The Dystopia Is Already Here

[This post is periodically updated.]

Science fiction writer William Gibson coined the phrase, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” It’s a well-known and oft-repeated line.

I’m proposing a slight variation, or perhaps a corollary principle: The dystopia is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Consider these comments by Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker: “It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” The aim of Facebook’s designers: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

Or take a look at Zeynep Tufekci’s recent TED talk, “We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads.”

Then there’s this fine company, Dopamine Labs, which is developing an “automated, intelligent approach to hooking people on apps” with an AI agent aptly named Skinner.

Here is James Bridle’s long exploration of the weird and disturbing world of Kids YouTube. “This is a deeply dark time,” Bridle concludes, “in which the structures we have built to sustain ourselves are being used against us — all of us — in systematic and automated ways.” Another writer, looking at this same content, concluded, “We can’t predict what wider impact a medium that incentivizes factory line production of mindless visual slurry for kids’ consumption might have on children’s development and on society as a whole.

And this article title would have seemed implausibly dystopian just a few years ago: Facebook is hiring 3,000 people to stop users from broadcasting murder and rape.

Meanwhile, Beijing is becoming a “frontline laboratory for surveillance” setting the pace for 21st century police states, and Facebook has found itself at the center of the brutal campaign against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

An earlier investor in Facebook and Google, making his penance, tells us that these two companies have “consciously combined persuasive techniques developed by propagandists and the gambling industry with technology in ways that threaten public health and democracy.” ” Thanks to smartphones,” he adds, “the battle for attention now takes place on a single platform that is available every waking moment.”

“Across YouTube,” Buzzfeed reports, “an unsettling trend has emerged: Accounts are publishing disturbing and exploitative videos aimed at and starring children in compromising, predatory, or creepy situations — and racking up millions of views.”

So, I don’t know, you tell me?

Lest we think that we cannot be in a dystopia because we appear to be relatively free, prosperous, and safe, here’s the final word to Neil Postman:

… we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture …. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

[I’ve decided to make this post an archive of sorts, so I’ll keep adding items as I come across them. Feel free to offer submissions in the comments.]

8 thoughts on “The Dystopia Is Already Here

  1. Postman quote: It’s the near-end of the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. The final sentence is, “This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

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