I once taught a graduate seminar on Science Fiction films and their social meaning. From Metropolis  to Minority Report , their view of the future and the role of technology in our lives was universally grim. There is a scene in Ridley’s Scott’s brilliant  Blade Runner , in which the lead genetically engineered robot Roy Batty wants to determine if he is human. He puts his hand down on a nail, which pierces his flesh, but he feels nothing. I’ve thought a lot about that scene recently because the notion of what it means to be human is increasingly challenged by the blind obsession that technology inevitably leads to a better life.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus believed that the honest and good life was made up of three elements.

  • The company of good friends
  • The freedom and autonomy to enjoy meaningful work
  • The willingness to live an examined life with a core faith or philosophy

I think all three of these elements are being challenged by the techno-utopians. Would Epicurus think my 2600 “friends” on Facebook qualify for his first maxim? Of course not. Do the majority ( or even a significant minority) of the world’s citizens have “the freedom and autonomy to enjoy meaningful work”? Of course not. Do most people live “an examined life with a core faith or philosophy”? Of course not.

But you ask, why is technology to blame for this? To begin with, the very nature of friendship is being challenged by our incessant desire to spend our time “networking”. What does a post on Facebook or Twitter really signify, but an idle act of self promotion? Is that friendship? What does the ceaseless march of automation and outsourcing do, but to reduce the supply of meaningful work for those without a job and to reduce the autonomy of those who still have one. And if you have outsourced all your personal decision making to the crowd with an app like Seesaw, can your really be said to have a core faith or philosophy?

Google thinks what you really want is an app to answer questions before you even have them.

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, even wants to give us a “cybernetic friend” that could satisfy our wants before we are aware of them. By monitoring our conversations, e-mails and reading habits, he said, “it may pop up and say: ‘Well, you mentioned two weeks ago you were worried that vitamin B12 isn’t getting into your cells. There was new research just released two seconds ago that speaks to that.’”

So the vision of Minority Report where the commerce genie (photo above) is always whispering in your ear as you wander through the mall is already here. With your Google Glasses always on,sending the video streams to Google of your life and those of strangers and “friends” alike, will the very notion of privacy have been finally banished from our lives?

Perhaps this is why Rand Paul’s 13 hour filibuster caused such a stir last week. Perhaps a somnolent public is waking up from its reality show induced trance to realize that the technologies of geotargeting, drones and behavioral advertising have all made them less human. Maybe the revolt of the Replicants has begun.

As for me, I am off to India for two weeks to try to shock my system with another kind of reality. I may or may not be able to post from there, but I will certainly report back soon.

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33 Responses to Dystopia

  1. Nick Dager says:

    Excellent article, Jon. I essentially agree with everything you say but I must defend social media in this regard. Thanks to Facebook I have reconnected with some of my oldest friends, in particular a man I have known since we were both seven years old. Staying in touch here has encouraged us to renew our friendship and have regular, if not frequent enough, meals shared with our wives. And it enables me to stay in some touch with the many business friends around the world that I’ve been able to develop. That has value for me. Now, having said that, I really do need to ration the time I spend on Facebook. To that end, I’m going our for a walk.

  2. len says:

    If in fact Facebook is acting like a PID controller (see control theory) for human behaviors (using time for itself, limiting time for other activities, influencing decision making by these and offering choices of choices (marketing), is it effective? To be effective it has to meet three criteria: controllability (controls x by adjusting y), observability (enables a measurable set of state variables that change linearly given adjustments for some n of x (multi or single variable), and robustness (returns to predicted values given a disturbance that is, control can be maintained even if an unexpected event occurs).

    It is important to know what it means to be human. It may, as Roy suggested, be enough to know what one observes disappears like tears in the rain, or as Decker observes, it is enough to evoke love, loyalty and the need to be together. Choose wisely. Social media may only be the snake that lies invisible on the tree limb because it has learned mimicry of color but most certainly those who fund it are the tigers circling the base of the apple tree.

  3. Alex Bowles says:

    In terms of humanity as a whole, I suspect the techno-bubble is still relatively small. Jan Banning’s fascinating collection of photos of bureaucrats sends a very different signal about how the majority of the world’s people live. The extraordinary piles of paper in the Indian offices are especially telling. It will take some time before anything as top-down as Google’s algorithms are a match for that.


  4. len says:

    And if you have outsourced all your personal decision making to the crowd with an app like Seesaw, can your really be said to have a core faith or philosophy?

    Another way to ask that is what is the effect of crowdsourcing on autopoiesis as the system evolves or devolves away from self-selected organization of resources in an otherwise open system toward crowd organized resources with a superpositioned observer mediating the distribution of observations in s(t) (states over time). The concept of self as the object of subjective reproduction is altered significantly. The power of the mediator is undeniable and thus consent to monitoring becomes abdication of self-directed evolution.

  5. Fentex says:

    Would Epicurus think my 2600 “friends” on Facebook qualify for his first maxim? Of course not.

    I don’t think you should presume to speak for others so readily, especially those who cannot refute you.

    I think Epicurus would be struck by wonder that he could so easily communicate and share his thoughts with the many people he had met and befriended in life who now lived far removed from him.

    To be able to pursue lively discussion at a distance without a delay would likely be a boon he would value highly.

    That he might not care as much for some of them as he did his closest few is beside that point. There are other tools to communicate more privately with more select groups.

    And for those he lived among and saw in his daily life? Facebook does and cannot forbid him that.

    Do the majority ( or even a significant minority) of the world’s citizens have “the freedom and autonomy to enjoy meaningful work”? Of course not.

    And never have had. So is it pointless to gift people modern inventions because they don’t magically resolve all evils and disappointments in life?

    Of course not. This is no argument against anything except what makes it harder to find autonomy and meaningful work.

    And I don’t think the gift of the Internet bringing the world within reach, all intellectual tools to hand and publishing to everyone can be said to be making it harder to obtain autonomy.

    Past arguments that the ease of duplication undermines the developement of careers in artistic production may also suggest an undermining of opportunity for meaningful work, and one can make the same arguments that frightened the luddites that mass industry and commoditization would destory opportunities for meaningful work.

    But I expect for similar reasons to why we’ve seen the luddites proven wrong we’ll also see those fearful of cheap duplication proved wrong.

    Do most people live “an examined life with a core faith or philosophy”? Of course not.

    Care to suggest a time in all of human history when this was true? If not why pretend it’s not being true today is singularly important?

    Most people are happy to be safe with family and to live with sufficient pleasure to not fear the future. This is no bad thing even if the more inquisitive want more.

    How do these mysterious techno-utopians and their presumed efforts to democratise knowledge threaten that?

    Having written that sentence I am struck that this posts complaints sound like the jealous and selfish who reportedly proclaimed: “Look, the human beings have become like us, knowing both good and evil. What if they reach out, take fruit from the tree of life, and eat it? Then they will live forever!”

    And we can’t have that.

    Perhaps this is why Rand Paul’s 13 hour filibuster caused such a stir last week. Perhaps a somnolent public is waking up from its reality show induced trance to realize that the technologies of geotargeting, drones and behavioral advertising have all made them less human

    Isn’t it more likely that people appreciated someone standing up to an increasingly imperial and unaccountable elite in politics that is oppressing rather than representing them? Instead of a wildly stretched theory they’re applauding an unobvious assault on the industry that is giving them the futuristic wonders they want to buy?

    It’s the politics and government that was the focus of the disdain, not silicon valley.

    It was Twitter and Facebook that spread the word that made it an event – individuals communicating to their friends via the tools you insult.

    I doubt that government friendly corporations if left to control communications would have promoted Paul’s position widely.

  6. Fentex says:

    With your Google Glasses always on,sending the video streams to Google of your life and those of strangers and “friends” alike, will the very notion of privacy have been finally banished from our lives?

    People are already reacting to this.

    For a while it’ll be easy to see such technology and react to it, but in coming decades it will become invisible. An annoying thought.

  7. len says:

    To be able to pursue lively discussion at a distance without a delay would likely be a boon he would value highly.

    And that endless stream of cat photos would delight him.

    It is what we make of it. No change there except in the speed with which a reasonable discussion can be trolled to death. Buffers, feedback, feedforward: master them or dissolve into goo. To tie this to an earlier thread: it is easier to create new zealots for the caucuses than to rerig the gerrymandering because by the time you do the former you need the latter. So it pays to get control of Seesaw before the oscillations set in.

  8. JTMcPhee says:

    I experienced “Blade Runner” maybe 30 or more times. Does that make me weird? Does it change the analysis any to note that Roy Batty indeed felt pain.?He shoved that nail through his palm to try to keep a grip on life, knowing that his Maker had programmed him carefully to die damn soon. You may recall he was pursuing Deckard through that run-down Bradbury Building, for killing Pris and for being, you know, the Blade Runner. His hand and arm are starting to lock up and die, and the nail is to force the nerves to regain control. So Deckard could finally observe, in one version at least,

    I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life – anybody’s life; my life. All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.

  9. Alex Bowles says:

    I suspect that perpetual live video streaming to Google’s servers won’t emerge as a common use for Glass. Privacy concerns aside, the size of video files and the cost of wireless spectrum argue strongly against this.

    Indeed, I suspect the heaviest user of the camera won’t be the user at all. It’ll be the device that the user has paired with Glass. Glancing at bar codes, for instance, can bring up troves of related data, from customer reviews to data about the supply chain, and how much environmental damage has been done along the way. For better or worse, the same can eventually be done with facial recognition. Tracking hand gestures for interface control is another likely application. Detecting ambient light levels to control the brightness of the display is another obvious one.

    The camera can also extract geometrical information from the users surroundings, correlating existing 3D models of these spaces (think Maps) with the user’s exact point of view and using this to render the correct perspective for reality augmentation overlays. Given enough sensitivity, and a dark enough night, this can even work for stargazing.

    Obviously, there will be times when video and photography is exactly what people want form the device, not unlike current smartphones. And I wonder if social pressure will demand (a) an indicator light to let others know when a person is recording and (b) a standard level of opprobrium reserved for people who are discovered recording without indication.

    Still, I see these as the more minor cases. The real value isn’t in taking what you see in your corner of the world and sending it everywhere. It’s in taking information from the rest of the world and bringing it to bear in your particular place. That is to say, it’s about seeing what you can’t otherwise see to make better decisions in the moment, as opposed to storing what you’ve seen so you can work through it later (with ‘work’ being the operative word).

    Operating from the recognition that we all live in tiny bubbles connected to a much larger sphere, the paradigm for developing valuable applications is “knowledge from without to enhance action from within.”

  10. JTMcPhee says:

    @Alex Bowles
    Wonderful technology. Endless applications. Cockpit overload? Bad decisions?

  11. Alex Bowles says:

    @JTMcPhee All of the above. See “Internet, 1997 – Now” for details.

  12. Alex Bowles says:

    For more on the downsides, see this interview with Evgeny Morozov, who observes ‘We are abandoning all the checks and balances’.

    Naturally, I’m for the applications that go in the opposite direction. Those exist, and on balance I think the distributed intelligence that immersive maps can provide will outweigh the negatives. But it’s a huge mistake to think that this will happen by itself, and that the culture plays no role in defining the parameters that powerful organizations must respect if they’re to retain vital legitimacy.

  13. len says:

    Someone else has finally branded Shirky a charlatan. Good.

    The web emergence has all too much in common with the 60s movements in the lack of depth of understanding raw human nature but way more money. Money and tech addiction are driving it, not social progress. In the case of social progress, we are crabwalking. In the case of money, we are going broke fast. Note that the rise of the web and the slope of the money wall of inequality correlate. It isn’t equalizing; it is impoverishing.

  14. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Jon yours really is a luminous essay. You must be a fine teacher. My sense of “Educaton” constantly refers to the 12th Century, when the principle prerequisite for teaching and learning was Humility. (Quite and odd thought now, in the Time of Self) To the extent we’re successful, delirious dreams dystopian, when our time might’ve been better spent warning of horrid hubris. When I taught a couple sections similar to yours I used “Kooyanisquatsi” as an efficient stand-in for this idea. At the time it was difficult to use the film for teaching; with Godfrey Reggio’s permission we had to stage two restricted screenings for the students. The dean and I figured that about a fifth to a quarter of the students dead to the notion of radical counterproductivity opened up, between midterms and finals, because Reggio’s brilliant tone poem spoke to them in images that Godfrey got yet I couldn’t get in my brief lectures and synoptic, custom course readers run off at Kinko’s. It was the movie which carried the day or else I never would have been invited back. That film essay summed four months’ heavy reading, with half my grad students in revulsion, until Art was introduced for discussion. The 12-page essays that ensued were so variously combative and articulate yet so generally beautiful, impassioned that I saved them for years until they dissolved with other ephemera in my divorce. You and I, and Thomases Hobbes and Jefferson and every serious student I’ve ever known, really can’t go wrong, speculating about Dystopia and arguing over each other’s dystopias, or dystopiae, or whatever. It feels like a major pair of ribbed well being, this range testing.

  15. Hugo St. Victor says:

    and Jon, it must seem absurd but I don’t mean the pissing contest, but in your Greek context I can’t help but think of Gorgias, the engineering student to whom Socrates tried to teach distinctions between the impersonal and the moral. The matter of techne.

  16. Brian says:

    “Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.” -Heraclitus

    To that, we rest, and travel, and play.

  17. Fentex says:

    Argh. Mutter mutter markup typos….

  18. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Fentex, ET TU? Joking aside, these guys probably are right. And I know we weren’t joking, ever. You can trust these guys or else hold me responsible, no kidding.

    Lay it down, man. I’ll vouch for it. Please, be cool. I’ll vouch for it.

    Please don’t go negative, just because. Flip it for fun

  19. Hugo St. Victor says:

    My markup news reports that I get via YouSchlubb come two days late–you prick and prick about this stuff, and the more you prick the slower, the slower–until Finally! they release preciselely the disclosure equivalent to Saturday’s banner. Ho-hmmmmnn. Except “hmmmmnn” gets killed, in the desert, when nobody’s humming.

  20. Hugo St. Victor says:

    It’s so stupid basic: Who/Whom. Who’s got “Force of Law”? The proper people? No. The countryfolk, the actual “people”. So if you find that ugly you at are in the wrong place. We screw up, often, but at least we regret it. Therefore we are are trying to be a free people. To my friends from abroad, I’m embarrassed but I believe this much is accurate to say.

  21. Rick Turner says:

    JTM, you cite one of my top three favorite films of all times…the other two also having a lot of distopian overtones, and though nearly too obvious, they are the 3rd Man and Citizen…both, of course, with himself…

  22. Hugo St. Victor says:

    The cool thing about a course in dystopias is that when you teach Dystopia itself perforce you’re Socratically begging each to reveal some notion of an ideal. You’re eliciting idealism, probably to test it in some way. As an individual human being I’d like to say that my ideal design is not for anyone but perhaps my wife to know, and for anyone else to have it hammered ot of her, as though it mattered greatly to the predominant Power, flat terrifies me enough to fight and fight really hard. Having said that, I wish one of us actually would come up with the unspeakable truth. In my creed we always figured that was Jesus of Nazareth, hush-hush in the dessert, bury him quick and don’t tell nobody…

  23. Hugo St. Victor says:

    You poor shits worship a politician who absolutely, under no no circumstances, will profess a damn thing, and you know it. So stop selling The Callow Man. My God, shame on you. You called US racists. That is just hard to forgive. My GOD, the self-righteousness. By the way the President is a Negro…Boo! Is he any good? Is he any good? Is he any good? Is he any good?

    Is he any good.

  24. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Nobody has the balls to admit that Barck Obama is America’s first anti-President. How can ayonem care what that lazy kid wants? He’s a poseur par exellence, and we all know tha

    What are you wait ing for, that the frawd might get an idea? That would be his first one. We were fools to have hired Chicago to run this country.

  25. Hugo St. Victor says:

    You know, it’s really cheap, how the obviously pro-Obama carrier just destroyed my previous prose and tried to make her work ridicule me as irrational and incapable of leveling the moral charges I did do.

  26. A great piece, Jon. It’s also similar in tone to a recent interview that Yvgeny Morozov gave:


    However, I do have one complaint–Rand Paul’s filibuster on drones was a publicity stunt, done as an anti-Obama move. He offered nothing in terms of how to deal with drone strikes, and he himself is perfectly fine with drones. It was all smoke and mirrors, and it was embarrassing to see some liberals (and please pardon my language) get moist in the loins at his words. Paul, like his father, is against many things liberals stand for, but somehow they’re willing to chuck all of that just for one issue that they feel (wrongly) that they have a connection to Paul.

    Other than that complaint…it’s still a great article. And while I liked MINORITY REPORT (both the short story and the film), I sure as hell hope that it’s not going to be our future.

  27. len says:

    Well Marc even as you write that a city in Washington and one in Alabama are in a heated competition to become the new center for domestic drone development.

    It’s the immediate future and coming to the local police and other integrated homeland security systems near you.


    Are ya any good with a 30:30?

  28. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Len, my mind’s not so shot that it can’t see we need to have a rigorous discussion about the constitutionality of this. If Jon wants to stave off Dystopia–and really that’s the prophylactic antipurpose of our Constitution–then he’ll convene discussions of drones, in the context of e.g. the second and fourth emendations. It’s important that you know about the technologies and trends. This stuff’s important, so secure a handsome per diem. This controversy sort of describes our national soul just now, if you will. A lot of habitués of this table want to chuck–or, I should say, supplant–the constitution we have. It seems that General Holder shares this view. Obviously I’m more conservative. But it’s a pointed test, the right uses of drones. If our existing writ can’t answer that challenge then maybe Alex and others are right to chart anew. It’s a crucial problem, though. One we can’t dodge.

    It’s weird. Once, as schoolchildren, we ran it all the way up to the Supreme Court just to gainsay the administrators who disapproved our black armbands on Moratorium Day. And the Court sided with US! But contrast that message of expansive freedoms, one generation to a younger, with that weird event of last week, the little boy expelled for chewing a pastry into the shape of a gun. These things come across the wires and I swear, What the Hell. Chuck the thing. Start over.

    They’re gonna need you on drone policy. And neither can they escape drones, so the confab’s going to happen. Kindly hold up my end, if only symbolically, when you go. I’m honestly not sure that our living but not very lively compact can be made to encompass this challenge in any reassuring way.

    Cold damn comfort! Jon dialed Dystopia and by God he’s got it on the line!

  29. Hugo St. Victor says:

    It’s hard to say but a Wilsonian Progressive like Jon can have no idea what real Dystopia looks like. We real, actual “Conservatives” spend our days and nights living out the idiot existence you enthusiasts have charted for our children. The reports aren’t positive. But screw that. Children remain at stake. What do you want to do? Free them? Cut them loose? Or keep them in captivity?

    Wait. Don’t pause to ask who pays

  30. len says:

    Ok, then, put on your lawyer’s hats and figure out where the boundaries of drone use are in US airspace.

    1. Weaponized. How different from police helicopters with snipers.
    2. Observation. How different from satellites, helicopters and mounted cameras.
    3. Followers. If a surveillance team is established, how different and what legal documents are required.

    IOW, like it or not, find a legal basis for restricting their use in precedents or constitutional law. Restricting the use of evidence might be one way because I think (not a lawyer) there are restrictions on use of covert GPS devices. OTOH, when in public, see Google cases. I think the precedent favors the use.

    I agree we should begin a real national debate because the technology bonanza is underway and just like the web itself, it’s not healthy to stand in front of a truck load of speeding money.

  31. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Your summation was beautifully succinct. I’m not kidding: are you sure we’re cleared? Because obviously said what you believe I can only commend you to Cardinal Spellmann. On wait, it appears he’s deceased. So maybe NASA, or the Energy Department. Surely somebody out there still cares when a man who says something that is true is sounding a warning. Same as you, I don’t know anymore. My mentors died and their successors I wouldn’t wish on my dear godchildren, if you take my meaning. There’s no scholarship any longer. It’s all for Colgate Toothpaste. Ergo you’re doomed. Sorry, mate.

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