genre? There are some consistent themes: the manipulation of society through propaganda or advertising, the restriction of free thought (even if not known); there is usually a morally-challenged figurehead, there is a fear of outsiders; with citizens under constant surveillance; individuality is suspicious and there are expected standards of behaviour. These societies are all projections of a utopian world on the surface, with something darker waiting to be revealed underneath.
If we switch medium, these are all themes that are present in TV series with dystopian themes and we find the same in many other cultural forms from video-games to literature.
Did you know that the First Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster.
Agent Smith, to Morpheus, The Matrix
What is a Dystopia?
A dystopia is the opposite of utopia. Utopia was a term created by Thomas More in his book ‘Utopia’ that was published in 1516. Utopia comes from the Greek meaning of both “no-place-land” and “good-place-land”. Dystopia uses the Greek prefix ‘bad’ or ‘hard’. A useful definition of the difference between the two in narratives is that
‘Utopia and dystopia in practice tend to test the boundaries of reality: the former approaches an ideal but never reaches it – stopped by the real world – and the latter makes visible the various breaking points and vulnerabilities’.
While they might reflect more possible futures, it’s also clear that films of this type might be a way of collectively thinking through an issue under the ‘guise’ of science fiction:
“All the best-known dystopias of the 20th century were a way for authors and the rest of us to play out our anxieties as the world moved from the rural to the urban, from superstition to science, and headed into a future that envisioned mass mechanization, government rule, and a very different role for the individual in society”. Brian David Johnson
Driving this has been partly our ‘future shock’ and inability to deal with the rate of change in society and culture. If you have time this was an interesting Orson Welles documentary on the affect of ‘Future Shock’ by Alvin Toffler.
Since the end of the 19th C, modernity, capitalism and technological developments have all been associated with a process of creative destruction. De Laurentis has taken a Freudian approach to this in his identification of creation-and-death urges:
“Now, in the postmodern, wireless First World, violence erupts spontaneously, apparently unmotivated, in individuals or collectivities as it does elsewhere throughout the geopolitical space; in the most comfortable, civil, managed, social environments as in the most impoverished, oppressive, controlled ones. The well-to-do clamour for reproductive rights, international adoption and the biotechnological extension of human life through prostheses, cloning, stem-cell research, and so forth, while resources are diminishing throughout the world and others are dying of hunger, collateral damage, and – yes, again – genocide. In these times, with global warfare and genocide firmly planted on the horizon of history, Freud’s speculation on the co-presence of life and death drives in the human psyche and in human society takes on a renewed significance.
With the end of the twentieth century have also ended its enabling fictions, from the French Revolution to the October Revolution and all those that followed; its movements of resistance, independence, liberation; its myths of freedom and equality, universal suffrage, community-building and multiculturalism; its dream of a free cyberspace turning into the nightmare of globalization”
There are many forces that are driving these cultural changes and the erosion of traditional narratives is a frequent observation of the postmodernist era. The rise of the authenticity trend does appear to be a reflexive response of this more fragmented and less-certain cultural frame – a stronger desire for the real.
There is still the question as to why we relate so easily to films of this dystopian genre. Gordin, et al have suggested this is because this is how we relate to our own personal worldview – dystopia’s are a reflection of our personal psychology:
“In a universe subjected to increasing entropy, one finds there are many more ways of planning to go wrong than to go right, more ways to generate dystopia than utopia. And, crucially, dystopia – precisely because it is so much more common – bears the aspect of lived experience. People perceive their environments as dystopic, and alas they do so with depressing frequency. Whereas utopia takes into a future and services to indict the present, dystopia places us in a dark and depressing reality, conjuring up a terrifying future that if we do not recognise and treat its symptoms in the here and now.”
Perhaps from an archetypal-psychology perspectives, that it is the obstacles that make us grow and gain insights to ourselves through facing challenges and barriers. Which is similar to Nietzsche ‘“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”. When we are confronted with a Utopia this offers us the opportunity to think of possible ways towards this positive future: ‘“The transformative potential of Utopia depends on locating it in the future, on thinking through the process of transformation from the present, and identifying the potential agents of transformation” . As Cory Doctorow, the Science Fiction writer and futurist defines the role of utopia’s and why they engage us emotionally:
‘A utopia isn’t a story where everything goes right and people’s lives are awesome. A real utopia is in the real world where things go wrong and bad things happen, but what makes it a utopia is how people react to the world round them…A utopia is created in how people react to the real world. It’s a place where when the world is going to hell and everyone expects people to be at their worst, people turn around and do their best.”
This is a quick and succinct summary of the plot of many of the top-grossing films, which were cited at the beginning of this blog. Humanity is capable of finding a utopia in our behaviour outside or perhaps regardless of the setting in the film.
Utopia’s and Dystopia’s are tropes that assist in framing and storytelling; they have a powerful emotive capacity to make us evaluate our lives. However, their influence can’t explain all of the cultural-resonance of these themes of worlds going wrong. How do so many writers get to dystopia, how do we in our lives? What is driving this thinking? What is framing some of these thoughts will be discussed in part 2 of this discussion.