What if all of the dystopian stories are wrong and things turn out really great?

Sometimes, when I’m discussing the potential of future science and technology, I find myself thinking that I sound like a Bond villain. More and more though I’m ok with that, because this isn’t a Bond story.

We are conditioned by fiction to think that conspiracies abound and that science and technology are bound to destroy us or at least drive us to the brink of destruction. In reality however science and technology rarely go very, very wrong. The only instances I can think of are fossil fuels and weapons of mass destruction.

Fossil fuels were not, in and of themselves, a bad thing. They went wrong because we over used them and became economically dependent on them before we really understood concepts like sustainability.

Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons went wrong because they were designed to. All weapons go wrong, that is the point of weapons. Any of the scientists who worked on early nuclear weapons could have told you that nukes were a horrible, terrible idea. With weapons of mass destruction it is only a matter of how wrong they are going to go.

However, despite the fears instilled in us by fiction, very few of them have gone horribly wrong. All of these weapons have been used, but there has never been a serious biological or chemical attack. No one has used a nuclear weapon or death ray to hold the world’s governments hostage. These weapons have, in other words, only gone as wrong as they were meant to.

Conspiracies are another thing that fiction tells us are common. In reality though a conspiracy of any size is rare. Reporters are paranoid and nosy and most people love talking about themselves and are terrible at keeping secrets. A conspiracy that involves dozens or hundreds or even thousands of people would be nearly impossible to maintain for very long. Some of the conspiracy theories I’ve heard would require the complicity of hundreds of thousands of people over several decades.

Fiction without conflict is dull, but fiction is just that. It is not true. In reality, despite the fears that have been planted in us by popular thrillers and science fiction the world is getting a little better all the time. Sure there have been failures, accidents, unintended consequences, crimes and even minor conspiracies but on the whole we are far better off than our grandparents were. Science, technology, medicine, governments and even large corporations have combined to improve our quality of life, standard of living, health and life expectancy.

All of this is important because of recent advances in technology and technologies that are currently being researched and developed. Some of these technologies may not pan out, but if they do it will cause radical changes in society and could ultimately change what it means to be human.

Going into detail on all of the science and all of the technologies would require a book, not a blog post.

In summary however technology could:
  • Bring about the end of disease, including mental illness
  • Extend life expectancy radically, possibly to the point of near-immortality
  • End work, or at least any sort of dull drudgery that feels like work. 
  • Allow us to produce greater quantities of considerably higher quality food, on less land, with fewer pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. 
  • Create super humans who are not only free of birth defects but who combine the intellect of Einstein and Hawking, with the business acumen of Gates and Buffett, the charisma of Obama and Clinton and the physique of an olympic triathlete (abilities could actually extend far beyond this). 
  • Provide instant access, on demand, to all of the information ever created by humans, including communication with everyone on Earth - possibly just by thinking about it. Ideally it could have the effect of erasing the need for education, beyond learning how to use technology and process and evaluate information. 
  • Produce enough clean, reliable energy to allow virtually limitless development but in a clean, green and sustainable way. 
  • Open up Mars and, possibly, planets beyond our solar system to exploration and settlement. 
  • Provide virtually limitless resources without any environmental damage compliments of the asteroid belt. 
  • End poverty and possibly, by a combination of technologies and cultural shifts, end ignorance, irrational hate and fear, greed, violence and even want. 

While all of this is happening we will no doubt be bombarded with conspiracy theories and the fears of luddites and technophobes. Any number of doomsday scenarios will be presented to us by dystopian fiction and some people will take that fiction as reality. Some people will even claim that we should abort the technology because it will alter what it means to be human.

It seems to me that what it currently means to be human could use a change. We can live without the ignorance, fear, poverty, intolerance, greed and irresponsibility. Many of those things are currently and historically very much a part of what it means to be human but it is not at all clear that we have gained much by it.

There is also not much chance of stopping any of these technologies. The best we can do if we ban them is to drive them underground, people will still be able to have genetic modifications, or cybernetic transplants but only in expensive clinics in small countries that need the revenue and cater to the wealthy. In other words, if the technologies are banned they will only be available to the wealthy and powerful. We would effectively create two worlds.

The elite will be genetically perfect, cybernetically enhanced, nearly immortal and will have no real need for any assistance from anyone else. They will not need employees, laborers or resources. For the rest of us, the world will go on pretty much as it is. In short, the “1 percent” would become almost godlike compared to the rest of us and I’d have a hard time coming up with anything more dystopian than that.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be careful or skeptical, or that any government, scientist or tech company should get a free pass. What I am saying is that what is possible is changing rapidly and we shouldn’t allow paranoia, delusion, ignorance or technophobia to rob us of what could be a much better world.

In 1962, US President John F. Kennedy said that “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In 2014 we are talking about something that makes going to the moon seem like child’s play. We can create a world free of ignorance, fear, violence, poverty, disease, pollution, overpopulation and possibly even death; A world where no one ‘has to go to work’ but everyone is free to pursue their interests, passions and ideas. It will be hard and much will have to change, socially and economically as well as technologically to make it happen but it may be our last truly great challenge as a species.
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