Have we been seduced by Dyst-hope-ia?

I am a scholar of dystopia – a dystopian if you will. I am an aficionado of dystopia, a connoisseur of the literary and artistic genre in its myriad of forms and nightmares.

I consider dystopian thinking to be an evolution, or sometimes an extrapolation, from the precautionary principle, which warns against change for the sake of change. Dystopia is a form of negative imagining, an attempt to envision and render in realistic terms a truly ‘negative place’, the etymological meaning of the term.

In this sense, I find dystopian thinking to be significantly more culturally useful than utopian thinking, which to a large extent has been reduced to a singular political ideology derived from a Marxist strain of post 1960s counterculture.

Whereas utopian thinking has devolved to activist academic attempts to plot routes towards one particular ‘positive place’ future, dystopian thinking has instead remained more broad and wide in its purview. After all, there are many nightmares.

If there is a structural flaw to both modes of art and thinking, it is that in practice they generally extrapolate forward to complete visions, the totalising utopia or dystopia. Rarely if ever do we see depicted the many incremental stages between the world as we know it and the heavenly or nightmare future world depicted.

Where utopian thinkers in particular have addressed the explicit or implicit developments towards utopia or dystopia, they have, to my mind, missed the point somewhat. The terms ‘critical utopia’ and ‘critical dystopia’ emerged some four decades or so ago to describe incomplete elements of depicted utopias and dystopias. Thus these key depictions of complexity, nuance and evolution in such literature and art (and philosophy) were reduced to anomalies which could either be countered (in the case of ‘critical utopias’) or fostered (in the case of ‘critical dystopias.’)

This was an innovative way of looking at things then, but it was always reductive, and ideologically driven, and at this point its limitations are becoming quite obvious. Actual examination of how society develops towards utopia or dystopia tends to be quite thin on the ground, despite examples existing all around us.

The exception if there is one is the regularly bruited risk of a return to 1930s-style fascist governance in current democratic societies. The election of leaders with an authoritarian populist rhetoric, be they Trump, Orban or Meloni, is now routinely accompanied by dire extrapolations (and often incomplete historical parallels) which overtly suggest that a slippery slope to neo-Nazi rule is already well underway.

But dystopia as I said takes a myriad of forms, and each form evolves and devolves in different forms and at different rates in different cultural and historical circumstances. As a dystopia thinker, I try to look for patterns, for trends, which suggest dystopian vectors of society, ways in which society is moving towards a less civilised state of being for most people.

In this way, many instances seem to pass under the radar. In fact, very often when they do occur, they are depicted as the opposite of what they are. They are reported as beacons of hope, anomalies which ‘critical utopias’ habitually accommodate in their positivist post-Enlightenment progress ratcheting ever forwards.

These instances are a little like ‘magic eye’ pictures, which were popular a generation back. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, as they say. I refer to them as examples of dyst-hope-ia, as they are fundamentally dystopian developments, though usually incremental rather than totalising, swathed in a good-news suit of hope to make the bitter pill go down more easily.

In this way, a ratcheting towards a more dystopian society occurs in an almost Huxleyan sense, with the passive acceptance and approval of the population who actually are encouraged to associate such instances with hope rather that its opposite.

This is a little difficult to explain in abstract, so let me offer some concrete examples. Many years ago, I noticed a large building being erected in my district in Dublin. Over many months the grand edifice came together. I didn’t pass it often, so didn’t know what the building was intended to be, until one day in the local newspaper I read that it was due to open the following week. It was a new unemployment welfare office.

The local paper depicted this as a good thing. It was reported as a net good that the unemployed of the area now had a better, bigger dedicated office to deal with them efficiently. But beneath this patina of hope, one swiftly discerns that the expenditure of millions of euro in such a building is a commitment to societal unemployment in the area.

It is in fact an admission of failure – the failure to regenerate the area, or to provide employment for its inhabitants. At the time of its opening I wrote in my journalist’s notebook, “who approved this investment in indolence?” (I used a lot more alliteration in those days.)

Another example comes in today’s news from Britain, which in recent times can be relied upon as a stable and consistent source of examples of dyst-hope-ia. The emergence of a social charitable phenomenon called ‘warm banks’ (though the term is never used) is a classic example of dyst-hope-ia.

What is a ‘warm bank’? Based on the similar concept of food banks, a warm bank is a public charitable space where people who cannot afford to heat their homes may go to stay warm during opening hours. Bloomberg is one of many outlets who report approvingly of the concept here.

The welcoming warm bank, depicted as a jolly public community space – image courtesy of Getty Pictures.

Surely the hopeful depiction is legitimate? After all, the idea of the community rallying around to offer protection and support to the most vulnerable among them is a supremely positive and human thing. This is the hope in dyst-hope-ia, the positive cloak in which the nightmare clothes itself, the sheep’s clothing on the dystopian wolf.

Because, under this surface reaction is the initial action causing the need for such support – the vastly and rapidly escalating food and fuel costs which have left many vulnerable people in Britain with a choice between eating and heating.

And as with food banks before them, warm banks will function not only as a precarious safety net for the vulnerable, but also as a creeping normalisation of a more dystopian society, one in which it is normalised for people not to be able to afford food or heat their homes.

What dystopian thinking teaches me is not to dismiss this patina of hope cynically, nor to be seduced into thinking of the overall scenario as a positive development either. It allows me instead to see through the sheep’s clothing to the wolf beneath.

I suggest always lifting the surface of the good news story to check what might be smuggled into normality underneath. I admire the efforts of each and every person who contributes their time or money to keeping their community warm. But I refuse to allow that kind-heartedness to obscure the fact that the government is attempting to normalise the concept of citizens who cannot heat their own homes.

Plagiarism kills

Plagiarism isn’t illegal, says this article. No, it isn’t, anywhere, but it ought to be. Because plagiarism kills.

I heard a decade ago of someone making six figures a year from writing papers for cash. That’s a big temptation for people struggling to get by as a postgrad or post-doc. And indeed, those who provide this service to cheats do get the tiny violins out to justify their decisions in the article linked above.

The bottom line is that everyone knows this is going on and is wrong. But universities simply don’t care, in their marketised, stack-students-high, sell-degrees-expensively model.

Academics are actively discouraged from challenging cases of plagiarism. It’s a ton of extra work, and often the students simply get a slap on the wrist anyway. Given the choice of reporting a suspected case, providing the evidence to a faculty committee, engaging in a formal investigation and then watching the student be told “don’t be naughty again” is sufficient discouragement for most lecturers, whose time is already at a premium.

But this approach isn’t good enough. Plagiarists devalue the degrees and credentials of their honest peers, and the vast market which has sprung up like foul toadstools to service those who’d rather pay than study is not simply ethically dubious but actively threatens the integrity of the entire educational system.

And it is a real issue for society. Do you want to drive over a bridge designed by an engineer who handed in other people’s essays to get their degree? Or would you like your child to be delivered by a midwife who did likewise? I am aware of cases of students who obtained degrees in both disciplines, and in many others, via consistent and continuous cheating in this manner. We must assume those graduates are in jobs now, in critical positions for which they are not actually qualified.

This is why you should care. It’s time to put the paper mills out of business for good, by making them illegal, and by properly punishing students who engage in plagiarism. Expulsion and a ban from higher education should be the minimum response.

Plagiarism has ramifications in many other areas too. Once uncovered, it generally leads to a significant loss of commercial, institutional or individual credibility and reputation. It’s hard to come back from. And of course, where authors have their work stolen (rather than sold), it’s literally beggaring people and thieving unearned benefits from the work of others.

But to create a truly anti-plagiarism culture, we need to start with education. Perhaps it may even be too late in the cycle to do so at university level, since reports of students plagiarising work in secondary schools is also rife in very many nations. But we badly need to start somewhere.

And if higher education don’t address their plagiarism problem, they will soon find their expensive degrees becoming more and more worthless, as more and more people simply purchase rather than earn those credentials.

Are we Sleepwalking into Slavery?

Usually, hardcore technophiles get hurt in the pocket. I still recall people spending £800 on VHS video recorders (about £3,900 in today’s money) only for them to fall to a fraction of that soon afterwards. Likewise with early laptops and cellphones.

May be an image of 1 person and text
Cutting edge technology c. 1980.

What’s concerning about AI’s earliest adopters is both their blasé attitudes to its many flaws and weaknesses, and their insistence on foisting AI-driven “solutions” upon the rest of us.

Which brings us to the Synthetic Party. On paper no doubt it sounds great. Remove those problematic humans from decision-making. But politics takes place in the very real world of human society, not on paper or in bits and bytes.

This scenario – actually of an AI coming to power – was workshopped at the Athens Democracy Forum by a very interesting organisation called Apolitical. Our collective conclusion was very clear that AI isn’t ready to rule – and perhaps never will be.

Even if the advent of AI was at worst likely to punish enthusiasts financially, as with previous technology early adopters, I’d still have issues with it. AI needs to be fed with data to learn, and that data is your and my personal information, whether gathered legitimately with full consent or not.

However, AI could have ramifications far beyond our worst current nightmares. As always, we dream negatively in Orwellian terms, fearing technology will turn on us like Frankenstein’s monster or the Terminator, when history suggests that dystopia more often manifests in Huxleyan terms.

We are sleepwalking into this, and judging by these Danish early adopters, we will happily embrace our own slavery. It would be much preferable if the cost of AI was merely financial. But the ramifications are likely to be much more impactful.

Already in many democracies, a large proportion of the electorate simply don’t engage. And when they do, a growing proportion are voting for parties with extreme ideologies. On our current vector, we could easily end up volunteering for our own obsolescence.

What the Synthetic Party promise is true technocracy – rule by machines and algorithms rather than rule by unelected officials as we currently understand the term. As always, be careful what you wish for.

Nobel Pursuits

Already it’s October, when the leaves turn red and fall from the trees, the nights grow longer and the days colder, and the Nobel prizes are awarded.

The Nobel committee for lit does tend to go leftfield when possible. One is therefore required to read into their decisions, a little like ancient haruspices reading the entrails of chickens or 20th century Kremlinologists interpreting the gnomic actions of the politburo.

How then should we read the decision to anoint the sparse, harsh and uncompromising pseudo-autobiographical work of Annie Ernaux?

To me it seems like a commentary upon Michel Houellebecq and Karl Ove Knausgård. All three are known for writing their big books of me, but perhaps the men are better known than Mme Ernaux internationally. Equally, both Houellebecq and Knausgård have been heavily criticised, among other things, for their misogyny. Awarding Ernaux seems to me to be a reaction to their popularity and the fact that both have been tipped for this prize previously. Your mileage may vary.

(Full disclosure: I’ve never read Knausgård or Ernaux and have at best a passing familiarity with Houellebecq, who I found to be a very rude interviewee at the Dublin Impac Award in a previous millennium.)

Also elevated to laureate this year was Svante Pääbo, the man who proved that ancient hominid species such as Neanderthals did not entirely die out but in fact persist to this day within non-African human genomes. In fact, I likely owe some Neanderthal ancestor the gene which oversees my melanocortin-1 receptor proteins, which gave me my once russet beard.

What’s intriguing personally for me about this year’s Nobels for medicine and literature isn’t that I’d not previously heard of the literature recipient, nor that I had previously heard of the medicine recipient, but the fact that both these things occurred in the same year. I guess my interests have shifted over the decades away from solely literary pursuits, and towards scientific interests, especially in early hominids. This year’s prizes have brought that home to me, and congratulations to the winners.

I’ve long criticised the Nobel Prize for Peace, because the Norwegian parliament committee which awards it has a knack for often choosing inappropriate recipients. Hello Henry Kissinger, Aung San Suu Kyi, Barack Obama, UN “peace-keeping” forces, etc.

Nevertheless, I’d argue they got it right this year. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organisation Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Center for Civil Liberties. Congratulations to them too.

POST-SCRIPT: The newest Nobel physics laureates have also been announced and their award is for proving that reality, as we understand it currently, is not real in the ways we think it is. Not awarded, though clearly the forefather of all of this research (which aimed to prove his hypotheses) is my compatriot John Stewart Bell, who alas died in 1990 while the experiments proving him correct were still in process.

John Stewart Bell

Congratulations to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger for proving once again that the universe is not only stranger than we think, but most likely as Heisenberg noted, stranger than we can think.