Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Fetishization of the Future

Lately it seems that futurists like Ray Kurzweil and other techno-utopians have been dominating the conversation about the collective future of the human race. These techno-utopians present a future where, if given the chance, science and technology will solve all human problems and let us live forever.

Its a comforting thought, if you don’t think about it too much.

Take this Svedka Vodka commercial for example. (Click here to watch the whole thing) It features a humanoid robot, happy dancing people and Svedka, “voted number one vodka of 2033.” This commercial encapsulates the kind of future promised by the techno-utopians, happy, carefree and inevitable.

Besides the many philosophical questions surrounding the revolutionary technologies we are promised, I am left asking questions about the interplay between technological progress and politics that futurists like Kurzweil and Michio Kaku leave unasked. While I generally share their profound optimism about the potential of the human race to create these technologies, I do not share their optimistic view of how our current political and economic system will distribute and control these technologies.

Rather than freeing the more than 7 billion people that will soon inhabit this pale blue dot, I fear the revolutionary power of the technologies were are building will be used to more effectively distract and control the teeming masses. And I fear that the life extension and scarcity eliminating technologies will be reserved for the super wealthy, educated and connected.

It is almost as if the techno-utopians want us to ignore the political questions these technologies raise and abdicate the moral imperative we all share to help make the future as positive as it can be. Their argument can be summarized as “we need to maintain the current social and political order so that the revolutionary technologies that will equalize and improve all of human society can have their chance to mature.” Basically, that the ends justify the means.

But as history teaches us, its more likely that the ends will be shaped by the means. I believe that without a serious policy debate about the implications of these new technologies, an even more classist society will emerge in the early part of the 21st century. I fear that the inequalities of our world will only be exacerbated as technologies like radical life extension and human machine integration are used by those who can afford to gain even more advantages over everyone else.

We can’t let this happen. Let’s not just sleepwalk toward a techno-utopian future that seems increasingly unlikely. Let’s have a real discussion about fairness, about access to high speed internet, about how we want technology to shape our future. Because if we don’t take on this responsibility and ask these questions, the powers that be will continue to use the allure of a problem free future to pacify us and silence the questions about what kind of society we want to build.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Erik, nice post.

    I've always found the "singularity" to be kinda kooky, from a technical point of view. Things always top out, eventually. For example, search google images for bacterial growth. Or for CPU speed over time. The trouble is, problems build up at an exponential rate, too.

    The singularity is a technological retelling of the Biblical rapture. It's interesting that you bring up the political dimension. As a controlling religious precept, the idea that you better be good so you'll be reborn as a superhuman cyborg makes about as much sense as any other. Even if we have some kind of technological breakthrough, history is not full of major transitions that are effortless, painless and smooth, is it?

    God-like super-intelligent AI does make for some good science fiction, though. See Iain Bank's Culture stories, if you're into that sort of thing.