Future Thought: Dismantling Dystopia
Part one of a five-part series on the technological, environmental, and socio-political conditions shaping our world today and tomorrow.
We live in a new era. An era in which questions like “Global warming: real or fake?” are credulously presented for debate. An era in which climate change denial threatens to undo the Paris Climate Agreement and environmental disaster evacuation mechanisms come baked into infrastructure. An era in which foreign agents hack our financial institutions or worse, derail our democracies. An era in which congestion in cities renders us sick, dirty, and necessarily late for everything. This is an era in which unseasonably nice weather is not celebrated for what it signifies: this year we mark our hottest on record.
This is the darkness that looms in 2016.
For some, it is a matter of looking beyond our planet for humanity’s next resource-rich land to conquer. Their reaction raises a fundamental question: Do we rally around a mission to abandon our planet, or do we stay the course on Earth, and look to technology to lead us to our next great evolution?
The subject of technology itself generates controversy. There are those for whom technology marks the end of humanity, the beginning of automation, and the loss of real human connection. Technology has let us down before, they say. It has stolen our identities, our money, and our dignity. And as the old adage goes, the best predictor of the future is the past.
Even for those enamored with technology, embracing it freely demands a certain caution. For instance, we may all agree that we need smartphones, but we must also agree that their use—or indeed our dependence on them—raises the significant need for cyber security. It is as if we must make art of the balance between an appreciation for the graces of tech innovation and a certain disdain for it.
It is true that with technological advancement comes the need for greater responsibility. We cannot simply let a tech-empowered future happen without our vigilance. But to deny its power for positive change is to succumb to simple fears of dystopia. We believe we must face such fears head on.
The advent of technology is an opportunity to design something better, to break free of the shackles to which we have blindly surrendered. After all, effective applications have afforded even the naysayers an enhanced quality of life. They have produced tools to move knowledge across vast distances, to travel to meet loved ones, to bolster energy efficiency across industries, to make food drops in war-torn lands. As with anything new, technological innovation is an iterative process—one that tends to fumble its way, awkwardly at times, to its next evolution.
But one day all the fumbling stops and a once simple idea becomes an indispensable tool for the masses. In that moment, we wipe our collective memory of a world before the iPhone, or the light bulb, or Google Maps. We take these developments for granted despite the ways in which they have dramatically changed our lives by being the purveyors of more information, more daylight, and ultimately more time.
“One day all the fumbling stops and a once simple idea becomes an indispensable tool for the masses.”
A recent study indicates the average Los Angeles driver spent 81 hours idling in traffic last year. On first glance, this statistic points to lost productivity en masse. But the darker truth of this number lies in the environmental degradation it affects, particularly in metropolitan hubs. It is not enough to give pause. It begs the question: If more time were on offer—for ourselves and for our planet—would we take it?
If the speed at which we have adopted some of technology’s greatest innovations is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. Sure, those resistant to new technologies are still lobbying for restrictions on unregulated taxis or fuel efficiency mandates favoring oil. But while the luddites invest more time and energy to maintain the status quo, the tech elite barrel ahead.
Take Uber, Airbnb, and Seamless as examples. Each one offers new opportunities, new markets, new roles, and ultimately, new freedoms. The platforms make our lives easier. The idea that technology can reduce inefficiencies and environmental impact while creating more personalized, connected, and meaningful experiences is the great reward for successful innovation—and one that offers a kickback for both its creator and its consumer.
Imagine if we could spend less time doing the things that technology could easily do on our behalf and more time enjoying music, reading to our kids, or catching up on our favorite original series. Whether to take back time for daily activities or to take back environmental deterioration over millennia, technology is our hope.
A dystopian future is one we must collectively work to dismantle. It is the basis for a narrative that the media is rewarded for perpetrating. At least in the short run. But we would be remiss to ignore the beauty and resilience of our planet, to abandon hope that we can learn to live in harmony with each other and our environment.
“A dystopian future is one we must collectively work to dismantle.”
Let us begin by examining the successes of technology. Let us not use a single brush to erase the progress of so many bright innovators who have solved the problems before us. And let us not ignore the next generation, hard at work to tackle the problems ahead—to make tomorrow better, cleaner, safer, and healthier for all walks of life.
A future to celebrate, after all, is best enjoyed when it has been earned. We must first believe in our collective potential to earn it. That will be our choice.