One of the things that make dystopian science fiction fun for the audience is the understanding that it will never happen. It could happen, but only a long time in the future, when everyone seeing the warning is dead. Worst case, the “boot stomping the face” stuff happens when you’re ready to kick the bucket, so you’ll live to see it, but never really have to experience it. This adds a camp fire quality to it, allowing the creator to lay it on a bit thick to make his points. Horror movies often work the same way.
The same is true about doom and gloom in public commentary. The market predictor guy on TV, who thinks the market is about to tank, is not getting much traction if he claims a mild downturn is coming. If he warns that fire will rain down from the sky and Lucifer will rise from his pit somewhere on Wall Street, then people pay attention. The people consuming such content do so with an understanding that it’s not really going to be that bad, but it is kind of fun pretending it will be as you stock up on MRE’s.
You see this with the bogeyman of AI and his posse called automation. Any day now, so the story goes, the algorithms will come alive, enslave the population and replace every job with a robot. What usually follows, depending upon your inclination, is either the libertarian fantasy of a world where everyone smokes weed and plays hacky-sack or the dystopian sci-fi vision of a world like The Matrix or The Terminator. Most people assume it will not happen, but it is fun to pretend it will happen.
Of course, the one thing that rarely gets mentioned is that the future is never the nightmare people imagine. We know this because we are currently living in the nightmarish future imagined in the past. Orwell’s 1984 was nothing like our 1984. In fact, our 1984 was a lot better than Orwell’s 1948. London was still in rubble at the point. Food was still limited and general living standards were poor. Relative to life in 1984 London, life in 1948 was about as bad as Orwell imagined forty years or so on the future.
Probably the most relevant test case we have for this is 20th century Marxism. China and Russia underwent massive social experiments attempting to usher in the Marxist future of a worker’s paradise. At times, life was pretty awful for people in both countries. The purges of Stalin and the Cultural Revolution of Mao were dystopian nightmares for many of the people at the time. Yet, most buggered their way through. Their present was not our future. Instead, our future and theirs was our present, which is not so bad.
Still, the example of China and Russia show that even though things tend to work out for humanity in the long run, the short run can be quite terrible. It means were probably better off worrying about what’s right in front of us, rather than what lies far down the road. A good example is what is coming from behavioral science and genetics. The former is about establishing statistical patterns of human behavior in order to model it. The latter is about finding genes to explain the features of life, including human life.
On the behavioral side, China’s social credit system is a great example of the spooky future stuff happening in the present. The same tools China is using are now being applied to social media and public discourse in the West. The British cop sent out to investigate an offensive tweet is applying the same techniques China is using when they throttle internet access of dissidents. It’s a combination of shame and reduced access, intended to alter the behavior of people viewed as disruptive.
The Twitter cops are not just people sitting around reading tweets. The social media giants are using techniques from behavioral science to narrow the focus to those most likely to be a problem. China’s social credit system works the same way. It’s not predicative in the narrow sense, but more of a profile. When the cumulative score of someone’s activity reaches a certain point, they gets closer examination. The social media giants use this same approach to throttle users with the so-called shadow ban.
On the genetics side of the dystopian present, this will become increasingly common as the science gets better and cheaper. Future parents will soon have a chance to increase their child’s cognitive score, so to speak, rather than leave it to chance. What parent would not want their child to be smart or tall or handsome? If science can increase the odds of that happening, people will embrace it. Think of it this way. If science could tell you which fertilized egg was most likely to be the best, which would you choose?
Of course, Stephen Hsu cannot guarantee your child will be a genius. In fact, he can’t guarantee anything as no such guarantee is enforceable. His clients will not know if his technique worked until their child is well along in development and no one is going to enforce a return policy for children. That said, it is not about guarantees. It is about probabilities. What these techniques offer is better odds of getting the best genetic mix from the parents. It’s like moving closer to the target at the shooting range.
If that’s not enough, genetic research is slowing moving toward a time when minor corrections after the fact are possible. It’s unlikely, highly unlikely, that science will ever be able to rewrite the code of a living human, but they are starting to tinker. These techniques will no doubt be applied to artificial insemination, in combination with what Stephen Hsu is offering. Pick the best embryo, make a few tweak and the odds of your child being a combination of the best his parents contributed goes way up.
None of this is part of some dystopian future. It is spooky stuff happening right now. The most worrisome is probably the stuff coming from behavior science, as it allows for that dystopian future, where the authorities act as puppet masters. The genetics stuff is less spooky and less worrisome for now. Still, the point is we have plenty of monsters walking around in the present. If we want to be worried or have a reason to put away some more MRE’s, you just have to spend time on Twitter or talk to Stephen Hsu.