‘Dystopian future’ unless we learn to connect, say scientists

Globalisation and technology risk pushing the world in into a demoralised, de-humanised state through the widespread dissemination of negative, as well as positive, messages through social media.

Leading economists, scientists and technology experts warn that unless we learn to manage globalisation and our increasingly interconnected world more effectively, we face a ‘dystopian future’. They envision a world in which groups such as ISIS will take advantage of the systemic risks and vulnerabilities we have created.

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Professor Ian Goldin, Director of Oxford University’s Martin Centre, is one of the world’s leading experts on globalisation. One of his messages at OEB in Berlin in December is that although we are in the midst of a “new renaissance,” in which the spread of ideas, innovation, and change is rapidly advancing, “… one shouldn’t assume that technologies always give rise to good outcomes…”

Goldin, a former Vice-President of the World Bank and adviser to the late President Mandela of South Africa, argues that after the revolution created by the Internet in science and society, one of the biggest challenges facing humankind is to learn to manage our connectedness more effectively.

“There have been vast improvements, not only in living standards, but also in health, freedoms, etc. That’s really come about by ideas travelling: from simple ideas that washing your hands prevents communicable diseases to complicated ones like new vaccinations.

 “At the same time, though, not only good ideas spread; bad and very disruptive ones spread as well. So, while the opportunities are enormous and people’s ability to learn, not least using open source technologies, has grown in many cases exponentially, we need to be aware that this is a very precious thing, this connectedness. We need to be more effective with managing this connectedness and managing this globalisation – and ensure it sustains the good and that we are able to minimise the bad.

“Our intersection is in many, many different dimensions, and it’s whether we are effective with this connectivity or not that is going to determine whether there’s a happy ending or a much more dystopian future.”

Leading futurist Cory Doctorow argues that a lack of openness greatly increases risk, and governments are contributing, often deliberately, to vulnerabilities in the system. He said: “The way we learn about security is through an open discourse. There’s never been any way to do science where you suppress reports of failings or errors. Doing so has always produced bad science.

“This has become very urgent but the rules have gone the other way…The digital lock provisions are getting more severe, not less severe…The US just held a hearing on this, and they heard from people who had found vulnerabilities in: voting machines, insulin pumps, pace makers, vehicles, airplanes, and nuclear power stations who have been prohibited from disclosing them.”

Doctorow says that some governments deliberately add to the problem because, when they discover vulnerabilities, “rather than patching them, they try to make them last as long as possible, so they can use them as cyberweapons…Governments that are meant to be defending us from security vulnerabilities are trying to prolong them so that they can weaponise them…”

Leading educational technologist David Price says that ‘people-powered innovation’ is likely to be the source of new solutions and that many authorities and leading businesses are “in denial.”

“The demand for ever-faster rates of innovation, combined with the openness and ease of collaboration, have created a new phenomenon: people-powered innovation. Some businesses and most regulatory authorities may be in denial, but talking to the hackers and user innovators is much better than being left behind them.”

Debbie Carter

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