Thursday, June 06, 2013

Dystopias: Nightmare software states

Your Cellphone is Listening, Comrade. Facebook is Mandatory

You're issued your phone when you turn five and are welcomed into the greater collective. It listens to you and keeps you safe. It hears what goes on around you. It always knows where it's at, and lets your parents know where you are, in school and at home. You are encouraged to talk to your friends or text them on it. You should photograph them with your phone and share on the webspace society provides you. If the policeman stops you, your phone provides proof of identity as a brother or sister citizen. In darkness it gives you light. When you're in trouble it summons the aid of the security or health services. 

Your phone is an avatar of the collective, always at your side. 

It also corrects you and helps keep you on the path of optimized thought. It quotes relevant doctrine to you each time you use it. It suggests passages to read and video clips of the Great Leader to watch each night before bed based on keywords within your text messages and conversations. Your phone and the gestalt of software it belongs to graphs your social interactions, tracing out all the network of all the people whom you know or pass by each day. You're never quite sure which words or connections will land you in trouble, for your phone is subtle, but you know it lets the state track bad people and their friends in ways that earlier nations could have only dreamed of.  

Human peripherals 

"Hardware, brother citizen," said the old man. "That's what we are. We're peripheral devices devices that plug into the motherboard of the state at birth, and unplug at death. In between we serve and are served by the resources of the system."

On the other countertop between us he traced out the letters WW with a gnarled finger. Whether we like it or not. A common shorthand between citizens that served where earlier generations rolled their eyes or shrugged resignedly.   

"And the software? Well, I can remember that started out as cooperative task management tools that let us share documents and schedules, and alert others about problems that cropped up. We first started using 'em at work early on in the century. They were common in businesses with flat hierarchies where a lot of creative work was done, like in software development and hardware design shops. After the revolution they became a part of everything. Families have them. Schools have them. Businesses do to, and they're all linked together for the optimization of society."

"Of course nobody calls it a hardware - software relationship. It's just "the system" these days. You don't have to participate in it, but then again you don't have to eat either." 

"Well, huh. Look at that. I just got called in for a counseling session with the my team," he said, furrowing a brown that the years had already wrinkled with their passing. "I hope it's nothing serious." 

"Me too," I said, knowing full well it would be. After all, that was my task in the system: knowing and telling. "Being seeing you." 


What makes dystopia dystopian?

In historical totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, human beings were subordinated to the superorganism of the state. They became appendages that could be sacrificed in staggering numbers -- sometimes on the altar of war, and sometimes to sate the paranoia of the state's internal security apparatus or its national leadership. Where the lives of citizens in a democracy are an ends in themselves, the lives of those trapped in such nightmare states were a means to the survival of the collective.

What's really terrifying about that is that we humans are very much collective animals. Alone in institutional confinement or lost in the wild we slowly go mad. We depend on the presence of others for the maintenance of our psyches or souls. In that sense dystopian states are one of the ultimate perversions of human nature. They take our sociability and the desire for a common group membership twist them into something destructive and extreme.

Fictional and real world dystopias come in variety of flavors. What they share, however, is an underlying loss of agency. Whether the inhabitants suffer through one dehumanizing misery after another in an unending existence of bleakness, or if they are unnaturally happy when they should be in agony, it's a near total loss of control over one's destiny that makes these states so frightening. Sometimes the inability to choose is externally imposed through violence and direct intimidation, and other times it's through a fearful rewriting of who we are through forcible indoctrination combined with the corrosion of constant fear or anxiety. That might be the greatest terror of dystopias: The potential of a dehumanizing system to remake us so completely that we want to conform to its demands. It's an obliteration of the self worse than death.

So what could future totalitarian states do with information technology or bio and nanotech?


Next: Biotech Nightmares

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