A Hierarchy of Dystopias

A dystopia is a society where something, somehow, is just wrong. Often when we think of dystopias, we think of corrupt governments, or of specific examples like George Orwell's 1984, or Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games. They are worlds that are just believable enough to be plausible, a chilling reminder of what life could be like if society is not careful.

Y'know, sometimes it's fun to think of all the ways a society can go wrong! Below I have a list of five interesting dystopian scenarios, forming a sort of hierarchy where each differs from the last. It's possible that as you read them, these five categories might become familiar...

1) No EssentialsAnchor for 1) No Essentials

The faucets do not work. The shelves of stores are empty. You live in a world where people scramble for scraps in a raw battle of survival.

In a world lacking bare survival essentials, society collapses as individuals struggle to acquire the very things needed to keep themselves alive. Fundamentally, every person requires food, water, shelter, sleep, and air. Imagine if any one of these resources were to be in absolute scarcity.

  • Due to overpopulation, the government has seized control of the entire food supply chain to ration it appropriately, but over time corruption has led them to favor some people over others.
  • A chemical disaster has globally destroyed much of the oxygen in the air, and as a result people cannot engage in strenuous activity without risking their lives.
  • Generations of people engaging constantly with technology since birth have led to restless neural activity, so much so that the majority of people suffer extreme sleep deprivation in a phenomenon scientists don't know how to reverse.

From that last example, we see scarcity dystopias do not need to devolve into a post-apocalyptic type of world.

2) No SafetyAnchor for 2) No Safety

You stare at the houses on the street as you drive by, some in shambles from having been looted. As you run a stop sign, you quietly wonder whether your home is still intact. Is there a law if it's not enforced?

A life of constant fear is a difficult life to live. Even if normal needs are met, we want to know that we won't have to fight the next day or any day thereafter. That is, we have a need for safety, be it in consistent employment, good health, stable shelter, or promised protection from harm.

Imagine if safety in any one of these categories cannot be guaranteed, as in the following examples:

  • Earthquakes have become an almost daily occurrence, and nobody knows when the next big one will hit.
  • The world is in the middle of a pandemic of a deadly disease, and it is impossible to know what, or who, is infected.
  • Due to war, the country's military has collapsed, and its people must live in the constant occupation of a hostile nation.

3) No IntimacyAnchor for 3) No Intimacy

Restaurants no longer have tables. They have individual booths where you can order and pay for food without needing to interact with any staff member. It's a nice way to avoid all those awkward conversations with strangers.

Humans are undeniably social. We naturally seek companionship in the form of family, friendship, and community. In fact, loneliness is often seen as a cause of depression, so intimacy and interaction with others is more a fundamental need than a simple desire.

What if we denied that very interaction between people?

  • Society has reached a point where all jobs can be completed from within the comforts of home, and as more and more have adopted this lifestyle, human-human interaction has become all but non-existent.
  • Ethically speaking, parents cannot be trusted to raise their children in a way optimal for society, and so the government seizes all newborns to receive standardized education from birth.
  • In an effort to eliminate stratification, a school has banned all extracurricular groups and disallows all communication except for within the classroom setting.

4) No PrestigeAnchor for 4) No Prestige

The National Library, lined wall to wall with books of various sorts. A foreigner, you've always been interested in the literature of other countries. But as you peruse the selection, a pattern catches your eye: none of the books have authors.

A world without names would certainly be an unfamiliar one. We're very accustomed to attributing work to others and often want to be recognized for the things we contribute to. In other words, a sense of self-worth is important for most people.

So what if it were impossible to determine that worth?

  • Selfishness is a plague. To curtail it, the government has stripped everyone of their name. Everyone is part of the Community, and everyone benefits the Community.
  • Due to a rising recognition of privilege in the lives of the successful, merit-based selections have been completely outlawed. For instance, companies must determine their employees by random election.

That last one might not be considered a "dystopia" by some! As we get to these higher-level areas, the lines become blurred.

5) No IdentityAnchor for 5) No Identity

You've waited for this day for so long, the day you finally get assigned a career! Silently you hope to be assigned as an author, but you know that whatever is chosen will be the best fit both for your skills and for society's needs.

Beyond surviving, there's thriving. Most people have an inner drive to discover who they are and what they're meant to be, to develop personal goals that are creative or adventurous. Different people have different goals, and it's one of the ways we can express ourselves as individuals.

It can be tricky, though, because some goals can be in opposition to others' goals. So maybe a society decides this kind of individualism should be suppressed:

  • To encourage conformity, mass surveillance is installed; anyone whose ideals differs from that of society's gets reminded of their place in the community (see 1984 as an example of this)
  • Most corporations worldwide have moved into a 996 work schedule (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) in order to increase productivity, in turn reducing the individual's capacity to explore the self.

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsAnchor for Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

I did not invent all the types of dystopias above from scratch. Actually, they are derived from an old but well-known psychological model called Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Starting in 1943, psychologist Andrew Maslow proposed a model for how fundamental human needs are organized. He called it a "hierarchy" because he felt some needs had to be satisfied before others could be.

For example, as social beings we have a need to feel like we belong, to have friends with whom we can identify. But we also have a more fundamental and basic need for food; if we find ourselves struggling to meet this physiological need, it becomes difficult to seek a sense of belonging, and most of our actions will be motivated by the need to satisfy our hunger.

Maslow's original model categorizes five kinds of needs, organized neatly in the pyramid below, where needs at the bottom should be satisfied before the needs at the top:

Today, we know the hierarchy is not a strict pyramid. In fact, our needs overlap through the layers in a dynamic sort of way. That said, the general trend Maslow's model suggests tends to resonate with people which is why it has become so popular over the years even among non-psychologists such as myself.

Defining DystopiaAnchor for Defining Dystopia

Thanks to pop culture, we have a general feel for what dystopias are like: corrupt governments, some kind of looming calamity, and so forth. But what really makes dystopias dystopian?

We might be able to answer that question with another question. Thinking back to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs above, what if we were to delete an entire layer of the pyramid? Put another way, what if people really need a sense of belonging, but society was such that this need could never be satisfied?

A society where any one such fundamental human need is intentionally suppressed or naturally absent would be pretty bad. In fact, you might even call it dystopian!

A dystopia is a society where there is near-universal incongruity between some need and its provision.

Using this definition and Maslow's model, we can brainstorm and worldbuild many different kinds of dystopian worlds. People need food and water, so maybe it's a world where those things are scarce. People need personal growth, so maybe it's a world where this is suppressed. In a step-by-step process:

  1. Think of a need that people have, perhaps using the hierarchy of needs above
  2. Devise a scenario that removes one or more of those needs
  3. Imagine the consequences of a world under that scenario

All the different dystopias at the beginning of this article were generated in this way.

In the end, the whole point of this exercise is to expand what we think of as dystopian and serve as an engine for generating some unique worlds. Try coming up with a dystopia of your own! Creativity can be as simple as applying Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to dystopias, applying one concept to a seemingly unrelated concept.

Anyway, happy worldbuilding!