A Look at How Dystopian Fiction Lays a Hand on Our Shoulder and Warns Us to Tread Carefully in the Face of Covid-19
How it Begins
My phone buzzed at 7:22am yesterday.
I’d just arrived at the office and was settling in with a cup of coffee for my first meeting. I glanced at the screen to find a Covid-19 survey from LINE asking about my symptoms and movements.
LINE is Japan’s most popular social networking app. It offers one-to-one instant messaging, group conversations, voice and video calls, and a short timeline of your latest activities. It has much the same prominence as Facebook Messenger does in the UK and United States. Most big apps work in tandem with it. During lockdown, the Japanese government asked LINE to coordinate with the Ministry of Health in tracking virus clusters and outbreaks through surveys.
I replied that I had no symptoms for Covid-19 and had recently passed through Ikebukuro and Shinagawa. The survey thanked me and mentioned that my data was going to be used to “keep the populace safe.”
How many dystopian worlds have risen from the same mantra?
The Setting Is Always the Same
War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense.
If dystopian literature warns of anything, it is this. Privacy is an incalculably precious freedom and we sacrifice it, even in direst need, at our own peril. As a whole, people have taken this to heart. We take our privacy seriously. The GDPR, HIIPA in the United States, and the Japanese APPI are all laws that were pushed by those concerned about privacy in the digital age. VPNs have seen market growth of 73% since 2016. Privacy issues have become a buzzword when interacting with corporations and governments. Yet, we are now asked to voluntarily sacrifice them in the face of a crisis with no subterfuge, privacy policies, or terms and conditions to obfuscate.
We now stand at the cusp of all dystopian fiction ever produced.
Dystopian fiction rarely takes place over a short period of time. Often, there are years or even decades between “the time before” and the time period of the narrative. Because of this, the cause of the societal shift is often vague and clouded with circumlocutions. But it is always a crisis, one which demands the sacrifice of our civil liberties in exchange for the swift restoral of order, or so authority figures claim. The common narrative thread that runs through dystopian lit is that the surrender of rights is a conscious choice–with external pressure, but still a choice. As Alan Moore declares in V for Vendetta:
But who elected them? It was you! You who appointed these people! You who gave them the power to make your decisions for you!
For the moment at least, the new Japanese Health Ministry app designed to monitor COVID-19, meant to replace LINE surveys, is optional. But in a country like Japan where social pressure to conform is common, being optional is not the freedom of choice it might seem to be. If only for the greater good and to control a virus in the midst of a pandemic, it’s an acceptable trade-off.
A Dystopian Twist
My name is Adam Susan. I am the leader. Leader of the lost, ruler of the ruins. I am a man, like any other man. I lead the country that I love out of the wilderness of the twentieth century
Perhaps the first thing any reader should understand about dystopian is that, despite its name, it is not the opposite of utopian. As anyone who has ever played Bioshock will be happy to tell you, most dystopias are born from the ashes of failed utopias when the logistical fault lines eventually tear open. To find true dystopia, do not look for those who start with malicious intent. Look for those who start with pure intentions but don’t consider the wider ramifications of their goals. And most of all, look for those who justify their ideas by appealing to the greater good.
I have no doubt that the Ministry of Health has only developed the app to keep a track of Covid-19 cases.
In exactly the same way, I have no doubt the Precog system in Minority Report was developed to benefit society. But the sine qua non of the system is the violation of rights. Any positive outcome obtained must be weighed against the damage done by trampling on public liberty. By Philip K. Dick’s estimation, no murders for five years is not enough of a sinecure to countenance the loss of those rights. The irony of the idea is expressed in the story’s very first chapter:
You’ve probably grasped the basic legalistic drawback to precrime methodology. We’re taking in individuals who have broken no law.
This raises a wider question. Is there a goal important enough to justify tearing away our rights? I’m sure everyone reading this has the exact same answer in mind.
Finally, The Denouement
That brings us past the first gentle caress of dystopia: the well-intentioned steps, each logical and in the public interest. But as users and developers alike rush to the defense of the tracking apps, hypothesizing how encryption and constant deletion of stored data makes it almost impossible for governments to glean useful data, the most important lesson of dystopian fiction lies forgotten.
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
1984 being esteemed in the pantheon of dystopian literature, most people even slightly concerned with their digital privacy have perused it. People still quote the dangers of mass surveillance, mindless groupthink, and totalitarian control. But distill the mechanisms of control beyond the truncheon and the thought police and you’ll find that dystopian control begins with language.
In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there shall be no words in which to express it.
The language COVID-19 tracking apps use goes to great lengths to impress on users the importance of allowing it to infringe on their rights. Some even would go so far as to suggest that using a tracking system is a civic duty. But though some governments might consider it a civic duty to help curb Covid infection numbers, does that extend to installing a privacy-violating app to do so? Of course not. Yet, the language smoothly conflates the two weakening dissenting positions by suggesting they are not showing enough concern about the pandemic. In the case of the LINE Survey, the precursory text ご協力をよろしくお願いいたしますalmost literally translates to “Thank you for helping us contain the pandemic,” intimating that refusing to fill out the survey is akin to permitting the spread of Covid-19. Once language begins to serve a tool to stifle debate rather than encourage it, George Orwell is quick to warn where that path leads:
In the end, The Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.
A Dystopian Epilogue
It is key to reemphasize that we are living in a pandemic. Most of us have sacrificed our civil liberties and privacy to some extent in an attempt to halt the spread of Covid-19. Tracking apps ask us to surrender yet more of our privacy. The warnings of dystopia are not against the sacrifice of our rights and freedoms in times of crisis. They warn against complacency in retrieving and exerting control over those rights once the crisis has passed. They warn against accepting the loss of those rights permanently to avoid further crises.
Most importantly, they warn against language becoming a tool of oppression, rather than a means of criticism. Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 apps have some elements of each of these dystopian building blocks in them. But does that necessarily mean embracing them is the first step towards a dystopian future?
Much like the privacy we shed with Amazon, Facebook, or Google, probably not. But as dystopian fiction tells us, that’s what all their protagonists thought too.