Are We Building a Techno Dystopia?


An attendee walks past a display of Cellairis phone cases during the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012. (Daniel Acker/BLOOMBERG)

At a time when U.S. poverty rates are on the way towards their highest levels in the past 46 years, Americans are anything but technologically poor. Judging by just about any metric related to technology consumption — whether it’s social media usage or smart phone penetration rates or broadband Internet adoption — Americans of every income strata are better off than at any time in history. Yet, at the same time that we are making progress in bridging the Digital Divide, there's still an Economic Divide — more like a chasm — impeding a growing segment of society. It’s almost as if our consolation prize for losing the “War On Poverty” was lots of bright shiny gadgets with relatively cheap, unlimited content to while away our days of unemployment and alienation.

When you combine all of this cheap, accessible technology floating around with the grim economic scenario outlined by economists, think tanks and academics, it starts to sound a lot like what science fiction writers refer to as a techno dystopia. In this cyberpunk view of society, “high tech” meets “low life,” as individuals find themselves marginalized and alienated from society at the same time that digital technology surrounds them. Classic examples of a techno dystopia from the world of science fiction include Metropolis, Blade Runner, The Terminator and The Matrix. Science fiction visionary Bruce Sterling has even coined a term, "favela chic”, which updates this techno dystopia for the modern digital age. We’re all using trendy, new platforms and devices in, as Sterling says, “permanent beta.”

To bring all this home: America is taking the techno dystopia out of the realm of science fiction and building one of its own. In this real-life version, too many of us too often overlook economic failures and societal marginalization as long as we are able to live the technological high life.

We didn’t ask for this scenario, of course. As much as we like to blame our politicians for failed economic policies or capitalist excesses, there is a larger dynamic at work. The world, indeed, is getting flatter. Travel to just about any emerging market nation and you realize how far and how quickly other nations have caught up to the United States. Not just in terms of welcoming in U.S. brand-name storefronts, but also in fundamentally re-thinking what innovation can accomplish within a society. In places such as Southeast Asia, a mobile phone is no longer just a toy we bedazzle and download games on. Mobile phones are part of a larger leapfrog innovation strategy that allows an entire nation, long plagued by a wretched landline communication system, to suddenly surpass a Western competitor with state-of-the-art 4G connectivity.


An attendee looks at a Motorola Atrix smartphone at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show in Jan. 2011. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

At the end of the day, technology is not just something we consume or something that makes life bearable in the face of socio-economic marginalization — it’s something that has the power to improve society, lift us all up, and build momentum around socio-economic progress. The War on Poverty is not over, even if the most recent battles have been lost. America should be building a techno utopia where the world's best and brightest still want to visit and stay — a place where every citizen dreams of a better future made possible by technology.

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Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.

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