So which dystopia are we living in?
Most educated people have read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” So influential have these books been that we are inclined to view all disconcerting new phenomena as either “Orwellian” or “Huxleyan.”
However, a superior work of science fiction to both is the earlier masterpiece “We,” by the Russian satirist Yevgeny Zamyatin. Written in 1920-1921, in the early, turbulent years of the Soviet Union, “We” is astoundingly prescient. In the One State, individual humans are mere “ciphers” clad in standardized “unifs,” with numbers instead of names. All apartments are made entirely of glass, and curtains can be drawn only when one is having state-licensed sex. The secret police, the Bureau of Guardians, are ubiquitous.
The central character of “We,” D-503, is a mathematician and engineer employed in the construction of a spaceship, the Integral, but tortured by the suspicion that not all human life can be reduced to mathematical formulae. D-503’s life begins to unravel when he is seduced by a femme fatale, I-330, who introduces him to the forbidden pleasures of alcohol, tobacco, and unscheduled sex.
Confronted by a rebellion led by I-330, the all-powerful Benefactor orders mass lobotomization of all ciphers. The only way to preserve universal happiness, he argues, is to abolish the imagination.
“What have people — from the very cradle — prayed for, dreamed about, and agonized over?” the Benefactor asks D-503. “They have wanted someone, anyone, to tell them once and for all what happiness is — and then to attach them to this happiness with a chain.”
Orwell frankly acknowledged his debt to Zamyatin; Huxley implausibly denied having read the “We.” At the very least, Zamyatin deserves equal billing with them as one of the masters of dystopian science fiction, not least because he anticipated the nightmare Panopticon that Stalin would build in the ruins of the Russian Empire. Jailed twice for his dissident views, Zamyatin was permitted to go into exile in 1931. He was lucky.
I have spent much of my career trying to imagine possible futures by applying history to the present. This year, however, I have been experimenting with an alternative approach, which is to apply science fiction. Sci-fi was a genre I loved as a boy, but more or less gave up when I went to university, in the mistaken belief that it was insufficiently serious. In truth, there are few more illuminating literatures. From H.G. Wells to Margaret Atwood, hundreds of great minds have looked into their crystal balls, imagining the possible consequences of vast catastrophes and new technologies. Studying the past helps us see ways the world may repeat itself, but we need science fiction to envision what will be novel about the future.
Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell all essentially agreed that the power of the state would inexorably grow. The only question, as Huxley said to Orwell in a letter he wrote after reading “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in 1949, was how brutally coercive the state of the future would be.
“The philosophy of the ruling minority in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion,” wrote Huxley (who, by the way, had taught Orwell French at Eton many years before). “Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. . . . Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that. . . . the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”
As I reflect on the world in 2019, I am struck by the wisdom of those words. In Xi Jinping’s China we see Totalitarianism 2.0. The boot-on-the-face remains a possibility, of course, but it is needed less and less as the system of social credit expands, aggregating and analyzing all the digital data that Chinese citizens generate.
“The political and legal system of the future is inseparable from the Internet, inseparable from big data,” Alibaba’s Jack Ma told a Communist Party commission overseeing law enforcement in 2017. In the future, he said, “Bad guys won’t even be able to walk into the square.”
The sole consolation, if it’s human freedom you love, is that democratic states seem less capable of this kind of thing — though I suspect it’s more a result of incompetence than of the separation of powers, the rule of law, or the spirit of liberty. True, we need to be worried about the private-sector panopticons under construction at Google and Facebook.
But technology in the service of making people money seems ultimately less dangerous than technology in the service of making citizens “happy.” The gaiety of the planet has been much enhanced in recent weeks by the travails of WeWork, a wildly over-hyped tech company that rents out shared office space. Supposedly worth $47 billion just a few weeks ago, WeWork has just postponed its initial public offering. Oracle’s Larry Ellison last week called it “almost worthless,” with an “app my cat could have written.”
The long-haired Israeli founder of the company, Adam Neumann, once declared that WeWork’s “mission” was “to elevate the world’s consciousness.” Another of Neumann’s sayings is that “the energy of we [is] greater than any one of us, but inside each of us.”
Ah yes, the energy of we. While I can just about imagine Zamyotin’s Benefactor saying this, Neumann is ultimately more of a Richard Adams character. We may well be destined for dystopia, but as long as we’re not all lobotomized, there’s a fighting chance that the future will be more “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” than hell on earth.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.