Knowledge is Power: Lessons from Dystopian Fiction

by Ellen Judson

12 August 2016

32 years since George Orwell’s predictions of the future failed to come to pass, and our world seems to be getting more dystopian every day. The extent of state surveillance would make Big Brother jealous; the citizens in Fahrenheit 451 also rely on screens rather than books for information, communication and leisure; Brave New World’s embryos, manipulated to make them suited to a particular job, are lent the ring of truth by genetic engineering.

But which, of all these dystopian elements of society, is the most worrying? Usually we think, in true 1984 fashion, that the ultimate dystopia would be a society where a state knows exactly what you’re doing at all times and can arrest, torture or execute you at a whim; where a citizen has to do and think what the state says – where the whole consciousness of the individual becomes nothing more than a cog in the state machine that can be thrown out and replaced the minute it shows a little bit of rust.

And yes, the telescreen watching Winston – the protagonist of 1984 – and his lover Julia, the rigid policing of sexuality, the Two Minutes Hate where citizens are encouraged to scream at enemies of the state, the rewriting of history by the government, all of these are extremely disturbing. But the most profoundly unsettling is the moment in the so-called Ministry of Love, where Winston finds all of his beliefs called into question, even the seemingly undeniable fact that 2+2=4. Winston believes for a moment that the truth, whether mathematical or historical fact, is whatever his captor O’Brien says it is, and accepts that the impossibility of Big Brother’s identity must be true nevertheless. The terror is in the state that can control what is and is not true, and thus at a stroke can deprive its citizens of that precious commodity: knowledge.

“But there had been a moment…of luminous certainty, when each new suggestion of O’Brien’s had filled a patch of emptiness and become absolute truth.”

Depriving a citizen of the knowledge of the very system that controls them, so that they do not even know the nature of the ruler they obey, is taken to the extreme in Franz Kafka’s The Castle. The 1964 Penguin edition speaks of the “ubiquitous, elusive and anonymous powers determining…[the protagonist’s] every step.” He finds himself entirely at the mercy of a system which he cannot comprehend. He is given contradictory information, sent to the wrong people, not told facts which are assumed to be common knowledge, and thus is trapped by the mysterious mechanisms of the powers that be. Similarly, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, any power to question authority which citizens might have is dulled by the soothing effects of the soma drug. And in José Saramago’s Blindness, the society slowly descends into chaos and literal filth as a result of the inability of its citizens to see – literally and figuratively – what is truly in front of them: “blind people who can see, but do not see.”

In Metropole, by Ferenc Karinthy, the protagonist finds himself in a foreign country, where he can neither be understood nor understand. Far from a classic dystopia, he is not subject to any coercion – only to normal rules, such as paying for a hotel room. And yet the book is very disturbing, as it tracks this fight against a system that we do not and cannot understand – the protagonist cannot leave, because he does not know how to get to the airport; his survival is at risk, because he does not know how to earn money; he is almost entirely alone, because he cannot communicate with the citizens of this new state, and he cannot contact his family. There is no state which infringes his rights, or secret police that follows his every move; there is just him, and his complete lack of knowledge about the social systems which he is nevertheless controlled by; he is swept up in whatever is happening without any knowledge of what is happening or ability to affect it.

So far, so bad. But what about us? After all, we don’t live at the mercy of the whim of the Castle powers; in a globalised world language no longer limits us the way it once did. And no one is trying to convince us that 2+2=5. Of course we’re never going to know everything that goes on in our government, but as long as we aren’t subject to torture, random imprisonment, censorship and so on, one might think, why would we care?

The problem is that resistance and change require knowledge. Michel Foucault tells us that where there is power, there is resistance – but our ability to resist is fatally undermined if we are deprived of crucial information. You can’t protest if you don’t know what you’re protesting about; you can’t have your grievances heard if you don’t know the official channels to air them, and you can’t successfully object to what is being done to you if you don’t know who is doing it. The glimmer of hope present in dystopias like 1984 and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We that even the most omnipresent and omniscient forces can be overthrown in the end is crushed in works like The Trial, where what is going on is completely unknown, and all the protagonist can do is allow himself to be buffeted around by unseen and incomprehensible forces.

We live in a world where information is power, and those in power seek to restrict the information we have – always in the name of the greater good; think of the threats to the Freedom of Information Act, the dogged prosecution of whistleblowers, and the manipulation of the truth which characterises political discourse. Of course not all information can be public – complete transparency is a foolish and even dangerous dream. But we need robust transparency, not just supposed safeguards that can be overridden at the whim of a government; we need honesty and accountability, two words which are rarely associated with power; we need those in power to recognise that sincerity is a virtue, not a weakness.

Otherwise we are Winston – we can never really be sure what is real or what is true, and when those in power offer us certain truths that they themselves have designed, we will gratefully accept those offerings, and that will be our undoing.

Photo: digital cat/Flickr

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