Dystopia as a genre has helped to shape the way in which each generation views the world before them. It is a glimpse into the demise they potentially face, throwing issues that they have into a relatable world view. Most dystopias now come from film. Film and TV have become one of the main forms of dystopian media, creating a new visual way for story tellers to bring a dystopia to life. The job of these storytellers is to provide the audience with the means to see how decisions they make on real current issues, prevalent in their own non-fictional worlds, can be played out in a visual or oral performance. A world issue that is found frequently in dystopian film and literature is the concept of restriction of knowledge. How this is approached varies from director, to author, to screenwriter, while remaining an observable feature. To further talk about this, I will be exploring the theme of restriction of knowledge through the texts of George Orwell’s “Nineteen-Eighty-Four,” Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the film “Ex-Machina,” and an episode from the popular dystopian TV series Black Mirrors “Men against fire.” These texts, show the ways in which knowledge can be restricted in our modern lives and in our potential futures; and shows what can happen to the people this knowledge is taken from. “Knowledge, like air, is vital to life. Like air, no one should be denied it.” – Alan Moore
George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Four’ is a text written during the post second world war period. Exploring the themes of a totalitarian state, through the eyes of an unorthodox protagonist. Through the text’s protagonist we see how the world in which the text inhabits restricts knowledge to the main characters, and to the audience. By physically taking away access to knowledge, the people lose sense of history and of communication, eventually losing a sense of identity and individuality at the hands of the state, and the restrictions they have imposed. In the world of ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Four’ it is the physical restriction of knowledge by the government, to the general public that causes the population harm. The state issues all forms of media, from literature, to film, even to erotic novels. This distributed media is altered and destroyed on a daily basis in order for its information to fit with the current truth of the regime. “And so it was with every class of recorded fact, great or small. Everything faded away into a shadow-world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.” In this quote we can see how the constant changing of the the “truth” has caused it become meaningless. The public have no idea of their own reality, due to choices made by their government to restrict access to knowledge in order to keep complacency. This restriction of knowledge gives power to the government and away from the people. Examples of this occur in modern life as well. Such as in North Korea, where all media is controlled by the state. Traveling in, out, and around the country is also controlled in order to limit the North Korean people’s exposure to outside views of the world. A common tactic of rebels is dropping hard-drives filled with literature, film, news, and messages from all over the world into the country to be distributed. This is a way of informing the North Korean people that there is a world outside of what they’ve always known; that what the have been told all their lives may have been a lie, and to enlighten them to the truths of the control they face. As we see in the text of ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Four,’ and reflected in the real life North Korean dictatorship, knowledge gives a government power over the people they govern. This lack of knowledge shown in the text, and reflected in some aspects of our own world, is leading newer generations to ignorance in the face of control. Our knowledge and access to information is what gives power back to communities. This text is showing how when knowledge is restricted to the general public, they lose control of their own collective power.
In the text the “The Handmaid’s Tale,” written by Margaret Atwood, we again see how this concept of restriction of knowledge takes power from the people. In this text that theme is explored in relation to women; and when women have lost their rights to basic forms of knowledge such as writing and reading. To give some context, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ takes place in a future America, where a state (renamed Gilead) has been taken over by a theocratic (religious based) government. In this state men hold complete power, while women have become degraded to objects of labour and sex. The protagonist of this story is a women by the name of Offred; a Handmaiden under the government, sent to officials houses to bear children for their families. Women in this text have complete restriction from knowledge in terms of not being allowed to read or write. This regulated stripping of a basic human right, prevents the women from gaining power or seeking help in this text. It becomes blindingly clear to the audience that without this access to literature, women in the text are kept in the dark. Unable to read current news, write to family, or to record their side of history, as each horrific event takes place. If this future were to come true, history would know of the events recorded by the men. A re-written tale of what actually happened from the perspective of those with access to power. Our own history books reflect this. Showing that our legacy as a human race has been recorded by men of power, and by men with access to education. Due to the power these men of the past held, they have been able to shape how we now view the past; women and their part in history is not written, its as if we already lived the events of the Handmaid’s Tale, but we are unable to see this due to the restriction that women had to recording their own histories. Cleopatra is an example of this. She was a powerful female pharaoh of Egypt, who by almost all records was deemed a promiscuous adulteress, who cared little for her people. However, most records found today of her were recorded by Roman men, who sought to defame her to the Roman public and her own people. As one of the most recognisable women in history, she had become little more than a propaganda slogan, against the ruling women in ancient Europe. Had records from women or even by Egyptians been the ones to find their way int our history books, she could have been the symbol for so much more. “Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.” This quote by Offred shows the power of being able to tell a story, even if to one person. Having access to education and restrictions removed to tell the world of what women in her society face, Offred could change the situation for women in the text. Restriction of physical access to knowledge in this text, is an example of women in our own past who’s lives will forever be remembered by us as the men around them perceived the situation. Had women of the past had access to the education we have now, the history books we read today may have told a very different story to the one we have always known.
Restriction of knowledge in the previous example texts prohibited a mass of people from education, but this feature of dystopian literature can also apply to a person to person basis, as well as in a new digital age. A text that explores this is the 2015 film ‘Ex-Machina.’ The story of this film is based around three characters. Nathan, a brilliant scientist who lives in total isolation from the world in order to continue work without distraction. Caleb, an office worker for Nathan who “wins” a trip to go out to the reclusive man’s house and meet the genius behind the company. And Ava, an AI (Artificial intelligence) made by Nathan, so realistic you wouldn’t know unless you saw under her skin. Nathan’s aim in the film is to have Caleb come and test Ava, to see if she will pass as a real human, with emotion and a history that’s shaped her. The title Ex-Machina comes from the latin phrase “Deus Ex-Machina” which means “a god from a machine,” the contemporary use of this phrase in literature however, refers to an implausible concept or character brought into the story in order to make the conflict in the story resolve; the character being able to dictate the story as if they were a god. How knowledge is restricted in this film is through many different aspects and characters. For example, Nathan restricts the world from the amazing advancements in technology he is making, instead keeping it to himself. He also restricts Caleb from really interacting with Ava, never letting on her true potential in order to keep Caleb in the dark. Ava herself is restricted by Nathan, and the containment where she lives; she is cut off from the world, only knowing what Nathan chooses to show her, or to programme her with. Ava in turn restricts Caleb from her true intentions. This film shows how by limiting a person’s access to other people and the world they can become ignorant to the advances that have been made in their place (in the case of Nathan) and how on a person to person basis we can never really know someone unless they tell us (in the case of Ava and Caleb). Knowledge of another person’s inner workings will always be a restricted to us, no matter how empathetic we are. This restriction of knowledge of human intention is one that ultimately leads to the death and suggested death of Nathan and Caleb at the hands of Ava. In our world this lack of understanding or insight to other humans is approached through empathy, but a lack of this has also lead to some of the major wars of our history. Showing how a lack of human understanding can lead to the dystopias we watch and read about. Ex-Machina is a film that displays how restriction to knowledge can be personal, and one that must be overcome through communication in order to leave our dystopian futures behind us.
Lack of human understanding and empathy is a theme that drives the next text, Black Mirrors ‘Men Against Fire.’ The restriction of knowledge in this text allows for a lack of human empathy, leading to the massacre of innocents. In the ‘Men Against Fire’ world we as the audience see that it is a post apocalyptic future U.S.A, viewed through the eyes of a soldier in the army. This army’s job is to track down and hunt “roaches,” mutated humans that are detected through an implant that each soldier receives. Later in the episode, the audience along with the protagonist, learn that the implants actually physically alter the person’s view of the “roaches.” We come to find that they are really just normal humans left homeless and diseased by the apocalyptic landscape; the implant was placed to alter and dehumanise them, making their slaughter easier on the consciousness of the soldiers. In this quote here,” They realised that making the aggressors see their humanity would be the key to breaking them of their will to kill,” shows how the government knew that the way to conscript soldiers was to make their enemy inhuman. A goal achieved through restriction of knowledge via the implant. This filtering of view makes the world the soldiers inhabit, and the horrible crimes they have committed easier to handle. Meaning that the public as well have no idea either of what they are allowing their government to do. This kind of filtering of information happens in a much larger scale, and predominantly in a digital space, in our own world. Through social media, news outlets, and other digital media, misinformation and filtering of knowledge occurs to such a large extent that the “truth” is often is hidden by an implant of our own making. Such as the political choices we make, what news we choose to follow, who we choose to listen or subscribe to. It is a restriction of knowledge placed on us by our governments and adjust by us, filtering more or less of what we choose to see. Our world view and the horrific events such as war and famine, and mass deportation, are viewed through the lens that is chosen by us, the public. It is done to make it easier on our consciousness too, just like the protagonist soldier, that we are choosing to do nothing in aid of the crimes we filter out from our media feeds.
Restriction of knowledge is a powerful theme that dictates many, if not all, aspects and characters in these discussed texts. The access to information that is given or taken across the film, TV, and books explored, show how when knowledge is restricted it disenfranchises the overall community; not just those it is taken from. Even those at the top with seemingly all of the access to information and knowledge are left dissatisfied. Such as with Nathan in ‘Ex-Machina.’ He is brilliant but his unwillingness to share this information with others, leads to mistakes an eventually his own death. The soldier in ‘Men Against Fire’ when all restrictions are removed, chooses to give back the information passed to him, as it is too much to bear alone; as he has no power individually to make great change. The state of Gilead in the ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ is still suffering at the hands of disease and infertility even with all the sacrifices people at the top have made for the “good of all.” Our protagonist from ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Four’ when exposed to the truth comes to find that is actuality it is all a lie. He dies at the hands of the state, believing in a lie until the end, as he never had any real access to knowledge. These dystopian texts are made to hold a mirror up to society. To make the audience see themselves and what they would do in the face of such adversity. To see if they would too, live comfortably with the lie, or challenge it for the uncomfortable truth. All that prohibits the characters of these texts from changing their situation is access and control of knowledge. There is no difference from the audience and these characters. The texts tell us to take control of the restrictions placed upon us, to challenge what is clearly not right, and to push back against the futures we are presented with. The way to achieve this is by not repeating the faults of the societies in these texts, thereby giving access to education and removing restriction to knowledge to all who wish for it. “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.” These texts are a warning how not to become the dystopias that have shaped us, and that this is possible to become the Utopias we dream of.