With Oxygen Bars in Delhi, Are We Now Living in a Sci-Fi Dystopia?

POV

With Oxygen Bars in Delhi, Are We Now Living in a Sci-Fi Dystopia?

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

T he line between reality and the dimly remembered cartoons of my childhood is growing blurred. For example, one such cartoon show began with the bleak scene of blue-collar workers in a sidey alley entering what seemed to be an oxygen restaurant, amid a red sky and lots of smoke. I laughed hard then. But now, things have come full circle from that cartoon I saw two decades ago, with the news that Delhi’s opened an oxygen bar. Unsurprising, given that the concept has been around for a while, and Delhiites with money will do anything for respite from the gas chamber they’re living in. There was absolutely no mirth to be found in this; a city-wide health emergency being used to drum up a profit. If I could wax philosophical about Saket, Delhi’s latest oxygen bar craze for a moment, it seems even as human technology is reaching its zenith, our morality has already reached its trough.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve come across a lot of profound moments in simple childhood entertainment. Cartoon Network, Archie comics, and science-fiction novels gave me lots of heavy questions to ponder, long before Porcupine Tree and um, shall we say, botanical stimulants came along. And as an innocent kid in an innocent time, I never suspected technological advancement and human morality would each have such massive spikes, albeit in opposite directions, to bring a lot of fantasy to life.

Welcome to the era where dystopia and our world overlap. All the ingredients to make the most fantastic of situations a reality are here. The “most powerful man in the world” is a climate-change-sceptical, polluting-business-friendly moron who picks petty fights with similar loonies who have access to nuclear bombs. It’s a time when an increasingly smaller percentage of people have a larger slice of the global wealth pie. A time when, instead of celebrating progressive technology like AI and gene editing, we immediately think of potential for misuse, showing how little we trust each other as a species. All of these are ripe ingredients for the wildest of morbid fiction ideas to be tomorrow’s headlines.

minority_report

Creepy use of biometrics? You saw it in Minority Report, and you’re seeing it in China now.

20th Century Fox/ DreamWorks Pictures

Creepy use of biometrics? You saw it in Minority Report, and you’re seeing it in China now. Snooping in on what you’re saying? The subject of The Conversation, now a Damocles’ Sword over Alexa, Assistant, and Siri. Workers increasingly being treated like they’re eventually going to be replaced by robots? We saw a glimpse of that in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but these days we see how Amazon and Uber treat the humans who work for them like they’re an outdated inconvenience. Creepy ads that are tailored exactly for you? Again, Minority Report foresaw what would make Facebook billions.

I’m sure if you dig through enough novels and movies, you’ll find analogs to Google having an uncomfortable trove of personal data, Theranos endangering lives, and our own government using Pegasus to target dissidents. Heck, look through the episode list of childhood moral compass Captain Planet — it looks like every scenario is not just likely, but happening right now.

This is not to even speak of systemic disasters being built over a period of time, all reminding you of George Orwell’s iconic 1984, surely the most-invoked piece of fiction over the last few years. One of the silliest movies I’ve seen, Idiocracy, is based on the not-so-silly premise of people becoming so stupid and beholden to corporations and icons that they lose all individual perspective and opinion (a visit to YouTube comments should tell you how how close we’re getting to this one).

This is scary. Because if we’ve gone this far in turning a writer’s bleak picture of the future into reality, then it looks quite plausible that today’s science-fiction will become tomorrow’s reality. Embedded chips like you’ve seen in Johnny Mnemonic? Trials are starting among employees in the UK, and you know China must be licking its lips at what this technology could mean for its ongoing cleansing of the Uighurs.

We’ve gone this far in turning a writer’s bleak picture of the future into reality, it looks quite plausible that today’s science-fiction will become tomorrow’s reality.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink aims for our brains to be connected to each other (so communication can happen without the clunky mediums of speech or text) – a noble goal, but a glance through two days’ worth of newspapers should give you a shudder rather than excitement.

And what of potentially the most powerful technology of our generation, gene editing? If Russia could undermine US democracy using something as silly as being able to send specific messages to specific demographics on Facebook, imagine what it could do with CRISPR. Almost every article about the technology has “warning”, “eugenics”, and “white supremacy” placed uncomfortably close to each other.

And if you think about it, many of today’s upper-middle class “necessities” — from air purifiers to using Incognito mode — might have seemed unlikely when a lot of that fiction was being written. But all fiction is rooted in some reality, and the bleakest show on television today, Black Mirror, is filled with very plausible premises.

Despite these ominous signs (and five seasons of Black Mirror), I still have hope. Ironically, from fiction itself. Most of the old stories show good winning over evil, and people coming to their senses. But not without some protagonists or society learning a bitter lesson. Fiction might also start with interestingly positive scenarios — I remember one cartoon with a plastic-eating insect, something I hope inspires Silicon Valley’s biotechnologists. Perhaps this is why many companies are scrambling to hire science-fiction writers.

If all else fails, reach for some botanical stimulants until this whole thing is over.

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