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“The purpose of digital technology should be to make itself unnecessary”

In this interview, the futurist and science fiction author Karl Schroeder talks about the future of digital communities and their impact on people and nations.

Shane Saunderson: In Lady of Mazes, you imagine revolutionary new social technologies. How do you think they will emerge?

Karl Schroeder: I see two related drivers:  climate and human migration. In particular, I’m trying to reimagine the refugee crisis; instead of seeing it as people leaving the protection of their home nation, why not view it as them joining a new political entity?  With the pervasiveness of mobile phones, it’s now possible to imagine a “nation” that is a set of mobile apps designed to assist stateless people in finding food, shelter, medical aid, etc. With climate change and ecosystem collapse, billions of people may become stateless in the near future. I can easily see this vast constituency creating/adopting tools to act as a unified political entity, a new kind of nation.

Shane: What major choices are enabled by these advancements that might have been impossible without these technologies?

KS: I leave it to others to track trends and changes within known systems; I look for irruptions of change that we don’t have language for yet.  One such critical change involves the capacity of new technologies to give human-like agency to non-human entities. A simplistic version of this is the notion of the autonomous AI, but that’s not necessarily an interesting case.  More relevant to our situation is the movement to give personhood to natural systems, such as rivers or forests. This represents a watershed moment when nonhuman entities, external to humanity, start engaging in political and economic conversations that previously only happened between humans. Limiting the idea of what these entities could be to robot-like artificial intelligences is naïve; they could be, eg., economic externalities or ecosystems, given voice via AI, blockchain technology, and smart contracts.

Shane: Why do you feel these choices are important and how could they change the way people live their lives?

KS: We are in the denial phase of an understanding that humanity is not actually able to solve the critical problems that face us today. We lack institutions capable of managing transnational, multi-generational and scale-related issues such as climate change. Most of us can’t even think about them. Literally, we cannot do this on our own.  Lacking an invasion of benign and superior aliens, our only recourse is to create systems that can supplement or replace our leadership in such areas. What this amounts to is us as people and societies entering into a new pact with the natural world, not metaphorically but literally, by creating political and economic representatives of it that are not themselves human, but can deal with humans.

Shane: What choices could the emergence of these technologies or futures potentially take away, or might ‘traditional’ communities have that those embracing tech would not?

KS: The scale of our current governance systems is inappropriate to the problems we face. The nation-state is not the political unit that is capable of dealing with global problems, and our biggest problems are all global.  This doesn’t mean that a global political actor will just be a “world government” that is a larger instance of the nation-state. It means a new kind of political actor is necessary.  I don’t think this necessarily means that we as individuals will lose autonomy or power, but governments and corporations might.

Shane: How might future technological developments prohibit the evolution of digital communities towards the aforementioned choices and restrictions?

KS: We are inching toward a global oligarchy built on surveillance capitalism.  This will be the form of our “world government,” but it resembles the mafia more than a democracy. This system depends on an unbridled ability to declare externalities, i.e., the ability to push waste and side-effects off on somebody else.  It will do this as long as it can, but the problem is that the planet is finite. We are already soiling our own yard. Thus the system has two characteristics:  A) it relies on destructive growth; and B) growth is no longer possible. The short-term response to this will be a ruthless attempt to control everything, and “grow” into every aspect of our lives.  AI and Big Data are likely to be harnessed to this strategy rather than the ones I mention above.

Shane: Do you believe that these digital communities encourage the development of a pluralistic society, where people are more diverse and tolerant of each other? Why?

KS: The big lesson of the social design experiments of the last century is that you cannot remake human nature in the image of your ideals.  You cannot make people more tolerant. What we can do is build the social equivalent of eyeglasses: communications and governance systems that correct for the stigmatism of human biases.  The media of the mid-to-late 20th century worked this way; the model for understanding why is McLuhan and Media Studies rather than systems or IT thinking.  Whatever media people use to relate to one another in the 21st century and beyond, they have to correct for, rather than trying to eliminate, our differences.

Shane: In your opinion, will there always be a place in people’s lives for purely analogue communities and how will the interplay between digital and analogue communities impact their choices in life?

KS: My dentist once told me that the purpose of dentists is to make themselves unnecessary.  The purpose of digital technology should be to make itself unnecessary, or at least invisible.  Langdon Winner, in his book Autonomous Technology, suggested that “technology is legislation.” It mediates our experiences, including our experience of one another.  We cannot eliminate that mediation, but we can design our societies, economics and accommodations to the natural world to more closely match the way we evolved to live.  Rather than just invent new kinds of happiness, I hope we’ll recover old ones, albeit in new clothes.