Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Nature, Futures, and the coming dystopia

The past two stories in Nature's "Futures" column have both been in reference to a futuristic society in which certain aspects of life (photography and weapons manufacture, respectively) are monitored automatically via computer, ala failsafe. In the first, guns turn against their owners and start deciding who gets shot based on entries in a police database-in-the-sky. In the second, all photographs are stored online (by requirement) for some reason - and darkroom procedures hence outlawed, a compromising picture of a government official appears in a chemistry lab.

It vaguely reminds me of the Cybermen; the little ear-bud phone service that turns against you, hijacks your brain, and turns you into an automaton. And I wonder what the fascination with such dystopic futures is. At one point, progress was considered universally good, we were on the path to utopia, and so forth. Now it seems more imprinted on the common imagination that we are descending into a police state, that our parents were freer than we are and we are freer than our children will be, and that there is no turning back on this irrevocable path. When did we go from Marx, with the revolution being imminent, to Mill, with no more revolutions and the gradual death of our species from lack of freedom, argument, and passion?

EDIT: I know the answer to that question is, potentially, when Marx's communism turned into just such a controlling police state.


Duff said...

I tend not to worry about such apocalyptic futures. Apocalyptic literature is probably one of the oldest genera of literature in existence. This "new" dystopia really isn't that new. Even all the particular fears, like being controlled by a external impersonal force, are pretty old. They're just dressed up in the current palatable paradigms of reality (EVIL SCIENCE, as opposed to witchcraft). But the effects are the same. To say "But now its different, these could be realized, then they couldn't!" I don't think has as much validity as one might think. Those who believed in witchcraft also thought it was being realized. So the effects of the fear, its "realness," were just as true then as now.

ayn said...

I don't think Elizabeth is worrying about dystopian futures as much as she is interested in why they fascinate us (then and now).

Speaking specifically about dystopias involving technological progress, I think it's a question of just that--progress. How do you define progress? The advancement of ideas might not always be progress, so to speak. I think these worst-case-scenario kinds of futures interest us because the newest technology represent our limits as a species, limits we are always pushing past. We're curious about what those limits are and what it means for us each time we redefine them.