Going backwards: loving and fearing the crowd

October 25, 2013

Apocalyptic visions of a world without work, totalitarian states run by machines, stories which imply that the human race is disappearing, exhausted and delighted into a flickering digital bubble. As this Guardian piece on Japan points out, why bother to reproduce, to stay in “real life”, when social media is so much easier, quicker and more pleasurable?

There’s a lot of this kind of thing about. And some of it is quite old. Michael Smethurst has dug another one out. I have a curious sense of deja vu, of the human race going backwards rather than forwards. This is probably because I’m getting old. I am going backwards…

One great thing about “We”, the first and perhaps the best tale of a “scientific”, totalitarian technocracy of the 20th Century, is that it reads like a fable. At heart, it’s a simple story that could have happened, or could happen, at any time. It’s also, like “Brave New World” not entirely repugnant. The warm messyness of humanity is still there, alongside our cruelty.

Perhaps ever since humans got together in groups or cities we’ve had this fear. A fear of being controlled, of being sucked into an inhuman crowd (whether that crowd is a gigantic machine brain, a flickering screen, or just other people). Perhaps it’s a counterpart to our desire to belong to something bigger than ourselves. We want to belong, but we don’t want to lose our selves. We love the crowd, but fear it too.

We will be saved by own incompetence and imperfection. The 20th Century set a new low standard for evil driven by technology. But totalitarian regimes seem to collapse eventually (I thank God I was born after it was all over). It’s too difficult to keep control of that kind of rigid structure for too long. You need infinite resources. Eventually there’s always a barrier. Facebook’s adolescent, fumbling attempts to develop a moral compass, have come up against people older, wiser and perhaps with more power (not to mention the common sense of the average citizen). It’s good to work out what’s right and wrong. But if Facebook are struggling with simple moral problems that most sixteen year olds take in their stride, it’s hard to see Facebook HQ giving the orders for technocratic genocide.

The technocrat implemented his evil plan to replace the human race with machines

The technocrat implemented his evil plan to replace the human race with machines

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