1. Critical Social-Technological Points
I want introduce the idea of a critical social-technological point (CSTP). A CSTP is a technological discovery or implementation after which the existing hierarchies and ruling class of a society is locked, in the sense that removing them from power, or even resisting them in any measurably important way, becomes much more difficult.
Saying that a technology is a CSTP is different from saying it is an inherently authoritarian technology- A CSTP generally only threatens authoritarianism if it is reached in an already pretty authoritarian society.
Examples of possible CSTP’s include:
1. Genetic engineering. Genetic engineering could be used to lock in the existence of an unequal power structure by genetically writing in obedience to the underclass, (or it could be used to lock in vibrant democracy by amplifying the human tendency to treat power critically).
2. Surveillance technology. While the mere existence of widespread surveillance has not locked in authoritarianism a la 1984, the creation of artificial intelligences capable of monitoring all surveillance channels for disobedience simultaneously might. If such technologies are successfully deployed by existing illiberal intelligence apparatuses, the capacity for resisting power is greatly reduced, and those apparatuses might become impossible to dislodge.
3. The creation of artificial super intelligence. Writers like Nick Bostrom have worried a great deal about an out of control artificial super-intelligence totally out of control of humanity gaining a decisive strategic advantage. This is indeed terrifying, but only slightly less terrifying is the prospect of an artificial superintelligence under the control of the wrong segment of humanity gaining a decisive strategic advantage on behalf of its masters.
4. I have previously suggested that, even in the absence of technological unemployment as such, automation might represent a critical change in the balance of class power and thus a CSTP, permanently removing much of the power of the working class to resist.
2. Past CSTP-lite phenomena
If the thrust of the above is correct, a lot of potential CSTP’s are coming up soon. You might rightly wonder if there has been anything like a CSTP in the past? Obviously not in a permanent form because there is, at present, no almost omnipotent ruling class, and probably not as sudden and dramatic as some of the possibilities I outlined above- but something along those lines?
While I am not an antiquarian a few possible candidates include:
1. The invention of agriculture generally.
3. The invention of the chariot
4. The discovery of bronze working
3. What must we do?
The nature of CTSP’s is that they our sight as to what the future looks like past them. Technological advance is inherently hard to predict, as are social confrontation- and the combination forms a cataract in our already cloudy view of the future. Nonetheless, I think that, cumulatively, between the four possible cases I described, we have enough evidence to believe that one or more CTSP’s are approaching.
The more power ordinary people have, and the more accountability to which elites are subject, the better our chances are. The creation of a culture of real, conscious democracy in which we jointly and responsibly decide the future- in which bodies like the military and intelligence cannot simply always plead secrecy- in which the spoils of advancing automation is something we all share in, rather than being immiserated by- is an urgent necessity.