Your Very Own Dystopia

November 25th, 2014 by Darin

Image source: Action Speaks Radio.

Image source: Action Speaks Radio.

The big secret behind dystopias—books, movies, video games—is that we, the writers, are cheating. Dystopias are easy—the number one rule behind Your Very Own Dystopia is to keep it simple: dystopias don’t usually arise because people are jerks; they arise because somebody, somewhere thinks he or she has the best idea how to improve the world for everyone else. The plan is always utopian at first—a sweeping, well-maintained, smooth-operating civilization that gets everyone what they need quickly, safely, and efficiently. The problem, of course, is that nation-building is a little subjective. One man’s utopia is almost always everyone else’s dystopia. Presto! You’ve just ruined the world for everyone else. Go enjoy your bleak architecture and gray-faced populace: you’re a bona fide dystopian now.

And that’s fine. Dystopias fantasies are a lot of fun. We’ve been dreaming them up and threatening each other with them for quite a long time. They’re corrective—they posit a slightly different version of what we’re already used to, yanking us out of the contexts of the everyday thrum and giving us a chance to see the wizard behind the curtains of our own daily lives.

But when you can’t change the channel, or put down the book, or save your game for later, dystopias become problematic. Part of why we like them so much is because they’re so sustainably sinister. The people stuck inside can’t get out of them, not until some intrepid revolutionary comes predictably along and bucks the system—then everything goes Technicolor, and the soundtrack switches to a major key. Most of the townsfolk in the background get really annoyed because, well, they’re used to being dystopians—it’s convenient. For them, revolutionaries are just jackasses with megaphones, and their demonstrations disrupt traffic and piss off the government, and threaten our freedoms.

Jerks.

Which is where we find ourselves today, and why it isn’t funny anymore—why the genre is so white-hot right now. Dystopian media is so reflective of our own interrelated, transnational day-to-days that it shares more in common with reality television (excuse me: unscripted dramas) than it does with zany science fiction.

Image: Getty Images

Ferguson protestors. Image: Getty Images

What are some other rules in the dystopian game? Police states are common. Typically, when some sociopathic fuckwit enacts his or her plan to Rule the World Correctly, there’s a bit of . . . pushback. The populace has to be broken like a herd of mustangs, and that’s most easily done with militarized police forces. The reportage of the unrest in Ferguson looks more like documentary footage from the Arab Spring. But this is in the middle of the United States. “Freedomland.” For many of us, this is our first time to see a dystopia in the backyard, and it only looks weird because we’re not supposed to see it. And it’s a self-perpetuating system. Dystopia begets dystopia, as we’ve seen in the increased concern and paranoia that’s delivering military equipment to Texas schools, as detailed in this September 15th article from the Texas Tribune.

But we could chart this paranoia up to dangerous times—and we should, if we’re going to build this dystopia properly. Pull up your favorite dystopia, and see how fear and continual war are used as justifications for power grabs, perpetual states of emergency, and surveillance states: Eurasia in Orwell’s 1984; the ill-defined-but-upcoming war in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; the menacing, untamed nature beyond the Green Wall in Zamyatin’s We. Sound familiar? The War on Terror has been chasing shifting enemies for thirteen years.

1984's Big Brother.

1984’s Big Brother.

Of course, none of this is to make light of the very real horrors and injustices that people are enduring all over the world. Those aren’t fictions, and they deserve heightened scrutiny, analysis, and awareness. And there’s the rub: you don’t want that stuff to happen to you, do you? You don’t want to end up like them. So get in line and do what I say. Especially if I’m backed by another favorite dystopian trick: the cult of personality. There’s usually somebody (the Benefactor, Big Brother) who acts as the final caregiver, the final protector of the people against their enemies. A personality larger than life itself—a shared, cultural figurehead in whose personality everyone has some claim, some stake of opinion, reaction, or belief. And it takes a lot of work—a lot of money and time and resources—to create one of these personalities. We in the U.S. should know, as The Washington Post reported back in 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each spent more than a billion dollars on their campaigns. For the crushing majority of us, that is an unfathomable price tag. But that’s what it costs these days to win the presidency, and doing so is big business, employing scores of campaign workers, drivers, security guards—the list goes on. There’s an entire industry behind identifying and securing the leader who will protect us from Them.

And it works . . . for a while. A typical hallmark in a dystopia is that things are getting along okay. No one’s having a particularly great time, but if you follow the rules and stand where you’re supposed to, you’ll get your bucket of Soylent Green, and you can go home to watch the programs that have been federally approved for broadcast. And then you can get up and do it all over again. If all you want is a mostly stable, unexciting, safe existence, you’d do fine with a townhome in some urban dystopia. After all, there is plenty of reassurance, plenty of propaganda to let you know that What You’re Doing is Right—even if you are a racist, or a sexist, or just a moron.

When people start to get twitchy, that’s when the cracks appear. Surveillance and detection become high priorities for our Dystopian State—after all, one must root out the revolutionaries who might start a cultural wildfire. Everyone is safer this way—we can’t allow the fringe to collapse the system. And that means some casualties—some incomprehensible arrests, sham convictions (or exonerations), compromised bank accounts and phone records. If you want to make an omelet, crack some eggs, and just wait for the next content cycle to wash the news away. By that time, people will be paying less attention to the whistleblowers and reactionaries that you’re quietly trying to disappear. The court of public opinion is for sale after all.

Which is when things really become insidious. People need to buy in to your Dystopian State—sometimes bread lines and terror threats just aren’t enough. So they need to be educated (programmed) such that their own identities, their own understandings and worldviews, are tied up in your ideology. You can pull this off by any number of means. You can make up a new language that serves your purposes, you can lock down your borders and censor outside influence (that’s a favorite), and you can very easily make scapegoats and scare people from time to time. That one’s classic. And if you can tie voluntary participation in this process into the message, then you’re golden. It’s not dissimilar to our own runaway problem with college tuition. You want to go to college, don’t you? I mean, that’s where the real money is, and well, the neighbors’ kid went to college . . . we know you’re smarter than that guy. Never mind how much it costs. Never mind that it will indenture you to a life of debt that will slow your actual realization of the financial dreams and material promises of a college education. Never mind that those hallowed halls, those sacred spaces, are themselves for sale—you’re getting an education. Which is exactly how we’ve primed you to participate accordingly. The national narrative is about GDP and ROI and gains and returns—if you don’t agree, well, then you might just be an enemy of the state, mightn’t you?

Citizens in dystopian states, like oligarchies, are assets—human resources. Sure, they’re people in the end, and Big Brother really would prefer that you stay safe and lead an unthreatened life—he really would—but he can’t help it if the machines and finances he relies upon to accomplish this need a little extra from you. Nothing is free, after all, and if that means risking the whole system, dispossessing a few folks, disappearing a few gambling with jobs, or restricting a few rights, then thems the breaks. Take a load off with a good story or game or movie about some dystopian Neverland because, I mean, it could be that bad, after all. Aren’t we lucky here, though, in the real world?

World’s Tallest Slum

August 2nd, 2013 by Darin

A failed financial tower-cum-collective residence. This is like a lance between my collapse-loving eyes.

Good Guy British Scouts

December 5th, 2012 by Darin

From BBC News:

“The 105-year-old movement is launching a consultation to see if members would back a Scout Promise for those who feel unable to pledge a “duty to God”.

Versions of the oath already exist for the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist faiths, but this is the first time such an adaptation has been considered.

Man, the Brits are better at Scouting than we are.

[link]

Ian Walsh on the Economy

September 5th, 2012 by Darin

Over at his blog, Ian Walsh summarizes the state of the world depression quite succinctly. Worth the 60 seconds it takes you to read it.

“Some basics on the economy”

An Eagle Scout Returns His Medal

July 20th, 2012 by Darin

Martin Cizmar, Eagle Scout, has returned his medal to the B.S.A. in protest over discriminatory practices toward homosexuality.

Update: So has Kelsey Timmerman.

Bravery

July 18th, 2012 by Darin

Fig. 1: self at 15--full regalia!

For anyone who’s read Noise, it’s probably pretty clear that I was a Boy Scout—my main character categorizes his new, apocalyptic world with his own mythified memories of Scouting and adolescence to a degree that would have been difficult to fake.

In fact, I’m an Eagle Scout—the highest rank in Scouting one can achieve, and few do. Not everyone knows the distinction, but the Eagle Scout award represents the collected achievements in leadership, community service, self realization, and practical survival skills that represent the total throughput of a young man’s Scouting career. It’s a difficult award for an adolescent to achieve, especially since most earn it around the time they’re trying to fit in at high school, when it’s not particularly cool to weave lanyards and wear knee socks. In earlier days, most people knew what the Eagle Award represented: a particular young man with sticking power, gumption, and discipline. These days, there’s less awareness as the gleam of the modern age has come to outshine that medal, which, each year, looks a little smaller.

A fair degree of the ethos I live by today is informed by my time in the Scouts. I owe what success I’ve achieved and what respect I’ve earned to those years, to that award. Trustworthiness and helpfulness are among the attributes that I hold most dear. I judge others by whether or not they become liabilities in social situations, and despite my curmudgeonly exterior, I help others when I can. I know that good leaders are good followers, and I perform moral deeds for the sake of performing them—I took a sense of personal moral responsibility from the Scouts, not any religiously defined obligation.

I’d imagine I’m not a typical cross-section of your average grown Eagle Scout. As I moved into adulthood, I embraced liberal politics. I spent a lot of time in postgraduate school, earning degrees in literature and literary theory rather than applying my Eagle skills as a civic servant or outdoorsman (which is a common track for the grown Eagle). I’m an atheist, a science fiction fan, and a great lover of spirits. But, that said, my Eagle Scout award is to this day every bit as legitimate and representative as anyone else’s. Because I’ve cherished what I learned during those days, because I think discipline and respect and determination can change a young man’s life, because I think the Scouts can be better, so much better—because of all this, I’m embarrassed and ashamed by the BSA’s recent reaffirmation of their programmatic bigotry. It cheapens the integrity of those of us who still espouse the core tenets of Scouting, and it dirties the memory of the men—those giants, those scoutmasters and fathers and neighbors—who taught us how to be decent and responsible people. Who taught us how to be good men.

Let me share with you the Scout Law (U.S. version), which are the rules a scout lives by, the rules that teach him how to be a man. Most of these, I still try to practice on a daily basis. Once you memorize them, you never forget.

A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

But endorsing an ideology of intolerance is not helpful. It’s not friendly or courteous or kind. It’s not cheerful, or thrifty, or loyal. It might be trustworthy in its steadfast bigotry, and I don’t think it’s particularly reverent since we disregard most Levitical and Old Testament law anyway.

But, worst of all, it’s not brave. That’s the hardest one for a young man to learn, to practice. And the BSA has shown its boys that inequality is okay—that they’ll be brave when it’s easier.

Maybe there aren’t enough Eagle Scouts on that Board.

“Amarnath: Journey to the shrine of a Hindu god”

July 13th, 2012 by Darin

For your consideration: “Amarnath: Journey to the shrine of a Hindu god.”

I’d say they’re onto something.

Public Enemy #1: Student Loans

July 2nd, 2012 by Darin

When I was going through graduate school, I relied on student loans in order to get by. One’s obligations to both coursework and teaching make working a traditional 9-5 job impossible. Even part time employment is tough because the typical grad student’s obligations occur at odd, intermittent intervals. I have a job now, and I’m paying those loans back (even though I break out in hives when I think about the government making a profit off of me, one of its citizens, instead of lending me the cash at 0% interest rate like it should), but the new “breakthrough” reforms that came as part of the much-celebrated bicameral, bipartisan agreement to keep student loan interest rates from doubling now make the grad school experience simply unmanageable. And any government who thinks a student is going to pop out of college and gain immediate employment in this environment is myopic at best and predatory at worst—this being a problem because this same government is eliminating grace periods for repayment that typically follow graduation.

My time in grad school has defined my outlook, both personally and professionally, and I’m sorry that the next generation behind me won’t be able to experience that. Unless they’re rich.

Oh, and all of this to keep the interest rates from rising to what they already are for most of us who graduated before the collapse and consolidated our loans. I think students would have been better off with the interest rate hike.

“Student loan changes you don’t know about”

Occupy’s Free University

May 1st, 2012 by Darin

Occupy Wall Street has set up a free university. I think this is pretty rad—in fact, a very-similar idea is central to the premise of the novel I wrote after Noise, which I wrapped up well before Occupy got going (at least, well before we all really started hearing about it). It’s a neat coincidence, even if it is a little freak-inducing.

FCC Opens White Spaces

March 30th, 2012 by Darin

From the FCC:

“Washington, D.C. – Washington, D.C. – Today, the Federal Communications Commission issued a Public Notice announcing that the Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) has approved Spectrum Bridge Inc.’s television white spaces database system, which may provide service to devices beginning January 26, 2012. OET has also approved a device by Koos Technical Services, Inc. (KTS) as the first product allowed to operate on an unlicensed basis on unused frequencies in the TV bands. The KTS device will operate in conjunction with the Spectrum Bridge TV band database.”

Here comes Salvage.

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