Hello folks! Sorry it’s been so long. All together, these last four months have been one for the history books, even if we don’t know it yet. This post is really long, so here’s a brief highlights list.
- An AI joining the International Space Station crew
- Tommy Hilfiger introduces clothes with computer chips
- E-hallpass that lets teachers track students when they go to the bathroom
- More Amazon news, as usual, with: Alexa recording an owner’s conversation, a new feature that lets you get Amazon packages dropped off inside your car, and Amazon’s expansion into healthcare…among others
- Marriages between our overlords, also known as corporate mergers
- Big Tech overlords introduce a data-sharing program
#1. Bayer-Monsanto Merger (June)
As a rule of thumb, just about every corporate merger is cyberpunk. This one featured the German chemical and pharmaceutical giant Bayer taking over the very infamous American agro-chemical company Monsanto. The $63 billion buyout is the largest ever by a German company, and you can sure as hell bet they’re dropping the name “Monsanto” as soon as they can.
Although Bayer gave up some of its holdings in seeds and agro-chemical businesses to satisfy global regulators, I doubt that’s anything more than a band-aid in the continued consolidation of corporate power. In September 2017, Dow Chemical and DuPont merged and a few months earlier, in May 2017, ChemChina merged with Syngenta.
The result of this merger is that now, only three corporations control more than two-thirds of the seed and pesticide market worldwide. Thankfully, that should be all we’ll hear of corporate mergers for a while…
#2. AT&T – Time Warner merger gets approved (June)
Judge Richard Leon ruled the government’s antitrust case insufficient, and as such AT&T is officially in the clear to finish its takeover of Time Warner Cable. Time Warner holds all the media, and AT&T holds the infrastructure to deliver it to you.
The gilded age is over, but the age of silicon is certainly here with up-to-date monopolies!
#3. Shareholders approve Disney-Fox merger (July 2018)
I had initially put this on the list as “Disney-Comcast bidding war for Fox” when I began drafting this list. As I began to wrap up this article on the 27th, I saw the news–shareholders of Disney and Fox approved the merger, pretty much sealing the deal.
Basically, Disney had announced a bid at the end of 2017 to acquire 21st Century Fox. Things seemed great until Comcast announced a counter-offer in June..which Disney then upped. Now 21st Century Fox and the Walt Disney Company have agreed to a $71.3 billion purchase, and though regulators in a few more counties still need to approve, I think a substantial chunk of the battle has been won by this point.
#4. New report: Richest 1% to own two-thirds of all wealth by 2030 (April)
Well, I think it’s pretty self explanatory. Here’s the article from the Guardian.
#5. Walmart patents machines to spy on cashiers (July)
Not so surprising I suppose–the only curiosity here is that it has taken so long. Walmart’s patent is for “sound sensors” distributed “throughout at least a portion of the shopping facility”–mainly the checkout areas. This is mainly to ensure Walmart’s employees really earn their
Competition between Walmart and Amazon is a pretty horrifying race to the bottom. This patent comes on the heels of one of Amazon’s patents–a surveillance bracelet for its warehouse workers.
#6. Amazon starts delivering to cars (April)
In late April, Amazon introduced a delivery option that is astoundingly innovative. What if having packages delivered inside your home isn’t good enough? The obvious remedy is to get packages delivered directly into your car.
#7. Alexa gets memory (April)
I guess Alexa getting memory isn’t so bad–it really is a good feature to add to a virtual assistant. You tell Alexa to remember this or that, and Alexa will remember this or that! Pretty handy, and I seriously doubt there’s any room for abuse or dystopia here.
#8. Alexa records a conversation (May)
Oops! An Echo owner found a private conversation had been accidentally, unknowingly, recorded and sent as an audio file to a random employee on her husband’s contact list. Weird!
But yeah, Alexa getting an upgraded ability to remember things–I’m pretty sure that will only happen for the things you tell it to remember.
#9. Amazon Delivery Service Partners (June)
Delivery Service Partners is a new program Amazon announced late June. Delivery Service Partners lets entrepreneurs start their own delivery business under Amazon: you put down an initial investment, start hiring drivers, and you get leased dozens of vans so your drivers can deliver packages. Your drivers would wear the Amazon logo, as would your vans, but you’ll own the business.
I know what some of you are thinking–how on Earth could such a mundane venture, irrelevant to most of us directly, get labelled cyberpunk? Use your imagination: currently, Amazon delivery people are worked to the bone. Think of them as peasants: poor working conditions, the ‘lower’ end jobs that propel a massive empire forward. If you’re a delivery partner, you get to be next up in the hierarchy. You’ll be the local knight or Duke in our neo-feudal, shit-gig-economy of tomorrow.
#10. Amazon buys PillPack (June)
I treat pretty much all Amazon news as present punk. Why? Because Amazon is absolutely, for sure, going to be one of the major companies of the cyberpunk hell world in the future. I’m sure it gets annoying–but remember, this blog focuses on details: the boring details that build the world of tomorrow.
Alexa–Amazon’s consumer surveillance gadget–gets better so it can feed Amazon all the data it can. Amazon wants access to your car. Amazon wants to expand that contractor economy into a neo-feudalistic one. And here’s the icing on the April to July cyberpunk cake: Amazon finally starts making those ventures into medicine. No, grocery stores and food weren’t enough. Entertainment wasn’t enough either. No, Amazon will be the company that controls all aspects of your life in the future.
Combine the power of Walmart–the ultimate everything store–with data and your home, and game over. When you finally get depressed from being an Amazon delivery driver, the only pills you can afford to overdose on will be through Amazon as well.
#11. Amazon comes under fire for selling facial recognition software to police (June)
One of the biggest companies in the world, marketing and selling its facial recognition tech to police departments–I don’t need to justify the placement of this on the list. What’s been cool is the backlash; the ACLU, always the good guys, joined by a fair share of shareholders, have expressed concern about the privacy threat.
#12. Introducing FaceDate (May)
Facebook announced a new dating feature called FaceDate at the F8 conference in May.
You’ll be matched on your Facebook data, of course. After all, you want to make sure you get a genuine connection with someone, right? And what is Facebook if not a company geared towards building deeper connections?
#13. Alphabet supplying internet to Kenya (July)
Massive portions of Kenya have no internet access–particularly rural areas. If the people there want internet, then great. I don’t have any problems with areas receiving internet access–I think that’s a generally good thing.
So why would I put Alphabet’s (Google’s parent company) Project Loon putting internet balloons all around Kenya onto this list? Because right from the get-go, it’s pretty evident how much Alphabet will control in Kenya in a few years. Imagine Alphabet holding a near-monopoly on internet access in rural areas of the continent and that’s where cyberpunk comes in. High technology, low standards of living and massive wealth disparities.
I’m not saying Alphabet should not go for this endeavor. Who knows? Maybe in the long run this is better. I’m not as much of an alarmist as this list makes me sound. I’m just saying–be wary of the implications.
#14. SpaceX sends an AI assistant to the International Space Station (June)
In June, SpaceX launched its 15th cargo mission to the ISS. The cargo was the usual, mostly supplies like food and water. It also carried new technologies and science experiments for astronauts to test in microgravity. One of these new technologies is an AI “crew member” named CIMON. It’s basically a floating ball with a cartoon face screen on one side, and it’s supposed to make life easier for the astronauts; it’s basically a little robot assistant in space. I suppose I don’t have too many complaints about this one, but it’s worth adding to the list.
#15. Researchers create psychopath AI (June)
They created a “psychopath AI” that has pretty fucked up interpretations of inkblot tests. Personally, I think psychopath is a bit inaccurate here, but whatever. It still sounds cool, and fits in nicely to the Present Punk worldview.
#16. DARPA wants AI that can explain itself (July)
DARPA is about as excited about the “third wave” of artificial intelligence as any of us, judging by the launch of their Artificial Intelligence Exploration program (which is designed to invest into third wave AI). Third wave AI would be able to explain its decisions and adapt to context–it would be capable more of “thinking” in a sense. It’s a step closer to abstract thought and higher orders of intelligence–the kind that we dote upon ourselves for having.
#17. Tommy Hilfiger introduces clothes with computer chips (July)
Tommy Jeans Xplore is a new clothing line with smart-chip technology. What are they for? The chips track how often you wear the clothes. Wear the clothes often enough, and you’ll get certain rewards, like gift certificates. All the clothes in the collection (which has hoodies, shirts, backpacks, hats, and more) can be linked to an app to make collecting rewards easier.
#18. One third of American adults take meds that could cause depression (June)
A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago looked at the medications of 26,000 adults over a period of 9 years. They found that one third of the meds listed depression as one of the side effects.
Come on–tell me the image of a nation’s population kept constantly medicated and depressed isn’t a little dystopian? Maybe the only thing that would be more dystopian is a nation’s population being overmedicated with drugs inducing happiness.
#19. Net Neutrality finally dies (June)
Yeah, this news was pretty bad. As of June 11th, the FCC’s death sentence to net neutrality came into effect. We can hope this isn’t the end of the story–that maybe Congress will step in (haha), or a different FCC will come into power and reinstate net neutrality rules. Maybe in the face of this we’ll see more and better local, public internet service providers step in. Maybe states will enact NN regulations.
But for now, it’s fine to be pessimistic. It may not come right away, but you can be sure as hell that corporations will be abusing the lack of regulation soon enough.
#20. Trump gets additional indefinite detention powers (May)
Once upon a time, Obama got a lot of flak from people on both the left and right. There have been many such times of course, but this one in particular dealt with the passing of 2012’s National Defense Authorization Act. This NDAA–the yearly defense budget authorization–included a provision that allowed the executive branch to citizens in military detention.
This was not the first law to allow such power, but it sure took a leap forward in solidifying it.
Fast forward to May of this year. A small, bipartisan group of legislators introduced a new Authorization to Use Military Force for 2018 (intended as an update to the initial AUMF given after 9/11) that greatly expands who the executive can put in military detention.
The NDAA of Obama’s presidency still had some stipulations. The proposed AUMF at hand allows the president to decide they have the power “to use force against any ‘organization, person, or force,’ essentially at will,” just by saying those entities are associated with previously listed enemy groups.
There’s already an existing list of entities who the president can use such force against; namely, the Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIL, and related groups/spinoffs or associated forces designated by the bill. But when the bill is passed, the president is welcome to add their own “associated forces” to the list as they see fit. And the president can continue to add associated forces to the list as they see fit.
As the linked article points out, it’s not all bad. The bill could do some good clarifying an existing, tenuous legal power. But it gives a lot more leeway to the president, and makes it more difficult for Congress to declare war; it shifts the burden of deciding to go to war from Congress to the presidency, and emphasizes the responsibility of Congress for vetoing the president once the president has already pushed for war.
I’m sure many of you will see this as an inconsequential little piece of legal news not worth talking about. After all, it hasn’t even passed committee yet! Yeah, I suppose it’s not the end of the world, but any steps towards the end of the world are going in the wrong direction to me.
#21. Kennedy retiring from Supreme Court, giving Trump another pick (June)
Well, when Anthony Kennedy announced he would retire from the Supreme Court, he gave Trump another chance to appoint a supreme court judge. That’s two more Supreme Court nominations than I want Trump to have–these justices could affect us for decades to come. Not could, sorry–they will affect us. Plus two for dystopia.
#22. Trump administration begins separating undocumented children from families and putting them in child prisons (April)
In April, the Trump administration began enforcing a family separation policy as part of the zero tolerance policy. It was suspended in June (which surprised me, I thought the backlash would have no effect). If you’ve been living under a rock, federal agents would basically tear kids away from their families and put them in detention centers.
Well, you know, they’re not real detention centers, right? Because the “reason” these children must be separated from their parents is they’re too young to go to prison. So the Department of Health and Human Services isn’t imprisoning these kids, it’s just temporarily taking care of them while their parents get prosecuted.
George Orwell’s classic 1984 is not a cyberpunk work, but I’d like to talk about it briefly. 1984 talked a lot about language–the language of the Big Brother government ran counter to everything it did. For example, the Ministry of Truth (which lies) or the Ministry of Peace (which declares war). Well, how about the Department of Health and Human Services erecting a tent city for detained children separated from their families?
Pretty scary. But what makes this nightmare cyberpunk is the uniquely American brand of policing and law enforcement. Which is to say, a lot of private interests, companies, and even nonprofits (namely the private prison industry, but they’re far from the only industry with a stake in this) making a profit off of the detention of poor people.
Or just consider the symbolism of a former Walmart Supercenter being converted into a massive prison for children.
This isn’t the end, not by a long shot, even if the family separation policy was halted in June. That’s partly because this was never really the beginning–tent cities for migrant children are not new. This year’s policy has been more explicitly and intentionally cruel, as well as more expansive, towards immigrant children. But it’s not the end, and I’m going to bet that next time we start putting kids in prisons, they’ll be privately run.
#23. AT&T buildings in 8 cities are basically surveillance centers for the NSA (June)
In 8 major American cities, there is an AT&T facility that handles massive amounts of internet traffic. These seemingly-innocuous buildings are also beloved by the NSA for letting the agency monitor said traffic.
You know what else is interesting? NSA documents laud AT&T because it has relationships with other phone and internet service providers. Once upon a time, AT&T was a monopoly that got broken up. Today it’s still pretty hefty, and that is tremendously valuable to our watchful protectors; it gives them access to an infrastructure of digital communications that sprawls across the nation.
And that fact sure makes me glad that companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon aren’t monopolies, and that they don’t have any notable infrastructure.
#24. London’s police chief is totally fine with inaccurate facial recognition tech (July)
London’s police force has been trying new facial recognition tech. This tech is not very accurate, to say the least. 98% of the matches made by the system are mistakes.
The police chief is not bothered by this at all.
#25. UK wants to make national biometric database for all citizens (June)
The UK’s Home Office originally commissioned the report four years ago, but it was finally released late June. What does the Biometrics Strategy report call for?
It talks about how the government should collect and store the biometric data of all UK citizens. Yes, that’s right. A massive database of every single citizen. The information would be obtained and shared between various government agencies–a massive consolidation of fingerprint data, facial recognition data, DNA, and so on and so on.
#26. This person on Reddit who got an ad for e-hallpass
A while ago I saw this post on Reddit, from a person saying they got an ad for “e-hallpass.” I finally looked into it, and boy oh boy, is this insane. I mean, it’s dumb more than anything else, but frightening nonetheless.
Here’s the page for the e-hallpass. Just watch the 2 minute video (you can also access it on YouTube here), because it’ll tell you everything you need to know. If not, I typed in some of the transcript word for word, because it’s just too good:
Remember when a teacher would give students a wood block as a hallpass? What if that woodblock was replaced with your student’s mobile device?
Student makes a request to leave the classroom. Teacher grants permission for the student to leave the classroom and hands him the wood block as a hallpass, leaving no paper trail of where he is going, when he left, how long he’s been gone, frequency, and whether he actually arrived at the destination safely.
Now let’s replace the wood block with e-hallpass.
Once approved, the student’s name, destination details, time of departure, reason for departure, and length of time gone is all recorded to the cloud.
If the student’s e-hallpass is to visit the library, office, or another teacher, you will receive an arrival notification letting you know the student has made it safely to the destination.
With this simple application, you’ll know building-wide which students are in the hallways during a period. You can also track a student’s essential and non-essential hall use by monitoring the e-hallpass trends.
The possibilities are endless!
This is frustrating because it’s so dumb. It’s so dumb. But it’s totally going to be a thing–because that’s what everyone’s into these days. That’s the direction we’re all going. Yeah, imagine a student’s phone being turned into a bug for their school.
This will just creep on and on. Not everywhere (hopefully), but certainly in some places. First the e-hallpass; then everything else about school isn’t being efficient enough. There will be a shitty app for everything about school.
#27. Facial recognition being introduced in schools (May)
Of course, this phenomenon didn’t start in May–but the Intercept’s article about it is from May.
I suggest reading the article. It talks mainly about Lockport School District, in New York, which recently purchased a lot of security enhancements. The main justification for implementing facial recognition in schools is, of course, to prevent or prepare for mass shootings.
But that’s the thing about surveillance tech–it rarely gets limited to just the highest degree of evil (e.g., a gunman). Lockport is a good example: a school official said that if a student committed some type of “offense against the code of conduct, we can follow that student throughout the day to see maybe who they interacted with.”
As the article points out, there’s always the risk of such data being shared with ICE. What’s more, the school district may have a budget shortfall of about $1 million for the school year, so it might be fair to take the facial recognition tech as taking priority over other programs that could get cut…like sports programs, or buses, etc, etc.
#28. Denmark introduces profoundly fucked up “ghetto laws” (July)
Look, there really isn’t any other way of characterizing this–it’s just fucked up, racist and Islamophobic as hell, and absolutely unjustifiable. This is where dystopia really comes in; no matter how ‘developed’ a place is, people stay about the same.
These laws officially create the category of “ghetto,” which are low-income immigrant neighborhoods. Those living in these neighborhoods are “ghetto” residents. Here’s a list of what the recently passed laws dictate:
- Beginning at the age of 1, “ghetto children must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in ‘Danish values‘”
- Noncompliance with the above results in stoppage of welfare payments. Other Danish citizens do not, of course, face this mandatory instruction.
- Sentences for crimes committed in ghettos will be twice as high as outside of them
- And if a crime is normally punished with a fine, it may now be punished with imprisonment if it occurs within a ghetto
- Families can be thrown out of their homes if even a single child commits a crime
- Government may instruct certain ghettos to be demolished
- Lowered benefits for those living within “ghettos”
Here are other laws currently under serious consideration, which frankly are likely to be passed:
- Four year prison sentences for parents who ‘force’ their children to make extended visits to their country of origin. These trips back home are called “re-education trips” in the legal texts.
- local authorities can increase their surveillance of “ghetto” families
One proposed law that was rejected (well, it’s been rejected for now) would mandate “ghetto children” stay in their homes after 8 p.m.; the solution for enforcing this would involve putting electronic ankle bracelets on the children.
So much for the liberal, tolerant, ‘developed’ democracies we have come to associate with this part of Europe.
#29. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter announce new data-sharing program (July)
The internet has been steadily de-anonymized for typical users over the years. Social media has obviously played a big role in that. All of us have noticed, I’m sure, that every account for every service wants to be linked to every other account for every other service.
Here comes a big step: the Data Transfer Project. Google said the Project will let users “transfer data directly from one service to another, without needing to download and re-upload it.” Well there you have it. Soon enough you’ll truly just have one presence online.
However this Project will be marketed and sold as consumer-friendly, don’t believe it. It’ll sure make navigating the web simpler, more streamlined, and tailored to you. I can guarantee though, in the cyberpunk future that’s to come, your single online presence is going to come back to bite you hard. For every person who thinks that social credit and citizen scores could only happen in China–here’s step one.
#30. Researchers successfully edit monkeys’ genes using CRISPR without side effects (June)
Three years ago, Chinese scientists surprised the world by successfully modifying human embryos using CRISPR, the gene editing technology.
In June, another development came: Chinese researchers modified monkeys with CRISPR and looked to see if there would be any unintended mutations or consequences. They found it safe–and hey, if they can safely tamper with the genome of an entire organism, and a primate at that, then how far are we from editing humans?
Here’s the paper (it’s from a pre-print server, so it may not have been peer-reviewed yet).
Honorable Mention: Indian government tries to pass anti-fake news bill, but fails (April 2018)
Following Malaysia’s anti-fake news bill, which passed in March, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announced in April it would penalize journalists who spread “fake news.” Enormous outrage erupted and within hours the decree was reversed. Plus one for democracy (amidst an enormous, constant barrage of losses).