Predictions for the Year 2514: Dystopia That Feels Like Utopia

Humanists typically project extreme pessimism toward the future, under conditions of technological oppressiveness. Surveillance is rampant; the human being has been shorn of dignity; the state is overpowering and individuality is a lost cause before the powerful onslaught of the collectivity. Zamyatin and Orwell are prime examples of this kind of extrapolation. There are also instances of humanist utopias (beginning with Thomas Moore and continuing with the socialist utopias of William Morris and Edward Bellamy), but they tend to be curiously bloodless, lacking the conviction and richness of the dystopias.

Scientists, on the other hand, tend to feel very optimistic that technology will be liberating rather than confining: it will be the final realization of the humanist project that began with the Greeks, was revived in the Renaissance, and received its current formulation in the Enlightenment. Ray Kurzweil, with his belief in the coming singularity (which he thinks is likely to occur around 2030), where machines smarter than humans take over and allow the human race a form of immortality, is a recent example.

I recently wrote a novel about the feline-human relationship, encompassing different stages of transformation in human civilization, from early agriculture to postmodern modes of living, and presenting an arc from prehistory to the distant future, all from our smarter friend’s point of view. For the section on the future, I had occasion to revisit different branches of science after many years, especially those where research holds the most promise of breakthroughs; the frustrating dead-ends of research in the last fifteen or twenty years were a revelation to me, though one doesn’t often hear about them in popular media.

My intuition says that the future will be an extreme form of dystopia, encompassing all the tendencies the humanist-pessimists have amply illustrated over the course of the twentieth century, with added restraints imposed by new developments in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and quantum physics. But it will not appear as dystopia to our descendants, rather, it will appear as the fulfillment of utopia. This radical rupture between reality and perception is already evident to a large extent in the management of human affairs, as capitalism perfects its skills at making us eagerly swallow what used to be unpalatable not very long ago.

I remain highly skeptical of the utopian promises of nanotechnology (which, it is said by the optimists, will do away with all forms of material scarcity, since we will supposedly be able to create any product ex nihilo) and artificial intelligence (I do not think that we are anywhere near real intelligence on the part of machines, despite all the credit given to the continued inexorability of Moore’s law – i.e., the doubling of computing capacity every two years). I think there is a greater possibility that genetic engineering might perhaps lead to a real extension of the human lifespan (perhaps 120 years, or 150 years, or even 200 years or beyond), resulting from changes in the human germline; this too is a far-fetched notion at the moment, but it seems to have a chance of happening.

It has seemed to me for a long time – and my recent researches only confirm this impression – that science, under the current paradigm, has run up against a wall in answering any of the fundamental questions about life, the earth, and the universe. In physics, the more research is done on a gargantuan scale, the more we confront unanswerable questions (given current research methodologies). This should give utopians a lot of pause.

We simply have no idea (though you’re not likely to hear scientists tout their failure) about any of these things: What is the nature of matter? What is the universe? What is it made of, how did it come into being (the more you think about the big bang, the more it sounds like a rationalization of things perceived by limited human intelligence rather than something that intuitively convinces), where is it going, and what is its true nature? What is consciousness (we have absolutely no clue on this one)? What is the essence of time? What is life, what animates it, and can we think of it differently than we do now?

I think what this dead-end means is that science, increasingly, is in the service of the manipulation of thoughts and emotions, a methodology for capitalism to orient the human mind toward fulfilling its needs. Of course, technology always has the potential to be liberating, as was the case with the steam engine, electricity, the internal combustion engine, flight, and most recently the computer and the internet. However, many have noticed that after the discovery of quantum mechanics, the rest of the twentieth century was a mere elaboration of what had already been discovered, not the discovery of any new paradigm.

Science, increasingly, is big business, it is managed and promoted accordingly, and its results, not surprisingly, now tend to benefit its immediate patrons rather than humanity at large. When science is run in the form of a super-corporation (rather than as an expression of society’s collective liberal curiosity), the possibility that it will yield discoveries of the nature of the telegraph or the phonograph or the light bulb or penicillin is quite remote. Today, for example, medicine on a Brobdingnagian scale pursues the illusion of gene therapy rather than try to prevent human sickness and pain in rather obvious ways.

There is something to the idea that scientists must be humanists first, or else whatever they discover or refine ends up being fodder for oppression. The lone inventor operating in his garage – the mythical amateur proud of his independence – fits the bill as far as the tradition of humanism is concerned, but someone who is part of a collective enterprise so large and overpowering (and purely capitalist) that there is little room for expression of individual values probably does not.

We might make the claim that science, as we used to know it, or as romantic mythology would have it, has come to an end. Another way of saying the same thing is that only dystopian (because hypercapitalist) tendencies will henceforth find realization because whatever liberates the human (utopia) is not only impossible to realize, but cannot even be conceived anymore. But because it is hard to reverse the ingrained notion that human freedom is of paramount importance and science must pay tribute to it (regardless of the reality), dystopia must be presented as utopia; many current examples suggest that this project is not difficult at all, as with the perception of the dystopian aspects of social media as utopian.

I believe that the future, say half a millennium from now, will be one where every last bit of space for expression of individuality has been so thoroughly squashed that it won’t even be an academic question anymore, and that we will live in unreal metropolises of incredible density and efficiency, without a trace of original, unpredictable thought; however, forms of virtual reality will allow us to imagine that we inhabit peaceful, tranquil, even tribal and medieval, small villages where our identity is well-known and where there is all the scope in the world for us to be free the way we want to be.

We will move in an ether – as we already do to some extent – that lets us see ourselves as we would like to be seen, though the mirror will reflect nothing but a projection from far beyond our control, with nothing “real” about it. The least equal, those with nothing to their name, will feel the most powerful, the most liberated. Political resistance, in this manifestation, appears in the negative – i.e., all efforts to resist only strengthen the unreality; this is already very largely true.

This same reality/unreality split will be manifest in every single aspect of our existence, from longevity and procreation, to modes of residence and forms of travel, to acquisition of skills and forms of “work”: needless to say, work, as we know it, and also the family and worship and rituals and leisure, will have absolutely ceased to exist in their present form of unpredictability and chaos, though their outward appearance will continue. It simply cannot be that science, afflicted by gigantism and loss of values, can permit such unknowability to exist. It will create an overarching veneer of sanctity (i.e., freedom) to everything it permits, but the logic of the current form of symbiosis between science (and here I include the human sciences too, in their academic manifestation) and capitalism permits no other prediction. Only the forms will persist, humanity having made itself redundant, except as an incarnation of play to itself.

It is always hazardous to extrapolate from the present, simply project exponentially based on current experience, as any number of forecasters over the centuries have had cause to rue. There is always some new paradigm – political, social, scientific, economic – that messes up the linearity of such projections, and mine is as subject to this disruption as any other futurist’s, but barring some abrupt civilizational change, I think we’re headed to this dystopia that will look for all the world like utopia. We may already have entered this new paradigm, and be well on the way to its irreversibility, which has profound consequences for individual and social action, and for making the best of this moment of transition that may well last centuries.

The coming utopia might well feel pleasant and endless; it might even be positively fun. But it won’t be real.