Will the future be ‘virtual’? Novelist Cory Doctorow shares his thoughts at UC San Diego for Calit2 lecture in La Jolla
What do you see when you look into the future of La Jolla? The United States? The world? How will things be? What will people be doing? Will the growing force of technology lead to global well-being and a state of utopia, where all are cared for with equal access to resources, as mankind has dreamed about for millennia?
Or ... will the looming threat of ecological and financial disaster, along with technological overload, bring about a dystopia; a dysfunctional society filled with pollution, environmental degradation, inequity, loss of privacy/personal freedom and ongoing war-like strife?
Most people are not thinking about these possible scenarios, but there are a few individuals who are, and they’ve taken on the responsibility of being watchdogs on the future.
Canadian novelist, essayist, journalist and activist, Cory Doctorow, is one. He spoke at the Calit2 Auditorium at UC San Diego, Feb. 9, 2018 in connection with the Calit2 Art Gallery Show, “Network Error,” by Trish Stone, the gallery curator and a teacher in the Visual Arts Department; as part of UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.
Doctorow, whose many awards include Locus, Prometheus, Copper Cylinder, White Pine, and Sunburst, has also been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and British Science Fiction Prizes, and has an honorary doctorate in computer science from the Open University of the UK.
Stone said she was reading Doctorow’s “Walkaway,” a futuristic novel about life in dystopian Canada, as she installed her exhibit, which is a kind of virtual protest about where things are going in this country. With the help of the university’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, Stone was able to bring Doctorow on campus to speak.
“Walkaway” is the story of two over-the-hill Canadians, Hubert and Seth, who are trying to hold onto their youth as they confront the ecological and financial disasters that have overtaken Canada and the rest of the world. In the end, their resolution of the problems they face is to use technology to assuage the horrors of their daily life. They link their brains to a computer and live on, in an idyllic state of virtual reality.
The connection to Stone’s exhibit is that her art is a method of social protest that also uses virtual reality. “I think there’s something wrong with the way things are going in this country,” Stone explained. “I want to protest about it, but I’m a very shy person and afraid to go out there and confront the barricades and potential violence of police brutality.
“So I manufactured small toy soldier images of myself holding protest banners with the help of a 3D-computer, and I took those figurines to different places, like the Bank of America building in Normal Heights, arranged them on a folding table, and staged a virtual protest. I was very fearful that I would get into trouble, but thank goodness nothing happened.”
Stone’s husband and Visual Arts professor, Michael Trigilio, introduced Doctorow, who read from “Walkaway,” and then spoke on the topic: “Scarcity, Abundance, and the Finite Planet: Nothing Exceeds like Excess.”
Doctorow talked about our two possible futures. In one, technology makes a few people very rich and condenses power in the hands of a few, but also raises the standard of living of the whole world (which seems to be happening today, dire poverty is othe decline). In this future, more people will be comfortable and will have more leisure time, as robots and androids take over work roles and difficult tasks.
In the other, Doctorow warned, there is the possibility of rampant ecological disasters, financial turmoil, and intense government intervention in peoples’ lives, which he termed “surveillance capitalism.”
Doctorow touched on topics such as the rise of Facebook, pointing out how the social media site is gleaning peoples’ interests for use by corporations. He mentioned how the Internet has linked the world and made it possible for fringe groups, such as the Flat Earth Society or the Climate Denial people, to come together from far away locations.
Doctorow predicted that “Singularity” — the state when artificial intelligence and quantum computers are on par with or linked with human intelligence — is only 20 years away. And he predicted a rise in the use of human genome by specialty doctors/scientists, who the very rich will employ to extend their lives and free them of illness and aging.
Erik Viirre, a medical doctor at UCSD and the co-director of the The Arthur Clarke Center, attended the lecture. His take on things? “We don’t know whether technology will delivery us or destroy us,” Viire said. “Luckily, we have people like Doctorow to be our watchdogs, looking into every aspect of the issue and telling us his findings by way of his novels and stories.”
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