As humans, we have always wondered what the future holds for us. As a child, I often imagined futures with advanced technologies like flying cars, and teleportation, but as I grew older I have been exposed to various forms of media and the inner workings of our society. Suddenly, the perfect, utopian future I dreamed of was accompanied by the possibility of oppressive governments, abuse of advanced technologies, and nuclear war. This dystopian future is constantly picked over its utopian counterpart when it comes portraying it in media and can affect how we see our own world. Further analysis of science-fiction media, specifically in video games and television, in the light of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and the Cold War will highlight why future dystopian societies are so prevalent as opposed to utopias and what effects they have on today’s society moving forward.
An obvious aspect of dystopian bias is the fact that there is going to be much more conflict and action to entertain the viewer or player. Playing a game such as Fallout 3 where you fight in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by insane thugs and mutated creatures with your trusty plasma rifle after a nuclear war is most likely going to be much more entertaining than living out the ideal life with robot maids and made-to-order food. However, The Sims series seems to thrive off of this exact kind of gameplay. I’m guilty of putting countless hours micromanaging my digital household; from making sure I get enough sleep for work or doing the laundry, I enjoy doing these seemingly meaningless tasks. Of course, the game throws in some chaos to mix it up a little bit, but for the most part I try to make my life in The Sims as utopian as possible. Utopian media is less common, but, as evidenced by The Sims, is completely viable in its own right just in a different way. Examining the comparison further will reveal why dystopian is still more prevalent regardless of either’s entertainment value.
Our species’ history provides us with valuable information we can use for future decisions. Looking back on World War II and the Nazi regime, it is extremely reasonable to say that the Holocaust was a terrible, terrible moment for the entire human population. But the context the world see’s this event is decided by the context in which we live in today. If the Germans won and we lived in a Nazi dominated world, would I be okay with the Holocaust? Possibly; history is written by the victors. Science fiction takes full advantage of this contextual characteristic of history. “Science fiction allows us to apprehend the present as history.” (Moylan 26) In other words, as we play science fiction games or watch futuristic television shows, we contextualize it with the world we live in now. Fallout 3 takes place after a massive nuclear war between China and the United States over oil. That level of conflict is not going to happen in the anytime soon (hopefully), but its not hard to imagine the two major superpowers in the world going at it for the world’s last supply of oil. It is realistic to think that Fallout 3’s World War III can happen while keeping in mind today’s tensions between China and the United States, and their consumption of oil. This is opposed to wishfully thinking that everyone is going to get along and switch to cleaner energy sources. Society clings to the more realistic future. Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man was written in 1964, the height of tensions during the Cold War. As a result his philosophies reflect the industrial society that existed at the time and is still mostly relevant to what is actually happening today. Marcuse elaborates on the pseudo-freedom the democratic and capitalistic society provides. “Today political power asserts itself through its power over the machine process and over the technical organization of the apparatus.” (Marcuse Ch. 1) What Marcuse is alluding to is that people in positions of power are obsessed with efficiency, making profit, and getting ahead of there competitors by controlling the methods and by extension the people that contribute to their success. For example in the 1960’s, the United States government was doing everything possible to advance its technology to eclipse the Soviet Union militarily while stifling the Soviets progress. This included interrogating their own people in a wave of investigations known as the Red Scare that sought to weed out spies, but was mostly just rhetoric (Miller). Today, it also makes sense when applied to a big business controlling where they produce their product. Abusing the cheap manual labor and questionable working conditions overseas only benefits that company. Looking onward, we can utilize past and present day’s context to contribute to our outlook on our future. It is ingrained in our minds from the Cold War that a grim future is more realistic, which makes it more sensible and enjoyable to theorize about.
False needs are “those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression.” (Marcuse Ch. 1) The impression that I need to purchase the newest and fastest iPhone to replace my current one that still works perfectly fine, or that I think Obama is not doing a good job just because his approval rating sits at thirty-eight percent are false needs. These kind of predispositions have been embedded into my subconscious by Apple and by Obama’s opponents. True needs, when fulfilled, cause true satisfaction in an individual. The Cold War was full of false needs that were superimposed onto Americans by the United States government. Propaganda was used to portray the Soviets as evil and totalitarian while portraying the United States as the beacon of hope and freedom in the world (Chisem). Citizens blindly believed this propaganda because of the fear induced by the possibility of a nuclear war, or as Marcuse writes, “the prevalence of repressive needs is an accomplished fact, accepted in ignorance and defeat.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union these false needs that blinded them disappeared. Heading into the 21st century, it started to become clearer that the United States is and was not the protector of capitalism and civil liberties. The true needs that include protecting our privacy from espionage and not getting involved in morally questionable wars were coming to a head in the 1990’s and this is reflected in the shift of how future societies were being portrayed. For example, The Jetsons first premiered in 1962 and is all about the lives of the Jetson family living in a utopian society. Besides the antics present in any cartoon, the Jetsons live life carefree with every convenience at the tip of their fingers. Its popularity was perpetuated by the false needs that were present at the time; the United States is and always will be the center of technological advancement and a carefree lifestyle. Today, shows such as Revolution are more popular. Revolution chronicles the hardships of living in a bleak, post-apocalyptic future following a worldwide blackout. Americans are realizing their true needs of stopping corruption or else it can lead to the realistic dystopian futures that we all love to watch but never want to happen.
If things are going well in a country, generally it makes everyone a little happier, or incites positive thinking. According to Marcuse, positive thinking is the general acceptance of the status quo (Marcuse Ch. 7). When something strays from the norm, this incites negative thinking. According to Marcuse, negative thinking, “is the principle which governs the development of concepts, and contradiction becomes the distinguishing quality of Reason.” (Marcuse Ch. 7) Negative thinking raises concerns and causes questioning when something is off the status quo. Marcuse also says that negative thinking is an aspect of Reason, or science, which means that questioning the norm (a.k.a. the scientific method) is good for furthering reasoning and science. Positive thinking is not inherently good nor is negative thinking bad. Accepting the status quo is not in the best interest of society if it is full of superimposed false needs. For example, Reagan toted that the United States would become a new “utopia” with the fall of the Soviet Union when in reality he was taking advantage of the situation to pursue his own goals and start a new era of conservative hegemony. (Moylan 184) People were thinking positively about losing their longtime foe and were so blinded by it they didn’t see the covert operations occurring in Nicaragua, or “the fiscal write-off of entire geographical regions and masses of humanity that were regarded as no longer, or not yet, worthy of preservation or protection by the leaner and meaner economic machine.” (Moylan 184) However, time passed and the hegemony continued to exploit the public for their own gain by going into more wars in Iraq and Kosovo, “ignoring the non-white populations”, and the domestic redistribution of wealth. (Moylan 185).Americans began to see the strays from the status quo of battling against the evil Soviets and being all about freedom. Negative thinking took hold and people began to realize the true needs of the country. This negative thinking is reflected in the depiction of our future and is why people gravitate towards dystopian types of science fiction. The people of the world are embracing negative thinking by showing what our future could actually become. There are times when positive thinking arises again, notably the patriotism and unity following September 11th, 2001 and its subsequent use to exploit the country by passing the Patriot Act and engaging in two wars; but for the most part the 21st century has been defined by negative thinking.
A combination of context, true needs, negative thinking, and the end of the Cold War have all cumulated in our fascination with a desolate future. Knowing this, it is still a question of why is it relevant and why we should care whether we foresee a bleak society or a flawless one. Questioning the man in charge is of upmost importance in order to keep him in check. When we sacrifice all of our reservations and logic about a ruling hegemony then the “therapeutic task of philosophy would be a political task, since the established universe of ordinary language tends to coagulate into a tota1ly manipulated and indoctrinated universe.” (Marcuse Ch. 7) That is, by giving in and carelessly taking what our leaders tell us as the truth we are giving them all they need to “manipulate and indoctrinate” the world we live in. By thinking and viewing dystopian, we are implanting in our minds the worst-case scenario of our future. No one wants to live in the radiation filled wasteland of Fallout 3, so what can we do about it now? Keep an eye on the Congressmen who side with big oil companies and lobbyists and vote them out if they keep advocating against greener, renewable alternatives. Sticking with oil would keep the U.S. locked into using fossil fuels and lead to inevitable conflict when those resources dwindle in the future. If governments and/or big corporations had complete control over the public, they would superimpose false needs as much as they please. They could make us think that we’re going to live in a utopian world where the biggest issue is what kind of robot maid am I going to buy because I’m tired of pushing buttons (Hanna). Along with surrendering our free will, it is important we notice the way dystopian and utopian media is presented to us so we don’t tumble down the slippery slope to totalitarianism. In the beginning of the game Portal, you are given no backstory to your character, no plot, and no sense of who you are or where you are. Your only source of instruction is coming from the seemingly helpful robot named GLaDOS. She is your mass media. Marcuse writes that media, “shape(s) the universe of communication in which the one-dimensional behavior expresses itself.” (Marcuse Ch. 4) In Marcuse’s view, media shapes what society expresses and finds important. It imposes its views, which come from a higher echelon of officials, onto its people. GLaDOS works in this way, as she shows us what is important to learn to play the game. We have no other knowledge so who are we to question her and the apparent utopian environment around us. If society starts just accepting whatever the media spews out as the truth, there would be no true satisfaction in the world. Although Chell eventually overcomes GLaDOS through her skepticism and quick thinking, a counter example of people accepting what is told to them regardless of the source can be seen in Fallout 3. Before the nuclear war, people would buy spots in giant vaults so they could wait out the nuclear war and the terrors that would follow. Commercials were made displaying how perfect vault life would be (see link), but in reality the vaults were actually psychology experiments and each vault had unique alterations to test its tenants (e.g. containing massive amounts of weapons, a cloning machine, or all females). These people took the commercial at face value as a utopia away from the inevitable dystopia and it led to their ultimate demise.
It is unfortunate that society often has a dreary view of the future. A future where a “big brother” is always watching you or one that’s been devastated by an apocalypse. Who doesn’t want to live in a utopia? Realistically this is not the case and knowing this, we express and view science fiction that mainly depicts the dystopian side. Society hasn’t always been like this with the utopian view being somewhat more popular during the Cold War when American culture was entrenched in false needs and positive thinking. These two factors drove people to realistically believe that the human race could advance enough to live in a utopia as portrayed by The Jetsons. With emergence of more true needs and negative thinking, dystopia has dominated recent science fiction. People know that the government and big business isn’t all out to help you and in fact they spy on their own people. This results in science fiction being more dystopian based as that is what we realistically see as being our future. The importance of this cultural shift cannot be overstated as it is correlated to us keeping our freedom from oppression. The government has the ability to spread propaganda and continue to spy on us to create the same Cold War sentiments shared by Americans of that time period. If we don’t keep questioning those in charge, there is no one to stop them from stomping all over us. Dystopia should not be our future, as long as we keep talking about it.
Portal. October 9th , 2007. Valve Corporation. Nov. 19th, 2013. Video Game.
Fallout 3. October 28th, 2008. Bethesda Softworks. Bethesda Game Studios. Nov. 19th , 2013. Video Game.
Hanna, William, dir. "Rosie the Robot." Dir. Joseph Barbera. The Jetsons. ABC: 23 Sep 1962. Television.
Kripke, Eric, dir. Revolution. NBC: 17 Sep 2012. Television.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Web.http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/64onedim/odmcontents.html
Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia . Boulder: Westview Press, 2000. eBook. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=acls&cc=acls&idno=heb07710.0001.001&node=heb07710.0001.001:4.1&view=image&seq=4&size=100>.
Miller, Arthur. "McCarthyism." American Masters. PBS, 23 Aug 2006. Web. 4 Oct 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/arthur-miller/mccarthyism/484/>.
Chisem, James. "U.S. Propaganda and the Cultural Cold War." e-International Relations. N.p., 16 Aug 2012. Web. 13 Dec 2013. <http://www.e-ir.info/2012/08/16/u-s-propaganda-and-the-cultural-cold-war/>.