The IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year by revisiting its accomplishments and the people behind them. Look on the SSIT website for timelines with key milestones and a set of oral histories. Attend our conferences and chapter meetings to participate in sessions on anniversary topics. As we reflect on our rich past, this is also a perfect time to think about the future.
Predicting the distant future is a fool’s errand, but discussing it is both fun and absolutely necessary. From informed projections, speculative fiction, and the historical record, we already know some of the influential forces and historical human responses. Let us browse a few such writings from a prior tumultuous time starting a century ago, just after World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, and some 50 years before the founding of SSIT.
Predicting the distant future is a fool’s errand, but discussing it is both fun and absolutely necessary.
The novelist Wells  imagines a possible better future society governed by the principles of privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion. Scientific research flourishes, and sectarian religion and politics have withered away. In this realized anarchy, “our education is our government” [1, p. 32]. This is one of the string of utopian books by Wells that imagines distant futures in which the world seems to be heading toward catastrophe until people find a better path, usually “directed by middle-class scientists and engineers” .
Historian and politician Churchill  is an avid reader of Wells, but not utopian. Churchill  anticipates the widespread adoption of telecommuting, synthetic food, robots, genetic editing, commodified energy, and nuclear weapons, while despairing our ability to govern humanely through such changes. “We have the spectacle of the powers and weapons of man far outstripping the march of his intelligence; we have the march of his intelligence proceeding far more rapidly than the development of his nobility” [3, p. 67]. He doubts the strength of man’s character and the efficacy of his institutions .
Writer and philosopher Huxley  deals with similar issues when imagining a future with a genetically manipulated and, therefore, highly hierarchal human society. He intends Brave New World to be a sardonic retort to the longstanding techno-optimism of Wells . Wells responds, in 1933, with the even more hopeful The Shape of Things to Come that has the distinction of accurately predicting the start of World War II within four months . Punditry and fiction blend seamlessly in this debate . Essayist Chesterton  frames the debate as a reasonable “revolt against utopia” given then-failing economies and political systems, but adds that “something better has not collapsed,” that being basic human decency.
Nineteen Eighty-Four remains salient.
Then World War II starts. Huxley’s one-time student Orwell  writes that “a crude book like The Iron Heel [Jack London’s 1908 novel imagining a dystopian America], … is a truer prophecy of the future than either Brave New World or The Shape of Things to Come.” Millions die in Europe, and atomic bombs explode over Japan by 1945. British India undergoes a bloody partition on the route to independence in 1947, Gandhi is assassinated in 1948, China concludes a civil war, with the communists sweeping to power in 1949, and apartheid becomes official policy in South Africa in 1949. Basic human decency seems to have gone missing. Orwell  uses fiction to anticipate what happens when a totalitarian regime gains access to powerful and omnipresent technologies. Churchill reads and praises Orwell’s book, and Orwell politely reciprocates .
While motivated by Soviet-style communism and Nazi fascism, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains salient as we discover technologically fueled authoritarian potentials in every political system. In a letter to Orwell, Huxley  writes—one pessimist critiquing another—that “the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power” by pursuing seductive and psychological tools as imagined by Huxley rather than “boot-on-the-face” policies as imagined by Orwell. Unfortunately, in reality, both continue in widespread use.
Where do these historical debates take us? Their political and economic contexts are similar to ours, and even the list of technological issues is familiar. Many decades later, institutions still feel shaky, economies remain inequitable, geopolitics are increasingly multipolar, and societies are riven by technological change. Telecommuting, synthetic food, robots, genetic editing, commodity energy, and nuclear weapons are here. Behavioral nudges, manipulative social media, and state-sanctioned violence are here. If Churchill, Huxley, and Orwell are right about the inefficacy of human institutions, we can expect problems associated with technological disruption to persist throughout the next 50 years.
Many decades later, institutions still feel shaky, economies remain inequitable, geopolitics are increasingly multipolar, and societies are riven by technological change.
But is there any way in which Wells’ old-fashioned optimism could still contribute, perhaps by asking us to identify more constructive roles for “middle-class scientists and engineers?” What can our technical community do to enhance human decency and humane institutions?
Churchill, the pragmatic historian, recommends that we should study history primarily to understand our contingencies and to anticipate the future we should simply extrapolate from current conditions . He observes that successful coping comes from developing “an absolutely new comprehension of the dominant facts of the situation at the time, and all the forces at work” . Extrapolating forward from today, I can imagine members of the SSIT community doing just that, by working to comprehend new problems at the interface of technology and society as they emerge, and by reinforcing our common humanity. Let us invigorate today’s debates with clear-eyed optimism.
Clinton J. Andrews is the President of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology. He is a professor and the Associate Dean for Research with the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA. Email: email@example.com
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