Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey written in 1968 probes the perils and benefits of technological advancement. In particular, Clarke vividly raises questions as they relate to human interactions with computers and artificial intelligence. It is not a one-sided account of science fictional writing. The benefits of digital technology are abundantly displayed in the book as it (technology) enables humanity to explore the depths of outer space in an attempt to solve civilisational problems. But, there is a dark side.
Fast forward from Clarke anticipating the complexities of technological advancement to the reality of the dawning of the 21st century. He may not have anticipated the size (hand-held devices), popularity, processing power and reach (internet of things) of digital technologies but A Space Odyssey does describe likely troubles and consequences associated with them.
Since the earliest recorded history (and likely before), human characteristics and abilities, and earth’s natural resources have been commercialised and monetised. To some extent these have been regulated but unrestrained exploitation has always been a standout feature. There have always been winners and losers when it comes to this form of exploitation with nature and the majority of people consistently amongst the ‘losers’.
It is now clear that the monetisation of individual data and its exploitation is in the hands of powerful people who control digital oligarchies. The apparent abuse of this power and reach into the everyday lives of humans, through collecting and commercialising personal data, represents a threat to humanity that has become increasingly prominent since Clarke’s seminal work. These signals have ‘hidden in plain sight’ for all to see. We have seen them in non-fictional media, art, the news, dystopian fiction (books and movies), via the stock exchanges and increasingly in the political discourse of governments.
Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism clearly provides new insights into the nature of commercialising human data through digital surveillance. She points out that a business model has emerged that now includes the exploitation of “human experience as a free raw material” that is being increasingly traded.
Many have suggested that A Space Odyssey’s HAL (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) reflects the liberal economic notion that ‘bigger is better’ and to some extent is mirrored in the unabated growth of this ‘new business model’. Combined with the popular notion that humanity should aim to mimic the human brain, we increasingly face a decline in human privacy and autonomy. Yet despite clear signals of these impending perils, the unrestrained use of individual data and the quest for developing non-human ‘intelligence’ continues unabated. Since these technologies are not yet fully understood and poorly regulated, they are difficult to control, resulting in a threat to human rights and the future of humanity.
Dystopian accounts of the occurrence of the threats posed by the oligarchies, unrestrained development of technologies and the ‘dumbing down’ of humanity by computers, feature in both fictional and non-fictional works. Irrespective of their accuracy, new evidence continues to emerge that humanity is on a trajectory whereby it represents an existential threat. Transhumanist and corporate interests appear to knowingly continue to navigate this path. A path that is not representative of the world’s citizens.
A perspective that may reflect this power dynamic is offered by Michele Foucalt who suggests that the more useful humans become, the more obedient they have to become. The purpose of maintaining this obedience is not only to continue exploiting the human skills and characteristics for financial gain but also to prevent the same from being used to revolt against this power. Parallels can be drawn between this view of power and the course of surveillance capitalism. Both imply that a level of obedience or at least apathy is needed to maintain current influence.
Richard Slaughter and the likes of Shoshana Zuboff validate the concerns of citizens and civil society in seeking to test and restrain the boundaries of potentially harmful technologies. This book reflects those concerns. Moreover, these human-centered insights and the ability to anticipate harm are starting to have meaningful results. And so, instead of global apathy in the face of the power imbalance the means to “delete dystopia” are appearing. Deleting Dystopia confirms that the threat is real and offers grounds for lasting solutions.
In its commitment to access and knowledge equity in the pursuit of human providence and rights, the University of Southern Queensland is proud to publish this book in collaboration with Richard Slaughter. It is a privilege and an honour to be associated with his long and highly impactful work over the last five decades. Together with his Biggest Wake-up Call in History (2010) he has now clearly described the greatest threats to humanity and the planet in the in the 21st century, along with a wide array of responses and possible solutions.
The Professional Studies research programs at the University of Southern Queensland are concerned with pragmatic evidence-based responses to everyday, social and existential problems. Of the over one hundred research projects at any time, all are concerned with addressing the problems faced by society and individuals. This book helps illustrate the impact of our research and frame a futures perspective to ensure that our research remains relevant over time. Further, the programs are absolutely committed to open access to, equity and participation in knowledge and education. As such, supporting the publication of this book as an open access resource made complete sense. Sharing the knowledge, perils and solutions mentioned in the book is indeed a privilege.
Luke van der Laan
Associate Professor (Professional Studies), University of Southern Queensland.