New Imagined Dystopias
And its anonymity removed existing restraints on civility. Not only did it support society’s willingness to see itself in identity terms; it promoted new identities through online communities, as countless subreddits have done.
Fears about the future are often best expressed through fiction, particularly science fiction that tries to imagine future worlds based on new kinds of technology. In the first half of the twentieth century, many of these forward-looking fears centred around big, centralised, bureaucratic tyrannies that snuffed out individuality and privacy. George Orwell’s 1984 foresaw Big Brother controlling individuals through the telescreen, while Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World saw the state using biotechnology to stratify and control society.
But the nature of imagined dystopias began to change in the later decades of the century, when environmental collapse and out-of-control viruses took centre stage. However, one particular strand spoke to the anxieties raised by identity politics. Cyberpunk authors such as Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson saw a future dominated not by centralised dictatorships but by uncontrolled social fragmentation that was facilitated by a new emerging technology called the internet.
Our present world is simultaneously moving towards the opposing dystopias of hypercentralisation and endless fragmentation. China, for instance, is building a massive dictatorship in which the government collects data on the daily transactions of every one of its citizens and uses big-data techniques and a social credit system to control its population. On the other hand, different parts of the world are seeing the breakdown of centralised institutions, the emergence of failed states, polarisation and a growing lack of consensus over common ends. Social media and the internet have facilitated the emergence of self-contained communities, walled off not by physical barriers but by belief in shared identity.
The nice thing about dystopian fiction is that it almost never comes true. That we can imagine how current trends will play themselves out in an ever more exaggerated fashion serves as a useful warning: 1984 became a potent symbol of a totalitarian future we wanted to avoid and helped inoculate us from it.
Our present world is simultaneously moving towards the opposing dystopias of hypercentralisation and endless fragmentation.
We can imagine better places to be in, which take account of our societies’ increasing diversity, yet present a vision for how that diversity will still serve common ends and support rather than undermine liberal democracy. Identity is the theme that underlies many political phenomena today, from new populist nationalist movements, to Islamist fighters, to the controversies taking place on university campuses.
We will not escape from thinking about ourselves and our society in identity terms. But we need to remember that the identities dwelling deep inside us are neither fixed nor necessarily given to us by our accidents of birth. Identity can be used to divide, but it can and has also been used to integrate. That in the end will be the remedy for the populist politics of the present.