Flying Cars and World Peace
By Malka Older

The prohibition against further use or development of genetic mining passed 314-58. It had been a difficult campaign, with all the usual elements of complexity, probability, and an unevenly distributed threat not everyone wanted to believe in. Yesenia was relieved and heartened by the decisiveness of the victory.

“It’s along lines of wealth, though.” U Min Than, her colleague, rearranged the voting list to show the correlation. “The poor countries know they won’t have access to the technology, at least not until it’s too late to get any significant profit from it.”

“There’s some added satisfaction in that,” Yesenia argued across the table. “The many overcome the desires of the rich and powerful few.”

“Unsustainable,” U Min Than grunted. “The poorer countries are getting richer, relatively if not absolutely. They’re going to start wanting to get richer still and believing they can solve any problems with more technology. And if the wealthy ones are getting poorer, they are still within generational memory of wealth, so they’re not going to flip over. They still believe they could get it back and fall into their old patterns of exploiting every possible technology for gain—and they’ll justify it, too. It becomes restoring past glory and that’s as dangerous as anything.”

Yesenia had a response ready, about how most of the poorer countries were also within generational memory of the worst ravages of technologies designed for the progress of others, but their boss, Bibi, rapped the table. “Thank you all for your work leading up to this decision.” She swept them with her gaze: the lawyers, the designers, the artists, the engineers, the anthropologists, the translators, and all the other departments, present or videoing in. “Fifty years ago we wouldn’t have had this vote. A few of the wealthiest had a veto in the name of ‘security,’ which really meant because of their disproportionate capacity to inflict destruction. Because they could afford an arcane technology of war, one developed through an expensive, horribly damaging process, one that very few people fully understood. We, the Organization for Intentional Technology, changed that when we won the ban on nuclear weapons technology and the geopolitical order shifted. We’ve seen the impacts of that in countless conflicts since, when the richest countries tried and failed to block intervention; we saw the impacts today, when smaller, poorer, and newer countries had the same vote as the wealthy and militarized.”

Bibi paused for a drink of water, and to let them bask for a moment. She gave versions of the same speech after every vote, and Yesenia felt the familiar cadences of it like a balm. “We’re still working to protect that. With every case that we research and present, we hear the same attacks: that we’re halting progress, going backwards, locking away ideas and technology that could help people.” Meaningful pause. “Often, it’s true. Usually the technology we argue against could help people. But we know it could also hurt people—perhaps hurt them in insidious, non-obvious ways that look like negligence rather than intention, but cause hurt nonetheless. We know that in the world as it is now, the benefits of these technologies will only be accessible to a small number of people and nations, while the harm could reach all of us. We can’t take that risk. We don’t need genetic mining to save people’s lives or make those lives better, happier, healthier; we have plenty of actions we can take to do that right now. And we don’t have any technology that would keep us safe from genetic mining being used to harm people.”

At some point in every case Yesenia had worked on, she had wondered whether they were wrong to shut off an avenue for development; whether the risks really outweighed the (potential, she had to remind herself) benefits. At that point she usually was reassured by considering how all of these ideas had played out in the past, but the anti-prohibition campaigns were getting better and better at reinforcing her doubts.

Yesenia felt better after Bibi’s talk, but it didn’t work for everyone. “Mark my words,” U Min Than muttered as they filed out for a week of post-campaign holiday. “Our advantage is eroding.”

Maybe, Yesenia thought. But in general she piled salt on anything U Min Than said; they had grown up along the Gulf of Mexico during and after the collapse of the United States, and, without moving once, had belonged to six different republics before they were eighteen. They tended to be grumpy and pessimistic, and if they had a reason for it, it wasn’t necessarily a reason that said much about the future.

Then again, Yesenia’s cleaner had also grown up among the warring states (where exactly, she couldn’t remember) and was consistently cheerful, if that wasn’t a professional persona. The next time Yesenia happened to be in her Amsterdam apartment while it was being cleaned, she asked Chad what he thought about technological intentionality.

“About what?” He didn’t stop his minute cleaning of the air scrubber. “Oh, you mean the anti-progress stuff? It’s good, mostly.”

“Wait—you’re in favor? Then why do you call it anti-progress?”

“Well, that’s just what it’s called, right?” He paused his scouring, thoughtful. “Granted, some of the people who call it that aren’t big fans, I guess.”

“Mmhmm.” Yesenia tried not to roll her eyes at that.

“Like my mom. She says it’s the fault of those anti-progress jerks that I had to come here to get a job, and that my job here is just cleaning.

Yesenia wasn’t sure if he counted her as one of those jerks, if he even knew where she worked. But. “My grandmother cleaned houses and offices her whole life,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with it.” Smile, she reminded herself. His culture values smiles.

“I like it well enough,” Chad said.

His tone was calm so she pressed on. “But you’re still in favor of – of restricting technology? Even though…”

“Well, my mom thinks about everything in terms of jobs. But that’s not why I moved here, even if it is a better job than I could have gotten over there. Where I come from the soil’s just all fucked up, the water. It’s no place to bring up kids.”

“Oh.” Yesenia felt vaguely guilty that she hadn’t known he had kids.

“The anti-progress, uh, the restrictions, as you say, they could have stopped some of that, if they were put in place early enough,” Chad said. She had an absurd urge to apologize for the fact that her much-maligned organization hadn’t managed to get traction while she was still in primary school, but he was still talking. “Also, I lost an uncle in one of the fracking earthquakes. My mom says it was his own fault for putting anything heavy above head-height, but there wouldn’t have been an earthquake at all if it weren’t for those jobs they were so desperate to create to make that energy that’s supposed to have powered our economy but.…” He stopped, sheepish. “Sorry, I can go on. I shouldn’t be rehearsing my family arguments with you.”

“Uh, it’s fine.” That was why she had asked, after all. She wanted to know how people thought about this.

“I think I really got this attitude from my grandfather.” Chad had finished the scrubber and was checking the kitchen wall garden for aphids. “My father’s father, the other side of the family. He was military and spent a few years working in one of the nuclear silos. The stress was awful, he said. So worried something would go wrong, someone would make the wrong decision, one of the computer programs would cough something up all by itself. Said the nuclear weapons ban was the best thing the UN ever did. Actually, he said it was the only good thing he ever did, no offense.”

“None taken,” Yesenia murmured.

Yesenia traveled to the Hague to attend the cloistering ceremony. It was a beautiful day for biking, and except for one stretch where they were re-paving the solar panels of the bike path, there was almost no traffic, although she did get buzzed a few times by those new flying motorcycles. She wished they could ban them; they were objectively dangerous, bad for the environment, and only available to rich people. But they didn’t meet the statute: the danger they posed was obvious and direct, and mostly to the people riding them. They would need to be regulated using the standard public policy procedures, and Yesenia made a voice note to check for existing citizen proposals and write one if necessary. Surely there were more people annoyed by the things than people who believed “flying cars” were a better standard for progress than, say, “peace on Earth.” Surely.

She arrived early enough to catch the preparations, which were significant. The first time Yesenia attended one she had been shocked at how pompous and circumstantial it was, and they seemed only to have gotten worse. The ceremonies were held in Anna van Buerenplein, where the technology vault had been built on the old site of the national archives, a large open space near the center of town studded with statues and trees and lined by restaurants, which complained bitterly about the disruption. There were hanging lights in fantastical shapes, a gamelan orchestra, and judging by the odd pattern of spurts someone was reprogramming the water feature.

Yesenia spotted U Min Than and Bibi by one of the crowd control barriers, and walked over to greet them. “Wasteful,” she commented, observing the extraordinary ranks of (ecofriendly) fireflowers, the long swags of (recycled) bunting. “And it’s not even…real.” The ceremony offered a pantomime of locking away the designs and coded programs for a restricted technology, when in fact oversight of the prohibitions was implemented by the monitoring department, an entire separate (and underappreciated) part of their organization.

U Min Than shrugged. “Foolish, I agree, but this is a fragile convention. If all this ceremony convinces people that it cannot be broken, perhaps it is worth it.”

Bibi nodded. “There are enough people convinced this is a bad thing. If these trappings signal that it’s something to celebrate instead, it’s a necessary expense.” She pointed her chin at a cordoned-off corner street leading on to the Plein. “The protestors are over there. If we don’t offer visuals—happy, celebratory visuals, or at least interesting visuals—the news vids are going to show the protestors nonstop. Hard-won tactical knowledge, my friends,” she added, seeing their grimaces of distaste. “Learned again and again.”

“But nobody appreciates the immensely hard work the monitoring department does,” Yesenia argued, nodding down their row at Abdi, who ran that section.

He winked back. “Rather they didn’t, to be honest. Makes it easier to catch them when they try to get around us.”

Once they got into the vault itself, the moment was quite quiet, almost intimate. The plans, algorithms, actual code, marketing campaigns—examples of everything, certified and allegedly unique (Yesenia couldn’t help sending a worried glance Abdi’s way, but he was inscrutable)—were locked away in a carefully labeled box. Then it was technically over but it felt too soon to leave, so everyone stood around making small talk. The vault manager—jailer, Yesenia thought involuntarily—nodded to her and U Min Than, easily the youngest people there.

“I’ve seen you two before,” she commented, peering at them. “You must have worked very hard on this. Come, have you ever gotten the tour?” She walked them (and Abdi, who glommed on presumably hoping for youth cred) around the vault, annotating the various other entries. “And way back there,” she said, pointing a gnarled finger toward the far rear of the narrow space, “back there is the original: nuclear weapons.”

“You know,” Abdi said, “when nuclear weapon technology was first locked away, there were people who tried to argue for it not to be a precedent.”

Yesenia gaped at him. “How?”

It was the vault manager, nodding, who answered. “It’s true. First they argued that nuclear weapons were a normal, inevitable extension of technological progress”—heavy sarcasm on that word, which an influential vidbot had recently labeled the most controversial of the past decade—“that couldn’t possibly be undone. And then, when the vote went against them, the same people—or their henches—tried to claim that nuclear weapons were unprecedented and unimaginable in their capacity to destroy humanity, an exceptional case that nothing else could be compared to.”

“Not all the technologies we restrict are weapons, but they can all do terrible harm,” U Min Than said.

“Sometimes it’s the ones that aren’t called weapons that are the worst,” Abdi said. “People don’t hesitate to use them, and their victims don’t expect the damage.”

“But—but—,” Yesenia was still struggling. She had always understood the story of nuclear prohibition as inseparable from the development of technological intentionality. Yes, that first ban unraveled the undemocratic structure of the United Nations and changed the playing field for any Security Council tyrant thirsty to wage war. But it had also demonstrated that humans could decide whether they wanted to pursue and implement a technology; that society could draw lines that it would not pass. That, instead of inevitability, technological development was a choice, and the money and time and cognitive capacity could be directed toward less terrible avenues. “How could they think that way?”

“Because they wanted to,” the vault manager said. “Come, we have the old pamphlets up in the museum, I’ll show you.”

“How did the intentional tech activists overcome that, back then?” Yesenia asked as they followed the vault manager up the ambulatory assistance stairs. She was thinking of Chad and his mother, and his uncle, and his kids.

The vault manager chuckled. “If I’m not mistaken, your colleague Bibi was one of the people involved, so you should ask her. But—ah,” she sighed. “How they did it? They didn’t design some brilliant strategy that showed everyone how silly and false that argument was. They persuaded and cajoled and explained and demonstrated all over again, just as they had with the initial campaign against the weapons. And there might have been some careful legal wording as well,” she added, as U Min Than opened their mouth. “But it’s never easy. It’s exhausting. We have to learn over and over again.” She patted Yesenia’s hand, her wrinkled palm soft. “That’s why we’re so lucky to have young people like you to keep saving the world.”

Copyright © 2024, Malka Older. This work is made available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Artist Statement

When I started this story, I was thinking about the difficulty of monitoring a ban on technology and how important symbolism and the collective decision-making process would be, in addition to the more concrete approaches. As I worked on it, though, the crucial point emerged in what started as something of an aside: Why do people believe “progress” means “flying cars” rather than, say, peace on earth or ending poverty? How have we come to define progress as a new technological thing that seems cool instead of solving important problems regardless of whether we needed a cool new technological thing to solve them?

About Malka Older

Malka Older (she/her) is a writer, aid worker, and sociologist. Her science fiction political thriller Infomocracy was named one of the best books of 2016 by Kirkus, Book Riot, and The Washington Post. Her novella The Mimicking of Known Successes, a murder mystery set on a gas giant planet, came out in March 2023 to rave reviews, and the sequel, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles, was released in February 2024. She created the serial Ninth Step Station on Realm and the acclaimed short story collection And Other Disasters (2019). She has a doctorate in the sociology of organizations from Sciences Po and is a faculty associate at Arizona State University, where she teaches on humanitarian aid and predictive fictions, and hosts the Science Fiction Sparkle Salon. Her opinions can be found in The New York Times, The Nation, Foreign Policy, and NBC THINK, among other places.

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