By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Utopia and dystopia will become increasingly multimedia in nature, especially given its increased focus on environmental degradation as a reason to imagine more utopian, sustainable communities of the future, or imagine nightmarish scenarios where dystopian communities are the only way to deal with a devastated world.
In January 2016, Science published an article making a strong case for officially naming a new geological period, the Anthropocene. This is an idea whose currency is especially high right now.
What is the Anthropocene? It means “human era”. This is the name a lot of scientists think we should give to the era we’re currently living in, as they argue that the impacts humans have on the Earth are very much on par with geological factors like shifts in tectonic plates and in temperature patterns.
This is a very controversial idea indeed. Climate change. The Earth’s sixth major extinction event. Permanent changes in biogeography or the distribution of organisms in various locations. Geomorphology or the way erosion patterns follow human constructions rather than natural coastlines.
Learn more about utopian activism.
Utopia and Dystopia
Are these things really anthropogenic, a result of human activity? And if they are, so what? The Earth is a complex system that changes regularly over time. It’s not the first time the climate has changed, or the first time we’ve had a loss of biodiversity so great it’s labeled an extinction event. These things happen with or without human intervention.
But, how can we make complicated and enormously consequential policy decisions about issues that affect all humans currently living on the Earth, as well as all the plant and animal life that surrounds us that effect, perhaps even more instrumentally, the very ground we walk on?
There are all kinds of brilliant computational models that take into account all variety of data and of stochastic techniques in trying to make predictions about the multifaceted impacts of the different approaches we might take to reducing the anthropogenic effect of our construction and consumption. But those don’t really impact the public. Utopian and dystopian scenarios—those impact the public. And different members of the public may want to access them in different ways.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Utopia and Dystopia Online
Utopia and dystopia are increasingly inflecting modes of art and culture other than literature and film. Hyperutopias or hypertext utopias, which map out utopian spaces using Web tools are likely to increase in popularity, since they allow users to grapple with, and to create their own, utopian visions. And they will surely become more sophisticated as they move on to augmented reality platforms.
We already have a lot of very popular, slick video games that place users in dystopian scenarios. BioShock, for example, is an enormously successful first-person shooter game set in an underwater city called Rapture that was set up as a utopia but that, of course, turns out to have a rotten inner core.
Other games that allow users to explore dystopian and utopian approaches to building and maintaining societies include the Civilization and Fallout series. We can expect to see many more games that expand our utopian imaginings and our dystopian fears as video game technology continues to become more immersive.
Thomas More’s Utopia
These are not the predictions Thomas More would have made 500 years ago, as he imagined that fantastic island of Utopia. More could not have predicted augmented reality versions of utopia. He could not have predicted dystopian literature for children; in fact, he probably couldn’t even have predicted the concept of childhood as a markedly separate life stage.
But when we look back, we can see in More’s philosophical tome the seeds of a gorgeously generative genre that would serve both to reflect upon society’s ills and to imagine society’s potentials. We see the seeds for the hilarious and often vicious satirical utopias of the 17th and 18th centuries; for the earnest utopian writings of the 19th century and their real-world applications; for the dark dystopias of the early 20th century, with their reflections of anxieties about totalitarianism, governmental and cultural.
More’s work lay the foundation even for the somewhat unexpected resurgence of utopia in the 1970s largely among feminist writers. Also, for the ambiguous utopias and heterotopias of the late 20th century, and the young adult dystopias that dominate youth literature in the 21st century.
Learn more about Thomas More and utopian origins.
Yearning and Fear
As we see in our journeys through various dystopian landscapes, there is, similarly, always a utopian yearning along the sinister road that leads to dystopia. And that complex paradox, where we both yearn and fear, where we imagine earnestly but always with a cynical eye is why this genre works.
It works formulaically because we enjoy the conventions of utopia and dystopia. It works from a marketing perspective, as we can see rather easily when we look through bestseller lists and blockbuster films. And it works rhetorically because of the contradiction. The perfect place that is no place. It embodies a simultaneous optimism and cynicism that is, perhaps, an inherent part of the human condition.
Common Questions about Multimedia Future of Utopia and Dystopia
Anthropocene, or the “human era”, is the name a lot of scientists think we should give to the era we’re currently living in. They argue that the impact humans have on the Earth are as big as other geological factors.
Hyperutopias or hypertext utopias, map out utopian spaces using Web tools, allow users to grapple with, and to create their own, utopian visions.
A lot of very popular, very slick video games that place users in dystopian scenarios. BioShock, for example, is an enormously successful first-person shooter game set in an underwater city called Rapture that was set up as a utopia but that, of course, turns out to have a rotten inner core. Other games that allow users to explore dystopian and utopian approaches to building and maintaining societies include the Civilization and Fallout series.