Young people handle dystopia every day: in their lives, their dysfunctional families, their violence-ridden schools.
The Age of Information.
Today, more than ever, individuals are awash in a sea of information that swirls around us invisible as it is inescapable. In many ways, we are still grappling with the concept as struggle to sort, filter, and conceptualize that which surrounds us. We complain about the overbearing nature of algorithms—or, perhaps more frighteningly, do not comment at all—but this is not the first time that Western society has pondered the role and influence of information in our lives.
Access to information provides an important thematic lens through which we can view dystopic fiction and although it does not account for the entirety of the genre’s appeal in and of itself (or, for that matter, the increase in its popularity), we will see that understanding the attraction of dystopia provides some insight into the the societies that produce it and elucidates the ways in which the genre allows individuals to reflect on themes present in the world around them—themes that are ultimately intimately connected with the access and flow of information. My interest here lies specifically in YA dystopic fiction and its resonance with the developmental process of teenagers.
Lois Lowry’s quote suggests that today’s youth might be familiar with tangible aspects of dystopia even if they do not necessarily exist in a state of dystopia themselves; dystopia, then, is fundamentally relatable to youth. Interpersonal violence in schools—on both the physical and virtual levels—has become a growing problem and can be seen as a real life analogue to the war-torn wastelands of YA dystopia; although the physical destruction present in fiction might not manifest in the everyday, youth may identify with the emotional states of those who struggle to survive. And, given the recent and high-profile nature of bullying, issues of survival are likely salient for modern youth.
As a writer, it should come as no surprise that Lowry, like literary critic Darko Suvin, primarily describes the concept of dystopia in literary terms; while a valid, if limited perspective, this does not preclude the term also possessing socio-political implications, with one potentially arguing that the relatable nature of dystopia extends far beyond the iterations outlined by Lowry into the realm of ideology. On a basic level, dystopia often asks protagonists to perform a type of self-assessment while simultaneously evaluating preexisting hierarchal structures and systems of authority. Given that this process asks individuals to contrast themselves with the society that surrounds them, one might make the argument that the themes of utopia and dystopia possess an implicit political element, regardless of authors’ intentions.
Moreover, consider the prevalent construct of the secret as a defining characteristic of dystopian societies like those presented in the classic works of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Often located in the cultural history of the dystopia (e.g., “What events caused us to reach this point?”) or the sustained lies of the present (e.g., “This is for your protection”), acquisition of new (hidden) knowledge represents a fundamental part of the protagonist’s—and, by extension, the reader’s—journey. For young adults, this literary progression can mirror the development occurring in real life as individuals challenge established notions during the coming-of-age process; viewed through the lens of anthropology, dystopian fiction represents a liminal space for both the protagonist and the reader in which old assumptions and knowledge are questioned during a metaphorical rite of passage. , And, although the journey itself provides a crucial model trajectory for youth, perhaps more important, however, is the nature of the secret being kept: as Lowry alludes to, modern youth undoubtedly realize that their world—our world—like that of any dystopia, contains elements of ugliness. The real secret, then, is not the presence of a corrupted underbelly but rather why rot exists in the first place.
Aside from the type of knowledge or even the issues latent in its accessibility, however, we can see that modern culture is undergoing a rather radical reconfiguration with regard to the social structures surrounding information flow. Although we still struggle with the sometimes antagonistic relationship between citizens and the State mirrored in classic and YA dystopia, we have also developed another dimension: citizen versus citizen. Spurred on by innovations in technology that have made mobile gadgetry increasingly affordable and accessible to the public, on-location reporting has grown from the relatively useful process of crowdsourcing information to a practice that includes surveillance, documentation, and vigilante justice as we display our moral outrage over someone else’s ungodly behavior through platforms like paparazzi photos, tweeting of overheard conversations, and the ever-popular blog—we, in effect, have assumed the mantle of Big Brother. It would seem that, like Dr. Moreau, we have been granted knowledge and ability without wisdom.
Moreover, let us consider how youth currently exist in a culture of confession that was not apparent during previous cycles of utopia/dystopia. Spurred on in part by daytime talk shows, reality television, press conference apologies, and websites like PostSecret, the current environment is suffused with secrets and those willing to share their intimate stories for a price. Somewhat in opposition to confession’s traditional role in Catholicism, secrets now play an active role in public life despite their private nature, a process that mirrors the juxtaposition of personal and public histories by protagonists in YA dystopia., Moreover, we quickly come to see the increased relevancy of this trend when we consider how individuals, groups, organizations, and societies begin to define themselves in terms of the secrets that they hold about others and themselves. The prevalence of events like corporate espionage, copyright infringement lawsuits, and breakdowns in communication between youth and parents all point to entities that wish to contain and restrict information flow. If being an American in the 20th century meant being defined by material possessions, being an American in the 21st century is to be defined by information and secrets. And, if this is indeed the case, how might we view our existence as one that occurs in a series of ever-expanding dystopias? As it turns out, Lowry might have been more correct than she realized when she noted young people’s familiarity with dystopia.
But perhaps this development is not so surprising if we consider the increasing commodification of knowledge in postmodern culture. If we ascribe to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s argument regarding the closely intertwined relationship between knowledge and production—specifically that the cultivation of new knowledge in order to further production—and therefore that information sets are a means to an end and not an end in and of themselves, we witness a startling change in the relationship between society and knowledge. In opposition to the idealistic pursuit that occurred during the Enlightenment period, modern conceptualizations seem to understand knowledge in terms of leverage—in other words, we, like all good consumers, perennially ask the question, “What can you do for me?” Furthermore, the influence of commercialism on Education (i.e., the institution charged with conveying information from one generation to the next) has been probed, conjecturing that educational priorities might be dictated by concerns of the market. Notably, these cultural shifts have not disavowed the value of knowledge but have changed how such worth is determined and classified.
The Frankfurt School’s pessimistic views of mass culture’s relationship with economic influences and independent thought aside, Lyotard also points to the danger posed by the (then) newly-formed entity of the multinational corporation as a body that could potentially supersede or subvert the authority of the nation-state. Businesses like Facebook and Google accumulate enormous amounts of information (often with our willing, if unwitting, participation) and therefore amass incredible power, with the genius of these organizations residing in their ability to facilitate access to our own information! Without castigating such companies—although some assuredly do—we can glimpse similarities between these establishments’ penchant for controlling the dissemination of information and the totalitarian dictatorships prevalent in so many dystopian societies. In spite of the current fervor surrounding the defense of rights outlined in the Constitution, we largely continue to ignore how companies like Google and Facebook have gained the potential to impact concepts like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of information; algorithms designed to act as filters allow us to cut through the noise but also severely reduce our ability to conceptualize what is missing. These potential problems, combined with current debates over issues like privacy, piracy, and Net Neutrality indicate that power no longer solely resides in knowledge but increasingly in access to it.
 Lois Lowry, quoted in Hintz, Carrie, and Elaine Ostry. Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults. (New York: Routledge, 2003).
 One might even argue that those who read dystopian fiction most likely do not inhabit a dystopian world, for they would not have the leisure time to consume such fiction.
 This point, of course, should not be taken in a manner that discounts the legitimate struggles of children who grow up in conflict states.
 See Ken Rigby, New Perspectives on Bullying. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002and Marilyn A. Campbell “Cyber Bullying: An Old Problem in a New Guise?” Australian Journal of Guidance and Counseling 15, no. 1 (2005): 68-76.
 Clare Archer-Lean, “Revisiting Literary Utopias and Dystopias: Some New Genres.” Social Alternatives 28, no. 3 (2009): 3-7.
 Kennon, Patricia. “‘Belonging’ in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction: New Communities Created by Children.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 15, no. 2 (2005): 40-49.
 Patrick Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” Critical Survey 17, no. 1 (2005): 6-21.
 Hintz and Ostry, Utopian and Dystopian. 2003.
 Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” 2005.
 Shannon McHugh and Chris Tokuhama, “PostSecret: These Are My Confessions.” The Norman Lear Center. June 10, 2010. http://blog.learcenter.org/2010/06/postsecret_these_are_my_confes.html
 John Stephens, “Post-Disaster Fiction: The Problematics of a Genre.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 3, no. 3 (1992): 126-130.
 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979).
 Suzanne de Castell and Mary Bryson, “Retooling Play: Dystopia, Dysphoria, and Difference.” In From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. (Cambidge: The MIT Press, 1998).
 Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition. 1979.
“This implies, does it not, that in order to raise a generation of children who can reach their full potential, we must find a way to make their lives interesting. And the question I have for you, Mr. Hackworth, is this: Do you think that schools accomplish that? Or are they like the schools Wordsworth complained of?”
–Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
Fifteen years after these words are written, we are still struggling to answer the question posed by Science Fiction author Neal Stephenson. Increasingly, we are finding that our American educational system does not raise a generation of children to reach their full potential; arguments about mental acuity aside, we seem to suffer from a generation of college applicants that is, well, rather uninteresting. This is not to say that there aren’t amazing students out there–there definitely are some–but they are more the exception than the rule.
To combat this, we have seen a rise in adult-driven initiatives that aim to cultivate interesting children. Although I don’t disagree with the sentiment, I do disagree with the practice. Fantastic trips and summer camps are not, in and of themselves, the problem. (Certainly, I think we have come adopt a rather distorted view of what’s important and, on some level, we’ve all heard these arguments before. Bigger is better, theater audiences want to see their money on stage, news headlines scream at us, spectacle is rampant, etc.) Rather, I take issue with the idea that many applicants try to substitute someone else’s story for their own: time and time again, I have come across students who traveled to poor villages, or did research, or spent the summer living in European hostels and they typically tell me the same story. These students tell me the central narrative of what they were supposed to have learned or experienced on these adventures and, sometimes, force themselves to have those experiences whether they are genuine or not. Without realizing it, many of subscribed to the notion that there is a typical experience one is supposed to have in the Costa Rican jungles and they recount this like it was the most magical awakening. And, to be fair, it might have been, but I would argue that the shift in perspective is only part of it–everyone goes through an awakening at some point in his or her life–what I want from students is to understand what this change wrought in them. How did you learn something that forever changed the way that you saw the world, such that you couldn’t ever go back?
Or we extol the virtues of Boredom as a provider of quiet spaces free from stimulation, forgetting that, with the incredible, restless youth have also managed to enact incredible amounts of destruction. The practices of contemplation, introspection, and awareness can result from boredom but we are mistaken if we consider boredom to be a prerequisite.
Ultimately, I think that teaching kids to cultivate a passion is not the same as demanding mastery–sure, passion may lead to mastery and I’m not trying to stifle that process–but all I really want is for a student to want to be smarter, to be braver, to be more inquisitive. Simply put, all I really want is for a student to want to be more. If this is our goal, the trips and the flashy photos and the houses built all melt away for we see that we can have–that we do have–meaningful experiences every day. We don’t need to “discover” hidden truths but we do need to reconsider what’s happening around, to, and in us. I think we need to train kids how to understand the import of their “normal” lives and, perhaps more importantly, how to translate these lessons learned into purposeful action.
The big brouhaha this week seemed to be over a new paper published by Benjamin Edlemen called “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” While I think that the paper is somewhat interesting, I think that a lot of media outlets have put it somewhat out of context in an effort to go after Conservatives.
Never in my life did I think I would be defending Red States, but there you go.
I do feel as though the paper is worth reading if you’re into that sort of stuff–it is a research paper first and foremost, however, so be prepared to wade through a bunch of dense data. I still have my doubts about how the information is being used and construed, but that’s another rant for another day.
As I sat in bed reading the paper over, however, I couldn’t help but marvel at how difficult it was to make sense of the words that were in front of me. In college, I was trained how to quickly digest papers and reports (and luckily still retain some of that knowledge), but it became readily apparent that this was just another example of how statistics can be used to suit one’s ends—the numbers are malleable and it seems all too easy to twist them into the right context with barely a flick of a wrist.
And herein lies the trouble. The text on the page represents facts but their implied meaning of the print does not.
I could spend hours talking about how and why statistics are used to fool people but the most important thing is that statistics can mislead people (normal, smart people!) awry. Lawyers use numbers and situations to fool juries, advertisements make slanted claims, and health education will often use the set of measures that suits their particular stance or goal—it’s all the same really, groups are trying to elicit a desired response out of a set of consumers.
Now, I’m not a total cynic or conspiracy theorist, but I do believe that the public should possess a healthy amount of skepticism about the things that they read. Don’t be afraid to challenge information and to get the facts in order to make up your own minds. One of my goals through these entries is to get young people to not only think critically about the choices that they make, but also ensure that they have the ability to make informed decisions. Reading things like the Edlemen publication can be tough at times, but stick with them, because the choices that you make regarding sexual health will have an impact on others but also undoubtedly on your own. While my editor might disagree with this, I would say that you shouldn’t hesitate to check out the website’s citations and sources—I’m confident that we’ll stand up to the scrutiny. I think that at the end of the day, we all want you to get the best information that you can so that you can feel confident about making choices that are right for you.
In a recent TEDx Boston talk, Seth Priebatsch spoke briefly about the ways in which game mechanics are currently being employed in a variety of areas, offering incentive/loyalty programs as a relatively palatable example. Arguing that a developing “game layer” existed (separate from the “social layer”), Priebatsch sought to convince his audience that understanding game mechanics was key, for these were the rules that governed influence and behavior. Getting away from possible connotations with games as childlike or superfluous, we might also consider how real world game mechanics are really no different than the structure provided by religion—both constitute frameworks that order our choices based on our expectations for future outcomes.
As someone who works in Higher Education, I immediately began to consider the ways in which games and education have been paired in the past. Although we certainly have had some success using games to teach children skills through scaffolding, the merging of the areas has often resulted in concepts like Edutainment or serious gaming, which seem to represent an attempt to harness gaming into something pro-social or productive. Reversing the direction of influence, Jesse Schell spoke at DICE 2010 about how the logic of games can be applied to educational settings, transforming the way that we think about grades to resemble the process of leveling up.
Although this approach made much sense to me, as it spoke in a language students seemed primed to understand, I also began to wonder about the quantification of achievement. Are we turning into society largely motivated by trophies or unlockables? Is this really different from previous cultures or have we simply found a new way to express our desire to gain a sense of identity through external labels that we manufacture and then bestow upon ourselves? Does our sense of self become dependent on “real life achievements”? We buy into a system that designates some accolades as worthy of a title or a badge, but who gets to make these decisions?