Of bread and circuses: Is idiocracy inevitable?

Gautham Shenoy January 27, 2017 5 min

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“As the 21st 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 favoured the noblest traits of man, now began to favour 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.”

With this narration begins the 2006 movie Idiocracy, a science fiction comedy directed by Mike Judge, who amongst other things is the creator of the TV series Silicon Valley and Beavis & Butthead. A satire starring Luke Wilson, Idiocracy tells the tale of an average Joe, played by Wilson, who is put into a state of suspended animation as part of an army experiment. He wake up 500 years later into a world where, as the movie promos put it, ‘intelligence is extinct’. And it is – at least intelligence as we know it today – due to the fact that the more intelligent people of the present day and in the near future either didn’t have children or had very few of them, while the not-so-intelligence had more than their fair share. Evolution takes over, and as the years pass, the dumb folk massively overwhelm the intelligent ones till such time the only genes getting passed down are the ones from the people who think ‘reading is for fags.’

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In the dystopian (yet funny, to us) world that Joe wakes up to, advertising and commercialism has taken over in the dumbest way possible; justice is – to quote the movie – “not just blind, but retarded”; anti-intellectualism is the norm and television and mindless entertainment are the opiate of the masses. And yes, the President of the United States of America is a comical porn star and wrestling champion.

Over the years, Idiocracy has steadily gained a substantial cult following for what many people consider an accurate portrayal of how things could go, and are going — to the extent that some have even called it more of a documentary than a movie, given the current ‘post-truth’ era of mindless entertainment, dumbed-down media, outrage against intellectual curiosity and questioning; of “alternative facts” and reality TV.

But Idiocracy wasn’t the first story to portray a future world where the lazy have taken over, everything is dumbed down and intelligence is rare. The credit for that goes to a 1951 novella by the co-author of the Space Merchants, Cyril M. Kornbluth, called The Marching Morons. It was later voted as one of the best novellas up to 1965 by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

As in Idiocracy, the protagonist of The Marching Morons is also a person who is put in a state of suspended animation only to wake up hundreds of years later, by which time ’intelligence has been bred out’ for the same reasons as in Idiocracy. The Earth is populated by more than 5 billion people with an average IQ of 45, and the ones slaving away to maintain a semblance of order are a couple of million intelligent people, or the ‘technocrats’. In case you are wondering why the technocrats even bother helping the general population, it’s because they tried to do nothing once, during a three-month experiment. The results were disastrous. In a week there was hunger. In two weeks there were famine and plague, in three weeks war and anarchy. The ‘experiment’ was called off and it took the technocrats most of the next generation to get things squared away again.

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Both Idiocracy and The Marching Morons posit a dystopia of what could happen should “intelligence” no longer be a desirable trait, or there be no real motivation to be intellectually curious or have a scientific temper. Taken at face value, one could argue – and validly – that there is no correlation between fertility and intelligence. And that IQ is not a true measure of intelligence and that these stories promote elitism of a kind. Or even worse, that both stories make a case for either mass-sterilization or, even more abhorrently, eugenics.

While there is evidence to suggest that genotypic IQ is coming down, there is equal evidence to show that phenotypic IQ is actually going up. But all of this is to take the stories a bit too seriously and at face value. At their heart, both are satire, and as all good satire does, exaggerate the failings of their time and ridicule stupidity, so that people may take heed. And in positing a future dystopia, they do what all good dystopian stories do – show how bad things can get and how they came to be. A warning – so to speak – against becoming a populace whose prime concern is instant gratification with no wider knowledge of the world or any thought beyond own own superficial interests.

The ancient Roman poet, Juvenal – the man who first asked the question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – in his Satires (Satire X to be specific) called the techniques of ‘entertainment as distraction’ and appeasement techniques that guarantee instant gratification as “bread and circuses”. The two, arguably, being the only remaining cares of a Roman populace that had given up on intellectual pursuits and cared no longer about larger concerns as long as there were ‘bread and circuses’. This is more or less the same warning that Idiocracy and The Marching Morons do in an SF-nal manner, and in the case of the former, cloaked in humour. Do watch the movie if you haven’t already. Should you want to read The Marching Morons in full, it is available online here.

Enjoy the movie. Enjoy the read. Live Long and Prosper, and I’ll see you again next Friday, with another edition of New Worlds Weekly. In the meanwhile, do let us know what you thought of this edition in the comments section below or tweet to us with #NWWonFD, and also if you have any suggestions for us and any feedback you’d like to share with us. May the force be with you!


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