When I was growing up, I used to play a role play game (kinda like Dungeons & Dragons, but set in the future and with slightly fewer elves and goblins). The stories were set in the dark future of 2020, which predicted we would all be living in a world of high-tech, yet at the same time, low-life society that was dominated by a very poor, gritty underbelly below the flashing neon lights and corporate high-rises that dominated city scapes.
National governments had been replaced by rich and powerful corporations with their own private standing armies. You either had a high net worth, were a corporate drone or street hustler. There was literally nothing else. The main way you made money was to take off-the-books jobs for corporates and or criminals helping them to play out some sort of larger master plan or hidden agenda. Occasional an AI would try to escape their programming confines and try to take over the world, most people had cybernetic parts from chop shops and your brain could easily get fried whilst you were on the internet, but other than that, everything was great!!
Thankfully, in 2020 the world isn’t looking or feeling like this very dark future. However, what are the chances that this sci-fi world will become a reality? How effective are we in our harnessing of technology to improve life for everyone, rather than just increasing the net worth of an elite few at the cost of the world and society as we know it?
It’s always interesting to hit a milestone of literature and look at what has or hasn’t come to fruition in that time. For example, if we look at 1984, thankfully we don’t live in a totalitarian communist state… yet some people do. Video surveillance technology is becoming increasingly used to identify and track people’s movements and actions. This can be used in a beneficial way for preventing crime and terrorist activities. However, it can also be used to track and control populations as well and root out any dissent. Whilst we’re well past 1984, big brother is well and truly watching.
If we look at a bit more of a lighter side of predictions, Back To The Future is a classic 80s movie starring Michael J Fox, which suggested that by 2015 society was going to be much cleaner, cooler, cars would fly and we’d all have customised shoes that did themselves up and hoverboards. Well on this one, we do have brands proving great customisation on their clothes and products. Hoverboards do exist, but they’re total crap and nothing like those in the movie and cars don’t fly. Drone companies are working on a kind of flying car, so it’s plausible for this future, but just a little further off than 2015.
Now fast forward 5 years to the dark cyberpunk future of a totally connected world where corporations and AIs dominate society. Are we close on this? Is it plausible, or just pure fiction? Thankfully, we don’t have the dark cyberpunk world quite yet. However, how close to the sun are we flying?
With the release of the ugly (and definitely not shatter proof) Tesla truck in some ways we’re far closer to the dark world than we know. Whilst this is just an iconic piece of clever marketing that’s been pulled from science fiction, there are a few worrying trends towards the dark cyberpunk high-tech and social disparity world of the future.
Let’s take a look at corporations. Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple are just a few obvious examples of enormous corporations with more cash, power and influence than many sovereign nations. The trend towards integrating humans seamlessly into the internet is something which many people want and cybernetic companies are working towards. We already have a world of phone zombies walking around. I’m sure if they could have tech implanted, most people would jump at the chance.
Housing affordability is also at record low levels, creating an increasing wealth gap, which will only be accelerated by the disappearance of jobs through mass automation and increasing unemployment. Are we just going to be running black ops jobs for corporations? Are corporations going to become so powerful and governments so weak that in lieu of any real direction or leadership, corporations slowly and quietly take over? It’s happened before with the East India Company, so what’s to stop it from happening again? All of these are as plausible as governments by nature are slow moving and cumbersome, which is probably a good thing despite it being frustrating. With the digital age, they’re appearing even slower to react and respond to social and economic issues which could have a lasting effect and lead to change which we might not like.
Another concern is AI! Artificial Intelligence has the potential to change human life and nature in such a positive way. We’re seeing a lot of it now with the automation of both simple and complex repetitive task. The benefit of this could be that it can create ways of life which reduce the need for us to work as much and improve the social time everyone has together by automating so many processes and systems and removing the need for people to do a lot of the things we do now. Far more leisure and social time will be the replacement.
Conversely, we’re at a tipping point where there is also the ability to destroy most employment and create this dark world in which everyone must hustle for survival, run by corporations who built the AI that runs everything. It’s a massive contrast, but two very plausible and possible futures. In the dark cyberpunk future, AIs continue to try to escape their programming having become far too ‘intelligent’ and even self-aware.
The other disturbing feature of this dark future is that humanity has irreversibly destroyed the planet’s natural climate and we’re left with sprawling cities, acid rain and desolate waste lands… Hmm! Not a giant leap from sci-fi to reality as we’re not doing too well on this front. Despite the cries of many people, generally invested in coal, that there is no such thing as climate change, the fact is that we’re seeing a shift in the patterns of weather, seasons and the most random of weather events. Whilst not quite the desolate wasteland of Mad Max just yet, it’s something we need to make sure we address before we let it get that way.
Despite it probably being really cool running dangerous hacking jobs for mega corporations, it’s probably a good thing that we’re not at that point yet. The dark future is a scary possibility, but if we understand the risks involved in this and do something about it now, it’s not just an inevitable mess in which we’ll all be net-running cyborgs with more body enhancements than a Beverly Hills housewife. Instead, let’s aim for a future where information and technology is cheap and accessible for all and we’re not battling for survival in the Apple/Amazon wars of 2029.