So, things are getting a little hectic. The panic-shopping, endless breaking news announcements, and skyrocketing sales of gloves and masks is enough to keep me in bed for days, where I can play out a much happier version of my life in The Sims 4. In that universe I’m married to Johnny Zest, work as a successful, famous artist, and absolutely nothing is going wrong.
However, try as I might, I can’t actually live in that world. We all have to face up to the pandemic and do our part in halting the virus in its tracks. Obviously, as we have all heard a thousand times, that means staying inside and staying away from other people. The four-week lockdown will hopefully give us some control, not only over COVID-19, but also over the overwhelming amount of anxiety and unrest the crisis has caused. Obviously, staying the fuck inside means that the internet will be getting a massive workout in the next few weeks. Very much like Ready Player One, we as a society will retreat into our homes and plug ourselves into the Oasis to avoid the ongoing chaos outside. This means the communities formed and discourse happening online will be completely key to forming our understanding of the lockdown period.
In online communities, especially youth-oriented ones, anxieties and fears are channelled into jokes and memes. Humour is a strong coping mechanism that arises in times of crisis, so it has been pretty consistently active in the West since 9/11. Existential humour is nothing new, but having to live out what will eventually be a pressing historical event seems to have people expressing their anxiety more liberally. At the moment, the apocalypse seems to be a popular topic to poke some fun at. TikTokers are planning their apocalypse ‘fits, and Twitterers are calling for a less cliche (!) end of the world. I mean, is the current state of things so unrecognisable? I’ve already compared our lockdown period to a sci-fi film. Dystopian science fiction films involve tropes that I feel like we are living out; breaking news alerts, deserted streets, a mysterious virus that we are racing against to find a cure. I’m half expecting zombies to come wandering out at some point.
Our cultural imagination of ‘the end’ is largely built from science fiction films, with dystopian settings and themes. These movies are often filled with desolate landscapes, trashed cities, and abandoned houses. 28 Days Later displayed deserted tourist attractions in London, World War Z portrayed the shift from sick to monster, and I am Legend showed us the effects of long term loneliness and trauma. Even in the beginning of the 2010’s, right at the moment many of us were in our formative early teen years, there were endless teen dystopias to be seen: The Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner. These films told us that, when the end inevitably came, young people would have to bravely rise up and solve the crisis. I’m sure seeing those kinds of stories over and over again has triggered no anxiety at all. We have seen the apocalypse occur repeatedly, and the setting is filled with trauma and sacrifice. Obviously these stories are a reflection of concerns present in the time of production, but they do produce a way of thinking about the future. Often these apocalyptic films have a hopeful ending, but the human struggle is the main component. How are we supposed to see another way, when dominant Western representations of the apocalypse are so often filled with fear and rejection? Is there an alternative?
The hopeful endings of apocalyptic films offer a place for us to start. In Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer two children emerge from the manipulation and wreckage of their previous society to start something new. In Shaun of the Dead two best friends manage to maintain their relationship despite one’s zombie identity. In feminist masterpiece Tank Girl the titular character liberates the world by destroying corporate control of resources. The struggle of the characters within the apocalyptic setting is shown to be noble and necessary, in the effort to bring about positive change. This kind of storytelling gives us the chance to imagine a new future and project the possibility of a utopia after times of intense hardship.
The understanding of utopia is often quite simple, but it doesn’t always amount to a perfect society without complication. The ideal of utopia can give us something to strive towards, and it’s an opportunity to think about alternative pathways into our future. Utopian thinking presents the chance for us to prioritise different issues, such as climate change or equality, and use our resources to build something better. The stories we tell now about the future are largely dystopian, revealing the uncertainty and fear we hold for our current and future society. This four-week lockdown gives us plenty of time to start thinking about how we might start to move in a direction that we feel better about. If we start to swap some stories about utopia, and try to understand how we can rebuild our structures, we might start to feel more hopeful. If this really is the apocalypse we all joke about, it gives us a fresh start. Maybe we could change our thinking and our actions to produce a society we all want to return to.