The Making of Dystopia

Technology - that child of modern science, which in turn is a child of modern metaphysics - is out of humanity’s control, has ceased to serve us, has enslaved us and compelled us to participate in the preparation of our own destruction…. We look on helplessly as that coldly functioning machine we have created inevitably engulfs us, tearing us away from our natural affiliations (for instance, from our habitat in the widest sense of the word, including our habitat in the biosphere) just as it removes us from the experience of ‘being’ and casts us into the world of ‘existences.' [1]


As we continue to separate ourselves from direct experience of the earth and the heavens, the hierarchy of techno-scientism advances. This creates astounding problems for a society that is supposed to be democratic.

In democracies, by definition, all [men and women] should have a say about technological developments that may profoundly change, even threaten, their lives: [...], to name only a few. And yet, in order to participate fully in discussions of the implications of these technologies one must have training in at least physics, psychology, biology, philosophy, economics, and social and political theory. Any of these technologies has profound influence in all those areas. Because most of us are not so trained, all discussion takes place among our unelected surrogates [a substitute], professionals and 'experts'.

They don’t have this full range of training either, but they do have one particular vision - the vision prevailing among the intellectual and political elite of our time.  What is important about that vision are not only its particular assumptions and their corollaries [something that results from something else], but also the fact that it is a prevailing vision - which means that its assumptions are so much taken for granted by so many people, including so-called 'thinking people,' that neither those assumptions nor their corollaries are generally confronted with demands for empirical evidence. Indeed, empirical evidence itself may be viewed as suspect, insofar as it is inconsistent with that vision.

Discordant evidence may be dismissed as isolated anomalies, or as something tendentiously selected by opponents, or it may be explained away ad hoc by a theory having no empirical support whatever - except that this ad hoc theory is able to sustain itself and gain acceptance because it is consistent with the overall vision. What must first be considered are the reasons behind such tactics, why it is so necessary to believe in a particular vision that evidence of its incorrectness is ignored, suppressed, or discredited-ultimately, why one's quest is not for reality but for a vision. What does the vision offer that reality does not offer? [1]

[2] Thomas Sowell [28 Jun. 1996]. The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. Basic Books, pp. 1-3.


'What a vision may offer, and what the prevailing vision of our time emphatically does offer, is a special state of grace for those who believe in it. Those who accept this vision are deemed to be not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane.'



Part One


That our society would tend to view new technologies favorably is understandable. The first waves of news concerning any technical innovation are invariably positive and optimistic. That's because, in our society, the information is purveyed by those who stand to gain from our acceptance of it: corporations and their retainers in the government and scientific communities. None is motivated to report the negative sides of new technologies, so the public gets its first insights and expectations from sources that are clearly biased.

Over time, as successive generations of idealised technical innovations are introduced and presented .... in futurists' visions, and in hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of advertising, we develop expectations of a technological utopia here on Earth and in great domed cities in space. We begin to equate technological evolution with evolution itself, as though the two were equally inevitable, and virtually identical. The operating homilies [tedious  moralising lectures] become 'Progress is good,' 'There's no turning back,' and 'Technology will free humans from disease, strife, and unremitting toil.' Debate on these subjects is inhibited by the fact that views of technology in our society are nearly identical across the political and social spectrum. The Left takes the same view of technology as do corporations, futurists, and the Right. Technology, they all say, is neutral. It has no inherent politics, no inevitable social or environmental consequences. What matters, according to this view, is who controls technology.

I have attended dozens of conferences in the last ten years on the future of technology. At every one, whether sponsored by government, industry, or environmentalists or other activists, someone will address the assembly with something like this: 'There are many problems with technology and we need to acknowledge them, but the problems are not rooted to the technologies themselves. They are caused by the way we have chosen to use them. We can do better. We must do better. Machines don't cause problems, people do.' This is always said as if it were an original and profound idea, when actually everyone else is saying exactly the same thing.

As we will see, the idea that technology is neutral is itself not neutral - it directly serves the interests of the people who benefit from our inability to see where the juggernaut is headed.


'The first waves of news concerning any technical innovation are invariably positive and optimistic. That's because, in our society, the information is purveyed by those who stand to gain from our acceptance of it: corporations and their retainers in the government and scientific communities. None is motivated to report the negative sides of new technologies....'



I only began to glimpse the problem during the 1960s when I saw how excited our society became about the presumed potentials of television. Activists, like everyone else, saw the technology opportunistically, and began to vie with other segments of society for their twenty seconds on the network news. A kind of war developed for access to this powerful new instrument that spoke pictures into the brains of the whole population, but the outcome was predetermined. We should have realized it was a foregone conclusion that TV technology would inevitably be controlled by corporations, the government, and the military.

Because of the technology's geographic scale, its cost, the astounding power of its imagery, and its ability to homogenise [make uniform or similar] thought, behavior, and culture, large corporations found television uniquely efficient for ingraining a way of life that served [and still serves] their interests. And in times of national crisis, the government and military find TV a perfect instrument for the centralised control of information and consciousness. Meanwhile, all other contenders for control of the medium have effectively fallen by the wayside.

Now we have the frenzy over computers, which, in theory, can empower individuals and small groups and produce a new information democracy. In fact ... the issue of who benefits most from computers was already settled when they were invented. Computers, like television, are far more valuable and helpful to the military, to multinational corporations, to international banking, to governments, and to institutions of surveillance and control - all of whom use this technology on a scale and with a speed that are beyond our imaginings - than they ever will be to you and me.

Even environmentalists have contributed to the problem by failing to effectively criticise technical evolution despite its obvious. growing, and inherent bias against nature. I fear that the ultimate direction of technology will become vividly clear to us only after we have popped out of the 'information age' - which does have a kind of benevolent ring - and realise what is at stake in the last ... big 'wilderness intervention' battleground: the genetic structures of living creatures. From there, it's on to the  'postbiological age' of nanotechnology and robotics, whose advocates don't even pretend to care about the natural world. They think it's silly and out of date.

In the end, we can see that technological evolution is leading to something new: a worldwide, interlocked, monolithic, technical-political web of unprecedented negative implications.


'... [As] the world hurtles toward its greatest environmental crisis since the dawn of human life, a crisis driven by the insatiable need to feed resources to the technological machine, and to consume them as commodities, we are at an appropriate moment to question whether this path we have chosen and celebrated has lived up to its promise, and if not, if it ever will.'



Given the celebratory claims of the 1940s and 1950s [and since] concerning the utopia that would result if our society vaulted itself into the new technological age, it's clear that we need some standards of measurement to compare the claims with the results. 

If even a small percent of the expectations had proven true, we'd be well on the way to becoming the first industrial-technological-scientific paradise on Earth. Over the last fifty years, new technologies have been advertised as enhancing happiness, freedom, empowerment, health, and physical comfort; or else as reducing toil, while also providing jobs, serving democracy, and making life more beautiful and pleasant. Over time the aggregate of such assertions created our technotopian fantasies of unlimited expectations. We believed them in the 1940s and 1950s, and we still believe them now. But have these promises been realised? And by what standards do we judge the success or the failure of the path we have followed? 

I suppose that in order to be considered even minimally successful, a society must keep its population healthy, peaceful, and contented. All members should have sufficient food to eat, a place to live, and a sense of participation in a shared community purpose. Everyone should have access to the collective wisdom and knowledge of the society, and should expect that life will be spiritually and emotionally fulfilling for themselves and for future generations. This in turn implies awareness, care, and respect for the earth's life-support systems. Obviously, anyone could quibble about certain points on this list, or wish to add others, but to me they seem to be a basic minimum. And since it's been [more tham] half a century that this technological vision has been aggressively hyped, now is a good time to compare its promise with its performance.

People who celebrate technology say it has brought us an improved standard of living, which means greater speed [people can travel faster and obtain more objects and information sooner], greater choice [often equated with freedom of choice, which usually refers to the ability to choose among jobs and commodities], greater leisure [because technology has supposedly eased the burden and time involved in work], and greater luxury [more commodities and increased material comfort]. 

None of these benefits informs us about human satisfaction, happiness, security, or the ability to sustain life on Earth. Perhaps getting places more quickly makes some people more contented or fulfilled, but I'm not so sure. Nor am I convinced that greater choice of commodities in the marketplace qualifies as satisfying compared with, say, love and friendship and meaningful work. Nor do I believe that choice equals 'freedom,' if one defines the latter as a sense that one has true control over one's own mind and experience.

As for leisure, I believe that what passes for leisure in our society is actually time-filling: watching television or buying things. Many writers have argued that given the consequences of automation and robotics, most free time may soon be spent searching for increasingly scarce jobs. And as Marshall Sahlins and others have pointed out ... stone-age societies had more than twice the amount of leisure time we do today, which they used to pursue spiritual matters, personal relationships, and pleasure. Finally, people such as I van Illich have said that if you include the time needed to earn money to pay for and repair all the expensive 'time-saving' gadgets in our lives, modern technology actually deprives us of time.

In addition to improved standard of living, another argument for the success of the technological path concerns the contributions of modern medicine. There is no disagreeing that modern medicine, though it has not produced eternal life as was predicted by the world's fairs of the 1940s [and in 2020], has contributed to longevity. Combined with antibiotic technology, sanitation, and improved diagnostics, modern medicine has improved life expectancy in the technologically advanced parts of the world.

On the other hand, critics such as Illich argue that modern medicine may be a double-edged sword. By separating people from traditional holistic self-care practices, and by dubious medical interventions with drugs and surgery, modern medicine may cause as much disease as it cures. Other critics suggest that Western medicine cannot be separated from the whole web of technologies that are its parents and children: computers, certain reproductive interventions, biotechnology, and genetics, all of which are problematic in some way. Still others say that length of life is meaningless as compared with quality of life, which, due to increasing pollution and devastation brought on by technological overdevelopment, is now in sharp decline. The trend toward longer life may soon be reversed.


'If the first half of the twentieth century was the era of the technical engineers, the second half may well be the era of the social engineers — and the twenty-first century, I suppose, will be the era of World Controllers, the scientific caste system and Brave New World.'



But conceding that technology, on the whole, aids longer life and that this is good, what other measurements exist? How else can we assess the impact of the technological path upon happiness, security, contentment, well-being, and a sense of faith in the future? These are very difficult to measure, but some statistics from [U.K. government] agencies may tell us something, at least about the level of personal contentment in this country. Though the figures vary for other Western nations - crime statistics, for example, are far lower in many countries - I think it is relevant to offer these numbers, since the [U.K. is one of the mecca's for technological expansion since the 1950's.]

According to the UK Parliament, 'during the first two decades of the 20th century the police in England and Wales recorded an average of 90,000 indictable offences each year, a figure which increased to over 500,000 during the 1950s. The crime rate consequently quadrupled from 250 crimes per 100,000 people in 1901 to 1,000 by 1950. But the history of crime in the 20th century is dominated by the even sharper rise in offences recorded by the police since the late 1950s. During the 1960s there was acceleration in recorded crime: it was the only decade in the century where crime doubled. Crime continued to rise according to this measure for much of the remainder of the 20th century, with an average of over one million crimes recorded each year in the 1960s, increasing to two million during the 1970s, and 3.5m in the 1980s.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics [ONS] show 'the number of homicides increased from around 300 per year in the early 1960s to consistently over 700 in the early years of this century. This was at a faster rate than population growth over the same period, with the rate of homicide increasing from around 6 per million population in the early 1960s to 15.1 by the year ending March 2002; the charity ‘Rape Crisis’ has reported 1 in 4 women being raped or sexually assaulted as an adult and the highest number of rape cases reported to the police in march 2022 was 70,330. The overall statistics in England and Wales found that 85,000 women experience rape, attempted rape or sexual assault every year; and in a study by the The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children [NSPCC] suggests around 1 in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused.

2022 figures published by The House of Commons Library reported that 'the average annual prison population quadrupled between 1900 and 2022, going from just over 17,400 to around 78,500. The prison population was relatively stable between 1915 and 1945, after which point it began to grow steadily. After a short period in the early 1990s when it decreased for four consecutive years, it rose steeply again in the subsequent decade and a half. Since 2015, the average prison population has remained relatively stable, with a decline in the last few years as a result of the [plandemic] ... The projections forecast that the prison population will be around 98,700 by June 2026.'

As has been widely reported, mental health problems in the UK, are at epidemic levels and growing. [l'his is also true in most parts of the industrialised world.] For example, every week in England, 6 in 100 people will be diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder [Mind] and over 8 million people are experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time [Mental Health UK]; around 1 in 6 adults in the UK are experiencing depression [ONS] with women twice as likely to experience depression than men [Streb et al., 2021]; one in 14 UK adults [7%] feel stressed every single day [CIPHR] and 74% of people feel so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope [Mental Health Foundation and YouGov]; over 700,000 people take their own life each year – that’s one person every 40 seconds [World Health Organization] with males aged 45-49 having the highest suicide rate [Samaritans], 1 in 5 people have suicidal thoughts [NHS Digital], and 1 in 14 people self-harm [NHS Digital].

Whatever else can be said about these statistics, they are surely not indications of general contentment, or that human needs are being satisfied.

Of course, some people are doing well. [...] So much for the egalitarian aspects of rapid technological expansion.


'And the lie has, in fact, led us so far away from a normal society that you cannot even orient yourself any longer; in its dense, gray fog not even one pillar can be seen.'

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


I believe an objective observer - an 'anthropologist from antiquity, perhaps -would conclude that our society is not functioning very well. Considering the violence, self-destruction, drug abuse, insanity, unequal distribution of wealth, and failure to provide freedom from fear, an observer would surely label the whole situation a failure. Can we blame technology for this? Only partly. But given that the promoters of technology claimed it would solve precisely these problems, it is worth noting how short of utopia the machines have left us-and, as we will see, how many problems technology has actually caused. [42]


'Human beings have forgotten a great truth. But you must never forget it. You will always be responsible for which you have tamed.'

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince


Part Two

The Folly of Scientism

Only four letters, 'tism,' separate scientism from science, but that small slip twixt the cup and the lip [1] is the cause of all our current problems relating to worldview and the human spirit. Science is on balance good, whereas nothing good can be said for scientism. 

Everything depends on definitions here, for this chapter will fall apart if the distinction between science and scientism is allowed to slip from view. To get those definitions right requires cutting through the swarm of thoughts, images, sentiments, and vested interests that circle the word science today to arrive at the only definition of the word that I take to be incontrovertible - namely, that science is what has changed our world. Accompanied by technology [its spin-off], modern science is what divides modern from traditional societies and civilizations. Its content is the body of facts about the natural world that the scientific method has brought to light, the crux of that method being the controlled experiment with its capacity to winnow true from false hypotheses about the empirical world. 

Scientism adds to science two corollaries [something that results from something else]: first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at truth, then at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with - material entities - are the most fundamental things that exist. These two corollaries are seldom voiced, for once they are brought to attention it is not difficult to see that they are arbitrary. Unsupported by facts, they are at best philosophical assumptions and at worst merely opinions.

This [chapter] will be peppered with instances of scientism, and one of Freud’s assertions can head the parade: 'Our science is not illusion, but an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.' Our ethos teeters precariously on sandy foundations such as this. 

So important and undernoticed is this fact that I shall devote another paragraph to stating it more concretely. For the knowledge class in our industrialised Western civilisation, it has come to seem self-evident that the scientific account of the world gives us its full story and that the supposed transcendent realities of which religions speak are at best doubtful. If in any way our hopes, dreams, intuitions, glimpses of transcendence, intimations of immortality, and mystical experiences break step with this view of things, they are overshadowed by the scientific account. 

Yet history is a graveyard for outlooks that were once taken for granted. Today’s common sense becomes tomorrow’s laughingstock; time makes ancient truth uncouth. Einstein defined common sense as what we are taught by the age of six, or perhaps fourteen in the case of complex ideas. Wisdom begins with the recognition that our presuppositions are options that can be examined and replaced if found wanting. [2]

[1] There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip is an English proverb. It implies that even when a good outcome or conclusion seems certain, things can still go wrong, similar in meaning to 'don't count your chickens before they hatch'
[2] Huston Smith [2000].Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, San Francisco: Harper.

Science and the Soul of Modern Man

Cover Image: Blade Runner [1982]. An adaptation of Philip K. Dick's [1928 – 1982] novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [1968]. Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth.
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