Remember that 2006 movie Idiocracy? The one where Luke Wilson plays an average underachiever who wakes up 500 years in the future, only to realize that he’s now the smartest person on Earth? And everyone else is dumb — like, really dumb? Well, that movie is cruel and terrible and you should be ashamed for liking it. Seriously.
Idiocracy is the new cultural touchstone for discussing America’s cultural and educational decline. I see references to the film in my social media streams nearly every day. Do a quick search, and you’ll see people are referencing the film in some capacity about 5-10 times an hour on social media. “I hate that Idiocracy is basically a documentary,” writes one distraught tweeter in what’s now a common complaint when talking about anything from politics to sports to entertainment.
We use pop culture as a shorthand to talk about the way we see the future of society and ourselves. Sometimes we use Star Trek to talk about communication technologies; other times we reference Minority Report when we’re talking about innovative UI experiences; and we use The Jetsons for everything from flying cars to robot maids to just a general sense of future-ness. It’s been over half a century since it debuted, and we’re still using The Jetsons.
But Idiocracy is now our point of reference for the dumbing down of society. Whereas previous generations had movies like Network (1976) that challenged our understanding of possible media-driven futures, millennials have Idiocracy. And while the film expresses an arguably legitimate frustration with our current cultural landscape, it also leads us down a strange and illogical path for creating a better future.
In the movie, a nation of imbeciles sit around watching the fictional TV show “Ow My Balls,” while furiously masturbating and eating garbage food. People have become completely dependent upon automation (including robo-medicine) and are too dumb to fix anything. Is this funny? Sure. As an over-the-top comedic dystopia, the movie is actually enjoyable. But the movie’s introduction makes it an unnerving reference to toss around as our go-to insult.
From the opening narration of the movie:
As the twenty-first century began, human evolution was at a turning point. Natural selection, the process by which the strongest, the smartest, the fastest reproduced in greater numbers than the rest, a process which had once favored the noblest traits of man, now began to favor different traits.
Most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized and more intelligent. But as time went on, things seemed to be heading in the opposite direction — a dumbing down. How did this happen? Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.
What’s so wrong with this thinking? Unlike other films that satirize the media and the soul-crushing consequences of sensationalized entertainment (my personal favorite being 1951's Ace in the Hole), Idiocracy lays the blame at the feet of an undeserved target (the poor) while implicitly advocating a terrible solution (eugenics). The movie’s underlying premise is a fundamentally dangerous and backwards way to understand the world.
The origin story for Idiocracy’s future world of half-wits is that uneducated people in the early 2000s are having kids and smart people don’t reproduce enough. It’s clear from the film that the intelligent people are wealthy, while the uneducated people are poor. So we’re starting from a position of believing that wealthy people are inherently more intelligent and, by extension, deserve their wealth. This link between intelligence and wealth is perhaps the most dangerous idea of the film and pretty quickly slips into advocating for some form of soft eugenics to build a better world.
If only we could get rid of the uneducated Americans (read: redneck poors) and we’ll have the opportunity to live in a utopian world filled with smart and civilized people. Of course, everyone here in 2014 making a reference to Idiocracy as a pseudo-documentary identifies with the soon-to-be-extinct intelligent class. They believe it’s the “others” — the dumb, impoverished people — that are ruining America with their binging on crap TV and crap internet and crap food.
We hear it every day: Buzzfeed listicles, cute animal slideshows, and reality TV are destroying America. But in some form or another, they always have been. Or at least that’s what we’ve told ourselves. We romanticize the past, and think that everybody used to sit around spending their leisure time reading dense literature and debating philosophy or something. But guess what? We’ve always seen ourselves as vapid and terrible.
Take, for instance, just one example from the November 9, 1954 Mason City Globe-Gazette in Iowa:
Some Americans were more interested in Little Abner than they were in their own interests at stake in the election.
Li’l Abner was a daily newspaper comic strip that ran for over 40 years. Created by Al Capp, it ran from 1934 until 1977 in newspapers throughout America. Everybody loved Li’l Abner. But back in the 1950s people were reading a comic strip rather than tracking the latest poll results, and that was supposedly destroying America.
Idiocracy continues the great American tradition of producing media that bemoans the terrible state of America’s collective intelligence. But as a piece of historical futurism (yes, it really has been nearly a decade since this movie was produced) it has a worrisome message.
We’re frustrated by the world, believing that encouraging smarter people to breed would somehow fix our problems. But it simply isn’t so. It’s a distraction from the institutional problems of our society. The problem isn’t that stupid people (again, read: poor) are having too many children. The problem is that we aren’t living up to the ideals and promises we’ve given to each generation of Americans that have come before us. A livable wage, paid maternity leave, proper funding of scientific research — these are the things a functional, civilized society are built upon; the ways that we can improve our world. We don’t build a better society by getting more smart people to fuck each other.
I’m not arguing that the world hasn’t changed in some ways for the worse since the Before Times™ — that magic period of enlightenment that existed before you were born. Nor am I arguing that the media we consume doesn’t matter. It does, insofar as it can influence the way that we see the world.
But the great irony of a film like Idiocracy is that when we take the film to its logical conclusion, 99 percent of Americans should be sterilized. And if you spent 90 minutes watching a movie instead of studying quantum mechanics or something, that probably includes you.
Update: Here’s the first two minutes of the movie, if you haven’t seen it:
Images: Screenshots from the 2006 film Idiocracy