From utopia to dystopia: technology, society and what we can do about it

The superficial post-war dream that technology would solve the world’s social problems has transformed into a nightmare of electronically enabled global surveillance and suppression. Yet with consumer-oriented industries replacing the military as the main driver of innovation, citizens are acquiring tools through which they can co-ordinate their emancipation.

Alejandro Garcia de la Garza
20 December 2013
M15 protest in Madrid

Citizens turning to their own devices: modern technology made possible the M15 movement in Madrid. Flickr: Henry de Saussure Copeland. Some rights reserved.

In the second half of the 20th century, coming out of two world wars and with technology progressing at an unprecedented rate, it was widely believed that technological advancement would continue improving living conditions in an almost utopian way. Great technological achievements, progress in medicine and a greater sense of social responsibility gave rise to the idea that, for the first time in history, war, disease and poverty were all soluble problems.

But technology did not turn into that science-fiction dream of curing disease and ending world hunger. Instead it became a tool to observe and control people en masse

Throughout history, technological advances have brought with them new security challenges, to which every society has had to adapt. In the past 30 years, breakthroughs in information and communication technology in particular have been so ground-breaking, happening so quickly, that a plethora of developments have come in train - very hard to predict, never mind anticipate or, still less, prepare for - to develop deadlier weapons and new forms of oppression and violence, and to broaden the inequality gap between people and countries. Rather than saving humanity from misery, technology would allow violence to be performed on a greater and more efficient scale.

Recently Amazon generated controversy when it revealed its Prime Air project. It intends to use drones to deliver packages to locations up to 10 miles from selected distribution points, albeit this is still a few years from implementation. Many would consider drones flying at low altitude over their home a violation of their privacy and space. Yet such drones are already available in a variety of shapes and configurations in many countries, with regulation trying to play catch-up.

In the past too, most technological advances came from military projects that resulted in products for which civilian uses were later found. Military technology came up with jet engines, the microwave oven and the GPS systems now in almost every car and smartphone. To this day, military spending, in particular in the United States, remains a strong driving force for technological innovation.

Reversing the flow

But with technology advancing exponentially today, and more and more people adopting new devices, the market for technological products has grown in tandem. The consumer electronics industry now surpasses global military investment in research and development, thanks to the larger markets over which it can spread the cost—and the way the resultant technology flows is in some cases reversing.

 If military technology used later to find civilian applications, now civilian technology is being utilised by military forces. Better and cheaper products are constantly replacing ones that are barely a year old. This, combined with the emergence of open standards and open-source software, facilitates the appropriation of readily available consumer technologies and their combination in new ways and for newer purposes. Soldiers are using civilian smartphones like the iPhone as a translation device and some land drones are being controlled with video-game console controllers. Even the hardware that powers computers and consoles—powerful video cards and processors—is finding use in military computers.

While many innovations are developed with the intention of enhancing our lives, some new technologies seem to exacerbate the problems modern societies face. From Wikileaks to the Snowden files, we have discovered that technology is being used to monitor and track people indiscriminately. According to the Snowden revelations, the US National Security Agency gathers about 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world. Governments, corporations and individuals constantly collect—legally and illegally—vast amounts of personal data.

Open source

Yet the redirection of the innovation flow from consumer electronics to the military means that technologies which used to be exclusive to states and their agencies are now available openly. While the utopian dream may have proved just that, technology evolving so rapidly and at the same time becoming so readily available to the public has also had positive results.

Humanitarian causes and activist groups have benefited from mobile phones and social media, giving a voice and a platform for people to express themselves, co-ordinate, and mobilise. Mobile phones and social media played a crucial role in the popular uprisings during the Arab Spring, and unmanned drones are being used by NGOs to deliver supplies to conflict zones or by environmental groups to monitor illegal activities or abuses.

Facebook and Twitter are connecting the world in an unprecedented way. Free online courses available, YouTube channels dedicated to new skills, blogs, websites and Wikipedia all allow the sharing of knowledge and information among more people every day. This connectedness between people and knowledge all over the world has bridged unimaginable distances and created many new opportunities. Technology can be a force for positive social change by putting knowledge and tools in the hands of people, regardless of language, age, gender or location.

It is difficult to predict with accuracy how technology will shape our future, to what extent it will be used in favour of the citizen and the public good. What has become clear is that it has fallen upon society to assume responsibility for the way technology is used—including to protect individual identity and privacy from governments and corporations.

Technology is not the solution to hunger, war and poverty, but merely a tool. Society can no longer meekly adopt it without thinking of the repercussions of particular advances. Rather, we must actively ensure that it enhances our quality of life the way we had hoped it would. If not, technology will keep advancing but society will lag behind. 

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