There is something wrong with the world today. I know you feel it, deep in your bones, and I feel it too. But maybe it’s just me. I mean, how can you really ever know how good life could be? Or should be? Every civilization has had to deal with its share of problems. We no longer need to worry about saber-toothed tigers, or an Ebola outbreak, or a tribe of cannibals riding over the next hill to eat our children. But while technology has managed to solve the majority of our prehistoric worries, the 2000s has given us a slew of new ones. But the dystopia of today is difficult to define. It’s like the way Neo felt in the Matrix, before meeting Morpheus. Neo also felt like there was something wrong with the world, he just couldn’t explain what it was.
We often read about dystopias, in novels, or sometimes learn about them on TV, but the characters born into these worlds are often unsure of the world they are in—they can never truly know whether “this is just the way things are.” Certainly, the people in Orwell’s 1984 couldn’t be certain of anything. History tells us that the past was worse than today, with average life spans ranging in the thirties, but how can we know for sure what it meant to exist in those days? Even a short life, lived with consequence, can feel longer and more meaningful than a hundred years of drudgery. So I ask, how certain are you, that you are not living in some bleak dystopian world? OK, if you’re a happy person, content with your life, that question may seem absurd. But then again, how many people do you know that are truly happy? And how much misery exists in the world that nobody cares to do anything about? We are told, time and time again, that depression is just brain chemistry. We’re wired wrong. From birth. Take these pills and everything will be fine. But what if there’s a different way to fix your brain? What if the root cause of our mental disorders is that the world is, for lack of a better world, broken?
It would be easy for me to point the finger at one thing, like Trump, and say, “Therein lies the problem,” but Trump, I am starting to realize, really isn’t the problem. Trump is a symptom of the problem. We made Trump happen. Just like we made global warming, and antivaxxers, and Flat Earthers, and school shooters, and the NRA and ISIS. Right now, as we speak, children are being ripped from their mothers’ arms, to be locked away in cages. And the Amazon rainforest is burning. And in another few decades, the only animal species that will exist will be those we keep as pets and those we eat. But again, these are just symptoms.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not asking that you feel bad about what is happening. Because the reality is, YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING about it. And we know this. Sure, sign a petition to ban elephant trophy hunting, if it makes you feel better, but that’s all you’re really doing. You’re just making yourself feel better about elephants you can’t save. I am not suggesting you stop voting, or stop caring—I am saying that the sense of hopelessness we are all beginning to feel, stems from the fact that we know deep down we are all powerless, and insignificant, on a global stage. Information pollution, driven by technology, is overwhelming our capacity to feel. To care. If a child were dying at your feet, right now, you’d likely do everything in your power to save him or her. But what can you do, really do, about the millions of starving children all over the world? Their plight is just as real, just as urgent, and yet we do nothing about it.
It wasn’t always like this. We used to feel important because, at some point in time, we used to interact with one another. We felt like our lives mattered because they mattered to the people sitting, sleeping, and working right beside us. There was a time when all the kids in the neighborhood knew one another and would gather outside to play. There was a time when every kid knew not just their parents, but their uncles, aunts, and cousins. But now? Now we are living in a world where everyone is lonely, but lonely together, squatting in front of our magic screens within the safety of our stone fortresses, afraid to go outdoors, too uncomfortable to speak to those who live closest to us. But a need for belonging, for social interaction, persists in us. Because we are social animals, having evolved to work together to survive, back when food wasn’t just something you could grab off a shelf. So we do everything we can to fill that hole, that gaping hole that craves significance, that craves needing to matter to someone in some way. And we seek it out in the places that have been sold to us for that purpose. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. These outlets have taken the place of real, human engagement, just as Netflix has taken the place of living and PornHub has replaced intimacy. The result of all this is that our names, faces, and identities become lost amid the ceaseless flow of information, the jumble of countless other identities all vying for recognition. Let me make this perfectly clear: if you have a blog, a Twitter feed, or a YouTube channel, NOBODY CARES. Even if you have millions of followers, nobody really cares about you. Because you’re not a person in social media. You’re a product. A cog in the machine built by Mark Zuckerberg, and others, in this new attention economy. Try vanishing from social media for a week, a month, a year. Will anyone notice your absence? If you never return, will you be mourned? Or will your followers simply move on to some new distraction?
This grand media experiment has been, and continues to be, a colossal failure. Not financially, of course, because where the almighty dollar is God, individual human worth diminishes. Divorced from the things we most need to feel human, we are ever so slowly losing our humanity. And therein lies the problem. It isn’t Trump, or racism, or sexism, or any other -ism you can name. It is, simply, that we have forgotten what it means to be human, because too often, the humans we most closely interact with resemble little more than pixels on a screen.
When I think about dystopias, I try to imagine how travelers, coming from another time or place, might react to the world we are living in. I think the Romans, or Greeks, or some fedora-wearing 1950’s Twilight Zone characters, jumping into 2019, might wander our perfectly organized suburban neighborhoods, with our perfectly trimmed lawns, empty sidewalks, and cookie-cutter houses, asking, “Where the Hell is everybody?” When the AI singularity finally takes us over, we will have already plugged ourselves in. We will live in a cell without walls, in a prison of the mind, in a prison of our own making.