Which foul future are we heading towards, asks Tom Hodgkinson
In E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops shopping is a thing of the past. The citizenry live in luxurious little cells and have everything they want – food, entertainment, medicine – delivered to them via tubes. They are physically weak and indeed strong-looking babies are put to death. The people communicate via iPad type devices and rarely leave their rooms. When they do leave, they summon airships which arrive at their door in the manner of an Uber. They have thousands of online friends and spend their time attending or delivering lectures. The story was written in 1909.
In Huxley’s Brave New World, from 1932, books have been banned in the manner of Plato’s Republic. No one is allowed to read Shakespeare as it might make them ask questions. Freedom has been sacrificed for comfort, and the inhabitants are made very comfortable indeed: they have non-stop sex and when things get rough they bliss out on the drug Soma, a sort of cross between Prozac and ecstasy. The great achievement of the authorities, says Huxley, is to have created a situation where the people love their slavery. “Everybody’s happy nowadays,” says one character, in a phrase later to be made into an excellent pop-punk tune by the Buzzcocks.
In Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, written in 1948, giant screens dominate the sitting room. These screens watch you while you watch them. They know what you’re doing. Google, Facebook, YouTube and the government are thrown into one entity called Big Brother. The people are kept in a state of constant anxiety: the country is perpetually terrorised by an ever-changing threat. The populace are allowed to express their rage in a weekly session called Two Minutes’ Hate, in which they scream and shout at enemies on a big screen.
In each of these stories, we follow the progress of a rebel, one Nietzschean individual who makes an heroic effort to smash the system, but fails tragically.
The parallels with our time are plain to see. We are encouraged to live in a state of fear and to value security over really being alive. Our every move is tracked and traced and online search engines know our deepest and darkest thoughts, desires and fears. For decades we’ve been locked in an ever-changing crisis: Suez crisis, three-day week, war on the unions, Falklands war, war on Iraq, war on terror, war on drugs, war on EU, civil war over Brexit, war on Covid. A fearful, anxious and cowed population is easier to control, and insecure citizens tend to make excellent consumers.
And as Jaron Lanier argued on last week’s “Drink with the Idler”, a desire to control is at the heart of the Internet: computer networks were conceived with Skinner’s behaviourism in mind. They’re all about behaviour modification. The goal is a populace that does what it’s told. The difference perhaps with the dystopian visions above is that the “machine” is owned by private companies and not by the state.
Western governments are looking at China with something that appears a little like envy: how obedient, docile and eager to please their population is! How civic-minded! And how successful! Both left and right, at a certain level, are internally rejoicing over the expanding power of states and the extent of their own empires.
On the other hand, some of us anarcho-idlers see positive changes: a slower pace of life, less consumerism, more time for creative pursuits, a higher level of autonomy, an end to nightmare commuting, a shorter working week, a less competitive atmosphere. Could the future be bright? To cheer ourselves up in these gloomy days, I recommend reading William Morris’s lovely utopian novel, News From Nowhere, a beautiful vision of how things could be.
What about you? Are you happier or less happy than a year ago? And where are we headed? To freedom or slavery? Misery or happiness?
These comments were mailed to us after an earlier version of the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your thoughts.
I absolutely agree regarding News From Nowhere. Everyone should stick with the long explanatory passages about how they got to that lovely state – it’s worth it.
Your criticism of the tech behemoths is astute as always, except the only thing that has made WFH possible is our increased dependence on them. If we were addicted to the internet before, we’re fused to it now. Not only for work but for shopping, exercise, health care, communication, entertainment and leisure too. It’s enough to deflate your spirits. I’ve found WFH to be miserable. I’ve never worked harder, been more stressed, taken fewer breaks, gotten less exercise, been more isolated or had higher utility bills. My job requires some skill, but now it also requires a lot of button pushing, along with fielding an increase in online messaging since people can’t just talk to each other. I suspect many of my colleagues have also been at their wit’s end, but it’s hard to know when you don’t see anyone anymore. A unified workforce matters, and that means actually being among coworkers. No one ever revolted against the bosses working remotely!
All good stuff. However, there was one rather key thing missing from your list here:
“For decades we’ve been locked in an ever-changing crisis: Suez crisis, three-day week, war on the unions, Falklands war, war on Iraq, war on terror, war on drugs, war on EU, civil war over Brexit, war on Covid.” To skip blithely from the Suez Crisis of 1956 to the three-day week of 1974 without mentioning the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, during which the entire world trembled at the prospect of imminent annihilation, seems a trifle forgetful to me, especially since the prospect of mutually assured nuclear destruction remained a distinct possibility for several decades afterwards and indeed is very much still with us today! (Thank Gawd The Orange Clown is no longer “Commander-in-Chief”!)
A good read. Personally, I’d like to see a war on climate change or poverty.
Great article! It’s never the situation; it’s only ever what we think and believe about the situation that causes suffering. So I say it depends on each one’s thought process. The mind is the only place where real freedom lies. Some will think themselves into misery, while others will use everything “out there” as a chance to unthink whatever they believe causes them stress! There’s always freedom and love. The external concept of freedom is nothing compared with real freedom!
Thanks for a really thought-provoking newsletter. Plus a few more books added to my reading list!
News From Nowhere is fab, even though Morris has free tobacco shops and maidens in loose dresses and plump arms. I like his vision of tree’d London, people living in the houses of government, horses clopping around. But even his utopia took years and years of war and fighting. Definitely a vision of a better society though.