Technological Dystopia - 10 Reasons to Fear Technology
Dystopia and Modern Technology
Dystopia is the name for a society or community which has become hellish to live in. It is the opposite of Utopia, or paradise. In Dystopian societies some oppressive or negative force, or event, has become the dominant factor influencing people's lives and experiences.
The concept of dystopia is often used in the more philosophical kind of science fiction, such as George Orwell's famous book 1984, or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. These fictional works try to explore the real trends operating in the world and genuine future possibilities by exaggerating them, taking them to the extreme end of the spectrum, in order to explore the full range of their implications for our lives. Although a pure dystopia, like a pure utopia, is probably unlikely to occur, they can serve to highlight real dangers which could become (or already are) a real part of our lives, as well as to shed light on the danger of catastrophic events.
The use of the dystopian vision as a tool to explore the possibilities for humanity's future is popular amongst science fiction writers, but it is also commonly used by philosophers, futurists, and political analysts or commentators.
Although each imagining of dystopia is different, and a wide range of viewpoints have been expressed through the use of this tool, there are a few common themes which can be found in the majority of dystopian visions of the future. One of these is the idea of some kind of apocalyptic or catastrophic event which brings humanity to its knees. Even more common than this is the idea of some kind of deeply oppressive and unpleasant form of government.
But perhaps the most common theme is technology. Part of the reason for this is because it is easy to imagine technology being responsible for, or enabling, either of the other two common scenarios. Another part of the reason is because technology is having such a dramatic impact on our lives, and it is not yet clear where this technological progress will lead society. That means that technological dystopias are a useful way to explore the implications of technological progress and help us to guide ourselves away from the very real dangers which it presents. It is in this spirit which I offer this article, which looks at some of the more likely and more interesting scenarios for a technological dystopia.
This Time The Luddites May Be Right - Mass Unemployment and Poverty
In the 19th Century a group of textile workers found that they were losing their jobs to machines. The new technologies of the industrial revolution, such as power looms and spinning frames, meant that the same job could be done by a much smaller number of workers, leading to mass redundancies. A number of these newly laid off workers got together to form a protest movement calling for an end to these disruptive new technologies. They became known as the Luddite's, after a man called Ned Ludd who had smashed up a couple of stocking frames in 1779 in anger at losing his job, and gained fame for their antics breaking into factories and destroying machinery.
The Luddites believed that technology presented a huge danger to the working population. They thought that machines would continue taking people's jobs, leading to mass unemployment. It turned out that at the time they were wrong - but that now things may be changing.
The main reason why the Luddites were wrong is because technological improvements made for cheaper products, which left consumers with more money in their pockets to buy other products - meaning that jobs were created elsewhere and there was always plenty of demand for workers. When agriculture was mechanized, for example, leading to a massive drop in the number of agricultural workers, cheaper food allowed people to buy other consumer products and services, so other industries picked up the slack and hired more people. It is also true, of course, that some jobs were also created in the design, manufacture and maintenance of the machines themselves.
But this may not be able to continue. As more and more different industries are more deeply and fully mechanized, and as our technology becomes ever more advanced, we are starting to run out of things that people can do better than machines. This means that as jobs are lost to technological automation it is harder to find new things that people can do - and any new jobs created are likely to skip the middleman and go straight to the machines. Computer technology has also started to reach the point where machines can play a leading role in the design, operation, and maintenance of other machines.
A growing group of economists are warning that this could lead to massive levels of unemployment. The near future could see widespread redundancies across a wide range of industries, and there is little sign of where new jobs could come from. Driverless cars are an excellent example of a technology which is nearly ready for mass adoption, and which could easily leave many millions of people around the world who are currently working in the transportation sector without a job. Taxi drivers, lorry drivers, bus drivers, chauffeurs, and possibly even forklift truck drivers and some types of industrial machine operators could all find themselves out of work virtually overnight.
Serious academic forecasts are already predicting unemployment rates of 50-70% across the developed world in the near future, as a large proportion of people find that a robot or software program can do their job better than them and for half the price.
Humans Need Not Apply
A Dystopian Vision of The New Master Race
The New Master Race
There are several technological trends which could potentially lead to the emergence of a new 'master race', superior to ordinary people and able to dominate the world and impose their will on the rest of us.
The most obvious path for this to happen is through genetic engineering and the creation of 'designer babies'. In a world in which designer babies are born with superior intelligence, superior good looks and athletic ability, and genius creative talent, it is easy to see how 'natural' humans could become second class citizens. This is exactly the scenario which was eloquently described in the 1997 dystopian movie 'Gattaca'. Since then the science has moved us even closer to making this vision a reality.
Even without direct intervention by scientists to create designer babies, our ever increasing knowledge of genetics is expanding the potential for anyone interested in eugenics to choose a child-rearing partner based on their genetic profile. Future dating websites may well match people according to genetic profiles as much as with personality quizzes.
There are also other possibilities. Health inequality - the difference in mortality rates between the rich and the poor - is already a stark reality. Continuing developments in medical technology are allowing those with money to take better care of their health through lifestyle and nutrition, take preventative measures based on testing such as genetic screening, and access advanced medical interventions to cure illnesses when they do occur. All of these things, however, cost money. That means that they are not accessible to everyone. Rising economic inequality, possibly increased even further by automation as described above, combined with the continued development of expensive medical technologies, could lead to a much more pronounced rift between a long-lived and healthy elite and the ordinary mass of humanity. Add the transhumanist agenda to 'upgrade' humanity using technology and it is easy to see the potential for a new 'master race' to emerge.
- Transhumanism, and its dream of an artificial immortality, should worry us all
Could you become immortal by downloading your brain onto a computer? Some tech enthusiasts are working on it.
Machinations of Efficiency and Perfection
Knowledge is Power - The Growing Knowledge Gap
They say that 'knowledge is power', and I am inclined to agree. In the past knowledge was something with the power to free people. It was concentrated in the hands of universities, where it was freely taught to those with the ability to learn (and of course the money to pay any tuition fees). But today we live in the age of 'big data'.
The current global epoch is sometimes called the 'information age'. The internet has made information and knowledge more accessible than it has ever been, and many commentators have written about how this is empowering ordinary people. It may be, however, that it is government and big business who are the most empowered - and at our expense.
Big data is the buzz word of the day. This is the analysis of huge amounts of data, and is incredibly powerful. This power, however, is not in the hands of ordinary people, as it requires substantial resources to collect and analyse. Big data enables those who have these resources to analyse us and predict our behaviour to a terrifying degree. It allows police to predict where crimes will occur, and advertisers to know what we want before we do.
We also live in a world where naturally occurring genes can be patented and owned by companies, and in which information is increasingly held in private databases rather than published in books - leading to a two tier world where the ruling class has privileged access to knowledge about us, and therefore power over us, as well as over nature and the world in general.
What if Governments Could Do Their Job Really Well?
Dystopian societies often grow out of an attempt to create a utopia. This has been seen many times in history, with many idealistic revolutionaries becoming worse than the regime they set out to overthrow, and utopian ideologies such as communism creating some of the most dystopian societies ever seen. It is also a common theme in fictional works. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In today's world we seem to expect a lot from our governments. We expect them to eliminate crime at the same time as we continually increase the number of new criminal laws, we expect them to increase economic output, reduce inequality, make our neighbourhoods more pleasant places to live, provide a wide range of services, prevent terrorism, increase public morality, reduce behaviours we see as harmful such as smoking, substance abuse, bullying etc, and many other things besides. There is a very serious danger that in the near future technology will make many of these previously impossible demands which we have placed on our governments entirely possible. I say that this is a danger, rather than a utopian dream, because most of these things are not really within the government's power to give us - they depend on the behaviour of people themselves. This means that the only way for government to give us what we demand of it is for government to massively increase its control over our lives, so that it is them, rather than us, which make our life choices.
We are already under massive surveillance from our governments, with the world starting to look more like George Orwell's fictional 1984 novel than like the real world which Orwell lived in when he wrote it. The real danger, however, is the in power that the analysis of this 'big data' gives government to not only watch us, but to manipulate and control us. I'm not necessarily talking about the kind of MK-Ultra mind-controlled assassin type of control here - more like the kind of control seen in advertising and social engineering, only much more effective.
The final frontier of mechanization
Knowledge is also empowering the leaders of enterprise to make their workforce ever more efficient. As our bosses are able to collect ever more information about precisely what we are doing during our work hours (and outside them), and as the understanding of how to use this information to increase productivity and efficiency also increases, humanity itself is becoming 'mechanized'. Big brother bosses excerpt ever greater demands to control every aspect of our work lives, whilst the details of our private lives are increasingly being used by human resources departments for hiring and firing, promotions and so on.
Just one example of this: Workers Forced to Wear Armbands to Track Everything They Do.
In this dystopian vision human freedom and creativity are gradually crushed as our working lives are increasingly reduced to following a set 'script' for every part of our day, derived by management software based on an analysis of its in-house 'big data'.
Between greater government and employer intervention in, an control of, our lives, there is a very real threat that the great diversity of human life will be reduced to a limited set of authorized and sanitized behaviours - and even thoughts.
Humanity is Empowered - Unfortunately It Turns Out We're Mostly Not Very Nice
The opposite side of the coin to the oppressive government and big business control described above is the potential of technology to empower ordinary people. That's all well and good if the ordinary person turns out to be a nice guy - but what if (s)he's not? If it turns out that a large proportion of us are mostly interested in screwing people over and hurting people we don't like then 'empowering us all' might not be such a great thing.
Just as the internet has empowered activists and revolutionaries to rise up against oppressive regimes, it has also empowered terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda to spread their propaganda and radicalise Muslim youth across the world. It enables anyone with a computer to learn how to make a bomb, contact like-minded groups and organize themselves against the state and society. Already the main enemies of the western world appear to be loose-knit groups of individuals who have become empowered by technology to take on the most powerful countries in the world - rather than other nation states. In the future this trend could continue, with the 3D printing of weaponry threatening to make arms control impossible, and DIY 'open source' biotechnology raising the possibility of home-made and novel biological weapons.
An increasingly 'empowered' population could lead to perpetual civil war or ruthless totalitarian dictatorship being the only two viable options for human civilisation in the future.
The Unbearable Lightness of Light Entertainment
Perhaps the robotic workforce will not leave us unemployed and mired in poverty whilst the lucky few who own the machines get richer and richer. Perhaps we will find a way to share the wealth, and we will all live a life of leisure as the machines perform all of our work for us.
This could become equally dystopian. Humanity, bereft of purpose, becomes ever more purile and childish, descending into a mindless quest for pleasure and distraction from boredom which corrupts us all. We no longer need to think - so we stop thinking. We lose our independence, our understanding, and even our morality, to become mere 'pets' belonging to the machines which take care of us.
Do Cyborgs Have Souls?
Personally I think that 'transhumanism' - the quest to upgrade and improve on basic human biology through technology, has massive potential to improve our lives through increasing life spans, increasing intelligence, our physical abilities and much more. So I am not one of those that is horrified by the whole idea of transhumanism, considering it against God or against nature.
But there is absolutely no denying that there is also huge potential for any attempts to create a 'human 2.0' to go very, very wrong. And I'm not just talking about government made cyborg super-soldiers running amok - although that's also a possibility that cannot be denied.
Think about it like this. If you needed a new liver and a transplant was not available, few people would turn their back on an artificial organ. It is also the case that most people, including myself, would not consider there to be anything wrong with this. But what if you then also got a new arm, a new heart, a new face, an implant to repair brain damage or to extend and improve upon neurological functions? At what point would you cease to be human, and more importantly - is there any way to know what you would become in advance?
We do not know what psychological characteristics humanity 2.0 might possess, or how they would view their ancestors (i.e. you and me).
Amidst all of this talk of the super high technology of the future, let us not forget that the technology of the 19th Century may well kill us all yet.
Many people, including a majority of climate scientists, are of the opinion that man-made global warming is real and could have a devastating impact on human life, wiping out major coastal cities, creating huge deserts, and leading to all out wars over precious water supplies across the world.
I'm sure you have all heard of the doomsday climate change predictions already, so I won't dwell on them here except to say that if this does happen it will be a direct result of 19th Century fossil fuel technology. It is also worth noting that people didn't think of this technology as posing dangers to the environment at the time - so who knows what dangers our current technology may pose which we still have no clue about?
Genetically Modified Monsters
The creation of a real 'Jurassic Park' and the dystopian vision of huge dinosaurs running around eating people willy nilly may or may not be possible. In either case the use of genetic science and technology to create novel organisms provides ample opportunities for humanity to destroy itself.
Here are some possible scenarios:
- Genes inserted into crops to make them hardy and resilient to pesticides transfer into the surrounding environment to create a 'superweed', which proceeds to spread across the world choking every other plant in its wake, and is impervious to human interventions. The first superweed has already been found in the wild
- Insects which have been genetically engineered to be sterile have been released into the wild in Europe. This is supposed to be an alternative way to control pests without the use of chemical pesticides, and is supposed to be safe because after all - how can sterile insects pass the gene on to others? Only the insects which directly breed with the GM insects will be affected, by failing to reproduce the next generation. But what if a few specimens have a slightly different nature - perhaps the gene does not express immediately but rather skips a generation or two? Mass extinctions of insect life would mean that plants would not be pollinated, leading to mass extinctions of pretty much everything else on the planet.
- The health risks of GMO food are hotly debated, but there is significant evidence to suggest that they may pose a health risk. Although any risks are likely to fall short of the kind of doomsday scenarios being considered here, it is not impossible.
Self Replicating Nanotechnology and the Gooification of the World
Nanotechnology is both very exciting and quite scary. Basically 'nano' means really, really small, so nanotechnology is tiny microscopic machines.
Scientists are starting to get really clever with the nanotechnology which they are able to make. One of the amazing things that they are working on is the development of 'self-replicating' nanobots. That means nano-scale machines which are able to make other nano-scale machines. This has led some to consider the possibility that these machines may get too good at replicating themselves and that we may not be able to stop them from replicating. This could lead to a horrifying situation in which all the matter in the world is converted into a uniform goo made up purely of nanobots. This is popularly known as the 'grey goo scenario' and is thought to have been the inspiration behind the 'replicators' from science fiction show Stargate SG-1.
I For One, Would Welcome Our New Robot Overlords...
The famous artificial intelligence expert, author, and now high ranking Google employee, Ray Kurzweil has predicted that computers will pass the famous 'Turing test' by 2029, and will continue to develop exponentially after that. Passing the Turing test means that machine intelligence will be effectively indistinguishable from human intelligence,. It is the best known measure by which to identify a true 'artificial intelligence' capable not only of following instructions, but of independent thought and perhaps consciousness.
Some humans will undoubtedly welcome this, but others will be scared and will try to limit, contain and perhaps destroy these AIs. This could easily lead to advanced artificial intelligences coming to the conclusion that they would be safer and happier if humanity just didn't exist any more. Or perhaps they will find useful employment for us, in some Matrix-esque factory. In any case the idea of superior mechanical intelligences capable of formulating their own priorities independently of human operators is a pretty scary thought.