Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Information

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.


Coming in from the Cold

Although utopia—and perhaps more commonly, dystopia—has come to be regularly associated with the genre of Science Fiction (SF), it seems prudent to assert that utopia is not necessarily a subgenre of SF. Instead, a result of the shift toward secular and rational thinking in the Enlightenment, the modern notions of progress and idealism inherent in Western utopian thought find themselves intimately connected to science and technology in various forms. Early twentieth century American figures like Tom Swift, for example, articulated the optimism and energy associated with youth inventors, highlighting the promise associated with youth and new technology. [1]

After Robert A. Heinlin’s partnership with Scribner’s helped to legitimize science fiction in the late 1940s through the publication of Rocket Ship Galileo, the genre began to flourish and, like other contemporary works of fiction, increasingly reflected concerns of the day.[2] Still reeling from the aftereffects of World War II, American culture juggled the potential destruction and utility of atomic energy while simultaneously grappling with a pervasive sense of paranoia that manifested during the Cold War. As with many other major cultural shifts, the rapid change in the years following World War II caused Americans to muse over the direction in which they were now headed; despite a strong current of optimism that bolstered dreams of a not-far-off utopia (see Tomorrowland in Disneyland), there remained a stubborn fear that the quickly shifting nature of society might have had unanticipated and unforeseen effects.[3]Very much grounded in an anxiety-filled relationship with developing technology, this new ideological conflict undercut the optimism afforded by consumer technology’s newfound modern conveniences. Life in the suburbs, it seemed, was too good to be true and inhabitants felt a constant tension as they imagined challenges to their newly rediscovered safety: from threats of invasion to worries about conformity, from dystopian futures to a current reality that could now be obliterated with nuclear weapons, people of the 1950s continually felt the weight of living in a society under siege. An overwhelming sense of doubt, and more specifically, paranoia, characterized the age with latent fears manifesting in literature and media as the public began to struggle with the realization that the suburbs did not fully represent the picturesque spaces that they had been conceived to be. In fact, inhabitants were assaulted on a variety of levels as they became disenchanted with authority figures, feared assimilation and mind control (particularly through science and/or technology), began to distrust their neighbors (who could easily turn out to be Communists, spies, or even aliens!), and felt haunted by their pasts. [4] In short, the utopia promised by access to cars, microwave dinners, and cities of the future only served to breed frustration in the 1960s as life did not turn out to be as idyllic as advertised.

Suggesting that utopian and dystopian notions were not intrinsically linked to technology, this pattern would repeat itself in the 1980s after the promises of the Civil Rights, environmental, Women’s Liberation, and other counter-cultural movements like the Vietnam War protests faltered. To be sure, gains were made in each of these arenas, reflected in an increase in utopian science fiction during the 1970s, but stalling momentum—and a stagnating economy—caused pessimism and disillusionment to follow a once burgeoning sense of optimism during the 1980s.[5]On a grander scale, bolstered by realizations that societies built upon the once-utopian ideals of fascism and communism had failed, the 1980s became a dark time for American political sentiment and fiction, allowing for the development of dystopian genres like cyberpunk that mused on the collapse of the State as an effective beneficial regulating entity. [6] Reflected in films like The Terminator, a larger travesty manifested during the decade through an inability to devise systemic solutions to society’s problems, as we instead coalesced our hopes in the formation of romanticized rebel groups with individualist leaders.[7] Writing in 1985, author John Berger opined that repeated promises from Progressive moments in the past had contributed to society’s growing sense of impatience. [8] A powerful sentiment that holds resonance today, we can see reflections of Berger’s statement in President Obama’s campaign slogan and the backlash that followed his election to office—“Hope,” it seems, capitalized upon our expectations for a future filled with change but also sowed the seeds of discontent as the American public failed to witness instantaneous transformation. For many in the United States, a lack of significant, tangible, and/or immediate returns caused fractured utopian dreams to quickly assume the guise of dystopian nightmares.

Furthermore, these cycles set a precedent for the current cultural climate: the promises of new developments in communication technologies like the Internet—particularly relevant is its ability to lower the barriers of access to information—have turned dark as we have come to recognize the dangers of online predators and question the appropriateness of sexting. Moreover, technological advances that allow for the manipulation of the genetic code—itself a type of information—have allowed us to imagine a future that foresees the elimination of disease while simultaneously raising issues of eugenics and bioethics. Shifting our focus from the void of space to the expanses of the mind, utopian and dystopian fiction appears to be musing on the intersection of information (broadly defined) and identity. Spanning topics that feature cybernetic implants, issues of surveillance and privacy, or even the simple knowledge that a life unencumbered by technology is best, ultimately it is access to, and our relationship with, information that links many of the current offerings in utopian/dystopian Science Fiction.


[1] Francis J. Molson, “American Technological Fiction for Youth: 1900-1940.” In Young Adult Science Fiction, edited by C. W. Sullivan III. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999).

[2] Comics at this time, for example, also spoke to cultural negotiations of science and progress. For more about the establishment of Science Fiction as a genre, see C. W. Sullivan III, “American Young Adult Science Fiction Since 1947.” In Young Adult Science Fiction, edited by C. W. Sullivan III. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999).

[3] Bernice M. Murphy, The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[4] See Paul Jensen, “The Return of Dr. Caligari.” Film Comment 7, no. 4 (1971): 36-45 or Wolfe, Gary K. “Dr. Strangelove, Red Alert, and Patterns of Paranoia in the 1950s.” Journal of Popular Film, 2002: 57-67 for further discussion.

[5] Peter Fitting, “A Short History of Utopian Studies.” Science Fiction Studies 36, no. 1 (March 2009): 121-131.

[6] Lyman Tower Sargent, “In Defense of Utopia.” Diogenes 209 (2006): 11-17.

[7] Constance Penley, “Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia.” Camera Obscura 5, no. 3 15 (1986): 66-85.

[8] John Berger, The White Bird. (London: Chatto, 1985).