Aren’t you being a little, y’know, Dystopian?

January 3, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

The Argentinian genius, Jorge Luis Borges once described Utopia as “a Greek word meaning ‘there is no such place’”

Could the same thing be said for Dystopia?

There have been plenty of dystopic visions of the future, most famously Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley’s vision of happiness pills and pervasive virtuality now feels closer to the truth than the ‘Big Brother’ of Orwell’s oppressive State, but I might feel differently if I lived in Russia or China.

More recently, towards the end of his epic book, The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist presents a non-fiction account of a world he believes we are, unwittingly stumbling towards. Later this month The Social Brain Centre will be publishing a critical examination of this work as a whole, featuring a dialogue with the author and reflections from various thinkers on the strength and significance of the ideas.

The central claim is that our phenomenal experience is gradually colonised through the left hemisphere’s preference for, broadly, familiar, non-living and measurable things that can be used for instrumental purposes. On this account we are gradually losing touch with what Iain calls ‘sources of intuitive life’, as our societies become a virtual ‘hall of mirrors’ in which that which is re-presented is ubiquitous, and that which is genuinely unique has less air to breathe. If you are not familiar with these ideas, you can enjoy a very pleasant introduction by watching the RSAnimate which now has over a million viewers, and please watch this space for our report later this month.

So is the world slowly becoming more dystopic? On the one hand, people like Hans Rosling, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley help to guard us against reflex pessimism, reminding us that we have never been healthier, wealthier, less violent and more innovative respectively. On the other hand you have fears of “the destructive power of a warming planet” (Obama) in Climate Change, fears for food and water security, the ever-present threat of terrorism, terrifying public health scenarios in which we all catch a deadly and hyper-contagious bug, and, relatively benignly, the sense that worldwide financial collapse is only ever a few bad decisions away.

However, such legitimate fears are not really what is meant by dystopia, which usually involves a vision of a world that is over-organised, and too sure of itself to realise that it has gone horribly wrong, and that it may have lost something of enormous value.

Indeed, chillingly, McGilchrist suggests that in so far as the world is becoming more dystopic, many of us are likely to remain oblivious:

“If I am right, that the story of the Western world is one of increasing left hemisphere
domination, we would not expect insight to be the key note. Instead, we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss.”

These thoughts of dystopia were prompted by watching the astoundingly brilliant satirical series, Black Mirror for the first time, just last night, over a year after most people were raving about it. I was particularly affected by the second episode, 15 Million Merits which can still be viewed on Four on Demand.

Painting such pictures of the future should induce constructive thought and action rather than despair. Gramsci famously said we need to have pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, while in our forthcoming report McGilchrist calls himself a hopeful pessimist.

I felt this dystopia was a particularly good illustration of McGilchrist’s view of what a world dominated by the left-hemisphere might look like. The picture is of a world almost completely dominated by screens, scores, adverts, and devoid of almost anything  natural or meaningful, in which everybody knows what they are supposed to be doing, but nobody really seems to know what is going on.

Painting such pictures of the future should induce constructive thought and action rather than despair. Gramsci famously said we need to have pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, while in our forthcoming report McGilchrist calls himself a hopeful pessimist.

Just as we accuse people for being ‘utopian’ when they are being naively optimistic about how things could be, so we should call people ‘dystopian’ when any of these visions of dystopia are taken too literally as predictions. The point of thinking dystopically is rather to shed light on our lives as they are currently lived, and the direction we are taking, or more to the point, the direction on which we are being taken.