Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Facebook

Tell Me No Lies

Today, more than ever, individuals are awash in a sea of information that swirls around us, invisible as it is inescapable. And yet, for people who exist solidly within an age of American history defined by our access to, and relationship with, information, we are surprisingly challenged by the overwhelming onslaught of data as we struggle to sort, filter, and conceptualize that which surrounds us. We lament the overbearing influence exerted by algorithms on the Internet on Wall Street (Pariser, 2011; Kaufman Jr. & Levin, 2011) while concurrently expressing concern over technological advances that allow for the manipulation of the genetic code—itself a type of information!—as we foresee a future the portends the elimination of disease while simultaneously raising issues of eugenics and bioethics (Reiss & Straughan, 1996; Lambrecht, 2001). Or, perhaps more frighteningly, we do not comment at all.

Information, in one sense, can then be understood to occupy a place in American culture that is fraught with tension. Concordantly, it may come as no surprise that society also exhibits a complex relationship with news outlets given that the press represents an industry whose primary function revolves around the dissemination of information.[1] Moreover, if we accept what Herbert J. Gans’ calls “bulwark theory” (2010)—the position that an informed populace is a crucial, if not sufficient, component for the operation of a functioning democracy—we see that the institution continues to perform a vital service in spite of its flaws and constraints.

Take, for example, the limitations that arise from the news media’s current reliance on credentialed sources:  while it might make intuitive and economic sense to obtain information directly from organizational spokespeople, the press has evolved in such a way as to become beholden to these establishments for their information, resulting in the ability of corporations, government, and industry to exert a larger measure of control over the narrative (Herman & Chmosky, 1988). Put another way, if we were to understand information flow as a pipeline that stretches between events and the public, certain institutions have managed to create a chokepoint by situating themselves as the sole providers of legitimate and/or official news with regard to a particular matter. Although this situation obviously puts the public and the press at a general disadvantage, this relationship becomes particularly problematic when organizations performing a gatekeeping function decide that withholding information is in the public interest.

In particular, the ongoing “war on terror” provides fertile ground to explore such practices with the government periodically claiming that the release of information may compromise ongoing efforts.[2] While government officials may in fact be correct about the repercussions of making knowledge public, such behavior also elicits a measure of frustration from the public and the press as noted in an editorial authored on October 9, 2011 by public editor Arthur S. Brisbane entitled “The Secrets of Government Killing.”[3]

Sparked by a lack of clarity surrounding the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki on September 30 of this year, Brisbane chastises the contradictory tactics employed by government officials with administrators refusing to provide information publically while simultaneously “leaking” information through anonymous sources. Such a strategy, also employed in areas like celebrity public relations, not only fosters a sentiment that the press has been duped into publicizing and legitimizing the government’s talking points but also prevents individual government officials from being accountable for their actions. Additionally, news media, for their part, cannot lean too heavily on their sources even if they feel an obligation to report on the inner workings of government for they are subject to the “shadow of the future” effect, which essentially posits that current actions facilitate the development of reputation systems and are affected by the anticipated impact that they will have on future interactions (Axelrod, 1984; Resnick, Zeckhauser, Friedman, & Kuwabara, 2000)—in other words, pressing their contacts might inhibit the ability of the press to access future information. This situation, characterized by Brisbane as “awkward,” is potentially detrimental and serves to expose the existent dysfunction in the relationship between the press and the government (2011).

Moreover, whether or not the withholding of information is justified by the government, this sort of behavior undoubtedly serves to breed conspiracy theorists and a general air of distrust regarding the current administration, for it implies that a divide between front stage and backstage knowledge exists.[4] In addition to encouraging feelings of paranoia, this practice also makes the hierarchy of access to privileged information salient, causing the public to become curious about that which is forbidden. A constant tension exists between the government, the press, and the public as the involved parties attempt to ascertain who knows what about whom (Goffman, 1959)—the public may become suspicious that the press is colluding with the government while the government may be trying to stay one step ahead of the press and the public.[5]

Lest we think that this phenomenon is confined to politics, another article from the New York Times articulates how the desire to know inside information is applicable to a wide range of endeavors. In “Inside Knowledge for All You Outsiders,” A. O. Scott notes similar thematic elements in films that range from the political Ides of March to the virulent Contagion and from the investment banking of Margin Call to the baseball statistics of Moneyball, all of which spoke to an exploration of inside knowledge in some manner (2011).[6] These forms of entertainment, Scott argues, hold an appeal for audiences in part because they afford us the sense that we are breaking through the insular barrier of professionals and finally allowed to join in on the conversations taking place behind closed doors (Scott, 2011; Didion, 1988).[7] For Goffman, possessing a more complete picture of the situation (i.e., a “working consensus”) allows one to better dictate the nature of the interaction and leads to more desirable outcomes, particularly when we are trying to manage our images and reputations.

And the increased facility with image management is an important point to consider when framing our heightened awareness of the relationship between news sources, news outlets, and the public; perhaps our increased sensitivity hasn’t come about solely through violations of the public’s trust but also because we are also increasingly engaged in deceptive practices that revolve around the manipulation of knowledge. Using the popularity of social media as a pertinent example, we might engage in small deceptions on our online profiles as we attempt to lessen the rejection that we so desperately seek to avoid in real life or we might alter a personal characteristic in order to test the waters of a new identity in an environment that dampens anxiety and judgment. Here, in a fashion, we have assumed the role of those we would protest against—the news sources.[8] The question, then, is how our personal experiences in these endeavors might impact our attitudes regarding the news industry. Has the more digestible system of information management present on social networks helped us to become more aware of the implications of information flow, more blasé, or both?

Technological innovations like social media have allowed us, as individuals, to connect over vast differences and afforded us many opportunities that we might not otherwise have; yet, in some ways, it has also left us disconnected from the things that (arguably) matter the most. However, before we begin blaming our societal woes on technology, we should consider how negotiating these new forms of social relations represent but one factor in a complex network of behaviors that help to account for the manifestation and reinforcement of the industry/press/public phenomenon outlined earlier.

For example, 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 in late 20th century society—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 (1979). In opposition to the idealistic pursuit of knowledge for its own sake that occurred during the Enlightenment period, modern perspectives 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?” Notably, this cultural shift does not disavow the value of knowledge but does change how such worth is determined and classified.

Lyotard’s ideas also hold resonance for modern culture as he acknowledges 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 (1979). Although we might be inclined to focus on the mechanisms by which institutions like the government, military, or finance, control and regulate knowledge, businesses like Facebook and Google also deserve attention as entities that 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 judging such companies—although some assuredly do—we can readily glimpse similarities between these establishments’ penchant for controlling the dissemination of information and the practices of government officials outlined earlier in this article. 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 also 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 underscore the need to revisit Francis Bacon’s assertion that knowledge is power—power, in some ways, no longer solely resides in knowledge but increasingly in access to it.


[1] Of course, this should not suggest that the only function of the press is to inform the public as one might argue that the very act of information exchange helps to support the development of community. For a counterpoint that features the positive results of this process and its perversion by the mass media, see Jürgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

[2] For more information about the Supreme Court case that established such precedent, see United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953).

[3] From the New York Times website: “Arthur S. Brisbane is the fourth public editor appointed by The Times. The public editor works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about articles published in the paper.  His opinions and conclusions are his own.” (The New York Times, 2010).

[4] Here I refer to the terms as used by Erving Goffman.

[5] Adapted from my reading response for August 30.

[6] This is, of course, in addition to the perennial popularity of procedural shows on television that explore the inner workings of police forces, hospitals and/or medical professionals, and the judicial system. A recent trend in reality television has also endeavored to showcase niche occupations (and the lives of) truckers, loggers, crabbers, innkeepers, and gold prospectors—I suspect that, to some degree, these docu-soaps attempt to capitalize on the same impulses as their mainstream network counterparts.

[7] See also Herbert J. Gans’ “News and the News Media in the Digital Age:  Implications for Democracy.”

[8] Although it should be noted that after the 2008 election campaigns presidential hopefuls seem to be embracing this technology to a greater degree and such actions are surely part of a particular candidate’s image management plan. For further reading on implementation of social media in the current campaign cycle, please see Ashley Parker’s “A Presidential Candidate’s Special Team.”

Works Cited

Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.

Brisbane, A. S. (2011, October 9). The Secrets of Government Killing. The New York Times, p. SR.12.

Didion, J. (1988, October 27). Insider Baseball. The New York Review of Books, p. 19.

Gans, H. J. (2010). News and the News Media in the Digital Age: Implications for Democracy. Daedalus, Spring, 8-17.

Goffman, E. (1959). Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New york: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. (T. Burger, & F. Lawrence, Trans.) Cambridge: Polity.

Herman, E. S., & Chmosky, N. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Kaufman Jr., E. E., & Levin, C. M. (2011, May 6). Preventing the Next Flash Crash. The New York Times, p. A.27.

Lambrecht, B. (2001). Dinner at the New Gene Cafe: How Genetic Engineering Is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Pariser, E. (2011). The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: The Penguin Press.

Parker, A. (2011, October 9). A Presidential Candidate’s Special Team. The New York Times, p. ST.6.

Reiss, M. J., & Straughan, R. (1996). Improving Nature?: The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Resnick, P., Zeckhauser, R., Friedman, E., & Kuwabara, K. (2000). Reputation Systems. Association for Computing Machinery, 43(12), 45-48.

Scott, A. O. (2011, October 9). Inside Knowledge for All You Outsiders. The New York Times, p. AR.1.

The New York Times. (2010, June). The Opinion Pages. Retrieved October 20, 2011, from The New York Times: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/opinion/thepubliceditor/index.html


Mutable Masses?

It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Notably, however, the fears associated with the masses have not been limited to one particular decade in American history:  across cultures and times, we can witness examples akin to tulip mania where unruly mobs exhibited relatively irrational behavior. Given the reoccurring nature of this phenomenon, which receives additional credence from psychological studies exploring groupthink and conformity (Janis, 1972; Asch, 1956), we might choose to examine how, if at all, the cultural critiques of the 1950s apply to contemporary society.

Recast, the criticisms of mass culture presumably resonate today in a context where popular culture holds sway over a generally uncritical public; we might convincingly argue that media saturation has served to develop a modern society in which celebrities run wild while evidencing sexual exploits like badges of honor, traditional communities have collapsed, and the proverbial apocalypse appears closer than ever. Moreover, having lost sight of our moral center while further solidifying our position as a culture of consumption since the 1950s, the masses have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to flash a credit card in response to advertising campaigns and to purchase unnecessary goods hawked by celebrity spokespeople in a process that demonstrates a marked fixation on appearance and the image in a process reminiscent of critiques drawn from A Face in the Crowd (Hoberman, 2008a; Ecksel, 2008). Primarily concerned with the melding of politics, news, and entertainment, which harkens back to Kierkegaard-inspiried critiques of mass culture, current critics charge that the public has at long last become what we most feared:  a mindless audience with sworn allegiances born out of fielty to the all-mighty image (Hoberman, 2008a).

Arguably the most striking (or memorable) recent expression of image, and subsequent comingling bewteen politics and entertainment, centered around Sarah Palin’s campaign for office in 2008. Indeed, much of the disucssion regarding Palin centered around her image and colloquisims rather than focusing solely on her abilities. [1] Throughout her run, Palin positioned herself as an everyman figure, summoning figures such as “Joe Six-Pack” and employing terms such as “hockey mom” in order to covey her relatability to her constituents.[2] In a piece on then-Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, columnist Jon Meacham questions this practice by writing:  “Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?” (2008). Palin, it seemed to Meacham, represented much more of the former than the latter; this position then  leads to the important suggestion that Palin was placed on the political bill in order to connect with voters (2008). Suddenly, a correlary between Palin and Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd becomes almost self-evident.

At our most cynical, we could argue that Palin is a Lonesome-type figure, cleverly manipulating her image in order to connect with the disenfranchised and disenchanted. More realistically, however, we might consider how Palin could understand her strength in terms of her relatability instead of her political acumen; she swims against the current as a candidate of the people (in perhaps the truest sense of the term) and provides hope that she will represent the voice of the common man, in the process challenging the status quo in a government that has seemingly lost touch with its base. In some ways, this argument continues to hold valence in post-election actions that demonstrate increasing support of the Tea Party movement.

However, regardless of our personal political stances, the larger pertinent issue raised by A Face in the Crowd is the continued existence of an audience whose decision-making process remains heavily influenced by image—we actually need to exert effort in order to extract our opinion of Sarah Palin the politician from the overall persona of Sarah Palin. Although admittedly powerful, author Mark Rowlands argues that a focus on image—and the reliance on the underlying ethereal quality described by Daniel Boorstin as being “well known for [one’s] well-knownness” (Boorstin, 1962, p. 221)—is ultimately damning as the public’s inability to distinguish between items of quality leads them to focus on the wrong questions (and, perhaps worse, to not even realize that we are asking the wrong questions) in ways that have very real consequences. Extrapolating from Rowlands, we might argue that, as a culture that is obsessed with image and reputation, we have, in some ways, forgotten how to judge the things that really matter because we have lost a sense of what our standards should be.

Ever the Same?

So while the criticisms of critics from the Frankfurt School might appear to hold true today, we also need to realize that modern audiences exist in a world that is, in some ways, starkly different from that of the 1950s. To be sure, the mainstream media continues to exist in a slightly expanded form but new commentary on the state of American culture must account for the myriad ways in which current audiences interact with the world around them. For instance, work published after Theodor Adorno’s time has argued against the passive nature of audiences, recognizing the agency of individual actors (Mattson, 2003; Shudson, 1984).[3] Moreover, the new activity on the part of audiences has done much to comingle the once distinctly separate areas of high and low culture in a process that would have likely confounded members of the Frankfurt School. The current cultural landscape encompasses remix efforts such as Auto-Tune the News along with displays of street art in museum galleries; projects once firmly rooted in folk or pop art have transcended definitional boundaries to become more accepted—and even valued—in the lives of all citizens. While Adorno might be tempted to cite this as evidence of high culture’s debasement, we might instead argue that these new manifestations have challenged the long-held elitism surrounding the relative worth of particular forms of art.

Additionally, examples like Auto-Tune the News suggest that advances in technology have also had a large impact on the cultural landscape of America over the past half century, with exponential growth occurring after the widespread deployment of the Internet and the resulting World Wide Web. While the Internet certainly provided increased access to information, it also created the scaffolding for social media products that allowed new modes of participation for users. Viewed in the context of image, technology has helped to construct a world in which reputations are made and broken in an instant and we have more information circulating in the system than ever before; the appearance of technology, then, has not only increased the velocity of the system but has also amplified it.

Although the media often showcases deleterious qualities of the masses’ relationship with these processes (the suicide of a student at Rutgers University being a recent and poignant example), we are not often exposed to the incredible pro-social benefits of a platform like Twitter or Facebook. While we might be tempted to associate such pursuits with online predators (a valid concern, to be sure) or, at best, unproductive in regard to civic engagement (Gladwell, 2010), to do so would to ignore the powerfully positive uses of this technology (Burnett, 2010; Lehrer, 2010; Johnston, 2010). Indeed, we need only look at a newer generation of activist groups who have built upon Howard Rheingold’s concept of “smart mobs” in order to leverage online technologies to their benefit (2002)—a recent example can be found in the efforts of groups like The Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center to win money in the Chase Community Giving competition (Business Wire, 2010). Clearly, if the masses can self-organize and contribute to society, the critiques of mass culture as nothing more than passive receptors of media messages need to be revised.

Reconsidering the Masses

If we accept the argument that audiences can play an active part in their relationship with media, we then need to look for a framework that begin to address media’s role in individuals’ lives and to examine the motivations and intentions that underlie media consumption. Although we might still find that media is a corrosive force in society, we must also realize that, while potentially exploiting an existing flaw, it does not necessarily create the initial problem (MacGregor, 2000).

A fundamental building block in the understanding of media’s potential impact is the increased propensity for individuals (particularly youth) to focus on external indicators of self-worth, with the current cultural climate of consumerism causing individuals to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they do not have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) as opposed to their strengths. Simultaneously both an exacerbation of this problem and an entity proffering solutions, constructs like advertising provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by instilling brands as a substitute for value:  the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon individuals, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if people aren’t good at anything, they can still be associated with the right brands and be okay. Although we might be tempted to blame advertising for this situation, it actually merely serves to exploit our general unease about our relationship to the world, a process also reminiscent of narcissism (Lasch, 1979).

Historian Christopher Lasch goes on to argue that, once anchored by institutions such as religion, we have become generally disconnected from our traditional anchors and thus have come to substitute media messages and morality tales for actual ethical and spiritual education (1979). The overlapping role of religion and advertising is noted by James Twitchell, who contends that, “Like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996, 110). Thus, we might classify religion, advertising, entertainment, and celebrity as examples of belief systems (i.e., a certain way of seeing the world complete with their own set of values) and use these paradigms to begin to understand their respective (and ultimately somewhat similar!) effects on the masses.

A Higher Power

Ideologies such as those found in popular culture, religion, or advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996, 29). Each manifestation also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of advertising, entertainment, religion, and art (as associated with high/pop/folk culture) play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, in terms of the external:  God, works of art, and name brands all serve as tools of classification. While cynics might note that this stance bears some similarities to the carnival sideshows of P. T. Barnum—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (Gamson, 1994; Lasch, 1979)—the terms survive because they continue to speak to a deep desire for structure; the myth of advertising works for the same reasons that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers. Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of [the culture of advertising] is felt where we least expect it:  in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, 124). Constructs like advertising or entertainment, it seems, not only allow us to assemble a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of individuals in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how overarching ideologies can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process evidenced by the ability of the aforementioned concepts to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu.

Given our reconsideration of mid-century cultural critiques, it follows that we should necessarily reevaluate proposed solutions to the adverse issues present within mass culture. We recall the advice of A Face in the Crowd’s Mel Miller (i.e., “We get wise to them”) and reject its elitist overtones while remaining mindful of its core belief. We recognize that priding ourselves on being smart enough to see through the illusions present in mass culture, while pitying those who have yet to understand how they are being herded like so many sheep, makes us guilty of the narcissism we once ascribed to the masses—and perhaps even more dangerous than the uneducated because we are convinced that we know better. We see that aspects of mass culture address deeply embedded desires and that our best hope for improving culture is to satisfy these needs while educating audiences so that they can better understand how and why media affects them. Our job as critics is to encourage critical thinking on the part of audiences, dissecting media and presenting it to individuals so that they can make informed choices about their consumption patterns; our challenge is to convincingly demonstrate that engagement with media is a crucial and fundamental part of the process. If we ascribe to these principles, we can preserve the masses’ autonomy and not merely replace one dominant ideology with another.


[1] Certainly being a female did not help this as American women are typically subject to a “halo effect” wherein their attractiveness (i.e., appearance) affects their perception (Kaplan, 1978)

[2] Palin has continued the trend, currently employing the term “mama grizzlies,” a call-to-arms that hopes to rally the willingness of women to fight in order to protect things that they believe in. Interestingly, a term that reaffirms the traditional role of women as nurturing matriarchs has been linked to feminist movements, a move that seems to confuse the empowerment of women with a socially conservative construct of their role in American life (Dannenfelser, 2010).

[3] We can also see much work conducted in the realm of fan studies that supports the practice of subversive readings or “textual poaching,” a term coined by Henry Jenkins (1992), in order to discuss contemporary methods of meaning making and resistance by fans.


The Truth Shall Set You Free?

Young people handle dystopia every day:  in their lives, their dysfunctional families, their violence-ridden schools.

—Lois Lowry[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] And, given the recent and high-profile nature of bullying, issues of survival are likely salient for modern youth.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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. [8],[9] 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.[10],[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.


[1] Lois Lowry, quoted in Hintz, Carrie, and Elaine Ostry. Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults. (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[2] 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.

[3] This point, of course, should not be taken in a manner that discounts the legitimate struggles of children who grow up in conflict states.

[4] 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.

[5] Clare Archer-Lean, “Revisiting Literary Utopias and Dystopias: Some New Genres.” Social Alternatives 28, no. 3 (2009): 3-7.

[6] 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.

[7] Patrick Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” Critical Survey 17, no. 1 (2005): 6-21.

[8] Hintz and Ostry, Utopian and Dystopian. 2003.

[9] Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” 2005.

[10] 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

[11] John Stephens, “Post-Disaster Fiction: The Problematics of a Genre.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 3, no. 3 (1992): 126-130.

[12] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979).

[13] 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).

[14] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition. 1979.