Thursday, January 17, 2013

Dystopias: Part one

I've witnessed two conflicts with very different flavors in my life to date.

The first was the ongoing standoff on the Korean Peninsula. While I was there in 1997, Korea was a simmering stew of tensions and incidences as millions starved not far away on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone. The root of the armed deadlock was an ongoing ideological conflict that had found visible expression in extensive defensive fortifications such as tanks traps, marked mine fields, and bunkers scattered across the landscape, along with presence of tens of thousands of uniformed soldiers north of Seoul. Then there were the intangibles that contributed to the experience. A general knowledge of extensive civil defense preparations that included mass evacuation plans and South Korean contingencies for responding to massed artillery falling one of the world's most densely populated mega cities.

The standoff felt massive, looming, and impersonal.

The second conflict was the aftermath of the war in Kosovo, which I mostly glimpsed while traveling back and forth on escort missions over the mountains between the then breakaway province and Macedonia. The Kosovo conflict was so different from Korea that it felt like it had taken place on another planet. Rather than a clash of states, it was a fight between two ethnic groups. The hatred involved was deeply personal, and even intimate in some cases. During the war, it had played out in a thousand ugly acts of cruelty in villages and neighborhoods where many of the combatants had grown up knowing one another.

While working on the States and Nations 3.0 articles, memories and thoughts about those conflicts have been bubbling up. Not in a bad way, but more as a natural consequence of thinking about the future and of how technology can impact societies. There is a lot that can and has gone disastrously wrong during technological revolutions.

The Cold War that produced the Korean Conflict was itself a product of a chaos unleashed by the advent of industrial technology on agricultural societies during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The new tools and chemical products produced in factories and laboratories made us too efficient as farmers at a time when most of the population farmed or worked supporting farming. For the first time in human existence there was consistently too much food from year to year, and crop prices plummeted, never to recover.

Shorn of their livelihoods and with no other way to survive or escape the downward spiral of poverty, tens of millions left their family farms and moved to manufacturing cities: places of brick and soot and smoke that were infamously dirty, crowded, and unhygienic. Tightly knit communities governed by tradition and religion were left behind for tenant neighborhoods of anonymity among millions of other faceless and displaced individuals. Also lost was dignity of self-employment (in much of the US), and a life lived outdoors. Work moved from fields and woods to factories where accidents and potential mutilation were common hazards, along merciless bosses who wielded power over their workers' ability to make a living at a time when willing bodies far outnumbered jobs.*

Marxism was a well-intentioned response to that tumult. Sadly, however, the nation-states that it took root in quickly turned on their own populations. A system of liberation in theory, the various forms of Communism brought mass purges, police state surveillance, exile to labor or death camps, and mass starvation to millions in practice. Then there was the opposition on the far fight. Fascism and Nazism arose in part as a reaction to the economic and perceived moral chaos of the 1920s, but also partially as an extreme response to Communism -- a deliberate attempt to harness the total submission of the individual to the state to counter communist success at doing the same.

What the two sides shared was their origin as attempts to curb to a chaos that had changed entire societies and economies. So in the next Dystopias article we'll examine how technologies on our current horizon could create similar levels of upheaval and new expressions of totalitarianism. After that, we'll move from the state as an instrument of future tyranny, and look at how technologies such as human augmentation, social networks, pervasive computing, and 3D printers could empower communities to oppress themselves. In other words, we'll be looking at some of the underlying dynamics that could lead to both future North Koreas and Kosovos.

*Charles Dickinson and Upton Sinclair were among the most famous authors to document the difficulties and losses endured by common men and women during the early industrial age, but there are others who are worth taking a look at too. Looking Backwards: 2000 - 1887, one the first American science fiction novels, became a bestseller of the period with its depiction of the late 19th century's exploitation, cruelty, and the loss of what author Edward Bellamy saw as traditional Christian spirit to the grim commercial realities and the Social Darwinism of the industrial age.

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