Dystopia as a State of Mind

Somehow, human society has limped its way into 2020. Last year was a particularly prophetic one as far as cyberpunk goes– both Blade Runner and Akira, both staples of the genre, take place in 2019. I’ll be the first to admit that neither gets much right in terms of the visual appearance or shape that modern technology would take–we still don’t have hovercrafts, replicants (in either physical form or strictly in terms of software), commercial space travel, arcologies, or catastrophic psychic warfare, and neither film was able to anticipate the rise of the internet in their limited runtimes. That said, the spirit of both works rings truer than ever. Civil unrest is bristling conspicuously beneath the thin facade of peaceful society. Global warming is wreaking havoc on our weather patterns. Teens are getting hooked on drugs, legal or otherwise–hell, who isn’t taking something these days to help cope with how broken society is? And of course, we can’t leave out the fact that there are gun violence, immigration, and internment crises the world over due to policies based in corporate fuckery and weaponized in the form of propaganda that preys on the fear of the “other”.

I sincerely believe that 2020 marks the beginning of the end, my friends. Whether we’re going to see global economic collapse, nuclear armageddon, ecological devastation, total corporate takeover, or the coming obsoletion of the human race in the next decade wasn’t specified by the supercomputers.

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Planet Earth is about to E-X-P-L-O-D-E

And that’s just the short list of anxieties that are suffocating us all at any given moment. When you factor in personal struggles like financial woes, trauma, the search for personal identity, and mistrust of everything you’ve ever learned, it’s little wonder that nearly everyone I know is practically crippled by anxiety and depression. And none of us knows what the fuck to do about it. It’d be great if we could all get therapy, but hey, few of us can afford healthcare that’ll cover what we need.

The very, very thin silver lining in all of this is that we’ve at least begun to work on destigmatizing mental illness over the past few years. While I don’t relish the idea of categorizing people by their dysfunctions, our growing willingness to talk about them is highlighting major fractures in our society, as well as humanizing those afflicted. After all, it is well-documented that mental illness and drug abuse are heavily correlated, and while those with psychiatric disorders are not more likely to cause a person to commit a crime, I believe that the state of the mental health of those who do lies at or near to the core of their motives.

Our regular readers may have noticed that we’ve gone pretty dark over the past few months. While I can’t speak for my fellow ND writers, my own lack of content stems from the steady deterioration of my mental health over the past year or so, which culminated in a horrifying drug trip and subsequent collapse of the grasp I once had on my personal identity and sense of reality. While I am still undergoing this crisis on something like a bi-weekly basis, though fortunately to a lesser extent, I have begun realizing the hold that simulation and chemical stimuli have over my life.

Now, I’m not saying that fiction is an accurate barometer for reality, but quick–name your five favorite characters in the cyberpunk mythos. I’d be willing to bet that there’s at least one character who suffers from some sort of disorder or drug problem. Case from Neuromancer is hooked on amphetamines. Likewise, his modern successor, Elliot Alderson from Mr. Robot is both schizophrenic and is addicted to morphine. John Anderton from Minority Report takes a future-drug known as neuroin to cope with the traumatic disappearance of his son. Lenny from Strange Days is strung out on simulated memories–a common motif that crops up constantly in cyberpunk media. You will never find Spider Jerusalem sober. The Capsules, Neo-Tokyo’s rogue biker gang of emotionally unstable teens, love popping pills so much they named their gang after them.

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Accurate portrayal of my current living conditions.

My favorite example, however, lies in Makaku, the superpowered cyborg from Battle Angel Alita‘s first and second volumes. A sadistic brain-eating cannibal, Makaku’s levels of cruelty and disregard for human life rivals that of any psychopathic billionaire, fictional or not. Makaku makes the perfect shonen villain–relentless, remorseless, and evil to the core. However, closer to the end of his featured storyline, we discover that Makaku harbors an intense trauma; after having been abandoned as an infant by his mother, he raised himself in the streets of the Scrapyard, ignored and downtrodden until a lethal acid attack by a group of thugs left his body melting away before his eyes. Afterwards, his brain was transferred into a cyborg body consisting only of a head and a spinal cord. It’s through this backstory that we realize Makaku was merely on the lowest rung of a trickle-down system of suffering and misery. A child with no moral compass ripped from his body and placed inside a monster.

The reason Makaku’s backstory made such an impact on me is that, while grossly and violently embellished, it speaks truth to power. Though his actions after his brain transplant are abhorrent, Makaku was initially the victim of an oppressive post-capitalist system. Consider how this relates to our reality; very few people, if any, turn to the low life of drugs and crime just because they can. While the inhuman actions of criminal organizations like drug cartels and mass shooters should not be excused based on their origins, society, particularly society that seems to pick “winners” and “losers” at random in a cosmic sense, creates its own monsters. With that in mind, is it really any wonder that Jack the Ripper, the first documented serial killer, came about after systemic human rights violations were repeatedly incurred as a result of Great Britain’s industrialization?

Point being, it seems like half of the characters in cyberpunk media is struggling with some sort of mental or emotional instability that reflects cultural anxieties. Ultimately, if you dig deeply enough, you will find that all existential pain is systemic in some form or another. In the following section, I’m going to be talking about my own experiences, including violent thoughts, a drug trip gone awry, and suicidal intentions, so either buckle up or find something else to do or read that may not be quite as disturbing.

Okay, So…

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt truly free. My upbringing might not be what you’d expect from a cyberpunk–I was raised Christian and moved to a small town when I was a child. Soon after the move, despite being a cis white male, I was bullied and ignored by my peers and authority figures, which led to a preference of the company of video games and movies to that of other people. I felt unable, both through my religious upbringing (which I have since discarded) and my environment to fight back. I knew that, if I had, the hammer would come down harder on me than it would on anyone I got into a fight with, because I was described as a “good kid”. I was an outsider in the place that should have been my home for seventeen years. I was living in my own personal dystopia, and even now I can feel a frothing hatred that has led to past fantasies of school shootings, nuclear apocalypse, throat-slitting. A general desire to watch the buildings around me and the people inside them crumble into ashes. Coupled with my religious guilt into my teens, I turned this anger inwards and began self-harming.

My only escape was venting these fantasies into writing, stories in which extensions of myself could commit horrible deeds without facing repercussions in real life. Between that and all of the other simulated worlds I’ve sunk my time in, I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever had the tightest grip on reality. When I was fifteen, I experienced my first mental breakdown, in which I began to question whether or not the world I knew was real. In my late teens and early twenties I became fascinated with dystopian fiction and films, particularly V for Vendetta, Fight Club, The Matrix, and the works of Philip K. Dick. Shocker, right? My attraction to stories about systemic abuse reflected my own reality–while not nearly as nightmarish, I could relate to the struggle to find and act on personal identity in a stifling world, filtered through the lens of mindless Bush-era “patriotism” and pathetically insecure, dim-witted notions of masculinity. Furthermore, in a world rampant with misinformation perpetuated by religious, federal, and corporate propaganda, as well as my own anxieties about the fabric of my reality suddenly tearing to shreds, I could see myself in Neo, Fight Club’s Narrator, and just about any protagonist PKD committed to paper.

The funny thing about depression is you don’t always know when it starts. There is a possibility I’ve been depressed since my family moved, but it seems more likely that I never felt the full effects of a depressive state until I was fifteen. But since I joined the workforce full-time, I have never not been depressed, because if you decide to drop out of college since it’s worthless and you’re going to end up a miserable wage slave with no access to decent healthcare or social security anyways, your prospects can look pretty grim. If you are lucky enough to have never been depressed, stay that way, but understand that terms like “laziness” and “defeatism” are oftentimes applied to people who literally have little to no energy they can muster on their own. In my own experience, depression is an emotional, mental, and physical crash that occurs after a heightened state of anxiety, which is disabling in its own right. The physical and mental toll of being unable to control your own thoughts is enough to take enough out of you for weeks to months at a time. It exhausts every part of you, and the best you can hope for if you have no access to treatment is knowing that you cannot feel positive emotion towards anything. At worst, it feels like a wound you cut open yourself that won’t close, to the point that suicide seems like the healthiest option for yourself and everyone you know. It’s a prison, a maze with no exit.

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“I hate it when I can’t hold in my loneliness. This crying has been happening too often, every other week now. What do normal people do when they get this sad?”

I understand that everyone has problems, and many people have much worse problems than I do. It’s sad to think I was one of the lucky ones. I managed to hold out against drugs for longer than a lot of people I know, and I’m grateful for that. I didn’t start smoking weed regularly until I entered the workforce, which I resorted to in order to dull and slow my thoughts, as well as to bring on a sense of euphoria that I would otherwise be unable to experience. Sometimes, it helps. Others, it merely increases my anxiety, sometimes to the point of panic attacks, which I do not usually experience sober. But in August of last year, following a long string of shitty life decisions that led me to a dramatic increase in consumption of the electric lettuce, I had my first ever bad trip, which played upon my buried anxieties regarding reality, compounded by a worldview radically changed by cyberpunk philosophy.

The day after the trip, I found myself lethargic and completely unable to will myself out of bed, a combination of anxiety and listlessness. Before long I began to feel my thoughts spiraling out of control, and while before I was able to exhibit control over suicidal thoughts, this time I couldn’t. I was unable to turn them off. After checking myself into an outpatient clinic, I still ruminated on images of hanging, wrist-cutting, beheading, overdosing, sticking a pistol in my mouth and pulling the trigger for a good two days. This time was voluntary. I felt worse about who I was than I ever had.

Despite all this, I still smoke. I wish I didn’t need drugs. I shouldn’t need them. But I know that even if I’m risking peering beyond the mantle every time I use, I’d rather look that fear in the eye than remain locked in a reality where I know I’m powerless.

On Dystopia

I often think about how we define the term dystopia in a real-world context. If interpreted literally, the term can be seen as the antithesis of utopia, or “good place”. This, of course, can describe many different scenarios humankind can (and has) found itself in, from eternal conflict in post-apocalyptic wastelands to tightly-controlled, regressive societies. In a literary sense, dystopia has come to represent the latter, more often than not accompanied by science fiction elements. But if the purpose of dystopian fiction is to highlight the things that are going wrong with society by blowing them out of proportion, how are we to identify a dystopia in real time?

After all, it’s not as though the world has ever been perfect. We are a species that has arisen from the eternal conflict of our consumer-based biosphere, and natural evolution works far too slowly to weed out our more violent tendencies. What we could once construe as byproducts of our survival instincts–our desire to destroy what we fear, our propensity to fall prey to groupthink–have been warped by the formulation and progression of “civilized” culture. Since the beginning, mankind has turned its attention away from the dangers of the natural world to each other. History has shown us countless times that someone always pays the price for what we call progress, from nameless tribes erased from existence prior to written history, to endless warring imposed by the Mongols and Romans, to contemporary atrocities committed by the good ol’ US of A. Our need to enslave, to dominate, to sacrifice others is embedded into our DNA. Capitalist culture in particular plays on the worst of humanity’s instincts, pitting us against each other in a meaningless fight for survival while a lucky, chosen few have enough resources to purchase entire nations through social Darwinism.

And yet, while it almost sounds cheap as I’m typing it, there are those in modern day society who claim to be able to find peace. People who find fulfillment in their daily lives, the consequences of unethical consumerism be damned. To them, the world might be a messed up place they can’t change, but it’s not a dystopia.

So is that really all that dystopia boils down to in the end? A point of view weaponized by those who feel constrained by society? Or do we simply lack perspective as a whole in the vein of Fahrenheit 451? Is dystopia measured by the amount of pain inflicted by an intentionally broken system? Or better yet, if a single person falls victim to the powers-that-be, do we all feel the effects of that suffering in one way or another?

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In Psycho-Pass, those who are deemed too unstable for society are institutionalized in high-security facilities while the rest of society continues under the guise of utopia. A sort of gentrified suffering.

I misled you before. The term “utopia”, first penned by Sir Thomas More, was not originally coined as an Anglicized translation of the Greek words for “good place” (eu=good, topia=place) but for “no place” (ou=no). In other words, creating an ideal, perfect world is an impossibility. So perhaps we’ve always been living with a dystopia hidden in plain sight. Before you dismiss this as pure postulation, consider the ways in which you’ve been controlled throughout your lives. The most powerful empire in the world has almost constantly been laying waste to smaller, foreign countries since 1950–not for the reasons it claims, but for political and, more recently, corporate footholds. While the CIA’s MKULTRA project may not have yielded promising results in the field of direct mind control, many of us accept without pause what mass media feeds them, supporting whatever biases their culture has already ingrained into them and ignoring objective truth. We are drowning in red tape, and the energy we spend managing our own lives isolates us from others, preventing us from enacting any lasting change in society. Instead, we glue our eyes to screens, filling the void with entertainment, no matter how substantial or informative it may be. If that’s not enough to quell the ever-present knowledge of our restrictions and alienation, we turn to drugs. We constantly live defensively, distrusting our neighbors and communities through propagated fear. In this world, there is little to no chance that we as individuals will ever reach our full potential. It has been this way for over a century, someone always has it worse than you, and the noose only grows tighter as we cede our rights to the whims of corporate empires. As the pool of the wealthy elite, those who are the only ones with true power in our current system, grows smaller as time goes on, they shape society to their selfish desires, no matter how good their intentions may be.

If you’re like me, you’re angry at everything, but you’re tired, and you’re on the verge of a mental breakdown at any given moment. Whether or not society has labeled you mentally ill, troubled, or any of a variety dismissive terms, whether or not they’re truly applicable, you’re still human. You deserve better than a life of survivalism, post-reality, and madness in the shadow of the oligarchy.

“If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

– Charles Darwin

So I’ll leave you with this, punks: Have you been living in a dystopia for as long as you can remember? And, if your answer is yes, what are you going to do about it in the coming year? Vote? Riot? Care for the person next to you? Unplug or put the needle down? Whatever you do, do it to make the world a little less grim, and yourself a little less dead.

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to seek help by following the attached links.

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Written by shadowlink
shadowlink is lost in a sea of information. Cyberpunk helps him cope with his constant future shock.
  1. I can sympathize with your struggle. I’m a generally depressive personality and life has this great way of kicking you in the teeth. I finally got a promotion, going to make $30,000 a year for the first time ever and I’m in my mid thirties. Then they decide to close my store and I’m being transferred to another place further away to the job I used to work for even less money than before and I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m Christian but one of the ones that all the others looks down on and that discrimination has affected my job and other parts of my life. I also love cyberpunk and other geek things which the religious people think makes me headed straight to hell. A man with no country.

    The only thing I have found that helps is what the apostle Paul, the stoics, and Confucius seemed to hit on: do good. Every day you get up, do your best to be your best self. Paul was hunted by his own people and despite being a citizen of the most powerful empire on earth was hated and distrusted by the same. The Stoics, by and large, were Greek slaves forced to train the children of their masters and at various points were hated by the powerful to the point that they were expelled from their country. Confucius, despite doing everything right had to live like a vagabond. Roaming from one state to another in disgrace just trying to get people to act decently. Knowing that all this happened to them before and yet they were still able to tell people to do well gives me the slightest bit of hope. The world is a dumpster fire, but we can make the but around us a little better. It may not be much, but that’s a worthy goal in my book. I hope you will be well.

  2. Another scintillating article, and I must say that I agree with your viewpoint and perspectives, Shadowlink. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I too have felt the numbing alienation and guilt and isolation which comes from a religious upbringing. This article has truly struck me, because although I haven’t been through most of the same experiences you have, I have always felt the loneliness and depression you mentioned in my life. Most of the time it’s hidden behind the veneer of a polite, good-natured, fun-loving person, but I also feel that sense of dystopian oppression which you so eloquently described. My personal escape has been found in things like video games, comics, and film and television shows, many of which could be classified as cyberpunk or, at the very least, sci-fi in nature. Neon Dystopia and your work in particular has been one of the sources of comfort in my life since I discovered the site just last year. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your story, and keep up the amazing work with the site!

  3. I read every post on here but don’t often enough reply.

    Thank you for this post, shadowlink. A difficult read but speaks to anxieties I have, on and off. Thought provoking about the best way to spend our time here, and all the reasons to survive and fight back.

    Cyberpunk fiction shows the struggle but doesn’t always show what can come after the victory. So sometimes it‘s hard to know what we are fighting for. But the world exists with us in it, and so – eventually – can be remade. Iteratively, if not revolutionarily.

  4. Hello Shadowlink. I just read this article and for the first time, I was inclined to know who the author was. I come to this website once a month or so. I’ll read an article and then leave. But your experience with Cyber Punk in the face of depression is genuine.
    I didn’t use Cyberpunk to overcome depression, but I did use it to find my way in life. And come to terms with some of its harsh realities. The fact, that I’ll probably never be as successful I want to be. Or that society is just doomed to be dominated by ads, and the mentalities corporate and social (Insta, FB, Twitter) allow us to be a part of.

    But, one thing that did help me overcome depression and the overwhelming amount of self-pity, and lack of energy I felt during college was with micro-accomplishments. Doing little stuff that can slowly build my confidence. Like, I bought a Rubik’s Cube with the hope of at least completing a wall. After some time I ended solving the whole puzzle. Washing the dishes while laundry is getting done in the background. I’ve always avoided drugs. I’m well aware it won’t help.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe with micro-accomplishments at first, and the moving on to something bigger. You could overcome your depression.
    Good Luck.

  5. I just read the whole thing. To me it seems that you interfuse two things and that’s your main issue: the state of the world and the state of yourself. Let me elaborate a little bit on both.

    The state of the world:
    Yes, it is definitely getting crazier out there. Somehow the world gets more absurd every year and it gets worse faster and faster. But look at it from another way. Why do you give that much of a f*ck? Yes, there is war going on around the world. Are you living in a warzone right now? So how is it affecting you at the moment? (i’m not advocating to ignore the bad in the world, just hear me out). More people are using drugs every year, but is someone forcing you to take them? Are you going to be incarcerated because you have a wrong opinion? Is global warming killing you right now? Are you dying of coronavirus?

    The point i am trying to make is to look at the whole mess from a distance and try to be objective. Maybe your answer is yes to one or more questions, but if you live in the western world, most likely the answers will be no. Yes there are problems, some of them severe. But you are not going to save the whole world by yourself. Especially not if you already worry yourself to death about things that do not (yet) affect you. So the first step is to sort out your problems, reconsider which are problems that really concern you and your family and friends and start solving them. Sometimes it is not possible to solve the problems directly, but often you can find a workaround, so that you are not negatively affected anymore. A very good (allthough pretty philosophical) resource on this is the book “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World: A Handbook for Personal Liberty” by Harry Browne. Go check it out. It’s not like your situation can become worse by reading a book with a positive attitude…

    If you are yourself in a more stable position and have excess energy then you can try and do something about the woes of the world. But until then, excess worry will just deepen your demise.

    Or if you are more of the cynical type: think about how the rest of the world treated you and is treating you at the moment and ask yourself if you really want to invest yourself more than neccessary in things that do not concern you directly. Living only to watch the world burn is always an option and can be very entertaining with the right attitude.

    The state of yourself:
    To put it bluntly, everyone would get depressed if he lived his life the way you are describing yours. Depression is not only a mental illness, but often a result from hormonal imbalances as well. Wage slaving, doing drugs to cope and living in anxiety about the state of the world is a sure recipe to misery. You need to break out of this, if you want your life to be better.

    As for the anxiety, i addressed that before. Reduce your focus to the problems that actually affect you and it will automatically become much better. Your weed habit might amplify this further. Stop taking any kind of drugs (even alcohol and caffeine). Your mind and body are a pretty fine tuned system, everything that acts as a hormone in your body will throw it out of balance. Just look at regular coffee drinkers in the morning, before they had their first one. They are like zombies, do not become like them. And caffeine is the most harmless stimulant you can get.

    Generally speaking try to get your mind and body in basic working order. Don’t do any kind of drugs. Get some exercise (just go for a walk, ride a bicycle, go swimming, whatever), get some sunlight, eat right (learn how to cook, a reward in itself). Force yourself if necessary. This will not cure depression, but will get you back in basic working order. From there on, focus on things that make your life better. Regard your wage slave job as a means to an end (money), don’t seek any fulfillment out of it. That’s what your leisure time is for. Instead of doing drugs, use your time to better your life. Learn a skill that is marketable so you don’t have to waste your live doing a shitty job. Learn a trade (sometimes they pay you during an apprenticeship, so you can switch immediately), pursue a STEM degree (yes, i agree that most university degrees are useless and have always been, but STEM and medicine are still an exception), or go into IT. Takes some time in the beginning, but once you are settled after a few years life will be much easier. Trust me, i’m an engineer…

    Last but not least, reconsider the “pathetically insecure, dim-witted notions of masculinity”. Yes, masculinity and men have been a great source of really bad stuff. Most mass murderers are men. But masculinity and men have also been a great source of really good stuff. Most inventors have also been men. The roads you’re driving on, the building you are sitting in, the computer you are using to read this are all built by men. The jobs that our society relies on, without them it would crumble, are mostly done by men. Most of the uncomfortable or dangerous jobs that need to be done are done by men. Don’t trust me? Just look up the gender makeup for jobs like firemen, roofers, garbage workers, commercial divers and so on.
    Try to separate the good from the bad and try to become better at the good parts. Most of what is portrayed as “toxic” in the media is a bad caricature of masculinity anyway…
    Or to put it very bluntly into perspective: how many people would have bullied you if you would have subscribed to traditional masculinity? If you want to read more about this, i recommend the book “The way of men” by Jack Donovan. If only to get a view of the other side of the coin, that is not represented in todays media.

  6. Man, this hit home. I’ve been living my life going through the motions for so long I often don’t feel I’m there anymore. But I’m so drained and feel so little energy and will to do anything about it. I think I need to unplug to break the routine but I’ve failed it so many times before, I’m beginning to doubt I have it in me.

  7. Maybe nihilistic optimism could help? But this is indeed a grim issue in our times. Thanks for your words and thoughts!

  8. Hi Shadowlink,
    How are you? Holding up, I hope. I read your post a few days ago and I expect the impact of the coronavirus has been a kick in the guts. Wanted to say I care, really and the following thoughts are intended with the maximum degree of hominoid humility.
    I hear that you’re hurting and it seems the more you look out, the less reason you see to trust, hope … that type of thing. I have no argument against your observations and often see the world in a similar light. But I do offer one comment: These are perspectives of a multifaceted world. When you say everything is going to shit, I agree on the whole but the world is not whole (in a way that a person could understand). I’m not suggesting looking through rose-coloured lenses to the exclusion of the wider spectrum, rather that you may be wearing dystopic contacts.
    Dystopia may be a convincing worldview. It may be how the world makes sense to you. But the world doesn’t make sense- you make your own sense of the world.
    We know from the cyberpunk genre to treasure small victories. We can still the relish the temporary subversion of the hegemony without being able to topple it.
    Hold fast, Shadowlink. Keep feeling, keep writing.

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