HED: Our modern dystopia

Driverless Ubers, Temu Superbowl advertisements, VR headsets worn on the street, Tesla Cybertrucks, criminalization of reproductive healthcare, radical book bans, Ozempic weight loss, buccal fat removal, BBLs, veneers, senile men ruling the country, ChatGPT, pornographic deepfakes, grocery store robots, TikTok-ification of music, reality television.

Whether our societal, governmental, economic, and technological progressions and regressions are entertaining or terrifying or both, it is undeniable that we are living in a modern dystopia.

Our world is both everything and nothing George Orwell predicted it would be in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Seventy-five years ago, he wrote a cautionary tale warning us of the potential for mass surveillance, repressive regimentation of people and behaviors, and a totalitarian state to exist in a dystopian 1984 … a future that passed 40 years ago. 

Maybe his timing was a bit off. No matter: many of his warnings have manifested themselves in the United States. 

Mass surveillance? Check! 

Reminders of the oppressive leader of the totalitarian state Oceania permeated throughout all of Orwell’s bleak fictional society. We never truly meet Big Brother as a character as he is more so a symbol of the ruling party Ingsoc, but the government having eyes on every single citizen at all times is a serious threat. Everyone in Oceania was required to keep on their “telescreens,” two-way televisions that allowed the Party to surveil its citizens. 

While we don’t have telescreens, constant mass surveillance is fully accepted into our society. There is nearly nowhere in public — especially in a city like Philadelphia — except some blind spots in alleyways where there isn’t a security camera feeding back to the state government, a business or someone’s home. 

Last year, Mayor Jim Kenney planted more than 100 360-degree cameras near parks; pretty much every business keeps security cameras in and out of their stores, and now more and more homeowners are putting up Ring or Blink video doorbell cameras. 

I’m not necessarily saying the cameras are inherently bad things; they’re all reactive measures. Kenney installed cameras after many incidents of gun violence occurred near parks. Philly businesses face vandalism and robbery and hope the cameras can deter it. Home doorbell cameras make people feel safer.

But footage can result in discriminatory targeting, misuse and abuse, and pushes the boundaries of invasion of privacy. The lack of privacy is further perpetuated by a new form of surveillance: social media.

In public, anyone is in the background of a TikTok dance or interviewed in a prank video, regardless of whether you want to or not. Every time we venture into a community space, there is no doubt we’ll end up on camera one way or another. I live in fear of becoming TikTok’s next bullied background character.

And then we all know social media knows literally everything about you.

Repression of individuality? Check! 

Any sort of human individuality or artistic expression is entirely barred from Oceania because the Ingsoc party sees it as a threat to its oppressive regime. Thought Police, the secret police of Oceania, control the masses by watching the security and vaporizing (or murdering and erasing all evidence of the existence of) anyone who dares to rebel against Big Brother.

America’s repression of individuality is a bit of a stretch from this, and it’s enforced differently, too. Social media is constantly changing aesthetics — “mob wife aesthetic” to “clean girl aesthetic” — and micro-trends — “blueberry milk nails” to “leggings legs” — dominate the culture.

Just yesterday, I was scrolling through my TikTok “For You Page” and came across videos exclaiming “Tankinis are in this summer? But I want to wear a bikini!” It has become ridiculous how closely people adhere to social media trends to determine what they’ll be doing and wearing.

It is nearing the point where everyone who can afford surgery has the same face. With BBLs, veneers, and buccal fat removal on top of now commonplace facelifts and botox, unique faces are on their way out. My generation has been calling it “smartphone face.”

There might be repression of individuality similar to Orwell’s reality, too… How many times have we heard about the mysterious deaths of activists or journalists about to uncover something the government may not want us to know? But I’m not one for conspiracy theories.

Totalitarianism? Um, maybe? 

Although “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is set in London, I’ve been focusing on the Philadelphia experience. The totalitarian regime in Oceania can be seen in some spots around the globe, but very small pieces of it are starting to show up in America.

The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, revoking the right to abortion two years ago, voter suppression laws exist across the country, nationalism is at an all-time high for some Americans, we live in a militarized police state, and censorship is thriving with the implementation of radical book bans on L.G.B.T.Q. content, even right outside Philadelphia in Bucks County. 

We may not have a dictator and still have some sort of democracy in place, but the future of our government hasn’t been looking so hot. Think of Project 2025’s Presidential Transition Project, which wants to flood all roles with conservatives, expand presidential powers, gut the Environmental Protection Agency, rescind protections against L.G.B.T.Q. discrimination, further restrict reproductive healthcare, and instill Christian nationalism, among some other horrifying points in the case of a 2024 Republican win.

We’re not currently in a totalitarian state, but it’s looming in the distance.

What Orwell didn’t see coming

But “Nineteen Eighty-Four” couldn’t even imagine some of the dystopian aspects of our world today.

Beyond public mass surveillance, there are secret cameras in hotel rooms and bathrooms, generating sexual abuse concerns. Beyond repression of individuality, people are killed for their race, gender, sexuality, and religion. 

Pornographic artificial intelligence is targeting girls and women and ruining lives. The evolution of AI is also blurring the lines between fiction and reality.

We’ve also discovered the ability to connect with anyone around the world at any point, giving us a mirror of horrific acts of violence, wars, and genocides in places like Palestine and Congo. Social media allows us to organize, and we’re starting to see young people do just that. 

What will we do with our inability to be ignorant? Will there be an uprising in this dystopian world?

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