Sunday, October 02, 2016

Early Indications September 2016: Welcome to Dystopia?

If you’re an author with a knack for conjuring up nightmare scenarios, these are in fact the best of times: George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones) and Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) are absolutely rolling in money and fame. There’s something going on when bleak futures capture national mindshare in books, TV shows, and movies. Look at 1963: with far fewer options, mass audiences converged on distraction. Shows such as Petticoat Junction, Candid Camera, and My Favorite Martian made the top ten, all lagging The Beverly Hillbillies and Bonanza. In 1968, with riots in the streets and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King calling the American ideal into question, Bonanza hung in at #3, behind Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in. That Stanley Kubrick was able to confront the madness of nuclear war with the brilliant black comedy of Dr. Strangelove (1964) helps prove the point: dystopias have historically been uncommon cultural touchstones; now they’re everywhere.

Could it be that these cultural artifacts capture our zeitgeist? Whether in the Dark Knight Batman films, The Wire, Breaking Bad, or The Sopranos, our most popular entertainments of the past 15 years present a pretty bleak vision, diametrically opposed to new deals, new frontiers, or “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” campaign songs. Along the dystopian line of thinking, it’s easy to find evidence that the world is heading in a very bad direction. A gloomy sample:

*Ocean levels are rising faster than predicted, but the local effects in New York, Miami, the Netherlands, and Bangladesh will all vary considerably. Millions of people will be displaced; where will they go? Norfolk Naval Base will lose acres of land, how fast nobody knows.

*What appears to be the single largest distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyber-attack was mounted earlier this month using at least 150,000 compromised cameras and other poorly secured Internet of Things (IoT) devices. It’s quite possible our cars, garage-door openers, thermostats, and personal devices can be turned against us.

*Guns kill a lot of people in the U.S. Exactly how many is hard to determine, in part because the gun lobby discourages public health officials from calculating statistics. But whether it is suicides (20,000 a year, or 2/3 of all gun deaths), mass shootings, police violence against citizens, or the average of 82 shootings per week in Chicago alone, the numbers are depressing but apparently acceptable, given the lack of action. One statistic provides food for thought. Despite its wide error range, a Harvard study released earlier this month estimated (a key word) that 7.7 million people (3% of U.S. adults) own half the country’s guns. These “super-owners” collect between 8 and 140 firearms apiece.

*Globally, millions of people are being lifted out of poverty, but in the U.S., tens of millions of middle-class people find their fates stuck or, increasingly, declining. Whether from plant closures, downsizing, inadequate skills, offshoring, or automation’s various effects, people can’t get ahead the way previous generations did. For many, complex reasons, class conflict is showing itself in various ways: racial tensions, protests in places like San Francisco where homelessness and extreme wealth collide, and anti-trade sentiment. Immigration and refugees are super-sensitive issues from Turkey to British Columbia.

*At the same time that Colorado and Washington state are finding benefits of legal marijuana, recreational drugs are killing people. In addition to the violence in Chicago noted above, some of which is drug-related, the toll of opioid drugs is shocking. Especially when heroin is cut with fentanyl, overdoses are swamping local EMS and other responders. Columbus saw 27 in 24 hours, while Cincinnati had to cope with 174 heroin overdoses in 6 days. Huntington, WV had calls for 27 overdoses in under four hours last month. Prescription oxycontin was likely a tragic gateway drug in many of these cases. “Just say no” and a “war” on drugs clearly didn’t work; what’s next?

*On the ethical drug front, meanwhile, we live in scary times. Antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are making hospitalization in any country a frightening proposition. As of 2013, 58,000 babies died of antibiotic-resistant infections in India alone, and in a global age of travel, those bacterial strains are moving elsewhere. An estimated 23,000 people died in the US last year from antibiotic-resistant infections, and just this past May, the CDC reported that a Pennsylvania woman who had not recently traveled out of the country tested positive for the mcr-1 strain of E. coli. This variant resists colistin, widely regarded as the “last resort” antibiotic, though the woman in question _did_ respond to other treatments. Still, the CDC’s language is sobering: “The CDC and federal partners have been hunting for this gene in the U.S. ever since its emergence in China in 2015. . . . The presence of the mcr-1 gene, however, and its ability to share its colistin resistance with other bacteria such as CRE raise the risk that pan-resistant bacteria could develop.”

None of these problems have easy answers; some don’t even have hugely difficult answers. Zeroing in on the technology-related world (thus leaving aside climate change, gun violence, and drug issues for the moment), I see four nasty paradoxes that, taken together, might explain some of how we arrived at a juncture where dystopian fantasies might resonate.

1) Automation brings leisure and productivity; robotics threatens to make many job categories obsolete. From radiologists to truck drivers to equity analysts, jobs in every sector are threatened with extinction.The task of making sure technologies of artificial muscle and cognition have widely rather than narrowly shared benefits runs counter to many management truisms regarding shareholder value, return on investment, and optimization.

2) We live in a time of unprecedented connection as most adults on the planet have access to a phone and will soon get smartphones; interpersonal dynamics are often characterized by savagery (at worst) or distractedness. (Google “Palmer Luckey” for a case in point.) Inside families and similar relationships, meanwhile, the psychologist Sherry Turtle argues persuasively that we are failing each other, and especially our kids, when we interact too much with screens and too little with flesh-and-blood humans.

3) The World Wide Web brought vast stores of the world’s cultural and scientific knowledge to masses of people; a frightening amount of public debate is now “post-factual,” with conspiracy theories and plain old ignorance gaining large audiences. Climate science, GMO crops, and vaccinations are but three examples. The assumptions behind the Web have too often failed: access to knowledge by itself cannot counter fads (hello Justin Bieber), longstanding ignorance, or intolerance. Compare the traffic to YouTube or Facebook with that to the Library of Congress, Internet Archive, or even Wikipedia. At some level, maybe people don’t like eating their intellectual vegetables; junk food is too hard to resist.

4) Billions of sensors, smartphones, and cloud computing virtual machines enable an increasingly real-time world, where information flows faster and wider every year; historical context is lacking for many public assertions and private opinions. In September, a Republican party official claimed there was no racism before 2008. For years, only a minority of people have been able to identify in which century the American revolution or Civil War occurred. Nuanced views of Reconstruction or the Gilded Age, hugely formative of and relevant to today, are difficult to find.

Together, these paradoxes add up to a truly dystopian vision at odds with what seemed inevitable just a few years ago. It’s difficult to be optimistic, but to close I’ll suggest some reasons why solutions are so difficult.

*The digital world doesn’t respect traditional organizational boundaries. Examples abound: Russia is said to be meddling in the US election cycle. Certainly the superpowers have influenced local elections in the past, but the thought of major media outlets and voting machines being compromised by a global adversary calls the whole notion of sovereignty into question. Whether it’s in regard to spam, child porn, copyright, compromised hardware at the chipset level, digital privacy, or the handling of video and music streaming, the global, borderless nature of the mobile/digital platforms calls basic facts of jurisdiction, evidence, and recourse into question.

*At the same time that “where” needs to be redefined, so too we must confront what work is. Who does what, how much they are paid or otherwise valued, how they learn the job, what happens when jobs or entire labor markets disappear — none of our current answers can be assumed to hold stable 10 years from now. Education, unemployment and disability benefits, collective bargaining, workplace health and safety (does sitting really “kill” you?), pensions, internships, retirement, job-hunting, and corporate education and training will all assume new shapes. Some of this will be messy; I can’t see anyone getting it all right the first time.

*Technologies of communication and transportation have usually been a double-edged sword. Trade brings benefits to many parties, but smallpox, influenza, and the AIDS virus all crossed oceans on new modes of transport. Given the essentially free, multimedia, borderless nature of digital communications, what equivalent maladies will be given broad distribution, and what will be their consequences?

*In a pluralistic world, what can serve as a moral compass for an individual, a group, a nation, a continent? The teachings of Muhammad, Jesus, Yahweh, Confucius, and the Buddha all have served to guide people over the centuries, but so too have they justified crimes against humanity. We live in a connected world where religious conflict becomes more likely than in eras with less physical mobility. Given global communications and mobility, how is coexistence possible, given increases in both fundamentalism and secularism in many places, and the ongoing tendency for the major religions to splinter internally, often violently? In a post-factual world, people try to claim their own beliefs, but without sufficiently binding notions of a common identity, purpose, or ideology, we are left less with states of free-thinkers than with new sources of conflict — and fewer resources for building group identity.

To be sure, there are many hopeful signals, and plenty of today’s entertainment is mindless diversion not unlike the television hits of the 1960s. That dystopias can find audiences may be more a function of the multitude of distribution options than of national mood. In any event, I do believe the challenges we confront will test moral resolve, institutional flexibility, and intellectual creativity unlike ever before. It may be that meta-questions are in order: rather than asking how we solve internet security or rising ocean levels, we (a tricky word all on its own) need to ask, what are the political forms, grounds of legitimacy, and resources of the institutions we will design to address these new challenges.