Dystopian narratives in movies and series, while representing how our society is drastically changing each day, is quite popular these days. Most of the stories revolve around the consequences of technological development, which society has enjoyed for many decades. Black Mirror, for instance, shows viewers a future reality brought by unanticipated impacts of new technologies. It features speculative fiction with dark and sometimes satirical themes that examine modern society.
Even scientists and researchers have warned us of a future civilization with unending pollution, resource shortages, overpopulation, and even nuclear war. In a book entitled “Our Final Hour” written by astrophysicist Martin Rees, the author warned that "humankind is potentially the maker of its own demise" and laid out some dozen ways in which we have "endangered the future of the entire universe." For instance, Rees suspected that experiments in particle colliders could create a black hole that would annihilate our planet.
As a result, several techno-philanthropists founded many research institutes aiming to discover new existential threats and figure out how to save the world from them. Some of these institutes include the Future of Life Institute, the Future of Humanity Institute, the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, and the Study of Existential Risk. However, many people are still afraid of the apocalypse.
According to The Globe and Mail, an online site that offers national and international news, a 2013 survey reported that the majority of the respondents believe that our way of life will probably end in a century. Another report revealed that a quarter of Australian children are so troubled about the state of the world that they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older. A book entitled “The Progress Paradox” written by journalist Gregg Easterbrook suggests that a major reason that Americans are not happier is “collapse anxiety,” the fear that civilization may implode and there's nothing anyone can do about it.
Is it Possible?
Everything is connected nowadays, thanks to the Internet of Things. According to Yahoo! Finance, IoT is the main medium connecting the physical world and the virtual world in the new era. Since it was introduced, the demand for data and network services has increased dramatically. However, it has resulted in several problems such as slow maturity of business models, poor platform interoperability, lack of data security and privacy protection, and overburdened cloud computing architecture.
In the past, technology was seen as an opportunity to create a more inclusive, distributed, and pro-human future. Who doesn’t want a comfortable and convenient life, right? However, as we rely on technology, many tech figures have somewhat turned inventions into a playground. We can see Peter Thiel finding ways to reverse the aging process, Elon Musk planning to colonize Mars, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil willing to upload their minds into supercomputers.
People’s obsession with technological developments has isolated them from real and present dangers such as climate change, global pandemics, mass migrations, and many more. Many researchers warned that this unstoppable development of new technologies will open doors to more urgent problems. For instance, the odds of being threatened and blackmailed online may rise to nearly 100% and major governmental systems may be disabled or destroyed.
Experts have also pictured many scenarios of a techno-apocalypse.
1 – Dismantling a major tech company
Many devices and inventions we are enjoying today are made possible by tech giants such as Apple, Google, Alibaba, Microsoft, and Amazon. However, with a techno-apocalypse, everyone can be vulnerable to cyberattacks, even the most prominent tech companies. This scenario can harm not only the companies themselves and their employees but also millions of their customers. There’s a huge possibility that radical groups could start dismantling the digital services we have all become very dependent on.
2 – Internet crash
Almost all industries, companies, and individuals heavily rely on the Internet to function. However, experts fear that there’s a possibility that the Internet, the largest and most complex network in the history of civilization, may go offline. If this happens, this would impact nearly all network service providers, simultaneously and globally. While there could be a lot of solutions to this concern, scientists fear that this catastrophe would come at without us knowing it. They call this the Evil Genius scenario, an unprecedented piece of malware so advanced and so virulent that it blindsides the entire cybersecurity industry.
3 – Extreme privacy failure
With a techno-apocalypse, everyone’s data is vulnerable. Cybercriminals can immediately collect people’s credit card numbers, passwords, and other confidential information. When this happens, people quickly lose their ability to “own things.”
4 – Stock market collapse
Experts say that the disruption of global financial markets could result in an economic end-of-the-world scenario. Unfortunately, this disruption doesn’t require a full-on Internet crash as seen during the cyberattacks to Wall Street banks in 2014. According to InfoWorld, the leading voice in emerging enterprise technology, these attacks reportedly led to the theft of multiple gigabytes of sensitive data, prompting the FBI and the Secret Service to team up with Wall Street's own massive IT security apparatus.
What Can We Do?
According to experts, a techno-apocalypse will result in unfathomable changes to humanity. To address this, they argue that including perspectives from the humanities and social sciences will be a key factor. In the 2018 book “The Future Computed” written by Microsoft’s Brad Smith and Harry Shum, one of the “most important conclusions” by the authors was that the humanities and social sciences have an integral role in confronting the challengers raised by artificial intelligence.
“Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology, and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions,” the authors said.
The Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence from Stanford University believes in the same vision. The institute’s vision revolves around believing that “AI should be collaborative, augmentative and enhancing to human productivity and quality of life.” To achieve this, it brings together researchers from the humanities, education, law, medicine, business, and STEM to study and develop “human-centered” AI technologies.
The idea that the humanities can help in addressing technological issues can also explain why many tech companies are hiring humanities graduates. Eric Berridge, chief executive of the IBM-owned tech consulting firm Bluewolf, shared why his company is following in a TED talk on “Why tech needs the humanities.”
“While the sciences teach us how to build things, it’s the humanities that teach us what to build and why to build them,” he said.