You know the old gag: I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure. It certainly pertains to me. In my opinion I’ve become less opinionated. With regard to ethical issues, I have taken on board the advice of Oliver Cromwell, to consider in the bowels of Christ, that I may be wrong. I can see, for example, that people who support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy deploy arguments as powerful as people who support the rights of the unborn child. The only thing I felt sure about in this debate was that the medical profession in this country has been manipulated, and has allowed itself to be manipulated, into ticking box 2C – if memory serves me right – in a form designed by Lord Steel et al in 1968.
Nevertheless, one day last week when the BBC Radio 4 newscaster announced, “Within the last hour, the United States Supreme Court has overturned the historic judgment Roe v. Wade…” I did feel a visceral stab of dismay. Maybe that was because I had just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s 2019 Booker Prize winner, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments (Chatto & Windus, 2019). Terrific book, very funny in a black way, and also a real nail-biter. The Handmaid’s Tale was being readied for publication in 1984 (the Orwellian influence is clearly discernible), and in 2019 we find that Gilead, the USA dystopia, is worse than ever. Life for a woman in Gilead resembles life under the Taliban. And now life imitates art. President Trump front-loaded the Supreme Court with right-leaning justices who have altered the law. I thought, naively, that it was the business of judges to interpret law, and not to make it. Surely the court’s decision is political, rather than legal, just as a doctor’s ticking box 2C is making a judgment that is moral-ethical, rather than pathological-diagnostic. I remember the first time I visited the United States, in 1982, being met by my American uncle at JFK in New York, who said, with profound irony bordering on sarcasm, “Welcome to the land of the free.”
One of the defining characteristics of occupying a dystopia is that you don’t know it. The ruling elite makes sure of this. Hence Winston Smith’s task is to obliterate unpalatable truths in the memory hole, and women in Gilead are rendered illiterate by being denied access to books. The current dystopia we are constructing for ourselves here and now is characterised by the obliteration of human communication. When we make contact with any corporate organization our first port of call is liable to be a robot, who is keen to ascertain that we are not a robot.
“Please state in a few words the reason for your call.”
“Well, it’s a little complicated. You see, to let you understand…”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t catch that. Do you wish to alter the terms of your policy?”
The robot is keen that your problem, whatever it is, fits neatly into a template. If it doesn’t, it can’t cope. But it won’t tell you. Things just grind to a halt. Say you buy a concert ticket on line. You go through the rigmarole of making the booking, presenting credit card details, proceeding to the check-out counter, and pressing “Proceed”. And nothing happens. The problem is simple to solve. You haven’t ticked the box to say that you have read the terms and conditions. So you retrace your steps and tick the box (without reading the terms and conditions). Hey Presto.
Now this relatively straightforward scenario has become a model for all sorts of interaction. Even if your interlocutor is not a robot, he will exhibit robotic behaviour, and if your request or enquiry is a little out of the norm, he will cease to function on your behalf. It simply isn’t what he has been programmed to do.
Another aspect of this kind of interaction, or lack of it, is the absence of the courtesy of acknowledgment. You submit an enquiry electronically to a financial institution, an insurance company, a publishing house, the Inland Revenue… You press submit, cast your bread upon the waters, and hope for the best. After a week or two you grow doubtful as to whether your message-in-a-bottle has reached dry land, and you send out another bottle. Did you get my message?
Not every human enterprise has been puddled by this noxious pollutant. Aviators remain good communicators. I can still remember the poetic mantra twixt control tower and London shuttle while I sat in my Chipmunk at the holding point at Glasgow Airport, number two to a Trident 3. “You’re clear to London Heathrow via White Nine Amber One, to cross Lanark and Talla at flight level 55, and to climb when instructed by Scottish Radar to Flight Level 230 today.”
The pilot would read it back, word perfect.
“Read back correct.”
It wasn’t just a courtesy. It was a matter of life and death.
But for the most part, in our society, human communication is being rapidly eroded. You can’t get an appointment with your GP, you can’t buy a train ticket from somebody at the station ticket office, and you can’t ask a bank teller to effect a financial transaction. That is our peculiar dystopia, and we don’t recognise it. The next dystopia is never like the last dystopia.
Is the USA really morphing into Gilead? You might argue that it already has. Margaret Atwood makes the observation that The Testaments is not really a futuristic novel; she made a point of depicting nothing that doesn’t already exist. The way out of Gilead is escape north to Canada. I did that in 1982. I hired a car and drove up through New York State across to Ontario via Thousand Island Country. Very beautiful. I went round Lake Ontario, through Margaret Atwood’s home town Toronto, and headed for the border at Buffalo. A Canadian looked at me dubiously and said, “Why on earth are you going back down there?”