Thoughts Regarding Our Dystopic Future
By Sam Vaknin
Author of "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
Many futurologists - professional (Toffler) and less so (Naisbitt) - tried their hand at predicting the future. They proved quite successful at foretelling major trends but not as lucky in delineating their details. This is because, inevitably, every futurologist has to resort to crude tools such as extrapolation. The modern day versions of the biblical prophets are much better informed - and this, precisely, seems to be the problem. The informational clutter obscures the outlines of the more pertinent elements.
The futurologist has to divine which of a host of changes which occur in his times and place ushers in a new era. Since the speed at which human societies change has radically accelerated, the futurologist's work has become more compounded and less certain.
It is better to stick to truisms, however banal. True and tried is the key to successful (and, therefore, useful) predictions. What can we rely upon which is immutable and invariant, not dependent on cultural context, technological level, or geopolitical developments?
Human nature, naturally.
Yet, the introduction of human nature into the prognostic equation may further complicate it. Human nature is, arguably, the most complex thing in the universe. It is characteristically unpredictable and behaviourally stochastic. It is not the kind of paradigm conducive to clear-cut, unequivocal, unambiguous forecasts.
This is why it is advisable to isolate two or three axes around which human nature - or its more explicit manifestations - revolves. These organizational principles must possess comprehensive explanatory powers, on the one hand and exhibit some kind of synergy, on the other hand.
I propose such a trio of dimensions: Individualism, Collectivism and Time (History) coupled with four trends: increasing self-sufficiency, personal mobility, risk mitigation, and the quest for immediacy (the demise of delayed gratification.) The permutations of these seven parameters provide a complete view of today's and future world.
Thus, self-sufficiency coupled with malignant individualism lead to social fragmentation, functional autism, narcissism, solipsism, and reclusiveness; rampant individualism in conjunction with personal mobility result in the disintegration and dysfunction of social institutions, starting with the family; collectivism in cahoots with risk mitigation yield asset bubbles; time (or, rather, the lack thereof) in bed with petulant immediacy give birth to anomic and antisocial behaviors; and so on. Technology is both the midwife and the handmaiden of these unholy dyads: it fosters and facilitates the dystopia that is upon us.
Consider the tsunami of adultery. It is the outcome of a narcissistic "me first and me only" mentality (individualism and entitlement); collective phenomena such as the modern workplace which is open to both genders and encourages emotional intimacy; a lack of perception of personal or group history (a kind of ahistoric carpe diem); the increasing pecuniary self-sufficiency of women; enhanced personal mobility (geographical as well as emotional); and technological risk mitigation which renders romantic affairs relatively hazard-free (contraception prevents unwanted pregnancies; social networks, laptops, and smartphones allow for encrypted and password-protected illicit liaisons; modern transportation and telecommunication facilitate physical encounters in faraway places on short notice.) Finally, the addiction to immediate gratification makes sexual dalliances irresistible.
Human yearning for uniqueness and idiosyncrasy, for distinction and self sufficiency, for independence and self expression commences early, in one's formative years, in the form of the twin psychological processes of Individuation and Separation
Collectivism is the human propensity to agglomerate, to stick together, to assemble, the herd instincts and group behaviours.
Time is the principle which bridges and links individual and society. It is an emergent property of society. In other words, it arises only when people assemble together and have the chance to compare themselves to others. I am not referring to Time in the physical sense. No, I am talking about the more complex, ritualistic, Social Time, derived from individual and collective memory (biography and history) and from intergenerational interactions.
Individuals are devoid and bereft of any notions or feelings of Social Time when they lack a basis for comparison with others and access to the collective memory.
In this sense, people are surprisingly like subatomic particles - both possess no "Time" property. Particles are Time symmetric in the sense that the equations describing their behaviour and evolution are equally valid backwards and forward in Time. The introduction of negative (backward flowing) Time does not alter the results of computations.
It is only when masses of particles are observed that an asymmetry of Time (a directional flow) becomes discernible and relevant to the description of reality. In other words, Time "erupts" or "emerges" as the complexity of physical systems increases (see "Time asymmetry Re-Visited by the same author, 1983, available through UMI. Abstract in: http://samvak.tripod.com/time.html).
Mankind's history (past), its present and, in all likelihood, its future are characterized by an incessant struggle between these three principles. One generation witnesses the successful onslaught of individualism and declares, with hubris, the end of history. Another witnesses the "Revolt of the (collective) Masses" and produces doomsayers such as Jose Ortega y Gasset.
The 20th century was and is no exception. True, due to accelerated technological innovation, it was the most "visible" and well-scrutinized century. Still, as Barbara Tuchman pointedly titled her masterwork, it was merely a Distant Mirror of other centuries. Or, in the words of Proverbs: "Whatever was, it shall be again".
The 20th century witnessed major breakthroughs in both technological progress and in the dissemination of newly invented technologies, which lent succor to individualism.
This is a new development. Past technologies assisted in forging alliances and collectives. Agricultural technology encouraged collaboration, not individuation, differentiation or fragmentation.
Not so the new technologies. It would seem that the human race has opted for increasing isolation to be fostered by TELE-communication. Telecommunications gives the illusion of on-going communication but without preserving important elements such as direct human contact, replete with smells, noises, body language and facial expressions. Telecommunications reduces communication to the exchange of verbal or written information, the bare skeleton of any exchange.
The advent of each new technology was preceded by the development of a social tendency or trend. For instance: computers packed more and more number crunching power because business wanted to downsize and increase productivity.
The inventors of the computer explicitly stated that they wanted it to replace humans and are still toying with the idea of artificial intelligence, completely substituting for humans. The case of robots as substitutes for humans is even clearer.
These innovations revolutionized the workplace. They were coupled with "lean and mean" management theories and management fads. Re-engineering, downsizing, just in time inventory and production management, outsourcing - all emphasized a trimming of the work force. Thus, whereas once, enterprises were proud of the amount of employment which they generated - today it is cause for shame. This psychological shift is no less than misanthropic.
This misanthropy manifests itself in other labour market innovations: telecommuting and flexiwork, for instance - but also in forms of distance interaction, such as distant learning.
As with all other social sea changes, the language pertaining to the emotional correlates and the motivation behind these shifts is highly euphemistic. Where interpersonal communication is minimized - it is called telecommunications. Where it is abolished it is amazingly labelled "interactivity"!
We are terrified of what is happening - isolation, loneliness, alienation, self absorption, self sufficiency, the disintegration of the social fabric - so we give it neutral or appealing labels, negating the horrific content. Computers are "user-friendly", when we talk to our computer we are "interacting", and the solitary activity of typing on a computer screen is called "chatting".
We need our fellow beings less and less. We do not see them anymore, they had become gradually transparent, reduced to bodiless voices, to incorporeal typed messages. Humans are thus dehumanized, converted to bi-dimensional representations, to mere functions. This is an extremely dangerous development. Already people tend to confuse reality with its representation through media images. Actors are misperceived to be the characters that they play in a TV series, wars are fought with video game-like elegance and sleekness.
Even social functions which used to require expertise - and, therefore, the direct interaction of humans - can today be performed by a single person, equipped with the right hardware and software.
The internet is the epitome and apex of this last trend.
Read my essay - Internet A Medium or a Message.
Consider the astounding revolution of personal publishing.
Today, anyone, using very basic equipment can publish and unleash his work upon tens of millions of unsuspecting potential readers. Only 500 years ago this would have been unimaginable even as a fantasy. Only 50 years ago this would have been attributed to a particularly active imagination. Only 10 years ago, it cost upward of 50,000 USD to construct a website.
The consequences of this revolution are unfathomable. It surpasses the print revolution in its importance. Ultimately, personal publishing - and not the dissemination of information or e-commerce - will be the main use of the internet, in my view.
Still, in the context of this article, I wish to emphasize the solipsism and the solitude entailed by this invention. The most labour intensive, human interaction: the authorship of a manuscript, its editing and publishing, will be stripped of all human involvement, barring that of the author. Granted, the author can correspond with his audience more easily but this, again, is the lonely, disembodied kind of "contact".
Transportation made humanity more mobile, it fractured and fragmented all social cells (including the nuclear family) and created malignant variants of social structures. The nuclear family became the extended nuclear family with a few parents and non-blood-related children.
Multiple careers, multiple sexual and emotional partners, multiple families, multiple allegiances and loyalties, seemed, at first, to be a step in the right direction of pluralism. But humans need certainty and, where they miss it, a backlash develops.
This backlash is attributed to the human need to find stability, predictability, emotional dependability and commitment where there is none. This is done by faking the real thing, by mutating, by imitating and by resenting anything which threatens the viability of the illusion.
Patriotism mutates to nationalism, racism or Volkism. Religion is metamorphesizes to ideology, cults, or sects. Sex is mistaken for love, love becomes addictive or obsessive dependence. Other addictions (workaholism, alcoholism, drug abuse and a host of other, hitherto unheard of, obsessive compulsive disorders) provide the addict with meaning and order in his life.
The picture is not rosier on the collectivist side of the fence.
Each of the aforementioned phenomena has a collectivist aspect or parallel. This duality permeates the experience of being human. Humans are torn between these two conflicting instincts and by way of socialization, imitation and assimilation, they act herd-like, en masse. Weber analysed the phenomenon of leadership, that individual which defines the parameters for the behaviour of the herd, the "software", so to speak. He exercises his authority through charismatic and bureaucratic mechanisms.
Thus, the Internet has a collectivist aspect. It is the first step towards a collective brain. It maintains the memory of the race, conveys its thought impulses, directs its cognitive processes (using its hardware and software constraints as guideposts).
Telecommunication and transportation did eliminate the old, well rooted concepts of space-time (as opposed to what many social thinkers say) - but there was no philosophical or conceptual adaptation to be made. The difference between using a car and using a quick horse was like the difference between walking on foot and riding that horse. The human mind was already flexible enough to accommodate this.
What telecommunications and transportation did do was to minimize the world to the scope of a "global village" as predicted by Marshal McLuhan and others. A village is a cohesive social unit and the emphasis should be on the word "social". Again the duality is there : the technologies that separate - unite.
This Orwellian NewSpeak is all pervasive and permeates the very fabric of both current technologies and social fashions. It is in the root of the confusion which constantly leads us to culture-wars. In this century culture wars were waged by religion-like ideologies (Communism, Nazism, Nationalism and - no comparison intended - Environmentalism, Capitalism, Feminism and Multi-Culturalism). These mass ideologies (the quantitative factor enhanced their religious tint) could not have existed in an age with no telecommunication and speedy transport.
Yet, the same advantages were available (in principle, over time, after a fight) to their opponents, who belonged, usually, to the individualistic camp. A dissident in Russia uses the same tools to disintegrate the collective as the apparatchik uses to integrate it. Ideologies clashed in the technological battlefields and were toppled by the very technology which made them possible. This dialectic is interesting because this is the first time in human history that none of the sides could claim a monopoly over technology. The economic reasons cited for the collapse of Communism, for instance, are secondary: what people were really protesting was lack of access to technology and to its benefits. Consumption and Consumerism are by products of the religion of Science.
Far from the madding poles of the human dichotomy an eternal, unifying principle was long neglected.
Humans will always fight over which approach should prevail : individuality or collectivism. Humans will never notice how ambiguous and equivocal their arguments and technology are. They will forever fail to behold the seeds of the destruction of their camp sawn by their very own technology, actions and statements. In short: humans will never admit to being androgynous or bisexual. They will insist upon a clear sexual identity, this strong the process of differentiation is.
But the principle that unites humans, no matter which camp they might belong to, when, or where is the principle of Time.
Humans crave Time and consume Time the way carnivores consume meat and even more voraciously. This obsession with Time is a result of the cognitive acknowledgement of death. Humans seems to be the only sentient animal which knows that it one day shall end. This is a harrowing thought. It is impossible to cope with it but through awesome mechanisms of denial and repression. In this permanent subconscious warfare, memory is a major weapon and the preservation of memory constitutes a handy illusion of victory over death. Admittedly, memory has real adaptive and survival value.
He who remembers dangers will, undoubtedly live longer, for instance.
In human societies, memory used to be preserved by the old. Until very recently, books were a rare and very expensive commodity virtually unavailable to the masses. Thus humans depended upon their elders to remember and to pass on the store of life saving and life preserving data.
This dependence made social cohesiveness, interdependence and closeness inevitable. The young lived with the old (who also owned the property) and had to continue to do so in order to survive. Extended families, settlements led by the elders of the community and communities were but a few collectivist social results.
With the dissemination of information and knowledge, the potential of the young to judge their elders actions and decisions has finally materialized.
The elders lost their advantage (memory). Being older, they were naturally less endowed than the young. The elders were ill-equipped to cope with the kaleidoscopic quality of today's world and its ever changing terms. More nimble, as knowledgeable, more vigorous and with a longer time ahead of them in which they could engage in trial and error learning - the young prevailed.
So did individualism and the technology which was directed by it.
This is the real and only revolution of this century: the reversal of our Time orientation. While hitherto we were taught to respect the old and the past - we are now conditioned to admire the young, get rid of the old and look forward to a future perfect.