To me, a dystopia is a society (both real and fictional) that fails to become a utopia.
Although the definition of dystopia given on Merriam-Webster.com states that a dystopia is an “imagined world or society,” I believe that any given world/society can be a dystopia. This is because my given premise, that a dystopia is a failed utopia, applies to any society. To justify why a dystopia is a failed utopia, we first have to define what a utopia is and figure out the purpose/goal of societies.
Individuals come together as societies because it seems to be the most direct way to improve lives. Thus the goal of societies is to improve lives, possibly to the point of perfection. However, it seems impossible to improve everyone’s lives to perfection. Hence comes the concept of utopia, which roughly translates to “a place that does not exist.” Because there is no such place where everyone is happy, a utopia is an imaginative solution to the problem. The concept of utopia can be considered an unattainable societal ideal where everything is perfect. Because of the nature of societies, all societies strive to reach this ideal.
Based on my definition of a dystopia and my explanation of the concept of utopia, this would mean that all societies are dystopias. However, this may make sense if we considered “dystopias” and “utopias” as states in a never-ending bar for societal progress. An incomplete society would be designated as a dystopia, while a complete society would be considered a utopia. On this bar, the threshold to reach utopian status would be impossible to discern and always out of reach. No matter how close a society gets to becoming a utopia, it would never become the ideal place. However, this would not shut down the idea that some societies would be either closer or farther to being a utopia than others. Under this concept, societies would fall under varying degrees of dystopias, and the notion of a utopia would act as an arbitrary point of reference for these societies.