The WIFI Curtain: Dystopia Now? – The Future of Digital Dictatorships and Totalitarian Technocracies

There is no doubt in my mind that we will all shortly by ruled by machines in some variation or the other.

I am not talking about robo-cops and terminators (just yet), but rather about technology-powered governments with increasing, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience over their subjects – building and enforcing some form of a WIFI curtain or open air prison to keep us safe (and submitted) .

Surveillance? – Check

The cellphones in our pockets, the social media platforms that record and store our every post and the “wearables” on our wrists have us under 24/7 surveillance – even without the state-sponsored cameras that litter almost every public space and private company. We voluntarily collect and share our data with corporations in exchange for treats, such as free WIFI, free email and free calls. The resulting piles of data are the stuff dictators’ wet dreams are made of. (And that’s all before we get started injecting ourselves with microchips.)

Censorship? – Check

From pressure to self-censor – or face the  life-wrecking wrath of the online troll mobs (known as aka “social cooling“); to the waves centralised censorship squeezing freedom of speech from the left wing, the right wing and the top, censorship is well and truly a part of everyday life.

Propaganda? – Check

Today’s technology makes it almost impossible to distinguish fake new from real news. We cannot trust text, images or even video to actually represent reality. As such, the more gullible among us are completely at the mercy of the information we consume within our chosen echo-chambers.

Control? – Check

In a fully digitised post-cash world, where every transaction leaves a trace, governments literally have the power to make people “disappear”. Your self-sovereign identity won’t save you if your government refused to recognise it. Likewise, your stock pile of secret crypto-currency won’t protect you from lifestyle audits or tax demands in the government’s preferred currency of choice. When your state can close your bank accounts, foreclose on your bond, repossess your physical property, refuse to let you work for a registered business, and deny you permission to leave their country – and knows exactly where you are 24/7, you have rather limited means of resistance. (Just ask Fan Bing Bing.)

The question for me is not if but what kind of digital dictators we will end up with.

I see a few alternative scenarios:

  • Choose-Your-Own-Benevolent-Blockchain-Based-Decentralised-Dictatoriship

This is the most attractive scenario. In this scenario, we each get to pick and choose which socio-economic rules we want to submit to, and we record and play by the rules we chose for ourselves on a blockchain-based decentralised ledger (to keep us honest). In short, it is the BitNation vision for self-sovereign identity and governance vision come true.

You can read more about ceding resources and power over to the more benevolent kind of blockchain-based digital dictator (in a most excellent article) here: 

  • Paper Clip Dystopia 

In this scenario, the world is run by a practical, ruthless artificial intelligence that has no time for irrational human irrationality.

This future will be very efficient – humans optional.

Find out more about playing the Paper Clip Dystopia game here:

  • Corporatised Ministry of Truth

In this scenario, traditional governments lose power and are slowly replaced by a new kind of corporate governance run by the tech titans that own our data, online identities, time, and trust.  The FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, Netflix, and Google) already have more wealth and power than many “real” governments, so it is not much of a leap to imagine weak governments ceding power to technology companies, in a similar way that European governments gave the (privately owned) Dutch and British East India Companies almost complete control of African and Asian colonies.

See how Apple is already issuing you with “trust scores” here:

And how Facebook already has vast “Ministry of Truth” style censorship control over the internet and what is acceptable and what’s not in today’s Overton Window here:

Or imagine what living in a branded city or state would be like with the Future Lab:

  • Big Data Big Brother

This is the scariest scenario. In this scenario, a flesh and blood human dictator or totalitarian regime are enabled and empowered by technology to exercise complete and utter control over their population. Technology giants are forced to submit to governments and compelled to hand over all their data, algorithms, and resultant power to the state. In this case the WIFI curtain snaps shut in a way soviet dictators of years past could only dream of. This is the scariest scenario for the simple reason that machines are not evil – humans are. Machines are only as good or as bad as their masters. In this scenario, the fate of the population hinges on the benevolence of the Big Brother in charge. A bad Big Brother would be disastrous for its population: Think Hitler with access to your Facebook data, Stalin with access to your Sesame Credit Scores or Pol Pot with access to your Alexa search history – and with the power to shut down your bank account, delete your identity and watch your every move – and that’s all before they need to call in the war drones and robotic cops to really pull you back into line. (Then throw in the fact that we are all living longer, and imagine a world with a 150-year old dictator clinging on to power and refusing to move on. Thanks, Craig Wing, for tying amortality together with digital dictatorships. )

This is also the most likely scenario – China’s social credit score system could be seen as a test-run for this kind of technocracy. The Chinese government has databases on the DNA, voices, faces and even the gaits of its citizens (this means they can recognise you even if you have a paper bag over your head, just by the way you walk), they use this data along with financial and online activity to score citizens, scores determine access to jobs, accommodation, and transport.

But it’s’ not just communist one-party states jumping on the Big Brother bandwagon. Power is irresistible, wherever you look. The EU’s recent moves towards Internet censorship and central control, combined with it’s increasing surveillance of street, cellphone and internet activity indicate a similar move towards automated governance; while the UK is now the most-watched country on earth — it has 4.2 million CCTV cameras — one for every 14 people

The new WMD

As Cathy of Neil wrote in Weapons Of Math Destruction, in the future, the privileged will be processed by people, the masses by machines. That goes for governance as well as business.

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