Are We Already Living in a Tech Dystopia?

Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock

For the most part, fictional characters rarely recognise when they’re trapped in a dystopia. Watching their neighbours get carted off for harbouring subversive thoughts, they almost never say, “I wish we weren’t living in this dystopia.” To them, that dystopia is just life. Which suggests that — were we, at this moment, living in a dystopia ourselves — we might not even notice it.

We might call this or that policy/data-harvesting technique “dystopian,” but, at least on some level, we believe we aren’t totally there yet — that there is still room, in our world, for a modicum of personal freedom/happiness. Is this a laughable delusion? Is our free will merely a fragile illusion enjoyed at the provisional discretion of five or six unaccountable technology companies? Is this, right here, the tech-dystopia we were worried about? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts with differing opinions.

Jonathan Zittrain

Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Director of the Harvard Law School Library, and Co-Founder of the Berkman Klein Centre for Internet & Society

Yes, in the sense that so many of us feel rightly that instead of empowering us, technology is used against us — most especially when it presents itself as merely here to help.

I’ve started thinking of some of our most promising tech, including machine learning, as like asbestos: it’s baked wholesale into other products and services so we don’t even know we’re using it; it becomes pervasive because it seems to work so well, and without any overlay of public interest on its installation; it’s really hard to account for, much less remove, once it’s in place; and it carries with it the possibility of deep injury both now and down the line.

I’m not anti-tech. But I worry greatly about the deployment of such power with so little thought given to, and so few boundaries against, its misuse, whether now or later. More care and public-minded oversight goes into someone’s plans for an addition to a house than to what can be or become a multi-billion dollar, multi-billion-user online platform. And while thanks to their power, and the trust placed in them by their clients, we recognise structural engineers, architects, lawyers, and doctors as members of learned professions — with duties to their clients and to the public that transcend a mere business agreement — we have yet to see that applied to people in data science, software engineering, and related fields who might be in a position to recognise and prevent harm as it coalesces.

There are ways out of this. But it first requires abandoning the resignation that so many have come to about business as usual.

McKenzie Wark

Professor, Culture and Media, The New School, whose research focuses on media and cultural history and theory

The term ‘dystopia’ might be too limiting, in that it scripts ways of thinking about oppression with which we are already familiar from popular books and movies. It also gives us a limited palette of ways of resisting or changing that oppression. It can also play into this way of thinking about technology in terms of extremes: we are promised unlimited freedom, and when it seems that’s not what technology is creating, we imagine total domination. It might be more useful to think of technologies as having a range of possibilities, but where the way those play out in their effects on our everyday lives is a product of conflict over how they are shaped and deployed, and in whose interests.

Here it is useful to keep in mind the difference between the potential of a technology and its actual uses. Of all the things we could do with tech, how did we end up choosing these particular uses? Why did these technologies get accelerated development while others were left on the shelf? More often than not this comes down to who funded their development. A good deal of what we think of as ‘tech’ today goes back to the Second World War and the Cold War. Tech emerged out of government supported labs, but not so much for the common good as for the military. The experimental, high risk work that was government funded is what seeded a commercial tech industry which has profited off the fruits of that fundamental work for half a century or more now.

If we were to think about a tech utopia, it would have to be one based on developing the uses of the tech that we know for the common good, rather than expanding the power and reach of a handful of corporations. Tech is now mostly how corporations seek to achieve dominance over markets and to fend off each other’s claims to dominance. Hence what we have is tech that subordinates human needs to corporate power. You could call that dystopian if you like, but maybe it’s something worse. What we need is a people’s technology movement. For that we need the leadership of those who work in tech and who realise their creativity and effort is being squandered on destroying the planet to make a few rich people richer.

Albert Gidari

Director of Privacy at the Centre for Internet & Society at Stanford Law School

People should no more believe in dystopia than utopia. The fact is that technology has changed the world for so many for so long for the better — from reduction of disease to extending life to increased food and health — that to dismiss those gains is just know-nothingism. As with all technological advances, not everyone shares equally in the gains or benefits in the same way, and some may even experience disproportionately negative impacts, but that does not diminish the overall societal value of the advancements. Instead, it should motivate society to extend those benefits to all, to find equity and reduce the negative impacts.

Technology itself is neither good nor evil — it is how society chooses to implement it that creates the problems. Rather than banning this or that technology out of fear of future harm or abuse, it is better to prevent or prosecute the misuse. Maximise the benefits, manage the risks, make the outcomes more fair. All of that is achievable with any technology even though it may not be achievable in every society.

For all those who think we live in a dystopian world, when did we arrive there and at which technological advance would they have shouted “enough!”? Presumably sometime north of the Iron Age, or perhaps at the dawn of the semiconductor or transistor, or social media’s rise, or is it the development of artificial intelligence? I don’t think we’ve achieved utopia, but technology actually keeps us from dystopia, and keeps us striving for the next great cure or the next advancement or innovation.

David Golumbia

Professor, English, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the author of The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism

We live in a world saturated with technological surveillance, democracy-negating media, and technology companies that put themselves above the law while helping to spread hate and abuse all over the world.

Yet the most dystopian aspect of the current technology world may be that so many people actively promote these technologies as utopian. As more than a few commentators have noted, our world has uncanny resemblances to the one Aldous Huxley portrayed in his 1932 novel Brave New World. While preparing a stage adaptation of the book years ago, British theatre director James Dacre noted that in the novel, technology “can control our decision-making with social media, pornography, the commercialization of sex, advertising and reality TV.”

In contrast to the more nightmarish totalitarian vision of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in Huxley’s world, “people think they are always happy, always get what they want, and never want what they can’t have.” Free will and political deliberation have been eliminated almost entirely, but the pursuit of pleasure obscures that. Social media, in-home surveillance tools, home genetics tests, and many other technologies exceed even what Huxley imagined. While some people do understand what is happening, many more actively demand even more technology of this sort while dismissing its downsides.

It does not help that nearly all attempts by creative thinkers like Huxley to warn us about those downsides get reinterpreted by tech promoters as terrific product ideas. Perhaps the most frightening thing is that the tech promoters frequently cite the dystopias as their inspiration — “Black Mirror in real life,” “Minority Report in real time.” I don’t think even Huxley’s or Orwell’s imaginations were quite that dark, but here we are.

Guy Standing

Professorial Research Associate, Development Studies, and a founding member and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), a non-governmental organization that promotes a basic income for all

I think the best answer to your question is that we are drifting into a techno-dystopia because the income distribution system is not being adjusted to a world in which automation and AI are generating more rental income and profits to the detriment of people dependent on labour for their income. The answer is not to halt technological change but to recycle part of the income to everybody through a basic income system. Among the ways of doing that is to have digital data levies and a capital fund from which social dividends could be paid out as basic incomes.

Protecting privacy is a separate matter and must be greatly strengthened if we are to avoid the panopticon state.

Aral Balkan

Developer at the Small Technology Foundation, a nonprofit advocating for and building small technology to protect personhood and democracy in the digital network age

Technology that’s owned and controlled by people (individuals) is an empowering tool that protects human rights and democracy. Technology that’s owned and controlled by a handful of trillion-dollar interests is a weapon of surveillance and oppression that destroys human rights and democracy. Ask yourself who owns and controls technology today, and you’ll have your answer.

If we want to change this, we must stop worshipping at the church of the myopic and toxic Silicon Valley model of venture capital, startups, exponential growth, and start investing in individually owned and controlled Small Tech as an alternative to Big Tech.

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