Monday, 15 June 2015

Are we nearly there yet?

In dystopia, I mean. What if the answer to the common question 'Why is dystopia so appealing to young adults?' is 'Because they can see it happening all around them'?

After all, we've already got a Prime Minister who believes that it's irresponsible for the authorities to merely tolerate citizens going about their lawful business without interfering in any unspecified way they see fit, alongside the stealthy, creeping, casual deployment of increasingly-available surveillance technology by the guardians of our security and by corporate interests monitoring consumers for any attempts to circumvent to officially-approved retail franchises:
 ...cameras will record you and constantly check you’re not a criminal while a tag monitors your movements. At a festival. Somewhere you’ve paid a lot of money to go and let your hair down.

Most festivals treat visitors like imbeciles and cash cows as it is, with searches upon entering stage areas so you have to buy extortionate booze, and bans on fires, noise and laughter after 11pm. Add Download’s invasive snoopery into the mix, and the modern festival now makes Pyongyang look like one of those leafy hippie communes where no one elects to wear pants and the lingua franca is the bongo.

Worst of all, according to the Register, Leicestershire police are annoyed this has come to light now as they didn’t want the public to be aware of the surveillance measures until the festival was over. 
Luke Holland

Then we've got the more subtly unsettling voluntary panopticon of self-curated, self-censored social media:
Ultimately, Facebook is a narcissistic playground where the best, the funniest, the most charming aspects of our lives are publicized and the shitty stuff, the boring stuff, the beige that is most of our daily grind almost never gets posted. All those walls are edited at some level and that makes them, at best, a deformed mirror image of real life or, at worst, nothing more than a fictional movie of how we want people to see us.
Which would be bad enough if it was just the users doing the bragging and personal brand management, but you've got the Facebook algorithm lurking in the background, optimising you, the product, to conform to its own inscrutable template.

And when you've consumed enough interactive hyperreality, there's always the alternative hyperreality of reality TV, which seems to be moving ever closer to its exploitative, dystopian fictional archetypes ('Are you ‘Britain’s Hardest Grafter’? BBC invites jobless youngsters to compete for cash in Hunger Games-style reality show').

We're surrounded by so much creepiness in real life that some of it is bound to be recycled as nightmare fuel for an unsettled time of life.

Which isn't to say that the worst teen nightmares are all coming true at once. The worlds of dystopian fiction are violent places but, as per Stephen Pinker, the world - or at least our bit of it - really does seem to be becoming a less violent place.

I've even heard it argued that there's a link between the ubiquity of surveillance and the decline of violence. The argument goes something like this. If you're a medieval monarch,  you have very little idea what's going on in your kingdom - communications are bad, there's no printing, so you're dependent on scribes, great bureaucratic exercises like the Doomsday Book are the exception, rather than the rule, you and your retinue have to be constantly moving around the country just to have a chance of keeping tabs on what's going on. You can't keep an eye on everything from the centre and, conversely, others can plot and rebel and disobey you with relative impunity.

So, whenever somebody does flout you, you immediately behave with exemplary savagery pour d├ęcourager les autres. If  the chances of being caught are relatively low, the penalties for stepping out of line must be utterly terrifying.

As rulers and authorities are able to hoover up more and more information about citizens, people are kept in line by the new consideration that any deviancy has a high chance of being discovered and will very probably result in  a lesser, but almost certain, punishment, as opposed to the old-style low probability of discovery, augmented by extreme deterrents like the stake, hanging, drawing and quartering, or your head on a spike for anyone inclined to take a chance.

Which seems at least plausible enough for me to think that if we have nearly arrived in a dystopia it'll probably be one policed by the soft power of shame, the wish to conform, the withdrawal of privileges and blackmail, rather than by faceless armed guards, gulags and gladiatorial fights to the death on prime time.