High Technology: Utopic, Dystopic, or Ecotopic Future?
As we have come to the end of the course, my brain is buzzing with the futuristic worlds we have explored. I realize Science-Fiction for many is relegated to the category of pop-culture and therefore not academically relevant. For me, however, when studying speculative fiction as ‘literature of ideas’ that shows us an infinite number of possible worlds, I find that I can learn from each and every one of them. Something that really caught my attention this semester was how, in many of the short stories we read, technological advances often led to dystopic worlds. Ironically, we would like to believe that technology will create a utopia in which we are able to eradicate diseases, make physical work unnecessary, and safely live out our fantasies in a virtual reality. However, we also learned that one person’s utopia is another person’s dystopia. Three of the stories we read, The Onion and I, Drapes and Folds, and The Logical Lesson of Heliopause and Cyberfiddle are from the futuristic beyond and warn of how a high-tech future could lead to disaster, either by causing a crash in civilization or simply a disconnect from nature and what it means to be human. One story, Chocco, gave us a hint that we might just be able to survive if we are willing to adapt and change.
The Onion and I is a perfect example of how one person’s utopia is another person’s dystopia. In this story, technology attempts to alleviate some of the world’s problems, such as overpopulation and dwindling resources, by plugging humans into a virtual reality. Rather than use technology to actually solve these problems, possibly through education and control of birthrates, they encourage people to live within cyberspace. Though virtual reality could help with some issues such as a better quality of life for the elderly and disabled or educating children in a physically safe manner, there is no substitute for the real world. The father constantly rebels against the synthetic life his wife believes so passionately will save the human race. The father, like many protagonists of dystopic texts, looks back toward an idyllic past in which he worked with the Earth under the sun. The mother, like many protagonists of utopic stories, strives to create a perfect world and future in which human suffering will end.
The son, who is documenting his family’s pioneering days in Bidwell, mentions early on that the government begins to “make and enforce laws on the computer” and that “they also realize they [can] make and control people” (11). One way in which the inhabitants of Bidwell are already being controlled is that when they take their helmets off, they beep to remind them that they can’t be away too long. As the boy pushes deeper into Cyberworld in order to help his father create the perfect simulated onion, he realizes that his ability to maneuver is being restricted. He can only explore as far as this virtual reality will allow him. He starts to worry that he has been scanned into the computer and that he is no longer real. This could be commentary on how technology can be used to control people and take away their individuality. In our world, marketing, videogames and smart phones constantly keep us plugged in and so we have to wonder if we are being controlled by our desire to be connected and constantly being entertained. If this is true, then it is not a so unrealistic to worry about being controlled by those who control these technologies.
In Drapes and Folds there is an obvious dystopian society in which individuality and creativity are being oppressed and technology is being used as a tool to aid in this attempt. The Powers probably believe they are making progress in eradicating diseases and creating safer communities. However, the more they try to control the society, the more disasters take place. In each attempt to control the food sources with technology, birth defects and diseases plague the population. Instead of learning from this they continually clamp down and restrict the citizens of NewSociety. The Powers try to take every bit of individuality away, which is symbolized by clothing. Clothing is how we protect ourselves from the elements, maintain our dignity and express our unique personalities. To control clothing and food is to control the whole person.
As Diana and Pearl discuss the past, they remember how as ‘progress’ was made, the dehumanizing characteristics of technology became more dominant. Their children, the ultimate expression of a human being, have become cyborgs that can be easily programmed to comply with the rules of NewSociety. Pearl laments over her lost past and its culture of real experience and expression. She hates that her grandchild is merely a cyborg and seems to have no real emotional attachment to her. Xera may be the future of this world, but she will never be completely human. The only hope at the end of the story is that her best friend, Diana, who has had her memory swept to make her a more compliant citizen, and Xera help her hide a bag she had made out of the scrap fabric of her past. This symbolizes that though technology may be used against us, the human spirit can never truly be destroyed.
In Cyberfiddle, the “Earth is trashed and now there’s is nowhere to go” (161). Humans have not recognized that they need nature to survive and have squandered their resources and poisoned the planet. They tried to escape to another world but fail and “are stuck at home, grounded, no wheels, flat broke” (161). The main character is part of the last humans who have plugged themselves into a virtual reality while the world outside dies. In this story humans had believed their technology would save them by bringing them safely to other star systems. When it fails, they sadly realize that the Earth was the one and only home they had. The main character lives in a “virtual” utopia in which his mind is able to create any experience he wants. He finds a manual on how to make a violin and finds that he craves build one for himself. He wants to create something with his hands that is tangible, three-dimensional and that can be used to express emotion only as music can do.
Pryer has awakened to some of the problems of his society. He realizes it is not as perfect as it seems. He decides he will build the fiddle and needs physical resources. He is alone when he ventures out of Warren Beatty into the outside world to gather raw materials. The description of landscape makes it seem uninhabitable which may be symbolism for us being so disconnected from Nature. He eventually comes in contact with a real human child, a Bummer which are people that chose to remain in the real world, who has waiting for someone to come and appreciate the Earth’s resources. The city unfortunately kills this last naturalistic human, but not before he is able to contribute to the making of the Cyberfiddle. This may symbolize that no matter how advanced our technology may become there is no substitute for the natural world and human creativity. As Pryer brings the music to life within Undergarden, we recognize what we may lose if we continue to take the one planet we have for granted.
Chocco really stood out as story that warned of how technology could be a detriment to humans and the earth and yet gives hope as future generations may be able to learn from this and create a better world. Though, like most ecotopic texts, it reads more like a philosophical essay, it creates a clear picture of the mistakes we may be currently making and what the possible outcomes might be. It also offers us a prescription for a new way of life that just might save Humanity. The descriptions of the Machine People are uncomfortably similar to our way of life now. During the Socratic dialogue between Jon and Mikal to see who will become the new Memory Keeper, we learn that the unchecked burning of fossil fuels, unbridled production of synthetic objects and increasing disconnection from our own bodies, each other and the environment led to the Machine People’s destruction.
Though technology led to a dystopic past, fortunately for the citizens of Chocco, they were able to rise from a doomed civilization and create a more sustainable society based on ecological principles. In this story humans control technology. Machines are tools to be used in the real world, not a way to escape it. Humans also live in harmony with nature, recognizing that it needs us a lot more that we need it. The human relationships are meaningful and sacred. The citizens are considered equal regardless of gender. Unfortunately, for some of us, we may reject a more communal style of living because of some of the restrictions placed on individuals. This is a danger of an ecotopic way of life. It is difficult to ensure a balance between the freedom of the individual and the needs of the entire community. According to the warnings of Chocco, however, it is necessary to deal with these problems and find reasonable solutions to ensure our survival.
So the question is: Can we learn from these fantastical excursions into the future and create a better world? These stories all seem to tell us that if we are more vigilant, more connected to each other as well as nature and use technology for more noble purposes, our species might just make it. When considering what’s good for an entire civilization, it seems we may have to accept some loss of individuality. This can be dangerous, especially if the powers that be are trying to take advantage of this. We have all read plenty of dystopias, such as 1984 and Brave New World, and already know that even utopias that were created with the best intentions can become oppressive and dehumanizing. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep thinking, talking and dreaming. We must remember to control technology, making it work for us rather than becoming complacent and allowing it to control us. As Elizabeth L. Suffron’s essay Don’t Run With Scissors warns, we must “understand the consequences” of our actions and “proceed with care.”