This is the second article in the Possible Futures series, where we look at a dystopian world and a collapsing society. It is hard to imagine today, but it could well happen.
It is the year 2050, and life on Earth is hell. You wonder how we got to such a dire situation, but you aren’t surprised. After all, everything that could go wrong went wrong in the last few decades. It was Murphy’s Law in steroids and year after year. So now you live in a dystopian world.
It isn’t easy to pinpoint the year when everything started to go downhill. In the 2010s, there were some issues with political polarisation incited by social media muddying the waters, rising inequality, and the world started to get too warm, but life was still okay. The economy wasn’t too bad, and most people had a job.
How it started
If you had to pick one year, you would go with 2020, but it was a gradual process. The world had been warming for decades before that, but we didn’t want to see it, or if we did, we thought we could save the bullet. Sadly, we are now suffering the consequences.
You chose 2020 because that was the year of the pandemic. Since then, everything has gone pear-shaped. We have had a few decent years after that, all in the 20s and beginning of the 30s. Mostly, the three decades that have passed since then have been terrible. An unmitigated disaster.
First, it was the pandemic, with millions of deaths and the halt of the world economy for a couple of years. Many governments injected too much money with the hope of rescuing their economies, which they did, but at the expense of creating persistently high inflation. The Russo-Ukranian war that lasted a couple of years didn’t help either, so we had hyperinflation in many countries hitherto economically sound, like your beloved Germany.
Then we had the war between the US and China. They had had a trade war going on from the 10s, with escalating sanctions and trade limitations for almost a decade, until the situation exploded, and China invaded Taiwan. The gloves were off then. Everybody thought it would be a short war and that the US, which was supposed to have the military advantage, would prevail, but both assumptions were wrong.
The war lasted four years, and China prevailed, ushering in a new world order for the 2030s. This obviously had an impact on the US but also on all its allies, including the EU, where you lived.
An authoritarian and dystopian world
The EU, which had been a model of liberal democracy, was forced to change its model. It became an authoritarian and dystopian world, all enabled by the great powers of Artificial Intelligence and the advances in surveillance technology, which allowed a few people to control the great masses like never before. Even Orwell wouldn’t have been able to imagine the extent to which this government was able to control the minds of the population.
Similar authoritarian governments sprouted everywhere, so there was nowhere to run to. No free country or democracy as we knew it.
The power of AI
Economically, Artificial Intelligence displaced most existing jobs, without creating new ones as had happened previously in history. Industrial robots and other technological advances had been replacing workers for decades, if not centuries, but new, more attractive jobs were always created. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with the AI revolution in the 20s and 30s.
All was fun and jokes when AI started writing texts that made sense and drawing paintings and pictures when given the right instructions. It was cute until it wasn’t. AI was soon better than any human content creator. They were also better at analysing data and patterns, making recommendations, diagnosing illnesses, and a long list of many other things.
Before you could say “artificial intelligence”, the machines had taken over all manufacturing, creative, clerical and administrative jobs and the few middle management ones that were left (there was not much to manage anyway). Even jobs for which we thought caring and emotional intelligence were required were displaced. People didn’t mind having robot nurses, teachers or servers, after all.
This should have been great. If machines can do everything needed, human beings could indulge in those times of abundance and let loose all their creative juices. People thought a new renaissance of the human spirit would come out of this transformation, but nothing further from the truth. Governments weren’t ready, companies weren’t ready, and society as a whole wasn’t ready. Nobody was ready.
A world controlled by the very few
The upheaval was massive. Billions of people were unemployed in a timespan of a couple of years. In most countries, most wealth was amassed in the hands of the very few. We are talking about 0.001% of the population. All the rest didn’t get even the leftovers.
As most companies are nowadays empty husks with only a handful of leaders at the very top and a few owners, all the wealth ended up in the hands of these very few.
These few mega-rich live in their own guarded enclaves, opulent and full of luxury inside, but as secure and drab as military camps outside. They don’t want to be disturbed by the discontented masses.
You lost your job as Marketing Manager in 2034, and you haven’t had a job since then. AI is doing your job, supposedly much better than you could ever hope to, and much cheaper. Since then, you have been living on the crumbs given by the government in what they grandiosely call the Universal Sufficient Income, but it isn’t universal nor sufficient.
At least you are alive
At least you are alive, you tell yourself, and you have your family and friends. One of those UN organisms, run by AI, of course, calculated that more than a billion people died in the last two decades due to the excessive warming of the planet. Other 2 billion have been displaced. The world population is now much smaller than in 2020. Almost all of Africa, Australia and big swathes of Asia and South America are unhospitable and too hot to live for humans.
You were lucky you were living in Germany, which was a coldish place most of the year and is now a rather warm country. Still, you see extreme weather phenomena every year, and life isn’t easy. Crops often go to waste, and many people are hungry. Robots and AI produce many things, but most people are poor.
When you were young, life was good, and it seemed to be getting better. Every year more people were coming out of poverty. We hadn’t had a big war in most of the world for decades, most people had decent jobs, and the prospects were good. Everybody thought things could only get better. Somewhere something went terribly wrong, and here you are now, living a terrible life in a dystopian world.
You ask yourself, once again, “how did we get here? What could we have done differently to avoid this hell?”
But you can’t think of any good answer.
How do you feel about this future? Could you see yourself living in it? It is a terrible world, but we may end up living in a similar one. How can we avoid this dystopian future? We build the future with our actions today, so we better start working on the right things already.