It’s not hard to find dystopian predictions about the future. We’ve all been doom scrolling on social media for so long that anxiety, fear and mistrust feel like part of our DNA. We no longer wake up to see what’s on the news; we check the news to see what’s coming for us. Is it a new pandemic? Economic collapse? Hordes of armed lunatics in the other party? Maybe all of it, all at once, immediately followed by the collapse of society and global cannibalism.
It sounds like a joke, but it doesn’t feel like it. And this is something I’ve been struggling with during the COVID pandemic like everyone else. Is the world more broken than ever, or does it just feel like it? And if it is all falling apart, what the heck can any of us do to about it?
Well, I’m not here to tell you it’s all in your head. Some of the threats we’re facing are not only real and very bad, but are also like to get much worse in the near future. Sorry. That doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom, but it does mean that if we don’t want to end up in a dystopian world filled with some pretty terrible things, we have to be more focused on the real threats and do something about them as soon as possible, meaning…now.
- Ten Dystopian Predictions
- 10. Climate Change & Global Overpopulation
- 9. Privacy Reduction by Automated Surveillance
- 8. Liberty Reduction by Mechanized Surveillance
- 7. Job Displacement by Robots & Automation
- 6. Job Displacement by Artificial Intelligence (AI)
- 5. Loss of Objective Truth to Deepfake Content
- 4. Designer Babies and the (True) Rise of Genetic Class
- 3. Tribalization and the Death of Empathy
- 2. Capitalist Authoritarianism (The Chinese Model)
- 1. Economic Genocide & the Fall of Liberal Democracy
- Things Not to Worry About
- Choosing a Better Future
So these are some of the legitimate threats we should be focused on if we weren’t too busy being a violent, childlike specifies with the collective attention span of a gnat:
Ten Dystopian Predictions
These are nominally arranged form least-worst to worst, but this is entirely subjective and humanist. If you’re an endangered lemur, prediction 10 is probably far worse than 1, but then lemurs probably can’t read this even if their tree has internet access. Learn to read, lemur! Just kidding; that would be weird. Now here’s the list:
10. Climate Change & Global Overpopulation
Given how climate change is talked about as an existential threat, you’d think this would be higher on the list; however, as real and terrible as it is, climate change will primarily impact poorer nations and people and richer nations and people will do little about it. We’re going to see sea-level rise, species extinction, vast ecological changes and collapse, and we’re probably not going to do much about it other than talk and point fingers. The things we could do (consuming less, moving to renewable energy, changing to less-meat-intensive diets, having fewer babies, etc.) we’ll do if and when they makes economic sense (profit for someone), but international treaties will do little to move this along. It’s a serious threat, but we’re not going to do anything to stop it until it’s too late.
If you’d like to know more about climate change, here’s one of many great videos from Kurzgesagt. If you want to be more informed about nature and scientific issues, I’d seriously recommend watching all of them:
BTW, if this seems fatalistic, it is, but I’m not suggesting we stop trying to reduce the impact or speed of climate change. I’m just saying we missed our window to prevent it, and our species really only reacts to things once they’re so bad we have no choice.
Note on Mass Extinctions & Overpopulation
There can be little doubt that we as a species are killing off or degrading most other species on Earth, or at least those that don’t serve us (we’ve done a remarkable job increasing the population of cows and chickens). Whether you care about this or not is of course entirely based on your moral compass, and while I think these losses degrade our experience of the natural world and make ecosystems more fragile, I don’t think they pose that great a threat to humanity or human society. If we want to live in a monocultural world, we probably can. But, to me, this is genocide–the narcissistic slaughter of anything and everything humans can’t be bothered to value monetarily. Sir David Attenborough seems to feel the same way, and with far greater experience to back him up:
Will we do anything about even this one issue? I doubt it. We’ll save some pretty things, the charismatic mega-fauna, the usual fungi, and some things we like to hunt and eat. But there are simply too many human beings generating too much need, waste and toxins to stop the slaughter. As long as our population grows, and our per capita consumption rises or remains flat, the natural world is just going to shrink and die. I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it.
For example, we could all decide to have fewer babies or become vegan or vegetarian, and choose locally-grown foods, but we haven’t and we won’t. We’ll instead opt-in to synthetic meats, and hopefully that will help over time, but this just shows the nature of our society: we will not sacrifice our lifestyles to help others, but we will gladly wait around for a technology to do it for us. (For a different perspective on overpopulation, Kurzgesagt has a great video).
9. Privacy Reduction by Automated Surveillance
Every time you agree to, say, use a Progressive Snapshot in your car to get lower rates, use your Fitbit or iPhone to get lower health insurance rates, etc. you’re also helping accelerate us toward the time when all of our behavior is monitored and results in monetary reward or compensation. And this includes everything from wearable tech to the electronics in your home.
We will all be watched, always, and soon thereafter forced to comply with both economic and government standards of behavior (see Liberty Reduction). Our TVs, PCs and phones watch us, determining what content we deserve and what ads we should see. Our credit card and e-commerce companies monitor our behavior to assess risk and predict buying patterns.
It’s not hard to see the appeal; this technology can save lives. It can call for an ambulance when you fall or have a heart attack. And of course, it can be used to aggregate user data to improve insurance plans…which this is the problem with tech like this. We want the benefits, so we ignore the downside, and then all of us lose privacy and liberty. Is it worth it? Time will tell.
See “Dystopia Watch – Machine Surveillance…” for updates.
8. Liberty Reduction by Mechanized Surveillance
We’ve long been fighting a war for privacy and regulation via everything from GPS monitoring systems to traffic cameras, but usually observation and control are separate. A traffic camera sees, but a government issues a ticket. This is not always true, of course (e.g., trucks can be automatically speed-throttled to optimize fuel efficiency), but new automation entirely eliminates this barrier.
In Singapore, for instance, Boston Dynamic a robot dog (Spot) was used to enforce social distancing regulations during the COVID pandemic. It patrolled the park and notified people about issues and, while it didn’t attack or subdue violators, it’s easy to see how it could. Note: Spot is still remotely controlled, not autonomous.
And just this month, we learned that the New York Police Department (NYPD) announced plans to use Digidog in city policing:
So, the future is here. Congresswoman AOC may object to what the NYPD is doing, but until we have strong national regulation on the use and deployment of robot police and surveillance systems, they’re just going to keep coming.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, said empowering a robot to do police work could have implications for bias, mobile surveillance, hacking and privacy. There is also concern that the robot could be paired with other technology and be weaponized. – NYT
The problem with these systems is not that they have no positive value; it’s that they are far, far too appealing. They cost less than human cops (or will), can cover more range, work 24/7, take risks humans won’t, and won’t every unionize. They can also be armed, carry recording devices that violate pretty much everyone’s privacy, and create a surveillance police state where we’re all watched, all the time…and then told to move along by the thing surveilling us. And Digidog is just one example among many. Here for instance is a nifty little drone police are looking to deploy to the airspace right over your head–which is funny, because it’s a late-to-the-market made-in-the-USA competitor to Chinese DJI drones already in use today.
Smile. You’re on police TV.
See “Dystopia Watch – Machine Surveillance…” for updates.
7. Job Displacement by Robots & Automation
This covers everything from automated mail sorting to complete construction automation (and probably far more). The threat here is real, current and almost unavoidable. It might be that some societies or unions push back against mechanization via neo-Luddite regulation and legislation, but there is so much money to be made by eliminating humans from the cost of goods that it’s almost unstoppable in a capitalist society. We’ve all seen the dancing Boston Dynamic robot by now, showing its moves to Do You Love Me and generally making humans look obsolete (but in a really adorable way). But the greatest threat to human jobs and labor is not multipurpose humanoid robots like this one:
The next video shows just few examples equally advanced but more task-oriented robots, including one that can pack pallets in a warehouse…and do a pretty damn good job of it. Given that they can work all day and never need a bathroom break, it’s hard to see companies resisting these temptations. Blue-collar jobs are going to vanish remarkably fast.
And this the first case on the list where (a) something bad is coming for human jobs (and there’s not much you can do about it) but (b) it doesn’t actually have to be a bad thing. In the long term, no human job is safe from machines and artificial intelligence (more on this below), so we must come up with a society where humans can prosper despite having no way to earn a living in the conventional market. I’m not sure what this is yet–what do they use in Star Trek?–but whatever it is, the time to figure it out is now. Until we do, things are going to get ugly.
6. Job Displacement by Artificial Intelligence (AI)
This covers all the ways machine learning, artificial intelligence and related digital technologies can (a) break human labor into automatable parts and (b) use that information to automate portions or all of a human’s job. There are many benefits to this, such as faster and more accurate cancer screening, removal of humans from dangerous work, and of course increased productivity–but all of these mean less work for human beings.
As shown in this video, this process is ongoing, accelerating, and inevitable. We just need to figure out how to deal with it.
Look at a complex job long and hard enough, and you’ll find that it’s really just many narrowly defined and predictable tasks one after another. Machines are on the brink of becoming so good at breaking down complex jobs into many predictable ones, that for many people, there will be no further room to specialize. We are on the verge of being out competed.” – Kurzgesagt
This Kurzgesagt video mentions but does not name a consulting company in San Francisco that uses machine learning systems to get middle management to train AI to replace them, but the same model is referenced here in the Harvard Business Review:
“…executives tend to assume that their underlings will bear the main brunt of changes to the future of work, while their own positions are immune. They are incorrect. We have chosen to publicize our work with iCEO to highlight the hard reality: It will not be possible to hide in the C-Suite for much longer.” — HBR
And this fact, that AI will impact middle and upper management sooner rather than later, is actually good news; it will mean people who have money and power will feel the threat that only blue-collar and factory workers have felt before. And maybe they can come up with a new economic model that keeps these changes from driving us all into poverty and unemployment.
If you want to see the real impact automation and other factors are having on real human wages, there is a great article on “Wage Stagnation…” from the Economic Policy Institute:
This article makes no mention of AI, machine learning, computers or any other reason why productivity would increase without wages growing in tandem. This article and many others, however, lay the blame directly at the feet of our future machine overlords:
The steady decline in the relative prices of robots and automation equipment over the past few decades have made it increasingly profitable to automate. In this environment, workers may be reluctant to ask for significant pay raises out of fear that an employer will replace their jobs with robots.
And this is the same argument being used against the $15 minimum wage; that raising wages will just accelerate automation and job destruction. Just as outsourcing overseas used to be the stick used to intimidate labor, now its machines…or both, working together.
5. Loss of Objective Truth to Deepfake Content
This is a huge topic, but hopefully requires little explanation. New and increasingly powerful “deepfake” technology is able to render audio and video of apparently real people doing and saying apparently real things…that they never did. The most recent example is this Tom Cruise TikTok video:
This video demonstrates two things. First, how it may be impossible to know what a person really said or did not say in the future (in everything from revenge porn to murders). Second, how an entire industry of actors and extras may soon be licensed and reproduced without ever needing human beings at all. The first is a threat to objective truth, the second a threat to artistic labor. Both are real and coming soon, but many of you will also remember this earlier Obama deep fake:
And this demonstrates a third threat posed by deepfake technology; the ability of anyone in any political party or group to put words in the mouths of their opponents, thus feeding into fake news, misinformation and the growth of conspiracy theories. Making it worse is how difficult it is to fight and regulate this technology without stepping on constitutionally protected freedom of speech:
Early October (2019), California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into legislation AB730, which makes it illegal to create or distribute fake videos, images or audio of politicians within 60 days of an election. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier’s Foundation (EFF) have already disagreed with the law, arguing that it could negatively impact free speech. — Forbes
So, my prediction? Deep fake political videos will have some impact in the US 2022 midterm elections, and a substantial impact in 2024 presidential elections. And it will just get worse after that. In a few years, it will be almost impossible to know what you, me, or any politician ever said, and even harder to find the truth amidst an endless barrage of deepfakery.
See “Dystopia Watch – Machine Deepfake Tech” for updates.
One of the hardest things in today’s world is to produce art that stands out, and to make a living as an artist or a creative. But when AI can churn out books, articles, photographs, videos and animations in seconds rather than hours or years, the value of this human-created art will plummet (lower than it already has). And the only thing that will save it is knowing if the artist is human or not…if consumers really care. In the future, it won’t be “Made in the USA” that matters, but “Created by a Human Being” and it will be just as hard to regulate.
4. Designer Babies and the (True) Rise of Genetic Class
Eugenics is the study of how to improve human beings by, well, breeding better human beings. Nazis loved this stuff, as did many Americans long before the Third Reich was even a thing. Up until this point in history, however, eugenics was just a terrible idea heralded by terrible people. Race and gender were not deterministic. Intelligence was not the soul purview of any one group. But this is about to change.
This change is being driven by CRISPR and other advances in bioengineering that will, soon, allow for wonderful things–cures for genetic diseases like ALS–and terrible things–picking your child’s social, intellectual and physical traits so he or she can be the perfect little child you always wanted. And it will be almost impossible to regulate, as shown in this quote from Designer Babies…
“Zaret suggests three additional regulatory steps that could help close the gap: the revocation of the federal ban on funding, the creation of a committee to report legislative recommendations, and the creation of a federal entity that would have authority over both public and private sectors. The collective goal of these three steps is centralized regulation. A federal body would be able to research the social and ethical issues created by embryonic research and not only impose regulations but educate the public. It could be broadly expanded to promote public access to reproductive health and encourage dialogue about neoeugenic uses of gene editing.”
All of which means, government regulation of designer babies will be slow, lag technology development and be easily circumvented by those with the resources to travel internationally. Within a generation, the rich will be having stronger, faster, smarter and otherwise modified children, and there’s really nothing you can do about it. Movies like Gattaca are not science fiction, they are now naive and almost utopian predictions about what’s going to happen in your lifetime.
What’s important to understand is that it doesn’t matter if designer babies are a good or bad thing in the abstract; what matters is how this technology will be distributed economically. And that’s obvious: the rich will have almost unlimited access, and the poor almost none. The result will be, for the first time in history, the alignment of genetics and economic class. If we don’t do something, within a few decades at most, the rich really will be better (stronger, smarter) and the rest of us will be relegated to a permanent underclass defined by our DNA. I, for one, do not want to be a hideous Morlock bowing before the perfect an beautiful Eloi. I just have no idea how to prevent it from happening.
See Dystopia Watch – Tracking Designer Babies for updates.
3. Tribalization and the Death of Empathy
Tribalization just means we’re all splitting into smaller and more hermetically isolated social and political groups, each of which is defined by “what is good” (us) and “what is bad” (them). It doesn’t matter if the tribe is right or wrong in this context, what matters is that it exists an increasingly vital source personal identity, thus placing all of us in opposition to anyone not in our tribe (the Other).
This tribalization process has endless causes. You could learn more by reading Bowling Alone, researching the Fairness Doctrine or you could just turn on the news and say, hey, this sucks. Because it sucks. Progressives hate MAGAs, MAGAs hate GOP moderates, GOP moderates hate liberals, liberals hate progressives, and if we’re honest, everyone hates Dave. Screw that guy.
And even groups that seem to be fighting systematic division end up supporting it. Progressives, for instance, oppose systematic racism, but they very much favor systematic tribalization, segregation and safe spaces. All of which is understandable in the context of tribal needs, separating them from the actual or perceived threat of the other, and yet the resulting tribalization remains utterly destructive of social unity.
Above you’ll hear about political tribalization. Below, you’ll hear about social media cognitive bubbles. What these and other videos all have in common? We’re all living in our own realities, defined by our own facts, and increasingly hateful of anyone not in the same cognitive space.
The news media is even worse. The following chart shows the polarization of news media organizations, leading to both misinformation and accelerating social tribalization:
All of which you already know unless you’re living in a very small bubble in the woods without windows, which sounds nice. The problem with this process of social segregation is that it makes collective action impossible. It makes the idea of cooperating with the other impossible. It makes the Other, the group most opposed to your group, not merely different but evil. And this is where we get to the death of empathy.
Liberalism long held empathy as a core value. You must try to understand others. You must try to help others. Because we’re not that different, and any of us could need help at any time. Progressives and MAGAs have no such values. Empathy is replaced by political alliances, by collaborating with those who hate the Other as much as you do. The idea of caring about of helping Others is not merely counterproductive, it’s morally repugnant and sufficient to get you evicted from the group. Empathy is treachery.
The result? Collaboration and cooperation are signs of weakness. Unity is capitulation. And this means democracy itself, an institution based on the ideal that most people will do the right thing most of the time, is kind of a joke. What good is democracy if it doesn’t serve your group and smite the Other? And so on…
If you’re wondering why I ranked tribalization so highly, it’s because it’s not merely a threat unto itself. Tribalization prevents effective collective action, and that makes it impossible to solve any other problem on this list. If we allow technology, media, corporations, political parties, religious beliefs and so on to divide us into squabbling, hateful tribes, then we’re screwed now and forever. We might as well just hand things over to the machines and get back to killing each other.
The model demonstrated by China, and to a lesser extent Russia and Brazil, is that of a nominally capitalist economy coupled with a highly intrusive and authoritarian government. China has proven that democracy and capitalism are not necessary partners, and that democracy may be less effective at driving capitalist economic growth than political authoritarianism, a lesson the German Reich (aka Nazi fascists) knew but no one cared about because they lost the war.
China is thus a threat not only because it is a competitor to the USA in the global market, but because it offers an alternative geopolitical structure to the ruling and wealthy classes. Instead of controlling people and labor through the illusion of self-control, you simply control them the old fashioned way. And as long as they make enough money to feel safe and comfortable, people are more than willing to ignore the loss of personal freedom. This is not completely true, of course, but it’s true enough to work and that’s all that matters in the real world.
So if some of the most economically successful countries are not even vaguely democratic, what keeps more democracies from failing? There are a lot of answers to this, of course, but this is the first time in history when the Chinese alternative has existed, and thus poses a very real threat to democracy itself. How many nations would gladly choose less freedom for more wealth (and less poverty)? My guess: most of them. Especially if China acts as a generous sponsor as America withdraws from the international stage.
And what’s happening the USA today is leading in this direction, helped greatly by anti-democratic conservative efforts, thereby turning one-person-one-vote into one-dollar-one-vote. The more power is concentrated in fewer hands, the more wealth held by fewer people, the smaller the gap is between democracy and authoritarianism. What, after all, is the purpose of supporting democracy if you can be just as rich and more powerful without it? People are just so whiny.
1. Economic Genocide & the Fall of Liberal Democracy
Wow, well, economic genocide sounds scary. Run away! But in all seriousness, if you look at the prior nine items on this list, they all lead to one collective outcome: a world with fewer jobs for human beings, more power in the hands of centralized authorities, complete powerlessness and subjugation of the non-rich, the inability to do anything without those authorities watching you.
This could easily lead to a world of authoritarian China clones, with high-tech capitalist markets serving only the wealthiest and largest corporations and impoverishing everyone else. Or it could lead to something else.
I’m just genuinely concerned that I’ve heard no one, and I mean no one, talk about a credible alternative to this collective dystopia. I’ve heard people claiming it won’t happen, and I’ve heard others hoping it will (burn it all down!), but literally the only policy solution that seems viable is a guaranteed minimum income for everyone based on taxing the small percent who still have jobs. Which is, of course, only one measure and only a stopgap.
Even videos like the following about a so-called (alternative) Ownership Economy, and the underlying theories the drive them, are more about changing people than systems, and thus offer no way forward other than wishful thinking. I’m not trying to denigrate their thought process or very chill presentations; they just don’t seem to offer realistic options in the world as we know it.
Which leaves us in a scary place. Democracy cannot stand if most people are living in poverty or unable to support themselves. Society cannot hold if it does not offer some degree of hope and dignity to most of its citizens. So what is the real, practical alternative to increasing income disparity, economic stratification, unemployment and authoritarianism?
I have no idea.
Things Not to Worry About
Several of the usual scary things aren’t on this particular list of things to worry about because they’re either so far in the future (relatively to other threats) that it’s not worth worrying about, or we have little influence over them anyway. These include:
AI Super-Intelligence & the Rise of the Machines
Robots with giant brains and bigger guns? Run away! I mean, if Elon Musk says we should be scared, we should be scared, right?
And he’s not wrong. We should be scared. It’s just way down on the list of things we should be focused on today. And a robot uprising is entirely avoidable if we’re not complete idiots, but I do love Terminator, so…enjoy:
“I’ll be back!” No, seriously, he will be…eventually. This is like the Zamboni of threats.
Volcanoes, Meteors and Aliens, Oh My!
There are plenty of valid and massive threats out there, including eruption of giant super volcanoes or massive meteor strikes like the one the killed off our beloved dinosaurs. But let’s be honest; we’re not going to do anything about any of these, so keep praying and don’t look up too often.
The End of Everything
And of course you can always just skip ahead the heat death of the universe, evaporating black holes, and true blackness at the end of time to remind yourself that if you take a really long view (you know, trillions or even quadrillions of years), none of this really matters. We’re all gonna die. Everything’s gonna die. YOLO!
But that’s a recipe for anarchy, immorality and existential dread, and who needs that?
Choosing a Better Future
Whatever you think of this giant sad list of terrible things with a few tiny good things to prevent collective suicidal ideation, you have to admit we’re heading in a pretty bad direction with no particular focus on how to prevent it. We’re blithely walking to the edge of every cliff we can think of, and just assuming we won’t fall or we’ll be dead before we get there (like the national debt, it’s someone else’s problem). This is not a plan. This is the definition of denial.
Sadly, the only thing that can prevent these outcomes now is that we each and collectively decide to accept them, face them, and deal with them. They will not solve themselves or go away. So my question is, what would it take for us as a society and, more generally, a species, to become something capable of addressing these issues? And I don’t know. I mean, I know it’s theoretically possible. I know societies have solved problems in the past. But I also know we don’t seem interested in these things anymore. We would rather throw rocks and scream while the world burns. It’s easier. I get that.
But what a you going to tell your children? See that stone in the ashes over there, honey. That one, no, the black one with glass on it. That’s the one. I threw that. If you look real closely, you can see a little blood on it. I took that bastard / bitch / thing down. Why didn’t I fight the fire? It was too late. It was too big. There was no water left. I didn’t start the fire. I’m not a fire fighter. Just don’t inhale, and you’ll be fine. Now, let’s go take a closer look at mommy’s / daddy’s rock.
Of course, there is another choice–the conservative / right wing pretend it’s all a left-wing dystopian fantasy option, and you’ll find plenty of videos and information online for every point above showing why they’re fake news or actually a positive thing. Prager University will be glad to tell you why income inequality is good. I’m not convinced their perspective is always wrong or just lies made to protect those who benefit from the current system. I am convinced they would say the same thing either way. You should do your own research and self-education and hopefully realize that none of what’s happening is solving real human problems in the long term.
And then, hopefully, you / we / all of us can choose to do something about something before the choice is taken away from us. And if you happen to find a realistic alternative to the false binary options of capitalism and socialism (or the tyranny of authoritarian capitalism), that’d be great too.
Okay, fine, I admit I have some ideas about all of this. Coming soon…