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The Near Dystopia

Arts & Culture | April 24, 2017

When The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, “it was viewed as being farfetched,” according to the novel’s author, Margaret Atwood. Today, the book’s plot of a theocratic dictatorship taking over the United States and stripping women of their civil rights is resonating once again with audiences. At the Women’s Marches in January, protestors held up signs referencing the novel, saying things like “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again!” and “The Handmaid’s Tale is NOT an instruction manual.”

Sales of the book spiked in 2016. Within three months of the election, 100,000 copies were printed to keep up with demand. Recently, Hulu announced that it will stream a television adaptation of the novel. In the trailer for the series, Offred, the protagonist, says in a voiceover, “When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then, either.” Oriana Schwindt of Vice wrote, “The series feels almost like a tornado warning when a mile-wide twister is roaring down the drive.”

While dystopias are hardly a new subject of storylines, the past year has seen a significant increase in the popularity of two dystopian themes: political dystopias and techno-dystopias. The rise in both of these types of programming reflects a growing trend of hypersensitivity to fears of a human-caused apocalypse.

Susan Napier, a professor of Japanese literature, comics, and animation who teaches the course “Cinema of Apocalypse,” noted the proliferation of the techno-dystopia genre. According to Napier, “There’s a sense of technology not always being inherently evil, but [the fear stems from] the way people use it or approach it.”

Westworld is one such popular techno-dystopian television show. The plot centers on artificially intelligent robots who act as hosts in a Western-themed park for wealthy guests. The show questions the extent to which artificial intelligence can become human-like and suggests that these robots can become autonomous and, in some cases, violent. It addresses a growing fear of robots moving towards a level of intelligence in which they may one day take over the world. Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla, has said that he has a “deep fear” of artificial intelligence because humans cannot compete with its potential capability.

Daniel Dennett, a philosophy professor, cognitive scientist, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts, doesn’t believe that these fears are misplaced. He said, “The premise of the current infatuation in many corners is the idea of the singularity [artificial intelligence surpassing human intelligence]. That’s not going to happen in a hundred years.”

Dennett is wary of trying to make artificial intelligence too humanlike. He says, “We have plenty of agents around, we have lots of people, we don’t need more people. We need to use them as tools so that we don’t have any question about whether we can take them apart, destroy them, turn them off.” Westworld deals with this idea of loss of control as the robots gain consciousness and begin to rebel against their creators.

Dennett also warned against mischaracterizing the nature  of artificial intelligence. He explained, “What they are is smart tools, not artificial colleagues. They aren’t agents. They can’t take moral responsibility. They’re tools, and we have to understand their limitations.”

Furthermore, the dystopian genre addresses fears of a corrupt leadership, which has been exacerbated by current events. When Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, accused the media of underreporting the size of the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration and falsely insisted that the audience had been record-breaking, he was met with a wave of criticism. This led to Kellyanne Conway’s infamous declaration that Spicer had not been lying about the crowd size, but was instead offering “alternative facts.” That week, sales of 1984, George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel about a nation with extreme government surveillance and public manipulation, experienced a dramatic spike. Alexandra Alter, a journalist for the New York Times wrote, “To many observers, her comment evoked Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian society in which language becomes a political weapon and reality itself is defined by those in power.” The novel was mentioned 290,000 times on Twitter that week.

Classic dystopian novels like It Can’t Happen Here, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, are experiencing a similar surge in sales. Napier believes that people gravitate towards dystopian stories during times of uncertainly. She explained, “People voted for [Trump] because of the sense that things are falling apart, the center’s not holding. On the left and the right, there’s an increasing sense of insecurity and I see it in the people I talk to and the way people talk about politics.”

She will be offering her class “Cinema of Apocalypse” next fall for the first time since 2009. She said of her decision to reinstate the class, “After the election, I really made a point of getting this course on my schedule. There’s a sense of helplessness right now that we all feel and I’m just a professor, what can I do? But I do feel that teaching a course like this at a time like this is highly appropriate and highly relevant.”

Dystopian media often presents itself as a warning sign. Black Mirror, the highly popular techno-dystopian series, examines the consequences of an overly technologized society. The show is set in a near-dystopia that feels familiar to reality. Characters use the same smart phones and social networks that people do today, but they are transformed  into a tool for fear and intimidation. Charlie Brooker, the creator of the show, has said, “All [the episodes are] about the way we live now—and the way we might be living in ten minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” Savannah Mastrangelo, a first-year at Tufts and fan of the show, explained its appeal: “The best part is how these scenarios are so bizarre and otherworldly at first, but by the end of the episode you realize how closely related they are to society right now, which is very telling and striking.”

Mastrangelo also said that media is a uniquely effective way to hold the government accountable. “When shows creatively point to how the government is at fault, it really makes people realize. Versus, if it’s just an article criticizing something, their attention isn’t held as well,” she pointed out.

Claire Selvin contributed reporting to this article.