Computer-Generated Fascism

I'm worried that our technology is helping to bring the long, postwar consensus against fascism to an end. Greece was once the cradle of democracy, yet on live television there recently, a leader of the Golden Dawn fascist movement started beating a female MP who disagreed with his views—smashing her on one side of the head, then the other—and his poll ratings went up, not down.

The problem is that our latest technology works best with no one in control. Silicon Valley beats anything that more regulated economies can produce. But when the results are applied in banking, or management, the result for those in the middle and bottom of society often is chaos: jobs coming and going, seemingly at random.

Because of what fascism led to in the past, it's easy to forget how attractive it can be for most citizens in troubled times. With a good enemy to hate, atomized individuals get a warm sense of unity. And, although some gentle souls like to imagine, frowningly, that only an ill-educated minority will ever enjoy physical violence, that's not at all the case. Schoolchildren almost everywhere enjoy seeing a weaker child being tormented. Fears about our own weakness disappear when an enemy is mocked and punished—a reflex that radio shock jocks across America most skillfully manipulate.

This cry of the dispossessed—this desire for restoring order, this noble punishment of those who 'dare' to undermine us—will get a particular boost from medical technology. Medicine's getting better, but it's also getting more expensive. Extrapolate those trends.

There's every reason to think modifications of Botox will be longer-lasting, and avoid unmovable foreheads—but what if they cost 4,000 dollars a shot? The differences in physique noticeable between the wealthy and the poor at many shopping malls even now will only be exacerbated.

Gene therapy is likely to take that further, quite plausibly slowing aging by decades—but what if that costs several hundred thousand dollars? Many people in our cities' wealthiest neighborhoods would start using that. It's not hard to imagine popular leaders with no memory of World War II inspiring those outside the select high-income domains, those who are mocked beyond endurance by the existence of these near immortals in their midst, to pursue this all too human response to injustice.

But it's a response that will halt technologic innovation in its tracks, at precisely the time when we need it most.