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Lurching to Dystopia
In dystopias, an agency or authority (often the government) is frequently shown to be in total control--the consent of citizens is irrelevant. 

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Background of the Issue


New York World's Fair 1939: Transportation Building-Rocket Port

In all utopias, the inhabitants share most values and consent to whatever degree of social control they experience. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of utopias are portrayed as free and they have transcended contemporary problems in society such as poverty, sexism, war.

In dystopias, an agency or authority (often the government) is frequently shown to be in total control--the consent of citizens is irrelevant. Chaos and total social breakdown with no form of social control or human security is another form of dystopia.

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Channel References

360 BC

The Republic
Plato

In Plato's theory of forms, certain eternal entities on a higher plane are what define objects in our world of appearance and change. Hence, Plato’s Republic is probably best interpreted as a standard by which states can be judged. Plato’s vision of an ideal society included the abolition of families as social units, and a program of eugenics.

1516

Utopia
Thomas More

In his Utopia, More proposes a Christian socialism. There are no more social classes because everyone shares in the same work, everyone is equal, and everyone has the same rights. In Utopia there is an obligation for all to work a minimum of six hours everyday at whatever he or she is best suited. In this agriculturally-based society, all people spend time in the country working the land. In More's view, every worker must be able to see and enjoy the fruits of his or her labor—a view that was later amplified by Karl Marx.

1626

The New Atlantis
Francis Bacon

Previous utopian visions suggested that social renewal would be achieved through social legislation, and religious and educational reforms. The advancement of science is what grounds the New Atlantis. Bacon implies that human greed, which stems from bodily desires, is not something to be suppressed. Instead, Bacon conceives that we will find ways to appease wants through material things made possible by extraordinary scientific advances. Bacon sees no need for humans to aspire toward fewer desires as Plato, and other philosophers proposed.

1656

The Commonwealth of Oceana
James Harrington

James Harrington was the first theorist to interpret the English Civil Wars as a revolution, and the result of a long-term process of social change that led to the decay of the old political order. Harrington envisioned a utopian society in which political authority rested entirely with the landed gentry. He advocated definite agrarian reforms to achieve a greater equality of power. He sought to abolish primogeniture and to limit the amount of land an individual could hold. He also advocated division of the powers of government, a written constitution, and the principle of rotation in office. Penn's government in Pennsylvania is said to owe much to the Oceana. Harrington's ideas can be seen in the doctrines of the American Revolution and the French Revolution.

1867

Das Kapital
Karl Marx

In Marx's state the proletariat rebels to once and for all abolish all class distinctions amalgamating the bourgeoisie, through necessity, into their own class creating a solitary class. This is the most crucial and distinctive trait of a socialist utopia. Breaking with the tradition of justifying social reform by appeal to natural rights, he invoked "inevitable" laws of history to predict the eventual triumph of the working class.

A monumental work, Das Kapital provided a thorough exposition of Marxism and became the foundation of international socialism. It is also known as scientific (as opposed to utopian) socialism. Marxism has had a profound impact on contemporary culture; modern communism is based on it, and most modern socialist theories derive from it.

1888

Looking Backward: 2000-1887
Edward Bellamy

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, is a vision of a utopian Boston of the year 2000 seen in the eyes of the fictional, nineteenth century Bostonian, Julian West. Having fallen asleep for 113 years Mr. West is awakened by the Leetes family. While many other authors' ideas of the future have involved images of great technological change, they have not demonstrated an adaptation of human behavioral change. In Bellamy's eyes however, there are some technological innovations but the primary changes occur in the areas of economics that leads to dramatic changes in the human condition. It seems to be a world in which, once everyone decided not to fight over money any longer, then people were capable of getting along. Public service and public caring for one another is the norm. There is a great sense in Bellamy's writing that social Darwinism plays a significant role. Clearly there is an idea of eugenics (reminiscent of the Oneida community) where the bad parts of society are simply bread out of society. "Like the social Darwinists of his day, Bellamy viewed character traits as inborn and believed that the morally as well as the physically unfit must be weeded out if human beings were to evolve to a higher state

1831

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus
Mary Shelley

Frankenstein transcended Gothicism by combining science with the supernatural, or at least the supranatural. Shelley scholar Maurice Hindle draws attention to the differentiation between what Shelley was doing in distinction to her Gothic predecessors. The Gothic goal was to rebelliously assail the secrets of Heaven, whereas, in Shelley, Nature is being penetrated in a wanton act of assumption and pride.

1909

The Machine Stops
E. M. Forster

This story/novella is often considered to be the first technological dystopia, highlighting over-dependence on machines. Earth's inhabitants have moved below terra firma where their every need is met and every act controlled by "the machine." A young rebel protesting against the loss of authenticity and the reverence for abstraction seeks to communicate with his mother about his need to go to the surface of the earth. This act of direct experience terrifies his mother who is sure that her son will be sentenced to "homelessness." The son does experience the beauty of the earth and returns to prophesize the end of the machine and the "civilization" it created.

1926

Metropolis
Fritz Lang

This classic film depicts a regimented society in which people are dwarfed by machines. The story takes place in 2026, one-hundred years from when the movie was made. The city of Metropolis is a crowded one where people are either of the privileged elite, or of the repressed, impoverished masses. Vast numbers of the lower class live underground to run the machines that keep the above ground Metropolis in working order. The workers run the machines, but the machines run the lives of the workers. The monotonous droves of workers are truly a, "mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation," to quote Thoreau. Lang portrays this with a montage of cattle-like herds of people, grinding machinery, and clocks.

2001

Acts of the Apostles
John Sundman

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Advances in computer technology and biotechnology are proceeding so quickly that we are speedily approaching the day when scientists and programmers are able to design machines that can alter our genetic structure and reshape our brains. The engine of change is capitalism, in particular, Silicon Valley-style capitalism—the relentless search for products that can generate vast revenue through innovations in high technology.

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