You’ve probably read Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Thing is neither would’ve existed without a Russian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin called We. It’s not as readable as the other two but both Orwell and Huxley had read We before they began work on their own dystopian novels and it’s impossible to ignore Zamyatin’s influence on them. All three novels imagine different societies, different collectives, different wes.
I studied sociology a bit at college. Honestly, it never interested me as much as psychology and, truth be told, the things I learned in the course actually frightened me. Of course there are things you learn about in psychology that’re frightening—personality and mood disorders—but what frightened me about sociology is what happens when seemingly stable people gather en masse; it changes them. They become this rather scary thing called a ‘we’.
Who am I? I’m many things. One of these is a subset of a number of wes. I’m half of a married couple for starters. I’m Scottish, white, heterosexual, asthmatic, myopic, bald, grumpy and I’m a writer. And lots of other things. I’m a member of many subsets but there’s only one me and I didn’t like the film Moulin Rouge! despite being a member of the set of people who like Ewan McGregor AND a member of the set of people who like Nicole Kidman AND a member of the set of people who like both Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman; just because one likes Ewan McGregor does not guarantee one with automatically like Nicole Kidman and vice versa. After a while it all gets very silly.
What I don’t like are demographics. I understand the need for them but as soon as I become (or admit to being) a part of one I lose something, a chunk of myself. And I happen to think I’m a bit precious. Which brings me back to emotional tech. It’s here and now. It’s not science fiction:
Many were furious over the disclosure of a recent study that Facebook controlled the News Feeds of its nearly 700,000 members in a previous experiment to analyze the behavior of its users and the emotional impact of positive and negative posts on them. A leading privacy organization, in fact, filed on Thursday a formal protest against the social networking site with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). – Lori Sandoval, ‘Facebook faces complaints for controversial emotional contagion study’, Tech Times, 4 July 2014
Which is why I like books, good old-fashioned paper books, because no one can come along and read me and change the ending to suit my mood. The idea that the content of something I’m watching could be altered to reflect the mood of the people around me thoroughly appalls me. But that’s what they’re proposing, reading you and responding to your (i.e. the group’s) needs in real time. Can you imagine how that would work? The hero would always get the girl; films would always have happy endings; the music would always be by John Williams. Imagine going to the pictures and never seeing a bad film. What would we moan about?
People are too complex. The idea of demographics is fine and mostly it works but when it works it reduces my choices. My choices. Mine! I’m a fifty-five year old man. No one is going to market comics or cartoons at me and yet I like comics and cartoons. I loved the recent Death of the Family storyline in DC comics and I also enjoyed the reimagining of the Batman family in the cartoon series Beware the Batman despite the fact it wasn’t well-received by the kids and was pulled after only eleven of the twenty-six episode arc was broadcast; the remaining episodes were burned off at 3am on the [adult swim] channel. And that’s the problem. That’s why there won’t be a second series. Because the tail is wagging the dog.
I hope you liked this article. If some of you hated it I don’t mind; you can’t please all the people all the time. And that’s the point: You can’t please all the people all the time and we shouldn’t expect to.