Tech Utopia vs. Dystopia

In the first part of a four-part series, Hannah Jeacock discusses the use of technology and some of the potential risks we need to be mindful of.

Tech Utopia vs. Dystopia

Technology is a toolbox for the modern age. The job of the tools it contains is to make life easier through a more accurate and efficient process of carrying out tasks previously completed by humans (or new jobs beyond the grasp of humans). This could mean reducing staff to streamline businesses and reduce costs, or assisting the remaining staff so that they can carry out tasks more effectively through these partnerships.

In a world where people will queue for hours just to get a look at new mobile devices and other gadgets, then pay vast sums of money to own the released version; it is a safe assumption that people have a love affair with tech.

This ‘love affair’ should only logically exist if technology is delivering a benefit and working properly; logically, people who are emotionally attached to their devices should feel this way because of the positive user experiences they provide. Surprisingly though, this doesn’t seem to be entirely true, as blind worship towards the latest bits of tech and unfaltering allegiance to brands, say more about consumerism and capitalism, than progress and usefulness. The experience can be compared to religious worship, with followers often travelling long distances just to look at (and not use) new mobile phones and other items; not to mention the pilgrimages made to the first-registered Apple Store, in Glendale, California.

With the promise of increased, interactive and AI technology, it is an exciting time for digital innovation, promoted by an endless list of digerati – and happily consumed by their faithful followers. This complete and harmonious ideal of man and machine has been described, (and discussed) as a technological utopia.

While the extent to which a tech utopia will exist remains to be seen, digital technology and its innovators receive praise from various sources, which justify their progression. From communication and logistics, through to medical advances and national security, technology is having a positive impact on our lives. While the outlook is good, some organisations have been criticised for running ahead too far with their ideas, and much too fast.

As of March 17th 2018, a lot more personal data was available online. This was thanks to the well-known scandal around Facebook’s huge resource of personal data which was used by Cambridge Analytica, processed inappropriately and ultimately leaked. This is a huge reminder of the risks that are taken by letting companies have too much power through their technology, especially when those companies are not governed tightly enough.

Even with Mark Zuckerberg appearing in court, little seems to have been done about the breach, in a court case which seemed to favour the tech-leader. While Facebook have let the users whose data was breached know, the potential for identity-theft demonstrates the risk of creating a tech-dystopia, with ungoverned organisations having control in some areas of our lives, which may (and already may have) influence political decisions.

While we need to ensure organisations act responsibly, technology is intended to free people. This should occur both socially and politically, creating more free time and opening opportunities for social-mobility. However, critics describe a ‘technological-dystopia’, owing to the belief that people are robbed of their own autonomy, with the tasks carried out by machines reduce their sense of self and of life purpose.

Away from the philosophical debates around increased technology, there are further concerns over the use of AI technology at this stage as a lot is unknown about the future impact of AI, raising fears (comparable to fears around GM crops a decade ago) about the negative side-effects of intelligent technology, especially as so much is unknown.

This is not fearmongering - respected innovators like Bill Gates and Elon Musk (who recently had information leaked by an employee) are just two of the critics of the premature implementation of AI technology, suggesting that profits are driving innovation ahead of assessing their intrinsic value, and that risk assessments will be skipped for quicker sales, with potential pitfalls.

There are several real examples of AI working in an unpredictable way, most famously when Facebook set up two AI chatbots which created their own language to negotiate over the trade of items, which was shut down as the software engineers could not establish what the machines were saying. While this led to a lot of unnecessary fear, it does illustrate the unpredictability of AI technology and why we should approach even the best innovations with caution.


In part two of this four-part series on technological-utopianism, Hannah will discuss ideas around utopia and what a tech utopia should look like, as well as what it shouldn’t.