The Dangers of Dismissing Dystopias

Leah Zaidi
Jun 11, 2019 · 8 min read
Red Wall — Illustration by Balbusso Sisters for The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

There’s a simple message at the heart of Ray Bradbury’s The Toynbee Convector: if humanity is shown a brighter future, we will all rush towards it. Positive images of the future matter. They give us something to aspire to and strive for. They allow us to examine what we want and what is necessary for flourishing. These are the futures in which we achieve equality, cherish diversity, free ourselves from all forms of oppression, and become more sustainable (socially, economically, politically, and environmentally). We need positive stories to help us design the future we want. Recent initiatives like Project Hieroglyph and Verge’s Better Worlds tap into this very sentiment. The desire to create positive images of the future is an admirable one.

But the future is not a single, fated destination. When we look out from the present-day, it is a spectrum of possibilities. Where we eventually land is a reflection of our individual and collective choices. While some futures are more desirable than others, there is value in exploring the full spectrum. That includes dystopias.

Dystopias transport us to alternative realities or futures that depict a systems-level breakdown. They show us injustices and suffering. This includes everything from environmental disaster to economic collapse to political oppression and more.

Recently, I’ve heard several designers and futurists suggest we need to stop creating dystopias and focus only on positive futures. While it is tempting to forgo dark futures for the sake of realizing bright ones, dystopias play an important role in society. In addition to the already noted economic reasons for why we create dystopias, there are (at least) five human-centered arguments that highlight what dystopias do for us. Ultimately, it’s not that one type of story is better than the other; both are needed to build a better world.

Here’s why…

1) Dystopias are Real, They’re Just Not Evenly Distributed

Venezuela, Syria, and North Korea are all dystopias. The world’s poorest one billion live in a dystopia too. What happened and is still happening at the U.S.-Mexican border is dystopic. There is no shortage of real dystopias in this world. When we question why we create such dark narratives, we sometimes forget that dystopias are a reality for many. We can dismiss them, in part, because we are privileged enough not to live in one.

Simply imagining and creating positive images of the future is not enough to dismantle the dystopias that exist today. Neither do positive images prevent stable systems from deteriorating. It’s essential to collectively dream of a future we want, but it is unwise and, perhaps, unempathetic to cast aside the ones we don’t. In our attempts to imagine brighter futures, are we forgetting to acknowledge the most difficult of lived experiences? And are we in danger of using bright futures to medicate against our current reality? Creating a brighter future means accepting the true scope and scale of our problems and how those problems may play out over time. Until we acknowledge these realities for what they are, we can’t design our way out of them.

2) Loss of Moral Lessons (a.k.a How to Rebel)

Stories are powerful. Research shows that our brains process moral lessons differently and more deeply when they’re presented to us in the form of a story. We don’t see those lessons as an attack on our protected values — the values that help shape our core identity. There’s also a theory called ‘narrative transportation’ which says that the more we identify with a story and empathize with its characters, the more our attitudes and intentions align with them.

How does that translate into real-world impact? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the young adults who are fighting issues like climate change and gun control are the same ones who grew up on stories like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. These dark narratives came with moral lessons on how to fight against oppressive authority, the abuse of power, and structures that promote inequality. In their formative years, these young adults absorbed lessons on the importance of standing up for human rights and fighting for a better collective future. They learned how to rebel.

Dystopias contain moral lessons about preventing and dismantling injustice, oppression, and systemic breakdowns. We turn to dystopias to help us make sense of the darkness in our world. Sales of Orwell’s 1984 spiked when Trump and his officials gave ‘alternative facts’ about his inauguration audience numbers. Westworld is much more than a story about killer robots; it’s a meditation on women and an allegory for the Me Too movement. The Handmaid’s Tale makes timely commentary on women’s rights and the U.S. religious right.

If we remove dystopias from the narrative landscape, we lose the moral lessons that come with them. The lack of those moral lessons may be problematic in the long-run. We’ll also lose the perspective of characters experiencing that dystopia, and how those characters cope with and respond to their worlds.

Given all the wicked problems we’re facing, we need dystopias to show us how to fight back and carve a way to those better, more sustainable futures. Creating room for better systems requires breaking down the existing ones. Stories that show us how to do that matter.

Katniss in The Hunger Games giving the three finger salute, a symbol of a revolution.

3) Suppression of Marginalized Voices

A few short years ago, The Hugo Awards became a battleground for equal rights. The Hugos are science fiction and fantasy’s most prestigious award, and the winners are selected by a democratic community that votes. That community was cannibalized by an alt-right extremist group with an anti-diversity agenda. When the dust settled, stories created by women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community came to the forefront. Marginalized voices gained recognition in a way they hadn’t before.

Authors like N.K. Jemisin (who was on the receiving end of much of the hate) are not writing dystopias from a position of power and privilege. These storytellers have experienced injustice and oppression firsthand, and we need to listen to what they have to say. It’s also important to keep in mind that marginalized groups are not homogenous or monolithic. Different people will tell different dystopias.

Before we decide we no longer need dystopias, ask: whose story are we dismissing? What are the consequences of doing so?

4) Unintended Consequences

In many ways, Star Trek represents an image of a bright future for humanity. It’s a future in which we solve all of Earth’s wicked problems. It depicts a world without inequality, poverty, disease, war, etc. When Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) considered leaving Star Trek, Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged her to stay. Her portrayal of a black woman who was judged solely on the content of her character represented a bright future for the Civil Rights movement. Nichols played an instrumental role in changing NASA’s recruitment policies and efforts, helping them become more inclusive.

But that bright image of the future had unintended consequences too. It also inspired entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos who latched on to the technophilic aspect of that future, rather than its social messages. Fast forward to the present, and we’re met with unchecked entrepreneurship, convenience-driven consumption, and the flawed view that technology can solve all of our problems, with little to no consideration for how that tech might create more problems. Not to mention that these views are fueling other concerns like mounting waste and corporations having more power than countries.

It is entirely possible for bright images of the future to have dark unintended consequences, especially when we don’t examine what could go wrong in those scenarios. Bright images become particularly problematic when they’re designed without consideration for the underlying systems that feed them. If we design bright futures, we need to consider what their potential dark side might be.

5) Sunny but Sinister

Even if we fix all of our systems-level problems, we’re still human. We’re creative, and we’ll find ways to exploit those systems. We all have fears, egos, and desires. We’re quick to attribute our mistakes and shortcomings to circumstance while treating the mistakes and shortcomings of others as a mark of their character. We do stupid things. We are not beyond pettiness, passive-aggressiveness, and chipping away at each other bit by bit every day. Furthermore, factors out of control like a standard deviation change in weather can trigger violence, not that we need encouragement.

There is a lot of beauty to humanity, but fixing our world doesn’t resolve the paradox of human nature. People will still be people, for better or worse. The sunniest future will have a hint of the sinister.

Too often, our well-intentioned images of the future ignore the ugly side of humanity. When we fail to account the dark side of human nature, we design for an aspirational version of ourselves that doesn’t exist. As a result, our designs (products, systems, policies, etc.) fail to bring us closer to a sustainable future. We solve symptoms, not problems. When we account for the sinister and the unintended consequences, we stand a better chance of creating sustainable futures.

Breaking the Binary

There is one problem that both bright and dark futures share that is often unaddressed: both stories begin or end on the cusp of systemic change. Bright futures begin after that world becomes sustainable, and dark futures end before that world can be sustainable. While both types of stories are necessary, they perpetuate a binary conversation that focuses on the outcomes rather than the process required to get there. The difficult task is not imagining a type of future. The difficult part is making change.

Meaningful change requires a full spectrum of stories. Not only do we need to explore more nuanced futures that go beyond the binary of utopias and dystopias, we also need to understand the transitions required to get from one state to another.

To that end, I’d like to introduce the concept of polytopias. Unlike dystopias and utopias — which begin or end on the precipice of change — polytopias show the change from one state to another. They are stories that depict many people and places. They demonstrate the incremental steps required to shift a system — the states between dark and bright futures. An example of a polytopia is Orwell’s Animal Farm which shows an idyllic, sustainable state descending into a dystopia.

The Incremental version of the Seven Foundations model for creating pathways to preferred futures. Map the current state, design the preferred future state, and work backwards from the future to present to create the intermediate states.

With polytopias, we can use the power of storytelling to map the change we want to see in our world. Once we can see the pathways forward, it’ll be easier to rush towards those brighter futures.

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