We've all seen proof that technology can bring people together and change the world. People are crediting Facebook with helping to organize the Egyptian protests that led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. It turns out that our faith in technology's ability to empower people wasn't misplaced after all. So where are all the stories about technology helping people to gain their freedom?
You would think this would be a major theme in pop culture — after all, we've all seen the internet transform the way we interact with each other. And even in established democracies, our relationships with the power structure have changed drastically thanks to cable news, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi puts it really well in his book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised — starting in the late 1990s, we've seen "the gap constantly narrowing between science fiction and reality, between imagination and innovation." The rapidly accelerating pace of technological invention has left people believing that we're on the verge of a political transformation.
And now, events in Egypt and elsewhere have proved that it really can happen — electronic communication really can change the world. So why aren't we seeing this reflected in our pop culture?
Chalk this one up to cynicism. It used to be that pop culture was full of stories where technology helped people free themselves from tyranny — think of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Silverberg's Hawksbill Station. Not to mention almost every episode of classic Star Trek and late-1970s Doctor Who. And then there's Blake's 7, of course.
That was also the era when we believed that the 21st Century would see humans colonizing other planets and ending hunger, though. Nowadays, optimism about technology is passé — and that includes optimism that technology can help lead to freedom.
It's not surprising that most of the examples in our list of science-fiction stories about heroes who overthrow an oppressive government come from the 1970s or 1980s.
In a 1976 interview, Philip K. Dick talks about his then-unpublished novel Radio Free Albemuth, and here's how he describes his alien satellite, VALIS:
[It's the story of] a tyrant named Ferris F. Fremont, who's President of the United States... it's definitely science fiction, because the people who overthrow him are picked at random by an extraterrestrial satellite communications system which informs them what to do, and what information will bring down the tyrant, Ferris Fremont. And coordinates their efforts through direct radio communications with the satellite, which has been in orbit around the Earth for several thousand years, and periodically intervenes when tyrannical governments become too tyrannical. There seems to be no other way to depose them.
I love the idea that the only way to overcome despotism is with technology so advanced, it pretty much invokes Clarke's Law.
Just look at the contrast between the first Star Wars trilogy and the second — the original trilogy is all about the Rebels outsmarting the Empire and bringing democracy to that far-away galaxy. The more recent prequels, meanwhile, are George Lucas' ponderous warning that a democracy, like the old Republic, can easily succumb to dictatorship and repression. Likewise, a lot of our most compelling political narratives, like Battlestar Galactica or Jericho, have been about how fragile democracy is after a disaster.
These days, when we see huge widescreen science fiction dealing with politics, and especially with the role of technology in politics, it's to show how technology leads to repression or imperialism. The most obvious example, of course, is Avatar, in which the military-industrial machine will do anything, crush anybody, in its lust for "Unobtanium." You could easily view the Matrix saga as being about overthrowing a dictatorship, but then again, the oppressive regime is based on technology and it's only overthrown using mysticism, not tech.
The good news is, judging from the TVTropes page on heroic revolutions, it seems like video games are where the stories of people overthrowing evil regimes are happening lately.
But it's not just cynicism about technology that's keeping pop culture from celebrating its potential to help free us from oppression. It's also the fact that we've all seen the flipside of technology's liberating properties — just as Orwell predicted, high tech can be used to make propaganda more potent than ever. The most ridiculous lies, if repeated often enough on television or spread via the internet as memes, become accepted as inviolable truths.
Just as easily as technology can help organize and galvanize a struggle for liberation, it can also be used as a means of social control. Technology lets governments put their people under surveillance more effectively, and control our behavior in a million subtle ways. And maybe eventually, we'll actually have the long-awaited mind-control implants that will let the government program our brains.
Sometimes it seems like we're in a race, between those who would use technology to enslave us and those who want to hack the system and spread cyber-liberation. Every time the evil overlords find another way to lock down information or to control us, we have to find another way to tear down the walls.
All of that just makes it more important, though, for books, movies, television, comics and games to fuel our belief that technology really can set us free. The more we see the would-be dictators and despots trying to use scientific advances to control us, the more we need to be able to look to our pop culture to show us how technology that's used to oppress can also be used to overthrow.
Top image: Reason Magazine.