The Dystopian Century

Cause they say two thousand zero zero
Party over, oops out of time – Prince

Back in 1999, the world seemed one with a rosy future. The internet was growing and opening up possibilities to people and communities – a time before social media and the voyeurism of the media society had come to be fulfilled. The idea of snooping, hacking, identity fraud or cyber-crime were weak plots in 80s television movies, and if it did happen it was some shady geek attacking larger entities.  It was also unthinkable that we’d be rehashing the ideas of the 20th century’s darker decades. We were too smart for that.

Yet it wasn’t all peachy-creamy; we did have major concerns about the outcomes of the 21st century: climate change was in our conscious horizons, the growing world population and how to feed it, and more immediately, we idly speculated about worse case scenarios for the Y2K bug – which fired our fertile minds with images of computer mainframes crashing, airplanes falling from the sky en masse, and satellite and missile systems getting all hot and bothered at the stroke of the millennium midnight. Computers dialing themselves back 100 years, it turns out, was the least of our problems.

Escalating global populations and melting ice caps seemed to be a pressing, but equally distant horror that would have to be dealt with by some unfortunate generation of humans. Our mess, but not our problem – impending crises often seemed so distant in the 1990s, after all, there were no smartphones, no social media, no incidents of ‘anti-western’ or ‘islamist’ terrorism, on western soil at least – no severe financial crises and no mass automation of jobs.

Things in the western world changed forever on 11th September 2001, and it became the first great narrative of the new century. It became more prominent as invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan took their toll and European cities were attacked – Atocha train station in Madrid 2005, London Underground and buses, 2007, and in more recent times, attacks in France, Belgium and Germany have hit Europe hard. It was always someone else’s problem – now it became ours. With the Arab Spring and power vacuums which were created in Syria, Libya and Yemen, all of the geo-political wounds now weep, all roads lead to Damascus – and some are blocked by ISIS.

Suddenly, we began to cast suspicious glances at members of the community – on trains, buses, planes; in the street. Since then we’ve been primed to view certain members of society with reservation, seeds of doubt planted in minds begin to grow.

During the years 2008-2011 Islamist terrorists decided to give western cities a bit of a breather, which was handy, because we had a calamity of a different nature to deal with. There’s no time to lose when you’re trying gather the momentum for the world’s end.

The banking crisis sparked off by turmoil in the sub-prime mortgage sector in the US in 2007 became the second narrative of our century and one that has arguably had the biggest impact – causing a radicalization of both those on the left and right politically. Banks in the UK and Europe were massively exposed to bad debt – the entire banking sector wobbled and teetered and almost caused the end of organised society and capitalism as we it.

Had the banks gone, who really knows what would have happened? Quite possibly an end-of-days scenario where business collapsed, food supply chains would have been under severe pressure, and cash was hard to come by.  All that was avoided by handing over capital reserves of taxpayers’ money in order to continue our present way of life. But did it really avert the crisis? Or just put off the cold, hard realities that we will have to face at some point in the future?

The banking scenario brought home the notion that the last 60 years of social stability in the west, might’ve be a blip rather than a concrete fact. Furthermore, it plays into modern-day mythology of zombies, apocalyptic tales such as The Road, and the implosion of the capitalist order like a Prepper’s wet dream. It fired up survivalist dreams of self-sufficiency and hunter-gathering, appealing to some intangible part of the atomised, urban-dwelling human which longs for the freedom of nature, and from the moneyed-order of our present day.

We can’t imagine what the outcome of such an event would be. It’s likely to top the carnage of kicking out time in the dead zones of the provincial cities –  where puffed-up chests and clenched fists lie in wait for a wrong response, wrong dress code or perceived sneer. Come the revolution – or last orders – someone’s going to pay: most don’t care what they’re fighting for, so long as they get to land a few punches.

Despite the end-of-days scenario being thwarted in 2008, it came out in some manifestation of the London riots of 2011, which, in less significant terms spread to parts of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Using social media and P2P messaging, pockets of vandalism and unrest sprung up in random places as soon as dusk hit. Shops, aware that the air was febrile for a night of trouble, boarded up their premises. Menace lurked at night fall, and people were itching to have a kick-off. What started off as a protest against the lawful shooting of Mark Duggan, turned into a wider display of anger and frustration.

Provisions and services for the poorest in society have been cut, and being uneducated, unskilled, poor or disabled is slowly becoming ideologically unacceptable. Services that were once there – for all – have disappeared. We’ve gone from dole as a means of getting by in hard times, to it being the easy resort for scoundrels and society’s enemies. Using social services available to you, has become in a matter of a few years, enough to guarantee pariah status.

With terrorists, looters and thieves roaming the streets, might it be better if we all just stayed at home?

Luckily, a third significant thread of the dystopian century: the digital social platform, allows us to do just that. We how exist in a digital social sphere –  the hive mind documents the granular facets of self, beliefs, and attitudes. Now, everything is political, and our identities are being defined by what we are not rather than we we are. We’re taking sides and the divisions that already exist are fast becoming chasms.

It’s a heady mix – broadcasting to a potentially mass audience a la Twitter, and being able to create multiple anonymous identities in the process- it has allowed us, some would say freed us from the burden of social etiquette, to tell the world what we truly believe. What it actually is, is a situation where those dark little thoughts that in the pre-social media era would’ve been rationalized or subverted by one’s peer group and/or family (one hopes) and has tinged our minds with a darker need to communicate our lusting hatred.

And so, if terrorism has made us fearful in our own communities, and the financial crisis has removed the last vestiges of community hubs and sense within it, social media destroyed our need for the physical space that we own, that gives us our sense of self as social animals. We now communicate through memes, gifs and anthropomorphized viral content in order to express our frustration at the civil malaise and ennui that we feel. Our communities exist only in cyber-space, our groups open only to those who share the same values, interests, hobbies or fetishes. We’re not longer forced to ‘rub along’ with the other, and as a result we are quickly forgetting the art of compromise.

We’re scared, broke and angry. We haven’t even reached the ‘bits’ of the brave new century we all envisioned; just like the number 82 bus, all our apocalypses have come at once -and  we all thought we’d be sat around chin-stroking our way to solving melting ice caps and the dwindling numbers of wildlife, while technology built a utopia.

When the environmental catastrophe hits, then we will truly understand what ‘a wave of migrants’ is, what ‘local sourced produce’ means, and how much money one really needs – when all that is on offer is left-overs and scraps.

In the meantime, the anger has been directed at something – anything –  that promises to radically change the order of things, and so far the universal random generator has produced Donald Trump and Brexit. Where we’re at now. A public sphere where there is no such thing as lies (or there are many truths), no such as thing as equality and no such as thing as optimism – unless you bury your head in the sand and go on believing that the last train out of town really does have extra seating, a clean loo and a free buffet.

What Gen X and Millenials do share with their baby-boomer predecessors is that we all now have a sense of ‘final generation’ secret thoughts and fears. Fears that we thought we’d banished with the nuclear disarmament treaties of the early 90s. Mothers and fathers can’t help but wonder now what kind of world their middle-aged children will endure, and whether they too will have the luxury of progeny.  For now we have a range of doomsdays (how fitting? How very 21st century?) of how our species will fall: environmental calamity, intercontinental nuclear war, complete collapse of ideological structure and society, economic devastation caused by automation? Ooh which one would you like? Perhaps a a unique blend?

The sky falling on our tiny heads and withered souls was meant to occur on 1st January 2000, or some times in (say) 2560s. So very much has changed about our world in under a generation, that we were now struggling to cope with the sheer deluge of flux; the integral component in the human psyche – meaning – is under full assault.

With our lives being so public now, perhaps it’s understandable that we need safe spaces, as well as private ones. A little place where we can collect our thoughts and work out what it all means, count our tinned food, our medical supplies and our shotguns. Party (on our own) like it’s 1999? The night won’t finish with a booty call, it’ll finish with an angry status update. Maybe Prince knew our destiny all along:

Don’t bother knockin’ on my door
I got a lion in my pocket
And baby he’s ready to roar



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