The 1982 film “Bladerunner”, starring a then young Harrison Ford in his prime, has often been hailed as the greatest science fiction film of all time. Visually stunning, moody and subtle, the film deals with a dystopian future world where man has created humanoid creatures, called replicants, of at least equal intelligence to his own. Unusually for this often shallow genre, the film contains moments of great pathos and insight into the human condition.
Bladerunner was critically panned on release, but its reputation has grown and grown with the passing years. The reason is the film’s prescience: it foresaw a globalised, multicultural and multi-ethnic world where street level language becomes a garbled mishmash of tongues, with huge social and economic inequalities between a decadent rich elite and those living at street level: in that sense a world very much like metropolitan London today, but barely imaginable to most in 1982.
However, there is an area where Bladerunner was even more profoundly prophetic: it foresaw the rise of intelligent machines.
We are now entering the second machine age. The vast increase in computing power and the ability to store huge quantities of data has finally made the advent of truly intelligent machines possible. The impact on society will be profound, with many existing trends accelerating and new ones emerging: for decades now income has depended increasingly on intellectual ability as blue-collar manual work has been progressively replaced by automation; social mobility has declined and the gap between rich and poor increased enormously; we are governed by an internationally-minded and self-regarding Metropolitan oligarchy which has become completely culturally detached from those it governs. Expect such trends to continue.
Now imagine a world where not only manual but also low- to mid-level service sector jobs are progressively replaced by artificially intelligent machines. Again, this is not the stuff of some far-distant, hypothetical future: the adverts on the web page you are reading are almost certainly selected for you by learning machines capable of predicting with considerable accuracy your desires. Supermarket checkouts are already largely automated. Much of retail has migrated online, leading to the rapid decline of the traditional high street. Education is undergoing colossal change, with the rise of online distance learning already becoming dominant in the IT sector, no doubt to be followed in many others. In transport, driverless cars have achieved safety records far better than humans, and will be tested in the UK within three years.
All of these trends are leading to a “hollowing-out” of the middle class, and perhaps to a structure of society not unlike the medieval period, with a neo-medieval oligarchy on one side, and a neo-medieval peasantry on the other: a few will have glittering wealth and opportunity whereas large sections of the population will have very poor prospects, and perhaps be incapable of earning a viable income at all. Moreover, the elite in society is and will be increasingly dynastic, as the offspring of high income, highly intelligent professionals have ever greater advantages over the rest and social mobility declines even further. The cultural gap between governors and governed will, of course, be even more vast than today.
Does the Future belong to UKIP, or Owen Jones?
Such a fundamental reordering of society can only lead to an equally fundamental reordering of our politics. Indeed, the recent rise of UKIP can be interpreted as a reaction to this dawning neo-medieval world, where the three old parties of the modern period have been so completely taken over by elite Metropolitan interests. Trapped within their own hermetically-sealed cultural bubble, they and their allies in the commentariat thrash around desperately trying to understand why UKIP continues to rise despite all predictions to the contrary.
Rather than decline, it is easy to see how UKIP will continue to grow under these circumstances: as change starts to bite into the prospects for ever greater numbers of the low to medium-skilled, the sustainability of modern liberal pieties becomes an unaffordable luxury for the many: the UKIP message, based as it is on a mixture of common sense and the moral courage to face hard realities, will, as long as we play our cards right, resonate with ever greater numbers of people.
However, it is also not hard to see new rivals to UKIP emerging. In a world of stagnant social mobility and gross inequalities of income, classical Marxism may be resurgent: the likely next Labour government looks like being the most left-wing one ever, and the loud-mouthed but popular Independent columnist Owen Jones is actively trying to construct a “UKIP of the left”. Moreover, the philosophical impact of the second machine age should not be underestimated: in a world run by intelligent machines where the very basis of what it is to be human will be questioned, belief in systems and order could become ascendant over individual liberty all too easily.
Likewise, one shouldn’t ignore the potential threat from the far right. In a world where intelligence is likely to be of ever more paramount importance, and perhaps where it is shown to be at least in part genetically derived, evil ideas such as eugenics may once again become fashionable.
In short, the present and the future will require huge philosophical challenges to politics and society which most are at present only dimly aware of. It is UKIP’s primary task in this new age to keep the idea of individual liberty alive when the very existence of human free will is increasingly questioned, and at the same time replacing the failed multicultural experiment with a cohesive and socially just society able to withstand the huge economic and cultural pressures pushing it towards ever greater fragmentation.