Peering Forward

By Edward Bellamy
1888. Reprint, Penguin Classics, 1986.

By Aldous Huxley
1932. Reprint, Perennial Classics, 1998.

By George Orwell
1949. Reprint, Signets Classic, 1950.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968.

By William Gibson
Ace Books, 1984.

The present, of course, is just the future waiting to happen, but never more so than in the 20th century West. A culture founded on the promise of perpetual change for the better – in a word, progress – is a culture that can never be satisfied with the way things are, a culture itchy to get on with it, whatever it turns out to be.

No one this side of sanity would dispute that life at the turn of the 20th century is an improvement on life at the turn of the 19th, and yet the hundred-year stretch that gave us insulin, television and universal suffrage also gave us Ypres, Auschwitz and the vivid prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction. With that dubious pedigree, the West has been justifiably nervous about what might lie in store even as it hurries to put the past behind it. Small wonder the contours of possible futures have long been a cultural preoccupation.

In come-hither visions of a sleek, bountiful world of wondrous machinery (the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Popular Mechanics magazine, Disney’s Tomorrowland and Epcot) and in art-directed depictions of a world in ruins (the Mad Max movies and every other science fiction scenario set amid radioactive rubble) the 20th century consistently mined the future as a rich vein of popular entertainment. It is no coincidence that over the course of the century the West elevated popular entertainment to something approaching a raison d’être. If anything distinguishes this turn of the century from the last, surely it is the deadly seriousness with which the fin de millennium insists on its amusements. (“Do you remember lingerie?” the gyro captain asks Mad Max wistfully in The Road Warrior. The joke is that what gives a 20th century audience the willies is not so much the collapse of order, governance and infrastructure, but the prospect that the party will finally come to an end. There will be no fun anymore, and therefore nothing to live for. The survivors will envy the dead, indeed.)

Among the myriad paradoxes of this gleaming, ghastly century has been the way the emphasis on entertainment has grown even as the more conscientious aspects of journalism and the news media have improved. Despite the litany of complaint about the fourth estate at century’s end, is there any doubt that the journalism of North America and Western Europe in 1999 is superior to its equivalent circa 1899? As an ongoing archive of the present devoted to putting into play the facts and arguments of civic life, and for all its manifest faults, the journalism of today is simply more scrupulous, more professional, guided by a greater sense of its responsibilities and more aware of its limitations. If life is better now for those of us lucky enough to inhabit what Michael Ignatieff calls “the zones of safety,” this is in no small part because the great, rolling conversation of democracy is more accessible and inclusive – more informed by and for more people – and for that we have the media to thank. At the same time, journalism, the record of the real, is both dwarfed by and participant in the unreal carousel of continual media amusement, while the amusements themselves become ever more coarse. Hence the emblematic advent of so-called “reality TV,” a chimera of a genre that deploys the deadpan conventions of objective reportage in the service of nothing more than shock-horror spectacles of gruesome car crashes and grisly deaths: snuff journalism.

If the sheer prominence of the media in all their multiplying aspects is a badge of the present, we shouldn’t be surprised if the media prove to be architectural agents of the onrushing future. But what will a world shaped by media imperatives look like, what place will journalism occupy in such a future, and did anyone see it coming? The postmodernists would have us believe it is now all but impossible to conceive of what the future will look like, because with the supposed failure of the West’s master narratives – among them, a faith in progress – we have no sense of trajectory, and therefore our imaginations are becalmed in the present. But as usual the postmodernists overstate the case for rhetorical effect. The shibboleth of progress is alive and well, and there are powerful agencies with firm designs on the future. What are Microsoft and IBM, if not empires built on the promise of tomorrow? You’ve got to admit it’s getting better, sing the current iMac ads, getting better all the time.

Speculative fiction is not the R&D lab of literature; it does not presume to foretell or shape the contents of an actual tomorrow. Rather, fictions set in a time yet to come inevitably address the concerns of the moment in which they were composed. But revisiting yesterday’s fantasies of tomorrow is like sifting through the fossil record of the century’s imagination. One can discern patterns of emphasis and anxiety. There is not only a trajectory to history, but a parallel fretful arc of apprehension over the direction in which history might be headed, leading up to the present and pointing into the future. The conduct of the news media has always been central to these worries.

These five works are not the only contenders for the pantheon of speculative fiction, but they would end up on any shortlist. In the multitude of imagined tomorrows, these are the works we are all agreed punctuate the rest. Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, is a late-19th century utopian reverie, hugely popular in its day, that posits a society utterly rid of the injustices of industrialism. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) are complementary dystopias bracketing the Second World War. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) manages to lovingly celebrate technological progress while simultaneously making it humdrum. William Gibson’s Neuromancer (published, in one of those neat-o coincidences, in 1984) inaugurated the subgenre of cyberpunk, and so presumably was onto something.

Looking Backward is already merely a curiosity, its memory pickled in formaldehyde on the reading lists of universities. In its time it was a sensation, translated into more than 20 languages. Only Ben Hur and Uncle Tom’s Cabin were more popular. Today, it falls on tin ears. Quite apart from the fact that the conventions of the contemporary novel have overtaken it, the world whose ills it confronted so as to excite a generation simply no longer exists.

The plot, in a nutshell: Well-to-do young Boston gentleman has insomnia, resorts to mesmerism and specially sealed sleeping chamber. Things go awry. He awakes in the year 2000 in the home of the kindly and wise Dr. Leete, who serves as his guide to the world of the future, mainly by delivering windy speeches over after-dinner cigars. The good doctor has a comely and modern-minded daughter. Apart from a contrived twist late in the day – has this all been but a dream? – the telegraphed romance between our hero and heroine is the novel’s sole plot development.

Clearly, to a 19th century readership painfully aware of the social and environmental costs of industrial capitalism – belching factories, inner city squalor, a vast, uneducated underclass conscripted to work for paltry wages in dangerous and filthy circumstances – the appeal of Looking Backward lay in its sunny depiction of a prosperous and progressive state in which collective wellbeing has replaced private gain as the motor force of social affairs. In Bellamy’s future of plenty, there are no disparities of income or status. Men and women perform work for which they are individually suited and all varieties of labour are equally valued. Without avarice, there is no envy. Without injustice, there is no unrest. The future is a peaceable republic of purpose and fulfilment, replete with technological wonders such as electric lighting and telephonic broadcasting: the New Jerusalem meets Menlo Park.

Bellamy had been a crusading journalist prior to writing Looking Backward, and in his idealized future it is not only technology that is liberating but communication technology, and indeed the conduct of the press. Dr. Leete explains that the newspapers of the past were “crude and flippant, as well as deeply tinctured with prejudice and bitterness.” Inasmuch as they reflected the public to whom they were addressed, they gave “an unfavorable impression of the popular intelligence, while so far as they may have formed public opinion, the nation was not to be felicitated.” Or, to put it in present day vernacular, they were written as though for morons and caused more harm than good.

In Bellamy’s future, newspapers have been liberated from capitalist proprietors who used them to control the course of debate, foisting their self-serving worldviews on a captive public and thereby undermining the democratic project. Readers in the year 2000 not only support the papers of their choice through subscriptions, unhitching journalism from the mule train of advertising, but appoint and dismiss the editors as they see fit. Papers spring up if there is a sufficient constituency for their offerings, while nothing prevents a civic-minded citizen from addressing the greater public by publishing his or her own books and pamphlets. There is an endearing optimism to such a vision of the redemptive powers of the media. It is not simply that a perfect society would be marked by a responsible press devoted to the calm presentation of necessary intelligence and genteel, informed debate, but that just such a responsible press is a precondition of an ideal society. This is an optimism rooted in the conviction that citizens are themselves naturally responsible and rational, and would disdain the base and trivial blandishments of a profit-driven press if given the opportunity.

It is, however, a utopian ideal. (By 1947, the members of the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press admitted that though they might conceive of the perfect newspaper, it would be an artifact the public would never “live up to.”) Even Bellamy’s notion of a realm of public discourse freed from the dictates of capitalist media barons, with all citizens able and willing to voice their opinions constructively, prefigures the early rhetoric that heralded the advent of the Internet. The Internet was going to undermine the centralized agencies of public address, democratizing communication by conferring the power to publish on anyone with a modem. What was promised was a return to the agora, a reinvigorated public sphere. What we got was triple-X porno sites and Matt Drudge.

What makes Looking Backward irredeemably quaint, however, is the complete absence of a cult of celebrity as a defining fact of both the news media and society. Bellamy’s hero, Julian West, passes his time in Dr. Leete’s household curiously unpestered by reporters. He knows the outside world is aware of his astonishing existence, since he himself listens to a preacher sermonizing about him via telephonic broadcast. But other than that, the media of Bellamy’s tomorrow pay no attention to West whatsoever. Had he woken up in the real year 2000, of course, he would have seen camera crews camped out on the lawn as thick as locusts and just as well behaved. Letterman and Leno would be making nudge-nudge jokes about his sex life. The tabs would go nuts: “Century Man may carry deadly virus from the past, scientists warn.” CAA would be handling the arrangements for his inevitable interview with Barbara Walters. Perhaps not as bad as waking up in an Orwellian universe with a rat cage strapped to your face, but not a lot of fun either.

Huxley’s version of the future is almost identical to Bellamy’s, except Huxley insists no society can be that placidly contented without the aid of jumbo tranquilizers, mindless distraction and limitless sex. Living happily as we do in a world of Ritalin, Prozac, Viagra and the Fox network, it is hard not to concede the point. When it was published, however, Brave New World was the American Psycho of its day, dismissed as a one-note exercise by a precocious writer making his pornographic point as offensively as possible. That was then. Today, it deserves its reputation as the first and best exploration of what can go wrong even if everything presumably goes right. Brave New World is the original un-topia.

And Huxley was nothing if not savvy to how the media might play out in a society exclusively devoted to the pursuit of happiness. In his sexually uninhibited future folks go to the feelies – just like the movies, but with the added jolt of tactile-emotional input from the screen. Naturally, popular taste in big-budget feelies skews toward melodramas with graphic sex scenes. Cybersex, anyone?

As well, Huxley, unlike Bellamy, calculated on the corrosive effects of celebrity. Extrapolating from his own age – which was already reeling from the rise of the movies, radio, public relations and national brand-name advertising campaigns – Huxley posits a society hyper-sensitive to small differences of status and intoxicated with fame. Like Looking Backward, Brave New World turns on the arrival of an outsider, a man to whom the ways of the future are entirely alien. In this caste-stratified society Bernard Marx is an Alpha Plus psychologist with his eye on the pneumatic Lenina Crowne. He takes her on a date to New Mexico, a Savage Reservation where the indigenous people live as they always have, without the benefit of the social and technological engineering of the outside world. No feelies, no television, no games of Escalator-Squash, no soma, the little grams of bliss the citizens of the future are forever popping at the first twinge of emotional discomfort. Worse, with no hatchery or conditioning laboratories, the savages actually give birth – shudder – and raise their own children. On their trip to the reservation, Bernard and Lenina encounter a woman from their own world, lost and abandoned there years ago when she, like them, was an anthropological tourist. She has a son, John, now a young man, who is scandalously the issue of Bernard’s own Director.

John and his mother accompany Bernard and Lenina back to civilization, where the young man – Mr. Savage – becomes an exotic conversation piece, trotted out for the amusement of high society. Bernard uses him to curry favour with his superiors and score with the babes. Eventually, disgusted with the shallowness of the brave new world, John becomes a hermit, making his home in an abandoned air-lighthouse. But the world refuses to leave him alone; he is too delicious a curiosity, with his bows and arrows and rituals of self-flagellation. A reporter from The Hourly Radio, wired for live broadcast, intrudes on his solitude and John sends him packing violently. The assault itself becomes news (“Reporter has coccyx kicked by mystery savage”), which only attracts other correspondents, including the Feely Corporation’s ace paparazzo, who spends three days staking out the lighthouse, hiding microphones in the heather, finally capturing John through telephoto lenses as he whips himself in a frenzy of self-loathing.

The feely is a smash hit, and immediately hordes of gawkers descend on John’s lighthouse, urging him to scourge himself. Lenina emerges from the crowd only to have John whip her mercilessly in a puritanically libidinous rage to the delight of the onlookers. The next night the crowds return in even greater numbers, but the savage has hanged himself.

Princess Diana. Jerry Springer. Monica Lewinsky’s confession that she felt like throwing herself from a hotel balcony once she realized the gig was up and saw what lay ahead for her. All the themes of the present are contained in Huxley’s imagined future, right down to the baying mob and its surrogates in the media amusing other people to death. The contrast could not be more stark between Huxley’s version of the future – which is to say, his acid assessment of his own time – and Bellamy’s flawless society. In Bellamy’s world, the citizenry finds its gratification in edification. Huxley fingers the dawn of reality TV and portrays a technologically-resplendent journalism driven by little more than an intrusive, near sadistic voyeurism.

While joy in Brave New World is all but a civic duty, in 1984 there is no joy that is not illicit. In both futures power rests on engineered consent for the prevailing order, but the citizens of Huxley’s state genuinely believe themselves to be happy, whereas the citizens of Oceania cannot risk contemplating that they might not be. In the former there is almost no dissidence because there is no perceived reason to dissent; in the latter potential dissidents disappear in the middle of the night, never to be seen again.

1984 is not so much a critique of the West as a warning about how totalitarian regimes would have no choice but to consciously use the media to enforce a false consciousness. If the media in Bellamy’s world are given over to education, and in Huxley’s to pure amusement, in Orwell’s their purpose is neither. They are the primary instruments of conformity. In such a society, confronted with the discrepancy between what one experiences and what one is told to believe, the prudent citizen denies reality and subscribes to the fiction – and even that is no guarantee of security. This is not to say Orwell was any less prescient than Huxley, but simply that what Orwell describes is Stalinism graced with the techniques of Madison Avenue.

His ear for the catch phrase is pitch-perfect. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. Today, these neat, simple mental inversions could be slogans for Benetton ads. (“Image is nothing” proclaims the current Sprite campaign, blithely countermanding the reality that image is so obviously everything.) The Junior Anti-Sex League, the Physical Jerks, the Two Minutes Hate, the Ministry of Love – these could all be names of current rock bands, and possibly are.

In a particularly telling inversion, Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Groom, is by occupation a journalist, the equivalent of a copy editor, except that his job entails endlessly unwriting the news so that the archival record conforms to the Party’s preferred fictions. There are those who, following Gramsci and Althusser, argue that this is precisely what the work of Western mainstream journalism amounts to – a series of partial and contingent versions of reality structured to validate an inegalitarian social order – except that in the real-world newsrooms of the present, the reporters and editors supposedly are unconscious of the ideological implications of their work. Winston Groom, by contrast, is well aware of what he is doing; he simply cannot afford the luxury of questioning it. Nonetheless, long before the fashionable squawks of Jean Baudrillard and his acolytes about hyperreality and the simulacrum, Orwell spotted how the realm of representation might be used to dictate the contents of the real, rather than the reverse. That is the point, and the end result, of the newsreels filled with lies. That is the point, and the end result, of Groom’s interrogation and torture in Room 101. That is the inherent malevolence of a society in which the contract between the news media and the citizenry – that the former will do their best to render accounts of unfolding reality on which the latter can rely – has been utterly abrogated. It is a world in which the very concept of trust has been exterminated.

If Looking Backward is an out-and-out utopian fantasy and 1984 is a grim, dyspeptic screed, what is 2001: A Space Odyssey? The film is so emotionless for its first two-thirds, and then so psychedelic in its final act, it seems to greet the future with a mixture of exuberance and ennui. Like Bellamy’s work, 2001 is almost bereft of plot: Human primate ancestors awake one morning to find a monolith in their midst, clearly planted there by an alien higher intelligence, and shortly thereafter get the bright idea of using animal femurs as cudgels. Skip ahead to the year 1999. U.S. scientists find an identical monolith buried on the moon, which emits a signal directed at Jupiter. A mission is dispatched to investigate, but the on-board computer kills all but one of the astronauts before being disabled. The remaining crew member reaches his destination and encounters something so cryptic as to occasion late-night dorm room bull sessions for years after the movie’s release.

The liveliest personality in the entire film, of course, is HAL the computer, who turns out to be a psychopath. In that, 2001 recycles a cultural anxiety as old as the Golem myths – our creations, the machines, will take on a life of their own, and it won’t be in our best interests – but it also prefigures what has become the core futurist fantasy of the late 20th century. Brave New World and 1984 depicted futures respectively seduced and cowed into compliance by the media. 2001 postulated a coming time when reality might be superseded by the imaginative capabilities of intelligent machines. If the nervous cultural tic of the first three-quarters of the 20th century was that the news media, on which the populace relies to duly document what is real and what is known, cannot in fact be trusted, then the anxiety ratchets up a notch in the late 20th century with the arrival of the new media, machines infinitely more sophisticated than the old agencies of mass address. With the rise of the computer and its ancillary technologies of communication, mere reality will pale in comparison to the fabulous realms made possible by software. Why live in the drab old real world with all its disappointments when one can inhabit computer-generated sensoria tailored to one’s tastes? And what role for journalism – the record of the real – when reality itself has been abandoned, like a once-fertile valley whose riverbed dried up?

The novel credited with christening this theme – and coining the term cyberspace into the bargain – is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. A hyperactive noir potboiler full of characters with names like Ratz and the Finn, the novel follows the adventures of Case, a hacker, and his partner Molly, who has techno-prosthetics surgically implanted behind mirrored lenses where her eyes should be and retractable talons under her fingernails. The pair have been hired by a hardcase named Armitage, who may or may not actually be a former Special Forces officer named Corto, for a bit of skulduggery that involves cracking the security of an Artificial Intelligence entity and … oh, never mind. The point is that when Case jacks into the computer he doesn’t get a C:> prompt on a screen. “Dermatrodes” attached to his forehead, he enters a netherworld in which he can see and feel the “ice,” or software defences, of the systems he’s cracking. He is in cyberspace, “a consensual hallucination” that exists nowhere but in the matrix of interlinked computer memory.

In Neuromancer, cyberspace remains a sketchy dimension, but in subsequent explorations of the genre it becomes more and more vivid. In Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), for example, cyberspace assumes the form of the Metaverse, again a consensual hallucination, but this time of a city under construction. Users negotiate the virtual space as avatars, computer-generated facsimiles of themselves. They carouse, they scheme, they have sword fights, while their corporeal selves – their meat – sit slumped in front of computer decks, goggles strapped to their heads. In Tad Williams’ Otherland (1996) the experience of cyberspace has become so superior to reality that the care and maintenance of the real world has been allowed to deteriorate. Ethnic groups petition to have their customs and mores encoded in the software of the virtual universe as a means of preserving their traditions, which are dying back in the meat world. In the film The Matrix (1999), the twist is that the day-to-day life of the present – getting up, going to work, dining out – is in fact a mental illusion created by Artificial Intelligence machines that have taken over. In reality our bodies are prisoners of the machines, providing them with bioelectric power.

So as the 20th century draws to a close, its signature futurist motif is one of escaping reality into a media-maintained imaginary dimension where all fantasies are possible, all desires can be fulfilled. As the Microsoft ads put it, “Where do you want to go today?” The very question presumes that the answer is elsewhere: somewhere better than here and now. Journalism, of course, has always sold itself on that promise. Yes, its records and narratives purport to map the real, but a reality to which we would otherwise not have access. Journalism is a society’s vicarious eyes and ears, and journalists are its paid witnesses. Via notepad and camcorder, they transport their audiences to cabinet rooms and boardrooms, police precincts and killing zones. The difference is that cyber-capitalism promises passage to places that do not exist.

Though the artificial sensorium of cyberpunk is not yet a reality, and may never be, the genre is arguably closer to what has actually come to pass than its predecessors in speculative fiction. In Looking Backward, Brave New World and 1984, the media are mere adjuncts to a centralized political authority. They service a prevailing order, whether benign or odious. They are crucial but subordinate. Who could have imagined that the media would come to usurp political authority, buffeting the policy process and decision makers in the chaotic turbulence of perception? In the United States of America, the most advanced and sophisticated nation on the planet, what matters now is not so much what is done, but how actions play out in the mediascape. Journalism was supposed to provide reliable records of the real. Now, it seems, media coverage establishes what is taken to be real – not, as the Chomskyites insist, according to a master plan for the manipulation of the masses, but in absurd, directionless and irrational gyrations.

What Huxley and Orwell feared was the dominance of collective order over the individual. What we have arrived at is something close to the end of governance as it was once defined. When the media run the show – when the jabber and the images on the airwaves take precedence over what the images were originally meant to depict – no one is in charge. The order of a previous era has been inverted. It is not as frightening a prospect as Orwell’s totalitarianism, but it is unsettling nonetheless.

Where do you want to go tomorrow?eg

Media Studies Journal Spring/Summer 1999