Printed: 2020-07-09

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Forget 1984 and Conspiracy Stories, This is the Real Thing

Federico Pistono

Ethical Technology

January 28, 2013

Imagine a world where a network of 147 'super-connected' companies control forty percent or more of the global financial network. Imagine a world where as much as 80% of the countries systematically censor and restrict communications and access to information.

A world where the most powerful government of those ‘free’ 20% can—under the direct influence and lobbying of the entertainment industry—raid the house of German citizen, living in New Zealand, operating a business in Hong Kong, seize and take down a website used by 200 million people and all their personal data, with complete disregard to the privacy of the people and no legal right to do so.

A world where whistleblowers who expose the government’s overwhelming deceit, corruption, illegality, and brutality are put in solitary confinement for 1,000 days—and tortured—without a trial, by that same powerful government. A world where legal boundaries for the power establishments are becoming thinner and thinner, where people can be put in indefinite detention without a trial; and immensely powerful governments can get away with obscene acts of torture, with little to no consequences at all. A world where corporations and governments track our every move without us even knowing.

Such a dystopic future would put Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World to shame. But it is in fact the world we live in today, whether we realise it or not.

We like compelling conspiracy stories—I’m not dignifying them with the word “theory”, which means essentially something true)—the Moon landing hoax, apocalyptic prophecies, the threat of the government ‘taking our guns’, Obama’s birth certificate, and countless other nonsensical stories generate millions of pages and videos on the Internet, they can be found on tabloids and news reports everywhere, and they were even the basis for multi-million dollar movies that swept the Academy Awards.

And while we are busy making wild hypotheses (calling them theories) about dubious and mostly irrelevant claims, or debating whether the new iPhone is better than the latest Nexus; real conspiracies and threats are infringing our most basic human rights, stepping on our freedom of expression and on our privacy.

The Patriot Act, the Iraq invasion, the financial industry’s multi-billion dollar bailouts, the indefinite military detention without charge, SOPA, PIPA, the widespread censorship of the Internet, the systematic torture in the Peoples republic of China—these are all very real things that exist today, right now.

And things are likely to get even worse. Why? Because what allowed for the creation of such a world—where everything is controllable by central authorities and powers, down to a level of granularity that Orwell’s Big Brother could not even dream of—was the adoption of instant worldwide communication technologies, and these technologies are increasing at an exponential rate.

Facebook, Twitter, Google, and thousands of other tech companies are offering their services ‘free of charge’, but not for free. You are the product. Specifically, your information is; and as technology advances, this information will become more and more personal. Given the rate of change in technology, it’s very likely that in 15 years we will have ubiquitous computing, smart objects and sensors connected to the Internet that collect and report everything they see and hear, maybe even neural implants that access some of our thoughts.

In a few years, we could be facing a future where everything will be recorded, stored, and sold as a commodity. Our daily lives, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the people we meet, where we go, our experiences, and even our thoughts and dreams.

This is not a conspiracy (theory), this is already happening to some extent; and—if left by itself—it can go very, very wrong.

Going with inertia—keeping business as usual—will not do us any good. In fact, I think things can go very bad, if we don't act and decide to take control over our lives and make sure that we keep the freedoms that our ancestors fought so vehemently and passionately for in the past. I believe it's our moral responsibility—towards them, towards our children, and towards us.

Most people think that the world is too big, too immense for any individual to have an impact, because anything we do is merely a drop in the ocean. But what is an ocean, if not a multitude of drops?

This article of part of a series. The next part will explore how to face the current situation and look at the incredible opportunities we hold on our hands.

Federico Pistono is an award-winning journalist, writer, and activist, author of the non-fiction book Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK and the Sci-Fi novelette A Tale of Two Futures.


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