The decade in dystopia: Technological trends inching us closer to collapse

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The story of technology in the 2010s is almost perfectly illustrated by the saga of Facebook.

The Facebook that saw the birth of the decade was a fresh-faced hero, subject of fascination and praise. Naming founder Mark Zuckerberg its 2010 Person of the Year, Time described the company’s mission thusly: “… to populate the wilderness, tame the howling mob and turn the lonely, antisocial world of random chance into a friendly world, a serendipitous world.”

The second Facebook is something of a villain, a platform focused on harvesting data for in pursuit of riches, of being a platform where misinformation spreads like wildfire, where foreign governments can act to subvert American democracy. The most memorable image of Zuckerberg these days is not his Time cover photo, but him sitting before a Congressional inquisition, fielding questions about the company’s mishandling of user data and its role in spreading “fake news.”

At the start of the decade, the technological future seemed bright. Cut to the waning months of 2019, and it’s hard to recognize that optimistic worldview. Society’s rosy view of technology has withered, exposing the gnarled branches of dystopia.

The span of time between 2010 to 2020 brought some of the most amazing technological advances the world has ever seen, so in the spirit of reflection, we’ve compiled a series of stories that take a look back at the previous decade through a variety of different lenses. Explore more of our Ten Years of Tech series.
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Social media: Making monsters of mass movements

There was a time when Twitter seemed like the sword of democracy. Throughout 2011, protests sprouted across the Middle East, a phenomenon known as the Arab Spring, and observers around the world were keen to point out the role of social media in fomenting the uprisings. Coming so soon after Barack Obama’s first Presidential victory, in which his campaign leveraged social networks, many thought the world was entering a new era of civic engagement built on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Writing for Foreign Affairs in 2011, Clay Shirky summarized the revolutionary potential of social media: “As the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action.” So serious was the discourse about social media’s role in organizing revolution, it even provoked a subgenre.

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As it turned out, greater access to information also meant greater access to misinformation, and the latter spreads more quickly on social networks; a study of roughly 126,000 news stories on Twitter from 2006 to 2017 found that “falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”

The promise of social media was that it would democratize information, empowering individuals to share their views. If the rapid spread of misinformation were simply due to random individuals dispersing or sharing lies for whatever reason, it would merely be worrying, but what is truly insidious is that authoritarian forces have weaponized peoples’ susceptibility to lies. Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is the most notorious example, as Russian hackers (organized, according to U.S. intelligence, by the Russian government) used social media to circulate messaging intended to divide and enervate American voters.

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Weaponized social media isn’t just used to target foreign nations, however, and authoritarian leaders have made use of digital media to manipulate their own citizens, often to violent ends. Military personnel in Myanmar used Facebook to whip up hatred toward the nation’s Rohingya Muslims, according to a report by the New York Times, leading to a situation Human Rights Watch calls a “humanitarian and human rights disaster.”

In India, Hindu nationalists have used social media to drum up fury toward the country’s Muslim minority, leading to mob violence. As detailed by the New Yorker, Amit Shah, one of the chief members of India’s ruling BJP party, laid bare the party’s social media strategy, saying “We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public — whether sweet or sour, true or fake.”

The internet is a vampire, drinking all our data

It seems that not a month goes by without a massive data breach. Equifax, Capital One, Target, even the Department of Homeland Security: These are just some of the organizations who’ve been breached in recent years, massive and powerful institutions whose data has been swiped by hackers. Except it’s not just their data, it’s often all of ours.

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The data economy is booming, and everyday people are the product. Whether it’s something as innocuous as your search history, or as vital as your Social Security number, your data is a good, often harvested and sold without you even realizing. When you use platforms like Google or Facebook, when you buy something online, when you visit any old site, someone is collecting your data. As if that weren’t frightening enough, the institutions collecting that data can’t even be trusted to protect it.

Although philosophers like Jaron Lanier have suggested that consumers receive money for their data — which would at least let consumers make some money off their own product — it’s hard to shake the feeling that privacy and security are things of the past, that people are a resource to be milked, whether they want to be or not.

The surveillance state is all around us, and we’ve welcomed it

Was there any gadget more ubiquitous this decade than the camera? No matter where you go, you’re likely in front of a lens, or behind one. You might be in the background of someone’s selfie, up close at the grocery store self-checkout, or one of many under the gaze of a government CCTV, but unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last decade, your image exists on some hard drive somewhere.

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Surveillance is everywhere, and in many ways we’ve welcomed it ourselves, documenting our lives on Instagram and installing cameras on our doors. We’ve also surrounded ourselves with microphones, recording our voices even when we don’t intend them to. All this data is stored where corporations and government agencies can access it, and we don’t need to imagine a world where they do: It’s already happening.

The most glaring example of this came with the revelation that Ring, the smart doorbell company owned by Amazon, had partnered with police departments across the U.S., granting them access to footage from users’ doorbell cameras. An investigation by Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) found that the partnership had “no security requirements for the law enforcement offices that get access to users’ footage … no restrictions on law enforcement sharing users’ footage with third parties …” and “no oversight/compliance mechanisms in place to ensure that users don’t collect footage from beyond their property,” among other things.

Facial recognition software is already quite good at identifying faces on camera, and it will only get better.

We can see an extreme vision of the future of surveillance in the Xinjiang region of China, where the Chinese government has deployed a vast, meticulous surveillance network to monitor the local Uyghur minority group. Cameras throughout the region track peoples’ movements, scanning their faces, alerting authorities to the activities of particular individuals.

Electric scooters and delivery robots are an urban design nightmare

Sometimes, it doesn’t take long at all for an exciting new technology to go off the rails. 2018 was the year of the electric scooter, as the vehicles proliferated across the cities of the world, offering convenient, electric transportation to all. Simply open an app on your phone, pay a fee, and you can unlock one of the many scooters (Lime, Bird, etc.) scattered around your city. And I do mean scattered.

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It seems these days you can’t walk twenty feet in a city like Portland without tripping over one of these scooters. As quickly as they sprang up, they became a target of anger, as people found increasingly creative ways to trash them, whether dumping them in rivers, hanging them from tree branches like Christmas ornaments, or simply setting them on fire.

Why such a backlash? While they may be a convenient, fun ride for the people who use them, these scooters are a blight for people who don’t. Riders often cruise on sidewalks despite laws against it, then ditch them in the middle of the sidewalk when they’re done using them, clogging pathways that, in many growing cities, are often crowded enough as is.

Scooters aren’t the only new machines sharing the sidewalks. Companies see robots as the future of deliveries, but while robo-couriers may look cute shambling down empty sidewalks in commercials, in reality they’ll have to navigate the same footpaths as people. This could be an annoyance for anyone, but a hazard for people with disabilities.

These technologies reveal that urban infrastructure often isn’t prepared for the tech of tomorrow, and that corporations are all too willing to exploit the commons regardless.

Tech is making warfare cheaper

Warfare often drives innovation, and that’s as true in recent years as it’s ever been. An attack on a Saudi oil field in September 2019 was a disturbing premonition of the future of warfare, as the attackers — Houthi rebels from Yemen claimed responsibility, although U.S. intelligence alleges the attack originated in Iran — used ten drones to attack the field.

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Although the drones were much more advanced than the kind you might buy to shoot video, they were far, far cheaper than American missiles — they may have cost a mere $15,000 or less according to an expert who spoke with the New York Times — and were able to evade detection by Saudi and U.S. defenses. The drones dealt a staggering blow, as well, temporarily taking a huge chunk out of Saudi oil production. In the coming years, tech could make warfare and terrorism easier for small powers to engage in.

Green tech sputters, and the future looks dim

No crisis has loomed larger over this decade than climate change. As report after report indicates that the problem is growing more severe and the path to fixing it more narrow, it can be difficult to remember there was optimism ten years ago. One of the most audacious green tech projects at the time was Abu Dhabi’s Masdar city. Launched in 2006, Masdar was a development that aspired to be “the world’s first car-free, zero-carbon-dioxide-emissions, zero-waste city” as MIT Technology Review described it. Lined with solar panels and employing a transportation system consisting of pod vehicles, it seemed like it could be the city of the green future.

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Various solar and carbon geoengineering proposals designed to increase solar reflectance or capture and store carbon. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc

By 2016, the shine had worn off. Only a small fraction of the city had been completed, and its planners admitted the net-zero admissions standard was a pipe dream. Even the personal rapid transit system fell by the wayside.

As climate change intensifies and green technologies struggle to get mass adoption — although there are promising signs, such as GM’s plan for Cadillacs to be entirely electric by 2030 — desperate solutions begin to look more plausible. One approach that has some scientists particularly intrigued is solar geoengineering, blasting aerosols into the sky to reflect the sun’s rays away to reduce global temperatures. Even if solar geoengineering proves doable, however, it could have drastic side effects, altering weather patterns in ways that could destroy local ecosystems and economies. The price of evading one climate dystopia might simply be engineering a different one.

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