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Do We Live in a Dystopia?

The literary genre "utopia" acquired its name from the novel by the same title, published by Thomas Moore in 1516. Various authors have tried to imagine a perfect society and describe it in the form of a project, tale, or novel. Plato's Republic is probably the first known utopia, describing the most desirable civilisation and political establishment based on Spartan training and the rule of aristocracy.

As the dangers from the frightening trends in politics and technology increased and the disappearance of morality became more apparent, the antonym of utopia appeared as a literary genre. It usually described a worst-case scenario of the future, with brutal and authoritarian physical and mind control. This genre is known as dystopia. The word comes from the Ancient Greek prefix δυσ- "bad" and the noun τόπος ("place"). It is also known as "cacotopia" from κακόs, "bad, wicked," the term originally proposed by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1818.

Two perhaps best known dystopias were written by English authors. Brave New World was created by Aldous Huxley (1894-1964) in 1932, and it describes the world a system of extreme liberal capitalism could eventually create, replete with brainwashing, mind control, artificial insemination and collective upbringing and education. Huxley was familiar with eugenics and genetic engineering, and he portrayed its possible, frightening consequences. 

George Orwell (1903-1950) is best known for his novel 1984, which describes the world the Soviet-style socialist totalitarianism could lead us to, with complete surveillance and demonstration of power over every citizen. The adjective "Orwellian" was derived from the creator of this dystopia. It denotes the totalitarian society governed by lies, cult of the leader and perpetual war.

Both of these novels have anticipated in many ways the direction in which our society would move, and it predicted numerous aspects of today's world with its technology used for physical restraint, verbal and visual manipulation.

Spooky dystopias have been famously portrayed in films as well. The 1982 movie Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? shows a memorable rainy, desolate and chaotic city of the future.

There is one fairly recent dystopian society that is arguably scariest of them all. Ten years ago, Pixar Animation Studios released Wall-E, a computer-animated science fiction filmThe part of the movie depicting uninhabitable Earth devastated by pollution is perhaps not as exciting, but the portrayal of the surviving humanity circling the universe in a spaceship is both alarming and highly convincing. Worst of all, it rings true.

The spaceship is filled with people riding in their comfortable, digitalised seats absorbed in the screens in front of them. They talk on the screen even with the acquaintances riding right next to them. They follow all the directions given to them by a pleasant female voice, and these directions are related solely to consumption.

Two things stand out in this prolonged scene. The people in the spaceship are so fat, they cannot even walk or sit straight. They are used to the buttons on their electronic armchairs answering all their bodily needs to such an extent that they don't even know what physical activity means. The second circumstance is that the inhabitants of the flying object have their attention riveted to the screens in front of them so much that they hardly notice anything around them.

When we look at today's Western societies, these two trends are reaching epidemic proportions.

Let us look at the United States of America, the leader in negative tendencies related to technology and consumption. In this country, the consumerism taken to an extreme in the animated movie has been the main driving force and the principle ideology for the past century.

In the US, over two thirds of the population is overweight, and over one third is obese. The definition of overweight is when one's body mass index (BMI) is over 25, obesity is when BMI is over 30, and severe obesity is 40 and above. That means that if a person's height is 180 cm, (about 5 feet and 11 inches), his normal weight is between 60 and 80 kilograms. If the same person weighs between 81 and 97 kg, he or she is considered overweight, and weighing 98 kg and above makes him obese. The weight of 130 kg for the person of such height is already considered extremely obese.

Adults are free to make independent decisions based on responsibilites toward others and themselves. The full severity of the problem is seen when one considers that even obesity in children is on a rapid rise in America. Since 1980, it has tripled, and it now stands above 20 percent.

There are two main reasons for obesity: consumption of food with a lot of saturated fat and the sedentary lifestyle. It is well known that fast food is the cheapest and most convenient meal. Americans spend a lot of time at work, and they love convenience. Most of them live in suburbs with supermarkets and other shops, schools and their workplace miles, sometimes tens of miles away, and the only way to reach them is by car. Most US citizens find even a short walk too energy consuming. One can hardly see anyone walking between those infinite rows of identical or similar houses; those new suburbs usually don't even have a sidewalk.  

The time Americans spend in front of TV and computer screens is even more appalling. An average adult in the US spends five hours a day watching TV. In addition, he spends more than two hours consuming media on his mobile phone. Combined with the use of desktop computers and tablets, in 2016 an average American spent 10 hours and 40 minutes watching TV, surfing the web on the computer or using an application on his phone. The numbers considerably rise every year. Scientists have found that watching a favourite site or playing a game raises dopamine levels, the neurotransmitters responsible for various addictions. Just like any addiction, it is extremely hard to stop.

The nature of most shows and programmes based on reality shows in which people are ready to do anything for five minutes of fame, fake news and aggressive advertisement will not be discussed here, but they are part of the problem as well.

The dual inclination is quickly spreading across the globe. One can find obese people even in China today, a rare event only a few decades ago. On the average, the now Chinese spend three hours a day on their smart phones.

There are still people who enjoy the outdoors, who are careful about their diet and who lead active lives. There are still people who don't have a TV or a smart phone or don't use them that much. They are increasingly rare. Sooner than we think, we could find ourselves living like the outcasts from Earth in Wall-E.

On a good note, the survivors from the spaceship in the film display remarkable courage in deciding to land on our planet that has started showing signs of life after centuries of post-apocalyptic destitution. They also demonstrate compassion in admiring the first tree that starts growing there. These two traits may be purely instinctive, but they still give us hope that all is not lost. They still offer us a grain of optimism that our inborn desire for mental and physical health will make us appreciate live company of people and nature just like it once did.

Svetozar Postic

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Do We Live in a Dystopia?
The literary genre "utopia" acquired its name from the novel by the same title, published by Thomas Moore in 1516. Various authors have tried to imagine a perfect society and describe it in the form of a project, tale, or novel. Plato's Republic is probably the first known utopia, describing th...
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