I don’t know if you noticed, but the world is in a pretty bad way at the moment for various reasons. Still, there are some gems to be had in the rapidly depleting “reasons to be cheerful” pile. Pulling out one at random here: most people would say no matter how invasive and underhand our surveillance has gotten, at least we’re not living out George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Or if you’re in “the glass is half empty, and it’s poisoned” brigade, you might adjust that to say “we’re not there yet.” You wouldn’t take Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to be of that pessimistic strain of thinking, but even he sees that the many ways technology can demonstrably make the world better are carefully balanced by those that will make it worse. “There are unintended consequences of technology,” Nadella said. “I do believe that it is up to us to ensure that some of the more dystopian scenarios don’t come true.”
“What Orwell prophesied in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where technology was being used to monitor, control, dictate, or what Huxley [in A Brave New World] imagined we may do just by distracting ourselves without any meaning or purpose — neither of these futures is something that we want.”
(That’s not a controversial opinion, of course, but if we get a choice, I want it on record that I sign up for the Huxley option every time.)
“The future of computing is going to be defined by the choices that you as developers make and the impact of those choices on the world,” Nadella continued.
This is true, of course, but it’s one of those things that reads better than it is in practice. Societal changes, like the adaptations made between builds of software, are incremental, and it’s almost always impossible to see the cumulative changes until it’s too late. What’s more, a single developer has only slightly more influence in changing a project’s direction than you or I have in swinging next month’s general election with our single vote.
“I think it starts with us taking accountability,” Nadella explained, outlining his vision for how the worst examples of dystopia can be averted. “Taking accountability for the algorithms we create, the experiences that we create, and ensuring that there is more trust in technology with each day.”
It should be noted that Microsoft later went on to demo software that monitors employees at all times, and uses AI to make sure they don’t pick up tools they’re not supposed to use.
While there are certainly elements of both Orwell and Huxley’s dystopic worlds in our current technology, the bigger danger is perhaps on the horizon with the advent of artificial intelligence. Not only would AI help enable the kind of state surveillance that Orwell feared a lot more manageable, but there’s also the open question of what humans will do without work. And we don’t have A Brave New World’s Feelies to distract us yet, either.