The Coming Technocracy
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” - Arthur C. Clarke
The myth of progress is one that society as a whole has yet to rid itself of. There is a tendency to view history as a sort of line graph with no end. Technology is expected to carry us forever onward into the future, forever increasing our quality of life. Even Marx, father of arguably the most biting analysis of capital, held firm to the theory of historical materialism. Together with Engels he developed the linear theory of history progressing from primitive communism, towards feudalism, and ever onwards towards communism. They even acknowledged the productive capacity of capitalism that they so despised. To them, communism could only occur on the back of capitalist productivity.
“When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character” -Karl Marx
Even those who claim to oppose capital still cling to the world that it has created. The school of Analytical Marxism holds to the belief that “history is, fundamentally, the growth of human productive power, and forms of society rise and fall according as they enable or impede that growth.“ There are also those who identify as “anarcho-transhumanists” whose version of anarchy “is the knowledge that victory for the working class will only truly arrive when every worker individually owns the means of production—capable of fabricating anything and everything for themselves.” The spectres of production of progress still haunt many of those who claim to oppose them.
On the other hand, those who unabashedly embrace capital have elevated technology and production to the level of a religion. To them, progress is no longer a myth of the past that carries forward in time, but a faith in the trajectory of the future. The priests of this faith are not armed with religious texts and rosaries, but with computers and nanotechnology. This is the coming technocracy.
“Yes, well, we need a new religion. A principal role of religion has to be to rationalize death, since up until just know there was little else constructive we could do about it.” -Ray Kurzweil
Rather than tempting people with an afterlife, transhumanists tempt people with eternal life. Instead of an eternal life spent celebrating God in heaven, we are offered the opportunity to live forever by inserting tiny machines into our bodies, or by uploading our brains into a computer. The promise of the afterlife is still dangled in front of us by those who truly hold power.
Like millennial religion, these technocrats offer an almost certain image of the future. In the vein of Christianity, Rastafari, the Ghost Dance, and countless other movements, an image of a certain change is promised at some point in the future. To these proponents of linear progress, we are forever moving toward the end of history as we know it, and forward into a glorious future.
“In the Revelation we see a great drama which joins angels, demons, monstrous villains, and the people of God in one great action. It involves the human race, which is inescapably divided into redeemed and condemned… what redeems this frightful prediction is the confidence that good is, act by act, destroying evil. Mankind has suffered and still suffers many woes, but they are being eliminated…Thus, strange as the idea may seem at first glance, the movement of the Revelation is in its way progressive - perhaps the first expression of the idea of history as progress.” -Ernest Lee Tuveson
Societies and movements across the world, and of varied cultures, have clung to the myth of progress. In our technological society, we have come to replace promises of afterlife and millenarianism with cold machines. No longer are glorious kingdoms of the future to be built by people coming together and creating them. The utopia of the future will be built by the mechanisms of industry. Technology has completely replaced people as the agent of historical change. Economy and production have taken the reins of society, and transhumanists and technocrats welcome this change with open arms.
The technological version of Revelation is referred to as the Singularity. While many believers in the Singularity hold slightly different views of what exactly it will be, they all share a common belief that it will be the point at which artificial intelligence will reach a level greater than that of human intelligence. They proclaim that “the Singularity is near.” As stated, though, control of society is already no longer under that of humans. Economists and politicians take a backseat to the ideas of economy and politics. Those at the head of society are no longer people, but servants of these unseen forces.
Phrases like “It’s the economy, stupid” or “Politics is politics” have become commonplace. These phrases illustrate just how distanced from human control the systems that run our lives are. These systems are just supposed to exist, without any real reason, simply because they have existed and continue to exist. The general populace is expected to accept these systems, while an upper class of servants makes up nonsense reasons as to why. These servants, politicians, engineers, doctors, lawyers, economists, become more tools than people. Their polls, big data, and algorithms already run society. The Singularity is now.
Technocrats and their supporters are fond of claiming that “technology is neutral.” In their rosy view of the future, technology paves the way towards unlimited progress, and generally makes life easier for everyone. In doing so, they ignore the entire history of human technology, and the oppression of people and nature that accompanies it.
When early humans developed hunting tools like the atlatl, was technology neutral towards the now extinct species that were overhunted? Was technology neutral when later humans imprisoned, or “domesticated”, the surviving species when wild food sources began to disappear? It was certainly not neutral when agriculture was developed, creating a division of labor in which rulers horded grain that others toiled in fields to create.
Was technology neutral when gunpowder was invented, allowing people to more easily kill each other? Was it neutral when the cotton gin was invented, leading to the growth of the slave trade? Was it neutral when the appearance of mechanized industry led to widespread exploitation of children and some of the worst industrial accidents the world has seen? Technology was not neutral when the first atomic bombs were dropped, killing hundreds of thousands and forever endangering the very existence of life on the planet.
Is technology neutral when Google builds a business out of selling your personal information, and then uses this base to build infrastructure for the government to further spy on you? Is it neutral when spyware is bundled with legitimate software, snuck into it with a clever license agreement? Is technology neutral when police departments use drones and cell phone tracking software to spy on people?
“In the world of affairs, the last few years have been characterized by two opposite, even contradictory trends. On the one hand, we have a network or communication, intranational and international, more complete than history has ever before seen. On the other hand, under the impetus of Senator McCarthy and his imitators, the blind and excessive classification of military information, and the recent attacks on the State Department, we are approaching a secretive frame of mind paralleled in history only in the Venice of the Renaissance.” -Norbert Wiener
In some ways, of course, technology can be beneficial, but at what cost? And beneficial to who? The Internet allows us to communicate across the globe, but also makes it easier for states to spy on us. As of 2012, one-third of Americans with HIV cannot afford treatment. The number of Americans without health insurance, even after the recent healthcare initiative, is still around 13%. In some African countries, the HIV infection rate is around 10%. In America, roughly two-thirds of the population use smartphones. In Africa, roughly 18% of people use smartphones. When do these gaps disappear?
“It’s likely that through these technologies the rich may obtain certain opportunities that the rest of humankind does not have access to.” -Ray Kurzweil
If at some point in the future, the third-world does gain complete access to these technologies, what technologies will be available to the first-world? While Africans tap away at their smartphones, Americans of the future may have done away with phones as a whole. While technocrats and transhumanists expound the virtues of technology, they refuse to acknowledge that technological development has always been unequal. Technology has only widened the gap between “haves” and “have-nots,” not closed it. The technology of one group has always come at the expense of the resources of another, and this is absolutely not neutral.
Even if technocrats acknowledge technology’s oppressive past, their claim that it will somehow get better in the future is based on nothing but faith. They have turned technology into the religion of the future, and they aim to be its clergy. The true religious nature of transhumanism and its ilk becomes apparent when looking at the theories of the movement’s founders and leaders.
“Once we saturate the matter and energy in the universe with intelligence, it will “wake up,” be conscious, and sublimely intelligent. That’s about as close to God as I can imagine.” -Ray Kurzweil
Some transhumanists literally wish to turn the entire universe into one big computer. After the Singularity, they believe that the only barrier to computational power will be the amount of matter that goes into it. With this theory, they aim to turn asteroids, even entire planets, into parts of their universal machine. Dominion over the Earth turns into dominion over the stars.
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” -Genesis 1:26
Other transhumanists even go as far as to fashion themselves into gods, creators of life itself.
“I consider these future machines our progeny, ‘mind children’ built in our image and likeness, ourselves in a more potent form.” -Hans Moravec
Just as Western civilization has left no corner of the planet untouched in its unquenchable thirst for material resources, the technocrats are already plotting the exploitation of galaxies, either by human hand or that of our robotic creations. It is quite possible that the humanity of the future will consider any less advanced alien races it meets to be little more than fish or livestock to capitalize on. Just as the the history of technology has been filled with exploitation, the future machinations of technocrats appears to be more of the same.
Unfortunately for us, the present state of technology is just as bleak. Technocrats would like us to believe that the means of production have been transformed into something as simple as a laptop and an Internet connection. The current app driven gold rush is just that, a chance for a few to get rich, while the rest pointless pan in streams. Tech research firm Gartner estimates that by 2018, less than 0.01% of apps will be considered financially successful. It is becoming increasingly difficult for independent programmers, without big budgets to spend on tools and advertising, to create and distribute viable applications. The statistic of 1 in 5 small businesses not lasting five years is often thrown about, but the current tech market is taking this to a new extreme.
Tools like Photoshop and Flash have traditionally cost upwards of $1,000 per license, well beyond the budget of most people. With prices of apps racing to the bottom, it literally takes thousands of sales to simply recoup the costs of development tools, let alone getting a paycheck. Newer versions of these tools are being developed with lower cost subscription services, but they often come at the cost of giving up personal information. Developers who cannot afford expensive tools can still get versions of these programs at the cost of being spied on. Independent developers of today also have access to channels like Youtube and Facebook, making them able to reach millions, but at the cost of generating money for these companies rather than themselves. Becoming an independent technocrat is getting harder, and most real talent is being concentrated in companies like Google and Facebook. Programmers of the future will either have a choice to work for these tech giants, or be forced to generate revenue for them from outside the company.
It is those who are employed by these megalithic corporations who are perhaps most vocal in announcing the coming technocracy. As quoted above, Ray Kurzweil is currently an employee of Google, and has elevated transhumanist theories to the level of a religion. Justine Tunney, Occupy activist, and also a Google employee, has even gone as far as demanding the following:
“1.) Retire all government employees with full pensions.
2.) Transfer administrative authority to the tech industry.
3.) Appoint Eric Schmidt CEO of America.”
With American approval of Congress at an all-time historical low, it is no wonder there are people calling for corporate takeover of the country. The relation to fascist support in post World War I Europe is palpable. The technocrats of today would gladly give up personal freedom for a more productive society, as they would be the ones directing the production. As Google and Amazon become more integrated with state agencies like the CIA and NSA, the possibility of a de facto corporatocracy becomes even more likely. Our “democracy” is very likely in danger of becoming even more controlled by corporations than it already is.
Our society is already being divided along technological lines. In Seattle and San Francisco, there are buses which can only be used by Microsoft and Google employees. Entire neighborhoods are being evicted to make way for tech workers and their insatiable need for expensive lattes and craft beer. How soon until the ideological walls we have built become tangible? How soon until eviction from a neighborhood becomes completely barred entry? We are already witnessing a prioritization of technological interest above that of human beings.
The coming technocracy is well on its way to being a reality. As more and more jobs get done by machines, the only jobs left will become those that involve maintaining these machines. Those who are not part of the technocracy, those who are not servile to computerized industry, will be pushed to the margins of the economy, just as they are already being pushed out of their neighborhoods. Using the rhetoric of “specialization” and “efficiency” technocracy and transhumanism seek to pull the wool over our eyes, and convince us they their ideology is not just more of the same. Technocratic society leaves no room for those not versed in its languages.