In Part Two of this series I looked at how myths, ethics, and the idea of taste affect societies as living, evolving systems. Each of these has been used in the past to argue for or against social norms and ways of being, most often for the betterment of a society. The desire to have a society that functions ideally towards happiness and prosperity is what is known as a utopian desire, wanting the “perfect” society to exist – a utopia. Originally meaning an imaginary society described in detail, the modern usage of Utopia is a society that is much better, achievable by “fixing” what is wrong with the current one.
UTOPIA or DYSTOPIA?
Often people will look back on what they see as a golden past, one more utopian, and decry what is supposedly wrong with the current one. For example, the 1950s in the USA is seen by many to be a better, golden time of prosperity, peace, social safety, and better morals. But what is often missing from these utopian assessments is the fact that life for many in 1950s America was the exact opposite due to race, gender, and sexual discrimination – extremely unfair to a significant portion of the population. This golden utopia most often was and is a dream of heterosexual Caucasian males, for whom there was little to no social hindrance in achieving their social and economic dreams. More often than not the social system was actually designed to ensure that Caucasian males retained power almost exclusively and indefinitely (see: hegemony).
This social system that privileged white heterosexual males was not a utopia, but rather a dystopia for many – a dehumanizing world of language that erases individuality in order to mark people and ideas as sub-human, promoting the idea that these undesirables deserve no humane treatment. Those who are not desirable/worthy members of society are no more than animals, excluded from power (disenfranchised) and are considered non-legitimate. They are thus an “obstacle” to utopia, which can lead to such extremes as their actual eradication (the Jewish Holocaust of World War Two, the Stalinist Holodomor in Ukraine, etc.). And though in the 21st century we have not seen such extremes as those of the early 20th century, many see what they describe as an “unrestrained” technological drive towards an even more frightening dystopia: a worldwide enslavement to corporate interests – millions, possibly billions, of people economically and socially enslaved by corporations via virtual technologies such as the Internet, digital banking, etc. This is then a question of the sociology of machines.
Between the years 1811 to 1816 a group of British artisans rioted and destroyed a number of textile machines because they believed that these “labor-saving” machines would make them irrelevant. Non-skilled workers, who would then be paid lower wages, saving the companies money and putting these skilled weavers out of work, could run these new machines. Named after the legend of a young man named Ned Ludd, these Luddites came to define the anti-technology idealism of anyone who resists technology as an assault on human dignity. To resist technology is to be a Luddite, and there are many who see this as both a utopia and dystopian position. To be a Luddite is to “oppose” technological change, which can be seen as a positive, utopian drive towards environmental stewardship, or a dystopian drive towards destroying society through eco-terrorism, cyber-hacking, etc. Thus, a Luddite can be seen as an environmental savior and/or even a social terrorist bent on wrecking human technological advancement.
The key issue though in defining a Luddite as either then becomes a question of morality; that reducing the effect and presence of technology in human affairs is moral, ethical, or even righteous. This position then automatically defines its opposite as immoral, unethical, and possibly evil. Being so completely “immersed” in technology in our every day lives (iPhones, laptops, tablets, smartphones, Twitter accounts, blogs, Facebook) for example is a direct threat to the environment, with huge amounts of garbage going directly into the ecosystem – poisoning everything, and threatening humanity with toxic soil, water, food, and air. And, by being distracted from the growing threat to human health by being obsessed with virtual technology, we are ignoring a serious global problem that may be irreversible soon if we do not act now, and stop “amusing ourselves to death.”
Often, Luddism is defined in spiritual terms, that our seemingly uncontrolled technological obsession is offensive to God. Machines have been weaponized since the dawn of human history and now we can use biological technology (germ warfare) to kill billions, if not through nuclear weapon technology. Technology, used selfishly, makes us impatient, selfish, and anti-human – unconcerned with anyone but ourselves as we blog, post selfies, collect “friends” on Facebook, and try to get millions of views for out Youtube videos. So much time spent on the self makes us insensitive to the poor, sick, mentally ill, homeless, and others. As machines are seen now mostly either weapons or systems designed to glorify ourselves, the question of morality and spirituality in Luddism become important. Is it moral to log off the Internet, and is there not a danger in becoming human haters using machines as an excuse to hate their users?
There are many who would call themselves members of the TechnoRealism movement: any number of people who seriously consider both the pros and cons of technology as part of the human landscape. The Internet for example is a very useful tool for humans to use, but it is not utopian, because it is a “virtual” reality, a “weak” version of real life. Life has many uncomfortable moments wherein one can build character, develop social skills, learn tolerance, and so on. As I like to put it, the Internet has no farts… and thus it can never be real. Human interaction is nuanced and complex, and to reduce humans to 140 character Tweets and blogs with comments disabled or ignored keeps us from growing as people. Human affairs require patience, and the Internet requires none. “The” Internet too is not based upon knowledge, reasoning, judgment, rational thought, and open-mindedness. It will never teach us to be curious, as it is a system designed wholly to cater to whim. And, as information can be easily manipulated and controlled on the Internet, the idea of truth as factual goes against the wishes of those who seek to control the “narrative” of world events via the news, opinion polls, etc. Corporations can exercise as much control over Internet usage as they do over physical assets, though it may seem like the Internet is “free.” So much advertising now is disguised as content it is often impossible to tell the difference between empirical research and an ad for Pfizer products. In effect, the Internet is largely propaganda for something or someone. And Luddism is not free from ideological manipulation, as “pure” as the idea of Luddism itself may seem.
Propaganda is a method of communicating that is designed to influence a community towards supporting a particular idea, person, or ideology. Though the term propaganda itself is neutral, it has come to mean something negative and deceitful in modern times, suggesting that propaganda is used to “trick” people. Propaganda is manipulative and deceitful, and thus there can be no positive propaganda by definition.
For example, we know of the ideologies and ideas of the National Socialist party of Germany (Nazism). Adolf Hitler’s idea of a pure German state, woven into his “political” speeches, was propaganda designed to gain power over the Germany, even though he himself was actually Austrian. Hitler also made being black/African an ‘ethnic’ crime against the “pure” (white) German State though he himself and all human beings have a common African ancestor (mitochondrial Eve).
But propaganda can be in service of the economy as much as the politics of the State, and thus many see celebrity culture as propaganda of a certain kind. For example, if a celebrity endorses a running shoe, it is guaranteed that a percentage of that celebrity’s fan base will buy it. This is why large amounts of money are paid to celebrity endorsers, as they can bank on their status. The actual shoe may be of low quality, and mostly unknown local companies make superior shoes, but a national brand with celebrity endorsement will sell more shoes. The “propaganda” of celebrity speaks, and it says what consumers want to hear, that they share something in common with the celebrities they admire: something they can buy as soon as possible, for “only” $200. “Value” is added to a product through celebrity, people desire something they ordinarily would not; the propaganda that celebrity is something valuable is most certainly an economic gesture.
The ideal of a dystopian future: one marked by intense dehumanization and propaganda is a popular them in science fiction literature.
In Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932) for example, we see the rise of mass consumption as a social ideology and genetic science, as people are hatched and bred for assigned social roles, and a euphoria drug (soma) replaces true human dignity and value. Drugs and sex are used to control humanity (instant gratification) and this “happiness” is promoted at the expense of love, freedom, family, etc. Also, Fordist Capitalism (the worship of technology: technolatry) has replaced religion and people refer to the times as the “Year of Our Ford…” In this society, being alone and abstaining from promiscuous sex are considered deviant behaviors! Like in B. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We (1921), free will in Huxley’s novel is the leading cause of unhappiness, and State’s job is to “liberate” from choice and control over their own lives.
The most famous example of dystopian literature though is George Orwell’s novel 1984 (written in 1949), and even Orwell’s name is used as a term describing dystopianism: something that is dehumanizing and State-controlled is deemed “Orwellian.” In 1984, people speak New Speak, an edited version of English that contains only words that favor the hegemony/ideology of the State; any others are called Thought Crimes. Dictionaries have been gutted and newspapers print only State-positive “news.” Every citizen is also constantly being watched through a system of cameras mounted everywhere; this government surveillance being called “Big Brother” – another term for invasive government surveillance commonly used outside of the novel.
Not all dystopian literature is so grim though. A hilarious example of mankind’s (futile) search for happiness through technology is Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Cyberiad (1965), a collection of funny short stories detailing the galactic misadventures of Trurl and Klapaucius: two brilliant engineers or “constructors” with an uncanny ability to not foresee the consequences of their work.
In Lem’s future world, the idea that science is the answer to everything is revealed to be more capable of creating a dystopia than Utopia, and the two constructors enthusiastically chase the dream of the perfect machine. What are the results? In How the World Was Saved Trurl invents a machine that can create anything that starts with the letter N. His friend Klapaucius asks it to create Nothing, and it starts “erasing” Reality. In The Trap of Gargantius Trurl and Klapaucius are asked to create two (opposing) armies, and they each design an army of soldiers that can link to each other to create a single will and consciousness. In doing so the armies unexpectedly cease being warlike and become peaceful, and kind towards everyone. Instead of creating military strategy they write sonnets on “the Mystery of Being”, and go off hand in hand through the meadows picking flowers together! Trurl and Klapacius travel the Universe ultimately doing more harm than good, and thus is the message of the book: the drive for perfection usually ends up achieving its opposite, no matter how clever humanity becomes.