George Dvorsky, that Titan of future-forward analysis, has a chilling, must read post at Sentient Developments about how democracies will fare in an increasingly dangerous 21st Century. Dvorsky suggests that just-around-the-corner weapons of mass destruction (he identifies bioweapons, dirty bombs, weaponized nanotechnology, robotics and misused artificial intelligence as singular dangers), coupled with impending environmental disruption will force previously “free” societies to adopt totalitarian tactics to maintain control. This in turn could inspire counter-radicalism from groups and individuals — an escalation of tech-enabled aggression that could undermine our species’ very survival.
Like the Boy Scouts, current democracies are advised to “be prepared.”
The coming decades will bear witness to[. . . ] political experimentation and restructuring, including a renewed devotion to extreme measures and radicalism. It is becoming increasingly clear that 21st Century politics will be focused around managing the impacts of disruptive technologies, addressing the threats posed by apocalyptic weapons and environmental degradation, and attending to global-scale catastrophes and crises as they occur.
This restructuring is already underway. We live in the post 9/11 world — a world in which we have legitimate cause to be fearful of superterrorism and hyperterrorism. We will also have to reap what we sowed in regards to our environmental neglect. Consequently, our political leaders and institutions will be increasingly called-upon to address the compounding problems of unchecked WMD proliferation, terrorism, civil unrest, pandemics, the environmental impacts of climate change (like super-storms, flooding, etc.), fleets of refugees, devastating food shortages, and so on. It will become very necessary for the world’s militaries to anticipate these crises and adapt so that they can meet these demands.
More challenging, however, will be in avoiding outright human extinction.
It seems to me that there is a woeful lack of understanding of many of these issues at the federal level. As keepers of the Department of Defense purse, some Congressional committees and subcommittees regularly deal with future-tech stuff. But it’s usually a one-way street: a four-star gives a PowerPoint asking for gobs of money because, “in order to retain American military superiority in the face of increasingly sophisticated enemy actors, we must pursue cutting-edge weaponizable applications.” (Quote completely fabricated.) Congress then appropriates the requisite billions for whatever twisted gadget is needed to “protect America.”
DOD and other agencies occasionally produce terrifying reports filled with contingencies for dealing with diaspora, resource shortages and other insecurities resulting from successive environmental crises. But I don’t think there is any one agency, Congressperson or committee that possesses a perspective expansive enough to administer to the multiplicity of threats and pressures outlined in Dvorsky’s post.
And that’s a problem.
Likewise, there is a lack of pubic understanding of these existential dangers. The question is, how do you make the case to a populace numbed by dystopic fantasy? For decades, we’ve thrilled to such breathtakingly terrifying scenarios in popular fiction and at the movies. Yet if you told the average Joe Sixpack about the very real possibility of molecular reassembling nanobots, he’d likely dismiss it as more make-believe. What’s the opposite of “suspension of disbelief?”
We need to enlist a coterie of journalists and intellectuals who can describe these threats in a compelling way that makes sense to the layman. Francis Fukuyama gained a great deal traction with his idea that free markets and globalization had triumphed in the aftermath of the Cold War, and that we were now living in “the End of History.” On this and many other matters, he was full of neoconservative beans. But as an oft-cited public intellectual, he was indispensable in advancing this message to policymakers and the public. We need a similar effort to raise awareness about the escalating dangers America (and the world) faces as a result of potent and difficult-to-control externalities.
Start with popular erudite rags like Mother Jones, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, etc. Then move on to Op-Eds in various papers of record. The public has a right and a duty to stay informed about these matters. Dvorsky:
Looking further ahead, extreme threats may even rekindle the totalitarian urge; this option will appeal to those leaders looking to exert absolute control over their citizens. What’s particularly frightening is that future technologies will allow for a more intensive and invasive totalitarianism than was ever thought possible in the 20th Century – including ubiquitous surveillance (and the monitoring of so-called ‘thought crimes’), absolute control over information, and the redesign of humanity itself, namely using genetics and cybernetics to create a more traceable and controllable citizenry. Consequently, as a political mode that utterly undermines humanistic values and the preservation of the autonomous individual, totalitarianism represents an existential risk unto itself.
I also think there needs to be an H+ lobby group in Washington to help lawmakers comprehend the ethical issues associated with genetic and post-biological technologies. In the last century, these concerns were swept under the rug — Eugenics was determined to be “bad,” therefore, most human biological experimentation was shunned by the medical medical establishment. And this attitude is still prevalent today, despite the fact that science is speeding towards a reckoning that will test the very limits of social and scientific ethics. But that’s for another post — I don’t wanna ruin anyone’s Holiday.
As our majestic blue orb slings around the sun for another round of chaos, beauty and bewilderment, I wish you all a Happy New Year.