Step into a future where every action has a price and algorithms decide your societal value: As technology evolves at an unprecedented pace, this dystopian vision postulates that our every move, preference, and even emotion could be quantified, analyzed, and commodified — prompting us to question if we're the users or the used.
“The door refused to open. It said, ‘Five cents, please.’
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. ‘I’ll pay you tomorrow,’ he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. ‘What I pay you,’ he informed it, ‘is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.’
‘I think otherwise,’ the door said. ‘Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.’”
― from Philip K. Dick 's Ubik
Doors That Demand Payment and Contracts We Don't Read
The uncanny vision of Philip K. Dick's Ubik, as illustrated by the quote above, seems almost like a prophecy of our times. The very idea that a door could demand payment, and the casual acceptance of a contract signed without reading, draws a chilling parallel to our times — marked by our collective indifference towards the countless app subscriptions and license agreements we blindly agree to daily. In fact, it's estimated that reading all the privacy policies we encounter would rob us of 76 days a year. However, there's more to this story than just unread contracts. The interplay of AI, Big Data, and Microtransactions evokes a dystopian vision that seems more likely with every step we take to “optimize” our society.
A Dystopian Vision: Every Action Has a Price
Imagine a world where algorithms, aware of our every move and preference, dictate the rhythm of our lives. Every service, every convenience, every breath perhaps, quantified, and attached to a microtransaction. Similar to the chilling scenarios painted in Ubik (if you are not familiar with Philip K. Dick, think Black Mirror Season 1 Episode 2), every action that requires energy or emits CO2 — such as the opening of a door — might be charged instantly.
Technological developments and the way we make use of them make such a world seem ever more likely. The components of our envisioned dystopia might seem disparate at first glance, but they are converging in ways that could shape our future in unexpected directions:
- Artificial Intelligence: With the rapid advancements in AI, machines are increasingly able to understand and predict human behavior. Algorithms can now tailor content to individual preferences, ensuring we see what they 'think' we want to see. Now, imagine such algorithms not just suggesting what song you might like next, but also determining the cost of daily services based on your perceived societal value or carbon footprint.
- Microtransaction Systems: As our world moves towards a more digital economy, microtransactions are becoming the norm. As these systems become more ingrained in our daily lives, they could be used to instantly charge us for everyday actions. The notion of public goods could vanish, replaced by a pay-per-use reality where every aspect of existence has a cost associated with it. Imagine a world where a walk in the park requires a subscription, or where the number of words you speak is deducted from your digital wallet.
- Big Data: The world of Big Data is vast and ever-growing. Every click, every purchase, every movement can be tracked, analyzed, and stored. This massive trove of information provides a detailed blueprint of individual and collective behavior. In a dystopian world, Big Data could be the all-seeing eye which could be used to monitor compliance with societal norms or environmental guidelines, adjusting microtransaction costs accordingly. For instance, if data indicates you frequently use energy-intensive appliances, the cost to operate your electric car might surge.
While each of these technologies has its merits, their convergence could lead to a reality where every action is monitored, evaluated, and priced. In this world, our very essence could be reduced to algorithms, with our personal worth and freedoms dictated by lines of code.
Social Rating Systems & Digital Dictators
To simulate justice, the algorithms of tomorrow might increasingly rely on social rating systems. Not the rumored government-imposed social credit system of China (which is mostly a myth), but the ones that already subtly grade us daily. Think of your Uber-rating, that might keep you from getting a cab, or the silent judgment passed through likes, ratings, upvotes and downvotes. If we expand this concept, we can envision an omnipotent AI perpetually analyzing, grading, and deciding our societal value down to the 100th decimal point. Such an entity would know where we should go, what job we're best suited for, or even who we should partner with.
Such an algorithm might rekindle Karl Marx's vision — “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” — with disturbing accuracy. Ever heard the argument that Stalin's Russia or Mao's China weren't embodiments of 'true communism'? Some leftists might argue that human flaws sabotaged those visions. But what if the helms were handed to an unbiased machine? Instead of weirdos in uniform, the future might see dictators as binary entities like an emotionless HAL 9000 — decide for yourself which is more terrifying.
Dystopia's Silver Lining
Most dystopian visions also have their upsides, at least on the surface. In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, for example, the populace is blissfully placated with conditioning, sex, drugs, and entertainment. Extrapolating that, with the 13th generation of Neurolink, our emotions might be as easily adjustable as the brightness of our screens, ensuring our happiness at the slide of a bar. AI powered pleasure-bots might do you know what, always in tune with our desires. Shallow hedonism sweeps in to replace human connection.
But there's no such thing as a free lunch, right? In this dystopian vision, someone would capitalize on our hedonism, on our data, desires, and emotions. Each rush of joy would be meticulously counted and charged by microtransaction. The slogan, "You'll own nothing and you'll be happy", echoing through the corridors of our existence.
Acknowledging the Utopian Potential
Of course, innovation is a key driver of enhanced efficiency. With the advent of smart algorithms and data analytics, businesses and services can tailor their offerings to individual needs, thereby improving customer satisfaction and operational productivity. Furthermore, new technologies have the potential to foster environmental sustainability. Smart cities and IoT-enabled devices reduce waste and manage resources more effectively, leading to a reduction in our carbon footprint.
To navigate the path towards a utopian, rather than a dystopian future, it is essential to implement robust safeguards, especially regarding our privacy. Additionally, advocating for open-source and community-driven technologies could decentralize the power structure inherent in technological development, ensuring a more egalitarian approach to innovation. These alternatives promote transparency and collective oversight, potentially curtailing the monopolistic tendencies of tech giants. Lastly, investing in digital literacy equips society with the knowledge to understand and engage with technology critically, enabling citizens to make informed decisions about their digital footprints and to demand higher standards from tech companies.
The System's Grotesque Extremes
But what if utopia fails? In weighing the potential hedonistic pleasures of a tech-driven future, I cannot help but be gripped by a profound sense of unease. To me, it is a terrifying vision, reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's tales. His stories often spotlight the transformation of capitalism under the weight of technology. Not as a herald of an entirely new system, but as a grotesque evolution driven by private enterprises, sometimes cluelessly wielding their newfound power. Consider the company in We Can Build You that designs impeccable humanoid robots — yet their sole idea is to use these robots to recreate the American Civil War. Similarly, the new marvels achieved by science and technology might not always be applied usefully, nor necessarily serve the common good.
Yes, the relentless march of optimization, fueled by AI, Big Data, and microtransactions, promises a future where our every whim and want is catered to, but at what cost? A future where, perhaps, my front door remains shut because my Bitcoin wallet is empty.