Monday 4 May 2015

shangri-la or a chicken in every pot

I was listening to a pretty interesting, if not rather sedate but being shrill does not presuppose being impassioned, podcast from BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time segment on the notion of Utopia. Many shun such rarefied discussions as purely academic and formal and human pursuits are not the staid stuff of quiet questioning—just something that we’ve named though cannot agree on the definition, however this panel show was particularly interesting as the episode had originally been broadcast in 1999, on the cusps of the new century and classic thought was indeed buffeted with a lot of future-forward and progressive predictions.
The term utopia is a bit of a puzzle in itself, sounding like έΰ-τοποζ (good-place) but introduced to describe a society that was nowhere (ου)—I don’t think that this was intended as some cynical pun but rather an admonition not to confuse the merely good with the best or the ideal. Even if it did point us to no place, nonpareil, it still gave us visions to aspire to—which were of course constrained by writers’ imaginations and the context that they were writing in. There was much fear and suspicion over perfect societies and technology’s role in creating them—as there is today, thinkers having witnessed the ways regimes can pervert mechanisation and eugenics to forward their own agenda and ideal. In speculative fiction and reality, many of these efforts have backfired in dystopia ways. Having every need and want fulfilled and a surplus leisure seems appealing, but by many past reckons, we are living in an era of great ease and security, the promise of realized of some authors’ reveries—or at least progressing there, yet we seem more and more dissatisfied.  Eventually the talk came around to categorizing futurists into two camps as to how this revelation might be achieved: the husbanders and the technocrats.
Although it was not so long ago and not a retro-future sort of prophesy (which lend us a world far better than what we’ve achieved), it was very interesting how the two groups, geneticists and artificial-intelligence proponents argued their cases. While we do speak in terms of the singularity today, a relinquishing control to a thinking-machine and trust it to keep human welfare as its pet-project and maybe engineer that ideal society, rather than slum around with the details, it is interesting how the panel framed and previsioned their creature-comforts. One side argued that genetic understanding would produce a class of beings where the fittest were not only the most competent but also the kindest and most generous (since the best and most efficient way to promote the individual is not only to fool one’s competition but moreover to fool oneself into being altruistic). The technologists, on the other hand, argued that surrendering day-to-day tasks to a network of computers that monitored our needs and health would greatly increase our efficiency in all things and eventually put us among the stars. Though there are some contemporary persuasive voices urging mankind to become space-faring whom might have become better know, it’s interesting that the proponent that they knew was the physicist Freeman Dyson, who believed that humans should hollow out comets and travel, sheltered, across the Universe like the Little Prince. What do you think? Has AI and our inter-connectedness made utopia and related concepts rather moot points?