If you ask most people to rank the biggest existential threats to civilization, you might get a list like this:
- Resource scarcity
- Political Instability
- Climate change
- Viruses and superbugs
- Stuff hitting us from space
- Aliens from space
But I submit to you that the biggest existential threat to civilization,
not to humanity per se, is actually technology (or human ingenuity in the broadest sense)
Like primitive man receiving fire from Prometheus, our unfortunate compulsion to create is what puts civilization at the biggest peril of burning Rome down and becoming some kind of Buckminster Fuller-esque dystopia (for the owners of the current system that is)
WITH INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY, ALTERNATE VERSIONS OF REALITY CAN EXIST:
Morley Safer was vilified as a young reporter in Vietnam for showing soldiers burning huts- it was bad press and hurt the war effort. Note the fitting watermark of ownership by Getty and CBS.
Nowadays, there are forces that allow everyone with a smartphone to update their non-sanctioned versions of reality for any political agenda. We cannot count on manufactured opinion as reliably as information becomes more freely available. How can you charge for news and manufacture consensus if it becomes democratized and distributed?
WWII had Audie Murphy, Frank Capra and Leni Reifenstahl to run public opinion. Although veteran and civilian PTSD was as real as the atrocities of that war, the spin doctors were free from criticism despite two nuclear bombings of cities, gratuitous firebombing of Dresden and German infrastructure, and so many other things you could not possible fathom.
WITH TECH, WATER COULD BE THE MOST ABUNDANT THING ON THE PLANET:
People are too smart. They improve water purification at an alarming rate! How can we maintain profits if clear water becomes free?
WITH TECH, WE COULD ALL GROW FREE FOOD? (NO THANKS, COMRADE…)
Urban vertical farming with drip irrigation and special lights can be far too efficient and if it ever becomes distributed to the masses, it would be ruinous to agribusiness.
WHAT KIND OF BUSINESS PLAN IS “FREE ENERGY”? HOW WOULD PEOPLE LEARN THE VALUE OF HARD WORK?
Portugal just ran its grid for 4 days straight on renewable energy! How can you maintain utility business with that kind of a business model?
THEN THERE ARE THESE IDIOTS, GIVING PEOPLE A 3 for 1 FREEBEE OF WATER, ELECTRICITY, and WI-FI!
The inventor wants a Nobel Prize! How about a one way ticket to the Gulag or the Palookaville that Nicola Tesla died in?
You may think this post is a bit facetious but in fact, it can be taken at absolute face value. The greatest mechanism for an organized and controlled civilization is feudalism and that can only be run on fear of poverty, hierarchical social structure, and perpetual conflict.
Yearly, the US alone spends $598 billion (54%) of our budget and another $100 billion on international affairs and veterans benefits. This kind of spending is the only thing keeping our civilization afloat because it is the only opaque and efficient way that we can destroy the over-productivity that technology is brought us.
If we didn’t have soldiers in 147 countries, we might have too much surplus wealth and leisure time and that would only serve to increase the unfortunate urge of the tyrannical masses to participate in their own governance rather than live in fear of poverty, fear of sharing, and the threat of terrorism.
I recently read an amazing George Bernard Shaw Play called Major Barbara, written in 1905, about an arms dealer father, UNDERSHAFT, who is reunited with his estranged children and wife. He was born a “foundling” of low birth but was hand-picked to be the 7th generation CEO of an international arms manufacturing conglomerate, in the model of the Antonine Roman Emperors, who never chose their kin to succeed them to such an important enterprise as total control of the Roman Empire.
He openly shares his Mel Gibson-esque conspiracy of weilding absolute power for its own sake and his partnership with the international creditor Lazarus. He claims to run the entire government and that his company has done so since the era of selling war bonds and cannons to Napoleon to fight the British.
When his estranged son, Stephen, speaks of loyalty to the notion of Britain, his death merchant and atheist father disabuses him on his naivete in this exchange:
STEPHEN [springing up again] I am sorry, sir, that you force me to forget the respect due to you as my father. I am an Englishman; and I will not hear the Government of my country insulted. [He thrusts his hands in his pockets, and walks angrily across to the window].
UNDERSHAFT [with a touch of brutality] The government of your country! I am the government of your country: I, and Lazarus. Do you suppose that you and half a dozen amateurs like you, sitting in a row in that foolish gabble shop, can govern Undershaft and Lazarus? No, my friend: you will do what pays US. You will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesn’t. You will find out that trade requires certain measures when we have decided on those measures. When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need. When other people want something to keep my dividends down, you will call out the police and military. And in return you shall have the support and applause of my newspapers, and the delight of imagining that you are a great statesman. Government of your country! Be off with you, my boy, and play with your caucuses and leading articles and historic parties and great leaders and burning questions and the rest of your toys. I am going back to my counting house to pay the piper and call the tune.
To his daughter, Barbara, who begins the play as a righteous Salvation Army Major, he explains that the child support he paid protected her from the realities of life that make it impossible to enjoy in abundance.
UNDERSHAFT. I fed you and clothed you and housed you. I took care that you should have money enough to live handsomely—more than enough; so that you could be wasteful, careless, generous. That saved your soul from the seven deadly sins.
BARBARA [bewildered] The seven deadly sins!
UNDERSHAFT. Yes, the deadly seven. [Counting on his fingers] Food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability and children. Nothing can lift those seven millstones from Man’s neck but money; and the spirit cannot soar until the millstones are lifted. I lifted them from your spirit. I enabled Barbara to become Major Barbara; and I saved her from the crime of poverty.
And to the point of how Undershaft maintains social order, he explains that it is scarcity in the presence of hierarchical aspiration that keeps people in line:
BARBARA. Do they obey all your orders?
UNDERSHAFT. I never give them any orders. When I speak to one of them it is “Well, Jones, is the baby doing well? and has Mrs Jones made a good recovery?” “Nicely, thank you, sir.” And that’s all.
CUSINS. But Jones has to be kept in order. How do you maintain discipline among your men?
UNDERSHAFT. I don’t. They do. You see, the one thing Jones won’t stand is any rebellion from the man under him, or any assertion of social equality between the wife of the man with 4 shillings a week less than himself and Mrs Jones! Of course they all rebel against me, theoretically. Practically, every man of them keeps the man just below him in his place. I never meddle with them. I never bully them. I don’t even bully Lazarus. I say that certain things are to be done; but I don’t order anybody to do them. I don’t say, mind you, that there is no ordering about and snubbing and even bullying. The men snub the boys and order them about; the car men snub the sweepers; the artisans snub the unskilled laborers; the foremen drive and bully both the laborers and artisans; the assistant engineers find fault with the foremen; the chief engineers drop on the assistants; the departmental managers worry the chiefs; and the clerks have tall hats and hymnbooks and keep up the social tone by refusing to associate on equal terms with anybody. The result is a colossal profit, which comes to me.
So what is the GB Shaw play revealing to us in an era before the automobile, the nuclear submarine, and CNN? That the rules have never changed and that the game remains scarcity, war, credit, and social control through fear and the mirage of social mobility.
But if technology continues to improve in efficiency and increase abundance of information, water, energy, and food, then civilization may descend into anarchy unless people can be convinced, against all the accumulating evidence, that there are things that can’t simply cannot be achieved in our time: such as peace, brotherhood, freedom, equality, and surplus production owned by sovereign individuals.
Napoleon was beloved throughout Europe for breaking up the 1,000 year reign of the Holy Roman Empire’s duchies and bringing the hope of a mankind free from serfdom. But this disruption was easily overcome by corporate servitude, the capitalist/communist dialectic, and the illusion of upward potential mobility.
But masters of the universe be forewarned: yes, technology is great because it allows for efficiency with regard to capital flow, manufacturing offshoring, and free market manipulation. But crony capitalism may prove its own greatest enemy if the economic infrastructure representing the middle class, or the very trunk of the tree upon which their treehouses are built, becomes too diseased.
In their efforts to maintain control and decrease wealth among the rivals for power, they may be going to too far. You can’t let the petty bourgeoisie get too strong with the overabundance produced by technology, but then again, you can’t decimate it either and then hope to be sustainable.
Thank god we still suppress the notion of preventing aging and disease by protecting our stem cells from telomere erosion! If we lived too long, we may become too moral to conduct civilization properly. You see, like anyone that has lived in a small town will tell you, there are no liars and everyone behaves well. Well if you live too long, you make a lot of enemies so the entire world becomes a small town. Immortality cures immorality, as George Bernard Shaw also argued in Back to Methuselah. That guy was pretty ahead of his time!