Our Utopia : Their Dystopia

At times it feels like we have already arrived in 802.701 AD. The 802.701 AD as described in Wells’s The Time Machine, that is. Although written in 1895 as an attempt to predict the human condition hundreds of thousands years later,  it is strikingly close to the current state of the entertainment dominated Western World, and should heed us warning.

For those who haven’t read the novel I will provide a short summary. The antagonist travels forward in time to find Earth inhabited by two humanoid species, the Eloi and the Morlocks. Whereas the Eloi live a banal life of ease on the surface of the earth, the Morlocks live underground and excluded, tending machinery and providing food, clothing, and infrastructure for the Eloi.

The Eloi have become this way due to solving all problems that required strength, intelligence, or virtue, turning them dissolute and naïve. They form a society of small, elegant, childlike adults of sub-human intelligence, who are incapable of performing much work; rather, they live to feed, play and mate. The antagonist tries to communicate with the creatures, only to find that they lack the curiosity or discipline to care about anything else than their frivolous lives.

The Morlocks on the other hand, slave away with the machinery and technology that makes it possible for the above mentioned paradise to exist. As such, the antagonist thinks of their relationship as that of lords and servants, with the Eloi ruling over the Morlocks respectively. On second notice, he finds out that their relationship is not one of lords and servants, which is due to their lack of intelligence, not very surprising, but of livestock and ranchers. The antagonist theorises that true intelligence is the result of and response to danger; with no real challenges facing the Eloi, they have lost the will,  intelligence, and physical fitness of humanity at its peak, and hence result to a life of feeding, playing and mating. Nothing else speaks to them any longer.

There are many ways to interpret the symbolism that Wells’s scenario sketched, and it could be applied in many sociological and political theories. From my point of view, that of an adolescent that has done his fair share of partying, I would like to focus on something specific, as it gives an intriguing look at what I would like to call the party lifestyle. Bear in mind, that I could’ve tackled anything that is within the boundaries of the mass entertainment industry, such as television, video-games and the internet.

I would like to state foremost that in no way I am attacking anybody personally. However, a quick look around at a one of your closest (electronic) music festival, Facebook and Instagram page makes me realise that it hasn’t taken hundreds of thousands of years for some of us to turn into Eloi ; it was a matter of decades.

Tomorrowland 2016. That's a lot of people
Tomorrowland 2016. That’s a lot of people

Thousands of adolescents flock to the fields every summer, spending their money on (overpriced) tickets, clothes, food, drinks and drugs. They dance around in perfect matrimony.  It is often stated by those who frequently attend such festivals that this is the ultimate form of pleasure; spending time with likewise people on a big field of grass, dancing and drinking. The key to fully enjoying this is to forget about everything else and ‘live in the moment’, a buzz phrase that is used over and over again to promote this certain idea of pleasure and fun. As the seasons shift, the whole circus moves from the plains to the more gloomy clubs and house parties, but the scene remains outspoken. I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing this as well, albeit some while ago.

This is nothing new on the horizon. Music festivals, fairs and common gatherings are inherent to the human state and have been around since the down of civilisation. Contrary to what is happening now, these old festivals and gatherings were often linked to historical events, religious holidays or rooted in cosmology and the seasons of the year. Many of these are still around today, in the form of mid-summer night festivals, national holidays or Christmas. What is new, is the sheer magnitude and frequency of these types of events.

Exceptions aside,  the act of clubbing and electronic music festivals used to be a thing for a more select and especially small group of people. Besides that, big parties such as Thunderdome that started in 1992 were (bi)-annual gatherings. Like Christmas, something to look forward to over a long period of time. The first house and techno parties in the Netherlands were completely deserted, and club owners had to do their very best to sell the type of music to the Dutch public. Those who did go went there purely for the music and could be seen as purists.

In current times, many just seem to go there for the lifestyle. To see and be seen; to have something to do in your leisure time and fill your weekend with. This has evolved to a point where almost all adolescents who would like to apply for the title ‘popular’, are somewhat obliged to join in on the craze at least at some point in their lives. I visited my first festival around 7 years ago. Due to its increased popularity, I have seen the amount and frequency of different festivals and parties grow tremendously since then.  It is hard to find a weekend that does not have at least a couple festivals in Amsterdam alone, let alone the rest of the country. The situation is presumably similar in many other first world countries although not as prevalent as The Netherlands.

The establishment was not particularly happy.
The establishment was not particularly happy with the second summer of love.

Although big musical festivals were already around, electronic music festivals saw the light in a different way. What started as big MDMA -fuelled gatherings of people on the English countryside in the 1988-1989 infamous second summer of love, has in a mere 25 years evolved towards a more capitalistic, carefully marketed multi-million business. An entire new way to spend all this beautifully created leisure time and money that we as adolescents have come to enjoy.

The tone and symbolism have stayed throughout the years ; love and acceptance, not surprisingly, still fuelled by occasional entheogen drugs consumed by many of its visitors. At face value, there seems to be nothing wrong with any of this, and that might indeed be the case. However, most religions promote love and acceptance while still fuelling many conflicts around the globe. It might thus be too naive of a conclusion to state that love and acceptance is actually all there is to it. I would like to propose that in its very nature, these new trends in entertainment in the form of festivals are closer to a form of escapism, rather than love, and for that it deserves thorough scrutiny.

I would concede that it’s rather pessimistic and rude to simply state that this lifestyle is degenerate, or bad. I do not want to come off as a backwards conservative who does not want to accept new developments. Similar voices might have gone up during the rock era, where hundreds of thousands gathered to see Metallica play, and still do. Having fun  and playing around is detrimental to the human condition and just maybe, having fun the way many of our adolescents are having fun is meant to be our current and next generation to come. Fun however, is highly subjective, therefore overrated, and should not cloud ones critical judgement and view of the world we live in.

In one of the passages from the Time Machine, the antagonist encounters an Eloi that fell in the water and couldn’t swim. To his surprise, its peers did not rush to help but left it to drown, as they were too busy eating, playing and mating. Besides their lack of altruism, they simply had no skills that were of any use in that situation. In that sense, it would be better for everybody to just carry on; live in the moment. The past is what it is, and the future is not yet there; why worry, why think. Focus on fulfilling your own needs in the here and now, seems to be the mantra. Individualism grown to grotesque proportions.

Although the less intoxicated people at festivals would probably accurately calculate the danger and henceforth rush to help, it is not the analogy I would like to make. The poor Eloi who was drowning unattended does not represent a fellow festival-goer, but those who live outside the bubble of love and acceptance. As is the case with religion, love and acceptance is easy to preach for in-group members, but is historically proven to come to a grinding halt when confronted with out-group members. Although the bubble of love and acceptance might seem like a Utopian paradise at first, as is the case in The Time Machine, its existence is only possible due to the churning of the machinery underground and the relentless slaving of the Morlocks. Without it, it ceases to exist.

In reality, the apparent paradise that is called the music festival is similarly only possible due to the churning of the capitalistic machinery at work. As is the case with the Morlocks, most of this machinery is out of sight – not underground – but simply so far away for our naïve eyes to see. The machinery is the capitalist western-centric wheel that keeps the global economy turning by exploiting underdeveloped countries far away, hidden in the obscure hierarchical layers of behemoth economic and political institutions that make up our modern nation states. Through the state of abundance it creates, it is capable of simulating overwhelmingly positive alternate realities, simultaneously clouding our minds for the actual state of the world and the reasons why most of us in the West have the privilege of spending so much leisure time on frivolous things without having to actually work that much for it.

While we might grovel at the fact that we have to work a couple of extra days a week to afford that new 600 euros iPhone so we are ensured of taking the best selfies at Dekmental Festival, parallel to our experiences, hundreds of impoverished Chinese are slaving away for significantly longer periods of time just to assemble that piece of technology that is about to make your life as fantastic as it is.  As we speak, around 3.000.000.000 human beings (I’m writing it out on purpose as we often fail to grasp the vastness of numbers when downplayed to millions and billions) that live and breathe just the way we do live on less than 3 dollars a day and have access to hardly anything nor chances to grow out of that poverty by their own will.

2016 Rio Olympics - Opening ceremony - Maracana - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 05/08/2016. People watch fireworks explode over the Maracana from the roof of their home in the Mangueira favela, or slum, as the Olympic opening ceremony unfolds. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes
2016 Rio Olympics – Opening ceremony –

Rio’s 2016 Olympics are a prime example of the gut wrenching divide in wealth, illustrated by a viral picture of kids looking at the baffling luxurious opening from their hillside favela shack, while Samsung happily markets it’s latest smartphone with the slogan ‘sponsoring a world without barriers’. Entertainment and fun shrouds the fact that we are all participating in an incredibly uneven global system that feeds on the poor and returns to the rich, but since we’re all living in our bubble of love and acceptance, we can’t see reality for what it is.

In our bubble, we’re happily spending at least 60 dollars on a single festival. This is already an astronomical number compared to what the majority has, just to go about their daily lives, was it not for the fact that this amount is easily surpassed by the (relatively) sickening amounts of money some of us make in a day (I once earned 280 euro’s in a day refilling stocks at the local supermarket).

That’s a good thing, for us adolescents. Currently, partying isn’t particularly cheap, primarily because it has turned into a business, instead of a non-profit gathering of like-minded people as was the case in the second summer of love. You are there as a consumer first, however lovely the marketed message is. Because of this, attending festivals and parties can be a huge financial drain (prepare to spend €8 on a not so well assembled hamburger). Especially in bigger Western cities,  where minimum wages are quite low compared to expenditure in housing and other services that one needs, this poses a problem.

Music Festival
Dekmental Festival

Due to its incredible high entertainment and social value, partying could be considered a super-stimuli for adolescents (see http://www.sparringmind.com/supernormal-stimuli/ for a fun illustration). This often leads to situations where the only money and time available is primarily spent on this lifestyle. While it is certainly not a new phenomenon for adolescent students to trash their income on booze and leisure time, we must not forget that it was historically only possible for a small amount of the population to indulge in such non-productive behaviours,  as only a sliver of the population went to study at universities, and those who did received additional checks from the government. All of this has changed dramatically. Around 45% of our adolescents attend higher education on graduate level and higher. There are no more checks from the government. Whenever your money runs out in the current situation, you would have to work longer hours, or loans are provided, given that you pay them back once you’ve graduated.

This leaves those who actively live the party lifestyle in the situation where there is less money for other, evenly or more worthwhile things. Obviously, it is everyone’s personal freedom to decide on what to spend his or her money, but we should ask ourselves if our (young) adolescents who are already heavily exposed to this lifestyle by marketing efforts and social media even have a choice. People negatively judge the decision of a drug addict to spend all his money on drugs instead of food, shelter personal development and future investments. The same could be stated for party people, when they decide to spend all their money on tickets, transportation, cloths, booze and quite ironically, drugs.

Even Nicholas Cage doesn't like to work dead end jobs.
Even Nicholas Cage doesn’t like to work dead end jobs.

Adolescents and students are thus pushed to work dead end jobs to provide them with enough money to sustain this party lifestyle that is typically glamourized through popular culture and social media. The message ‘just do whatever the f*ck you want as long as you are having fun’ (and spend your money to keep our consumerist economy from crashing) is heard wide and clear through the public arena. These engaged people end up spending quite some time on planning, attending and talking about parties, doing all of that in repeat (for many, every weekend). Furthermore, it is not uncommon to spend the day after in bed, recovering from the intense dancing sessions and significant hangover. Often, there are after-parties or ‘weekenders’ that  easily stretch the time period to a 24+-hour period of partying, basically rendering multiple days of your week immune to anything productive, besides, spending quite a lot of money and enjoying oneself.

So what does this party lifestyle return, besides fun, romantic endeavours and an empty wallet? Could we learn something from the unlucky relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks?

In the novel, the Eloi serve as livestock for the Morlocks, as the Murlocks do not have anything to eat underground. During the night, the Morlocks, scared of light, ascend to the surface and hunt the Eloi, who, waning in their utopian decadence, accept this and don’t resist.  The Morlocks make sure not to eat all of the Eloi, as the Eloi need the time to feed, play and breed, as to not deplete their only source of food. In return, the Morlocks build and sustain the cherished paradise, so the Eloi can have fun.

If there is any truth in the resemblance between our current generation and the Eloi, that would mean that in some way, you are being taking advantage of whilst oblivious by whom or for what reason, and in addition, you just do not care. In return, you get just enough things to enjoy yourself  without getting overly suspicious of the entire situation. This is not, how people experience nor see this.

Transcending experiences
Transcending experiences

In reality, people often mention the positive effects of making connections and meeting new people. This of course, does happen, and could lead to fruitful friendships. However, most of the time, these encounters are superficial and will only hold in the context of the party, as this feeling of friendship and connection is based primarily on the substances you’ve both taken and the setting you are both in. Although these connections and friendships could last and provide you with new meaning in life, when both drug and setting are gone, what is left is not likely to pass the test of friendship and does not bear the resemblance of a true connection.

Besides that, there’s the good old ‘to blow off steam’ argument. Although catharsis has multiple times been disproved by science, this actually makes a strong case. We live in a complex and hectic world where we constantly need to inhibit our urges and behaviours. Releasing this tension together with a community of peers might have wonderful effects on both mental and physical health. However,  if you need to blow off steam twice a week, then you are probably not doing very well for yourself the other 5 days. On top of that, most partying is done on copious amounts of alcohol and drugs, detrimental for a healthy life. Furthermore, there are many different ways to blow off steam. To vent our modern frustrations and stress through a party lifestyle could hardly be viable in the long run.

We can conclude that there are probably many reasons, some more valid than the other, for liking this life style and leave that for what it is. It is now time to pull out my glass bowl and peer into the world of speculation. My first prediction is that due to the current longevity and frequency of many people in the party lifestyle, there comes a point where many don’t really know what to do with themselves or their time without partying. If it might fall away, they will be more inclined to live a life of purchased happiness, where buying experiences is the only way to find personal happiness, as they are conditioned to achieve happy emotions this way. Although it is very natural for human beings to go through a phase of rebellion and partying during adolescence, a phenomenon that  has been studied and observed cross culturally, our current generation reigns supreme.  For many, this doesn’t seem like a phase, rather a worldview that they would love to cling to forever, continues well through their mid and late 20’s, and its future societal effects remain unknown

When you look at some of the older festival such as Awakenings, you will see many 35-55 year olds walking around, fossils of the early glory days and the start of the Amsterdam nightlife. These people were part of a small subculture. Most people in our society did not know electronic dance music, and when they did know about it, many disliked it. Currently, we have a situation where at least 50% of adolescents are into this kind of music and these kind of parties. Although there are so many venues and festivals, many are heavily crowded or sell out. Amsterdam Dance Event and 5 Days Off are the epitome of this culture, where it is rather seen as abnormal if you haven’t at least attended a single party. General conversations are very easily diverted towards the amount of parties you are going to at these events or the festivals you’ll attend this summer, in the same way you would ask if someone is going on a holiday. As if it’s a given, instead of a choice.

Constantly feeling like shit makes people docile.
Constantly feeling like shit makes people docile.

I wonder what will happen in the future when this lifestyle, apart from the drug-habits, seems to be rather addictive. What will happen when not 1%, but 50% of our adolescents are hooked on the super-stimuli that is called the festival? What if the combination of music, sun, friends, drugs and ‘not thinking about anything’ is too tempting for our immature minds to resist. What if we are creating a generation that is more worried about which Utopian paradise to attend, what DJs are playing and what to wear than it is worried about the current state of their country and the world, or learning the skills that have actually made it possible for such paradises to appear in the first place? We might find ourselves hiding in our small community Eloi Utopia’s, blind to the fact that the world around us has actually evolved towards a Brave New World-esque Dystopia.

Why things are the way they are, is much beyond the scope of this article. I might be completely wrong about many of the observations or analogies that I’ve made. On purpose, I have exaggerated the examples given to prove my point. Maybe our current generation is simply searching for meaning, instead of fun, as our capitalist and secular societies do not readily provide it to everybody. However, for whatever obscure reason or powers at play, we might be in the process of creating our first generation of naive and dissolute Eloi’s that lack the skills that we need, instead of dedicated and motivated clear minded individuals that aim to create a better world for everybody and not just live to please themselves.

Every human being is alike in the sense that we all have 24 hours to spend each day. How free you are to decide on how to spend that time has historically been a marker on the state of country and thus of the individual. If many are temporally, financially and emotionally chained to the cycle of festivals and the party lifestyle (or any other form of super-stimuli tier entertainment) due to their incredible entertainment value, it also implies there is less time for building strong careers, reading, self-reflection or other acts of bonding that could promote and foster friendships and (romantic) relationships. The Eloi have become the way they are due to solving all problems that required strength, intelligence, or virtue, turning them dissolute and naive. Although battling multiple hangovers a week requires plenty of strength and virtue, as the future generation, it should not be where our time and effort should be directed.

Dystopia

Although it might seem as innocent fun at first, the Eloi simply can’t do anything worthwhile with the lives they were given, because they grew up to relish in blissful ignorance. Similarly, dancing, bonding, fist pumping, forgetting about the world and living in the moment is fun and useful, but harmful in excess, and definitely won’t prepare you for the actual world beyond the safe boundaries so carefully put up and guarded by first world countries and is therefore dangerous when embraced as an actual lifestyle. The Time Machine describes how the Eloi live in small communities within large and futuristic, yet slowly deteriorating buildings, doing absolutely nothing to prevent this decline from happening. If this is of any resemblance to our present or future, now would be the time to start acting and take a good long look in the mirror to see whether we see a self-determined Human, or a decadent Eloi.

After all, isn’t fun highly overrated?

Author: Ruben Boyd

My name is Ruben Boyd, and I am a first year graduate in the Cognitive Science Research track of the Artificial Intelligence Master at the VU - William James Graduate School. My roots lie in Psychology, and in 2014 I proudly obtained my Bachelor of Science at the VU Amsterdam.