Everyone knows the basic premise. There’s a problem in the universe and The Big Bad Government is at the heart of it. Star Wars has the sith-ruled Galactic Empire, 1984 has the mind-controlling Big Brother, Brave New World has the World State, Fahrenheit 451 has the book-burning army of firemen, and the list goes on and on. The Evil Empire is the villain, nebulous and looming, in nearly all of the science fiction I’ve read. Some might take exception with alien stories like Ender’s Game or War of the Worlds, where it’s an outside force that’s on the attack, but even here we get army-wielding states and species trying to dominate one another. Generally, from Philip K. Dick and The Matrix to Ayn Rand and The Hunger Games, the ruling power is always the bad guy.
None of this is surprising. It’s easy (and often true to life) to demonize the powers that be. State governments, international organization and cross-continental corporations are targets for scorn and distrust. And especially when we’re dealing with dystopian futures, of course it’s the ruling elite that deserve the blame, right?
As technology and globalization march on, I more and more begin to question whether this is the future we’re headed toward. Is society building itself into the Panopticon?
There’s no doubt in my mind that governments have more monitoring and enforcement capability than they have ever had before. Constant surveillance, DNA testing, satellites, indestructible digital records, they’ve got it all. So, yes, governments have more absolute power to spy and kill than in the past.
But they have less relative power, and there are two reasons for that.
First, the rise of the community. Divine mandate has nearly evaporated from modern government, and monarchy in general is chipping away. About a quarter of countries still have monarchs (i.e. kings, queens, emperors), but the majority of those have only ceremonial power. Only a handful of states still have absolute monarchs (think Saudi Arabia and Vatican City), and the number of kings traded for constitutions and parliaments in the last few decades is substantial.
Of course, the presence of representative government doesn’t mean there isn’t a supreme ruler in practice (e.g. Iran, North Korea), but those cases are gradually becoming more distant outliers. Basically, while oligarchy (the rule of a group of elites) is still prevalent, democracy and republican government are on the rise. So even as governments become more powerful, the influence of publics over legislatures and heads of states becomes more powerful, too. Slavery, serfdom and non-represented status have not been eradicated, but they are on the decline.
All of this means that the masses are gaining influence in statecraft. And if the people continue to have a say in policy, especially if they are emboldened with increasing sway, we are not likely to devolve into some apocalyptic Mad Max–like scenario with a super-repressive, all-powerful regime.
The second reason we’re probably not headed for The Island is the rise of the individual. Rulers and their militaries simply can’t control people like they used to. In addition to political capital, the means of production and access to information are, suddenly, fanning out horizontally.
No where is this more clear than the internet. Increasingly, anyone anywhere can access almost any information they want. Access to information is no longer a monopoly; not for governments, not even for the educated class. The same is becoming true for surveillance. Certainly, intelligence agencies are better equipped to watch the public than the public is to watch them, but the ubiquity of cameras, databases and means of recording and distributing information means governments are having a harder time than ever hiding in shadows.
But beyond personal access to information and surveillance, individuals have incredible power to be self-sustaining. The spread of technology and education means the general public are less dependent on leaders to provide for them. Just as the internet revolutionized the spread of information, inventions like the 3D printer will revolutionize the spread of goods. It is already possible to “print” items like tools, furniture, toys and clothes. To considerable outrage, the ability to self-manufacture weapons, including guns, has been made widely available. So, livelihood and safety are now, at least in part, in the hands of the people.
Regarding things like health and nutrition, it is easy to see that these, too, will become more individual ventures in the coming decades. The ability to diagnose, monitor and treat oneself seems less and less like science fiction. The possibility of producing and sustaining one’s own diet is hardly a fantasy. Quite simply, people are on the rise.
This is not to say populations don’t need governments. For the time being, it is hard to picture a world of laws, security and international diplomacy without state leadership. But it does seem true that people are capable of relying on the government less and less. Whereas it used to be governments and businesses that did the “printing” and “downloading” of goods and information, those privileges have been passed on to individuals. No one entity controls information. No one organization owns the means of production. No one corporation distributes the food. These are each increasingly communal and personal endeavors.
The bigger threat to the future of mankind may be destruction of the environment, a cataclysmic natural disaster or factionalism that turns to war, but unless the Klingons turn us to dust or the Machines plug us in as slaves, the chances of a coercive, authoritarian galactic state taking root seem dim and getting dimmer.