This is not the dystopia we were promised. We are not learning to love Big Brother, who lives, if he lives at all, on a cluster of server farms, cooled by environmentally friendly technologies. Nor have we been lulled by Soma and subliminal brain programming into a hazy acquiescence to pervasive social hierarchies.
Dystopias tend toward fantasies of absolute control, in which the system sees all, knows all, and controls all. And our world is indeed one of ubiquitous surveillance. Phones and household devices produce trails of data, like particles in a cloud chamber, indicating our wants and behaviors to companies such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Yet the information thus produced is imperfect and classified by machine-learning algorithms that themselves make mistakes. The efforts of these businesses to manipulate our wants leads to further complexity. It is becoming ever harder for companies to distinguish the behavior which they want to analyze from their own and others’ manipulations.
This does not look like totalitarianism unless you squint very hard indeed. As the sociologist Kieran Healy has suggested, sweeping political critiques of new technology often bear a strong family resemblance to the arguments of Silicon Valley boosters. Both assume that the technology works as advertised, which is not necessarily true at all.
Standard utopias and standard dystopias are each perfect after their own particular fashion. We live somewhere queasier—a world in which technology is developing in ways that make it increasingly hard to distinguish human beings from artificial things. The world that the Internet and social media have created is less a system than an ecology, a proliferation of unexpected niches, and entities created and adapted to exploit them in deceptive ways. Vast commercial architectures are being colonized by quasi-autonomous parasites. Scammers have built algorithms to write fake books from scratch to sell on Amazon, compiling and modifying text from other books and online sources such as Wikipedia, to fool buyers or to take advantage of loopholes in Amazon’s compensation structure. Much of the world’s financial system is made out of bots—automated systems designed to continually probe markets for fleeting arbitrage opportunities. Less sophisticated programs plague online commerce systems such as eBay and Amazon, occasionally with extraordinary consequences, as when two warring bots bid the price of a biology book up to $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping).
Read the full piece at the Boston Review.