In Search of Techno-Utopia

Lately, our class has been reading about how emerging technologies have been used as tools of oppression. The most heart-rending case is what’s happening in China to the Uighur population: under the guise of fighting terrorism, the largely Muslim Uighurs are being monitored and tracked, their past and present behaviors used to identify individuals in need of “re-education.”

We are all familiar with the concept of the techno-dystopian future. Movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix are classic examples in film, and the entire genre of cyberpunk is built upon the idea. Our fear of future technologies has driven creation of countless stories exploring the potential ramifications of our technological advancement. But there are fewer ideas concerning what a techno-utopia might look like. Given that we are tasked with improving society via design, I want to explore what this might look like. I’ve created a diagram below to capture some of the tenets that I associate with techno-dystopian and techno-utopian futures.

Techno-Utopia and Techno-Dystopia

The concepts of dystopia and utopia would presumably exist in totally separate spheres, and most of these traits seem to be in diametric opposition. However, there is a tension between the two. With decentralization of power and personal autonomy comes the potential for majority rule without regard for society’s most vulnerable. As technology erases the power of gatekeepers to direct information and shape public opinion, techno-utopia risks turning into the worst corners of the Internet: driven by tribalism, fake news, and fear-mongering.

 

Risk of Mob Rule

This leaves us with the following question:

How can we protect the rights of minority populations in a world of decentralized authority?

There’s no easy answer to it, but this question must guide our ethical frameworks as designers. As we attempt to steer ourselves toward techno-utopia, this may be the most important question that we face.