Contemporary societies have their problems — there's no question about it. But few would go so far as to say that we live in a global dystopia. Yet many of the changes that have unfolded over the years — developments that many of us would consider to be good things — would horrify our ancestors. Here are the many ways our world would appear completely dystopian to a visitor from the past.
In this article, we focus a lot on specific examples of changes in the societies of North America, but comparable changes have occurred in many parts of the world.
In most countries, women have the right to vote and run for office
Prior to the rise of the women's suffrage movement in the late 19th century, many men were convinced that politics and women were a poor mix. A visitor from the past would be completely aghast at how involved women have become in the political arena. Anti-suffragists, which consisted of both men and women, thought that women should instead involve themselves in social reform work, healthcare, teaching, and domestic responsibilities. Men also worried that women, should they have the right to vote, would bandy together and collectively support such things as alcohol prohibition (hmmm...) or dominate a certain political spectrum; a single household, it was thought, deserves a single vote. And in terms of political life, men argued that women were too noble to involve themselves in some of the more distasteful aspects of governing. And indeed, delving into something like foreign affairs would have been considered a complete non-starter as "all government rests ultimately on force, to which women, owing to physical, moral and social reasons, are not capable of contributing." The idea of a woman being Minister of War or Secretary of State (ahem) would have seemed laughable — if not completely terrifying; women were considered to be overly emotional and sentimental — traits that might lead to irrational and ill thought-out political decisions. Democracy and fair representation, it would seem, played a minor role in their thinking.
Racism is something that most societies around the globe are still struggling with. But the degree of racism that's present today cannot compare in the slightest to what existed hundreds of years ago. Slavery in the West was predicated on the assumption that blacks were not even persons — and because of this, were denied any kind of social consideration or basic rights. If we were to tell a Southerner from pre-Civil War America that a black president would take office in 2012, he'd have a massive heart attack. The only explanation he'd likely come up with is that some kind of terrible uprising had taken place and that blacks had somehow taken over the place by force. The idea that civil rights and political involvement could have come about through decades of struggle and social reforms would have seemed inconceivable. But we don't even have to go that far back in time to get these sorts of sentiments. As George Wallace infamously said at his 1963 inauguration, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." I guess "forever" didn't mean what he thought it meant.
Relatedly, the idea of interracial marriages, what's also referred to as 'miscegenation,' is something that most of us are totally cool with. In fact, many of us don't even give it a second thought — but it wasn't always that way, and even until fairly recently. As early as the 1970s it was still very uncommon to see couples of different racial and ethnic backgrounds holding hands in public. Going much further back in time, a number of countries, including colonial America, enacted anti-miscegenation laws barring blacks and whites from marrying or having sex. Many of these laws were expanded to include Native Americans, Chinese, and other ethnicities. Back in 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act. And in the 1930s, the Motion Picture Production Code (known as the Hays Code), explicitly stated that the depiction of "miscegenation...is forbidden." Fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell warned that interracial couples would eventually "destroy" the white race. Today, however, support for interracial unions is as high as 86% — a stark contrast from the 4% approval that existed in 1958. Today, what many of us celebrate as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, would be considered nightmarish from the perspective of the past.
Opposition to same-sex marriage can be seen as a kind of futureshock. For many, this is dystopia now. This is social progress that's happening right before our eyes, and there's a significant segment of society that's still reacting to it. Recent polls suggest that 48% of Americans favor same-sex marriages, which is up 17% from 2004. This burgeoning sentiment is a far cry from where things were at only a few decades ago. Living memory still recalls a time when homosexuality was considered a mental disorder that required treatment. Gays used to get beaten on all too frequent basis while much of society turned a blind eye. Unlike the opposition to interracial marriages, which was/is driven by racism and the fear of "racial contamination," the opposition to same-sex marriages is rooted in religious injunctions. Most homophobes, whether they're willing to admit it or not, have fears that can be traced to religion. As a result, same-sex marriages are often perceived as a threat to traditional marriages and 'family values'. Some critics worry that traditional marriages — what they consider a spiritual union — are being demeaned or undermined. Supporters, however, believe that marriage is a civil concern — one that should be supported by the laws of the nation and the imperative to separate church from state.
Speaking of religion, there was a time not too long ago when virtually everyone took the time to go and worship at their local church, synagogue, or mosque. These institutions served as the backbones of communities — the go-to place to meet and greet the neighbors. Moreover, religion used to serve as the alpha and omega of moral, existential and metaphysical thought for the vast majority of the population. Very few people, particularly before the European Enlightenment, would dare to question anything about Scripture. Today, religion is still widely practiced — no doubt — but it's starting to wither away. In Europe, church attendance is at an all-time low, and almost non-existent in some countries. China is essentially a country of a billion atheists. And despite the in-your-face presence of the Bible Belt, Americans are steadily rejecting religion as a belief system. A recent Pew study showed that 1 in 5 Americans are now religiously unaffiliated — the highest this number has ever been in the country's history. There's no reason to think that this isn't part of a larger trend. But from the perspective of the past, this would most certainly be considered a social and spiritual disaster. The steady encroachment of godlessness, they would argue, can only result in the decay of society, the evaporation of moral values, and a countless number of souls condemned for all eternity.
For many bioconservatives, July 25 1978 is a day that will live in infamy — a day that may have kickstarted our descent towards a Huxlian Brave New World. For it was on that day that Louise Brown was born — the first child to be conceived through in-vitro fertilization. And indeed, back at the dawn of the biotechnology era, many commentators were warning of a slippery slope that would lead us to our complete dehumanization. They worried that we were playing God and tampering with nature. Activist Jeremy Rifkin, like many others, warned that these "test tube babies" would grow up to be psychologically "monstrous." He said: "What are the psychological implications of growing up as a specimen sheltered not by a warm womb but by steel and glass, belonging to no one but the lab technician who joined together sperm and egg? In a world already populated with people with identity crises, what's the personal identity of a test-tube baby?" The Jeremy Rifkin of 1978 would have been mortified to learn that by 2012 over 5 million children had been born globally, and that 200,000 are born each year in the United States alone.
We don't give it much thought today, but factory work as seen through the eyes of someone living before the Industrial Revolution would have seemed indescribably nightmarish. Prior to the 19th century, most people worked on farms or as artisans. The idea that humans could be automated and made to work as machines on assembly lines would have seemed completely inhuman. And indeed, in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, conditions were deplorable. It's not so bad today, at least in most parts of the developed world, but megafactories in China defy description — what can only be described as Orwellian. Workers there are often overworked, underpaid, and suffer from complete alienation; many don't even know what they're producing.
Living under the threat of a nuclear apocalypse
If you were to go back in time and tell a random person that we'd eventually have the technology to annihilate every person on the planet with a press of a button they'd think that we had gone completely mad. That's the kind of power, they would surely argue, that should only reside in the hands of God. And indeed, the transition to an atomic-capable civilization was an uneasy one to say the least. The Cold War was a surreal adjustment period characterized by the wail of air raid sirens, duck-and-cover drills, and the intrusive voice from our television sets telling us that "this is a test of the emergency broadcast system..."
Lack of privacy
Privacy is dead. We like to think that it's not, but it's dead. It had been dying for quite a while, but the death blows came with the advent of the internet and the introduction of the Patriot Act — a sweeping and reactionary piece of legislation that has made life considerably easier for law enforcement officials. As it stands, the FBI can unilaterally search email, telephone, and financial records without a court order. Law enforcement agencies can take a look at business records, including library and financial reports. Patriot Act aside, our internet activities are meticulously tracked by third parties, and security cameras track our every movement. A visitor from the past, accustomed to anonymity, would likely be baffled at how comfortable we've become as participants of the surveillance state. But it's not as if this wasn't predicted; futurists like David Brin and Jamais Cascio have argued for years that this was coming — and that we should welcome it.
The obesity epidemic
One of the first things a visitor from the past would notice about our society is that virtually everyone is fat. As is stands, more than one-third of all Americans are now obese. And given just how freakishly rare obesity was prior to the 20th century, the sight would have no doubt seemed bizarre. They'd also be astonished to learn how much disposable income is left over after all our grocery shopping is done, and the astounding amount of sugar we consume each year (156 pounds of added sugar). Our visitor would no doubt wonder how this self-inflicted epidemic could lead to such a wide scale public health disaster — one that has resulted an increase in Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and metabolic syndrome.