Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Building Utopia: Technologism and the Global Political Stage

Whenever someone says the word communism, immediate images of Castro and Stalin pop into view. Commonly referred-to figureheads of the ideology, they built ineffectual empires of self-satisfaction by warping its intentions. It was once used, in the McCarthy era, as a black word, a word analogous with traitor. Decades of cold-war media has reinforced this notion in the minds of Americans. Capitalism, under the hubris of a divine invisible hand, has wreaked both havoc and enlightenment in the modern world. The interconnectivity of humanity can largely be attributed to this force. Conversely, so can the deep corruption that is present in modern governing bodies. For the sake of a good example, and irony, America makes for a model of capitalism’s failures and successes (more recently the former). It is not fair to blame CEO’s and other people in positions of power alone; as they are compelled by the nature of their duty to ignore any moral concerns whatsoever. The bottom line is this: maximizing shareholder value is equivalent to doing God’s will. CEO’s who fail in this are fired, and should be, because they aren’t doing their “job.”
Most people have become aware of the iconic 1% versus 99% diatribe that circulates social media uselessly, as well as other “occupy” movements that are in the works. It’s clear that the divide between the rich and the poor is becoming larger day by day. The solution to this problem seems too complex to invent, as our democratic, legal, and electoral systems are so symbiotic with the capitalist model. The purpose of this post is to present a solution and a cautionary tale: how new technology can facilitate a utopic society, or a tyrannical regime of unprecedented power.
I propose that the advent of a technological “singularity” as coined by Vernor Vinge, would dismantle the capitalist model as we understand it.
           My own conclusions here are not unique. Some have coined it technoprogressivism. But this is not an essay on utopia, but rather on the binary nature of progress and regression as it relates to capitalism and corruption. For further reading on transhumanism and techno-philosophy, see

           First, the internet: Ray Kurzweil was able to predict the fall of the Soviet Union based on the advancement of communications technology: specifically radio. Now, we’re seeing some of the same effects of information technology in the Middle East, as social media platforms facilitate huge political shifts. This is the first step in “technologism” a word I use for the political ideology of allowing information technology to transform policy. As information becomes dispersed among the populace, civil disobedience and popular opinion become more prevalent. It is a democratic system in and of itself, where each IP address represents an entity with political leanings and opinions on specific issues. The internet not only provides a de facto “voting system,” it also serves as a means to educate the populace on the behaviour and decisions of government. This, ideally, provides the possibility for ultra-fast interaction between government, and the people who are governed. 

         But there’s a problem: modern technology, while transformative, has perils equal in significance to its promises. China uses the internet to stifle civil disobedience. They have the means to filter and control information in a way that was never possible even in the oldest days of dissonance. As much as information is empowering, it can be used to manipulate and control as well. This has become evident over the past 30 years, echoing Chomsky’s critique of the “manufacture of consent.” Now that the medium is even more pervasive, and much cheaper, the extent to which a governing body (be it corporate or democratic or otherwise) controls the flow of information in its constituent geography could become extreme. 
         How do we prevent this? Technology is a self-organizing entity, and many of the problems we face in the future will be inadvertently solved. In this case, however, that is not possible. It takes civil disobedience on the part of hackers in order to accomplish this. Wikileaks, and organizations of its kind, are instrumental in forcing governments to enact policies of transparency. Though many have criticized wikileaks for the damage such revelations can cause - if such an organization had leaked documents preventing the illegal Iraq war, America would not be in such economic or political trouble.
New quantum encryption technology may make it impossible for voting systems to be tampered with. It is a technology such that any interference becomes instantaneously known. This offers new possibilities for privacy as well. During the Bush administration (of course), the State department was in collusion with internet service providers in spying on Americans illegally. Quantum communication may make such invasions impossible as well. With infallible electoral systems, and ultimate privacy, the internet could become a model for political discourse. Voter turnout, as I see it, could rise to near 100%, a true Republic, not of representatives, but of citizens. Facilitating this outcome is the most important step in preventing government-capitalist entities from gaining a totalitarian foothold over any population.
The second paradigm that will defeat capitalism is micro and nano-scale manufacturing. 3D printers, developed initially at MIT, can provide a medium to create objects from the bottom-up – drastically reducing the cost of creating products, and effectively cutting out the middle man. It is already possible to “print” organs, and 3d printers (yes, printers printing printers), potentially revolutionizing medicine and commerce.
(a home 3d printer for $1200 - an important note being that this tech will get cheaper over time - so cheap that remote villages will be able to pool enough to afford one, and construct many others using that very printer).
New research being conducted focuses also on the manipulation of living systems. For example, using viruses to alter DNA; using bacteria to “backpack” nanoparticles to cells; using DNA to construct gears, levers, ATP motors, and so on. As the progression of small-scale down-up manufacturing becomes possible, it will no longer be necessary to have products made in a centralized location and shipped over enormous distances. Not only that, the decentralization makes it so fewer monopolies are possible. As this type of manufacturing advances, we will see the massive devaluation of all things physical; essentially, the deflation of energy (specifically atoms). The shift will mean that the cost will arise from information (designs of atoms).
Researchers at Vienna University of Technology have, for example, created a printer capable of nanoscale precision using "two photon lithography," which "uses a liquid resin, which is hardened at precisely the correct spots by a focused laser beam. The focal point of the laser beam is guided through the resin by movable mirrors and leaves behind a polymerized line of solid polymer, just a few hundred nanometers wide."
Post edit: Today a publication out of MIT detailed how to "design and print your own robot."

Researchers from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) say this new program "has the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratize access to robots." The 5 year program, entitled "An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines," is funded by a $10 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation, and has collaborators from Harvard, U of P, and MIT. The program aims to provide easily accessible design schematics for robots that are extremely cheap to produce and each one for specific purposes. "[the team is] focusing their research in several areas: developing an application programming interface for simple function specification and design; writing algorithms that would allow for control of the assembly of a device and its operations; creating an easy-to-use programming language environment; and designing new, programmable materials that would allow for automatic fabrication of robots."
The patenting of certain kinds of intellectual property (information), such as design schematics for ultra-cheap solar panels, healthy foods, medicines, and water filtration mediums could create an economic oligarchy. Corporations would be compelled by their very nature to seek out such a model. On the other hand, there are already free 3d printing designs available on torrent sites such as Piratebay.org (possibly the most forward-thinking open source consortium on the internet). It could be that these designs could be "pirated" and distributed for free. That outcome would be utopic, as poor countries and individuals wouldn't need to pay a premium price for a product that cost the owner nothing to provide.
The nano-scale revolution is the greatest threat to capitalism ever conceived. I cannot understate the extent to which human beings should be afraid. Corporations have had no small history of apathetic maneuvers to keep themselves in power.

Technologism promises transparency, representation, abundance, and freedom. However, it also means the destruction of the democratic system we know of. The redistribution of wealth, a primary tenet of communism, is a foregone conclusion, as nanoscale research funding grows exponentially every year.
In truth, Technologism takes the best aspects of communism and democracy.. If ever there were an ideology that could exist as a global governmental body, it is this. Of course, such a transition might seem difficult, but only because corporate economics are so ingrained in our society. Most of the research that will allow the demise of corporations is being done with their money. It is the grandest irony. Consider this: all the harm that corporations have done to the world cannot compare to the happiness and abundance that their funding and research may one day allow.

Post-edit (Feb 12, 2013):  Since the time I wrote this article, executive orders erroding civil liberties have been signed in the States, and in Canada, regarding cyber-security and copyright law.  North America has taken its first step toward digital totalitarianism, setting a bad example for nations struggling to obtain democracy.

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