INTRODUCTION TO PRESENT PUNK
Simply put, cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction that focuses on the contrast between advanced tech and humans living shit lives in spite of such incredible technology. It commonly features oppressive, high-tech societies in which ordinary people suffer.
Does that sound familiar? Present punk argues that cyberpunk dystopia is here, or that we are at least approaching it. It’s not just fiction anymore.
Humans are facing new problems, and this will only become increasingly true as science and technology evolve. We have little to no available framework for tackling these issues, and under our current structures and beliefs, we are bound to misuse or abuse advances in science and technology.
In particular, such unprecedented advancements are taking place in the neoliberal era–in other words, they are happening as private power accumulates to new heights.
Present punk makes the road ahead clear. You can’t deal, or even cope, with dystopia without recognizing it first.
The longer introduction: what cyberpunk is, and why present punk is necessary.
I expect anyone reading this can Google the term “cyberpunk” if they are unfamiliar, but briefly: cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction that primarily emphasizes (among many things) a contrast between high technology and lowered quality of life.
Cyberpunk works vary, but often feature: powerful corporations that have either replaced or control governments; artificial intelligence; virtual reality; environmental degradation; brain-to-computer interfaces; transhumanism (the augmentation of human beings with robotics and/or gene editing); surveillance; and stark inequality.
The “punk” of cyberpunk refers to a protagonist that is something of a rebel—at the least, an antihero. The protagonists of cyberpunk often do not fit in, or somehow resist the conformity of their systems. The punks in cyberpunk works do not always succeed in making a happily-ever-after—they often simply avoid the next calamity, or save the day briefly while the overall setting continues unabated.
Present punk believes that this is the world we live in, or are about to, because prominent technologies of cyberpunk works are being developed, and the problems of cyberpunk works are either commonplace or soon will be.
The simple fact of the matter is that we—the human race—are facing problems we never have before. The lesser of these problems are only menacing, while the greater of these problems are simply existential.
We are unprepared. If we truly felt urgency of climate change the way in which we feel the urgency of our next burger, we might be better off. Unfortunately, we simply are not built that way, and feeling the urgency of long-term problems is nearly impossible.
In light of this, present punk hopes to offer a framework. It is loose, and quite open to interpretation. I am writing this manifesto to make the general idea clear to the world, but I of course hope it does not limit others who are taken by the idea. Present punk is not a set group with a membership or donor list. It’s just an idea.
Several recent events have prompted me to write a manifesto.
There was the time Jeff Bezos became the wealthiest man in the world, in November 2017, also becoming the first triple-digit billionaire of the modern age. There was also the time Saudi Arabia officially granted citizenship to a female robot it created (while essentially keeping human women in second class citizenship). There was a point this summer in which three major corporate mergers—Disney and Fox, Time Warner Cable and AT&T, and Bayer and Monsanto—continued the steady consolidation of economic power characteristic of modern times. I remember being thrilled to hear that corporations in Europe, and now the United States, have been pushing employees to get microchips implanted—it meant present punk was on the right track. The same held true for when I found out Amazon filed a patent for a wrist bracelet that delivers vibrations to its already over-worked warehouse employees, and when Walmart filed a patent for a listening device intended for its cashier counters.
Every day carries news of machines getting smarter, more advanced, and of humans failing to deliver the utopia that could be had. Every day, we hear about an artificial intelligence reaching a new breakthrough, or scientists figuring out how to do this or that, or rich people getting richer, or the planet dying even faster, and so on and so on.
The blog I run is an outlet for me. It is also where I curate a collection of news items that indicate our path. This blog is where I accumulate a body of evidence, no matter how banal, that we are heading in a cyberpunk direction. I don’t exactly know what I expect of all this—the blog, the manifesto, etc. I think I just want a few more people to have an interest. Many people online more or less believe in present punk, but they simply do not use the terminology. I have lost count of how many popular tweets or Facebook posts have said the future is here or Black Mirror is real.
On some level, many realize the basic concept of the future being here—this concept has been around for decades, and maybe centuries—or of science fiction overlapping with real life. A smaller segment of people online have suggested certain things about today—domineering tech companies, surveillance, robotics, etc—are cyberpunk. Very few people, if any, apply this outlook more broadly—and few truly think of it as a dystopia (typically, it’s aesthetic that is more the topic of discussion).
This is where present punk comes in. As a narrative, present punk is both intuitive and open-ended: it fits and has plenty of room to accommodate and grow. Perhaps your present punk dystopia is one in which subversive information is abundant, but apathy prevents change. Maybe it’s the opposite—a populace starved of information and censored. What matters is that you find core themes of cyberpunk applicable to the present day, and fear the future based on our current trends.
With any luck, present punk will become irrelevant and unnecessary. I hope the world of tomorrow is good, and that this entire manifesto can be either forgotten or laughed about as the typical alarmism of the late 2010s and early 20s. I think it far more likely, however, that present punk will only become more applicable, more accurate.
Hopefully, this worldview can do something to mitigate the approaching cyberpunk dystopia. I will not hold my breath, but maybe introducing a narrative many of us can get behind will help us see the dangers ahead, and respond a little more wisely. We are running out of things to lose.
Note: I am an American, and therefore I have primarily the American context in mind when I consider present punk. I am aware this manifesto, and this blog in general, focuses mostly on an American setting. Nonetheless, I do believe present punk can be applied to many countries, particularly insofar as climate change threatens the entire world.
BELIEFS OF PRESENT PUNK
It ought to go without saying that present punk is open-ended. What I say should not be considered the final word by a long shot. This manifesto exists to better-shape and guide present punk’s introduction to the world.
Of course, some basic principles should be established for the sake of clarity. I leave it to the individual to construct what they will, but the rough narrative of present punk is that we are either headed into a cyberpunk future or, depending on your parameters, we are already in one that will continue to worsen.
There may be some concern here about mental health. Is it healthy to believe your country, let alone the world, is headed for dystopia? Probably not. I therefore suggest everyone does whatever they need to do to cope. If they must look only at the silver linings in things, if they have to go out of their way to find good news or slivers of hope, then so be it. Depression and hopelessness are obviously not ideal, not least because they may cripple any attempts at stopping our trajectory. Present punk is not about hopelessness, it is about seeing our current downwards trajectory.
At the very least, everyone must understand the present dangers for which we are unprepared. They must also understand present punk topics are not possibly dangerous, but probably (if not almost certainly) existentially dangerous. Nuclear war is highly probable in the next few decades, even if it does not occur within the next few months. Gene editing may change our understandings of what it is to be human. Automation of significant portions of the workforce is very likely within the next few decades, whether or not you think you can do your freelance writing better than a computer ever could. Surveillance will become not only more pervasive, but more intelligent, and even if you think of it as harmless, you will find yourself conforming to please your supervisors – or worse, your peers. And of course, climate change is real, threatens global civilization, and continues apace. We still have time to prevent the worst possible outcomes, but some things are beyond repair, and the world will see catastrophes within the century even in the face of our best efforts.
We do not have much, if any, experience dealing with these issues. There are no historical analogies, or psychological studies. The present punk construction is useful because it gives us at least some framework. Disaster is coming. This is nearly a fact.
Aspirations of present punk
The ultimate hope of present punk is to kill itself. The long-term goal is for present punk to be proven ridiculous, and an opposing optimism proven correct; the short-term goal is the opposite. While it would certainly feel validating if those who believe in the approaching dystopia (such as myself) were proven right, I believe it is fair to say that is a loss for humans at large.
The best outcome for everyone is if the term “present punk” loses all relevance. If we—humans, workers, consumers, whatever—can somehow find ourselves thriving in spite of the threats posed by new technologies, then great. While I do believe some of our current environmental destruction is simply irreversible, I would be thrilled to learn that some of the consequences can be avoided using this or that new technology or political structure. While I do believe automation will carve out the economic security of millions, I would be thrilled to hear it frees humans from unnecessary labor without impoverishing them. Even if I think gene editing will become controlled by the wealthy (along with everything else), I would not complain about the end of malaria, or even a distribution of the technology that is truly ethical. Technology has, however imperfectly, of course brought some benefits. There ought to be no dispute here—the pessimism of present punk comes from a clear history of mismanagement, our current mismanagement, and the trend of wealth inequality and corporate power co-occurring with this development.
Present punk is not here to pull you into depression. But it is here to ruin your optimism about society at-large, should you have any, or any myths you hold of linear progress. It is easy to argue that optimism is psychologically useful in accomplishing things. This may be true for individuals, but I believe the jury is out for us in larger numbers; for example, a mixture of willful ignorance and optimism about “progress” has led us to trash the planet (and that is just the biggest of the problems).
Ideally, present punk will serve as a useful simplifier, a way of bringing together the various goings-on that put us on a dangerous path. The basic idea of present punk is already commonplace. We just need the phrase (and maybe this document or this website) to condense everything.
Present punk is not supposed to be a political party or political platform. It is not an academic work, and should not be subject to academic scrutiny (i.e., you are not smart just for saying “you can’t prove this” or “this isn’t a testable hypothesis”). It is just a concept I think needs to spread. What happens beyond that point is, for now, beyond me.
New, existential problems
Essential to the present punk narrative is that humans are facing new problems, and that these problems largely stem from the misapplications of our technology.
If one wishes to be philosophical, they can probably argue that these problems are not completely new. Maybe the general phenomenon of human ethics and wisdom being outpaced by human technological development is not new, and in fact is popularly discussed. Maybe automation is not completely new, as one can point to the first times when basic machines began replacing human factory workers.
There may be some elements of truth here, but they largely miss the point and devolve into a meaningless game of semantics. For example: automation is not brand new, but the automation of tasks that require things we normally consider only humans capable of—logic, creativity, social interactions, intuition, etc—certainly is. Oppressive governments and/or those run by the rich may not be new, but humans are only just experiencing them armed with modern technology.
Simply put, some of these threats are clearly without precedent, and others are simply new enough. I will list some of these new problems, characteristic of present punk, and explain them briefly. Please, do your own research. I am only outlining some of the essentials, and I do not at all mean that these are the only present punk threats.
I have put this threat first because it is the least obviously cyberpunk. Certainly dystopian sci-fi portrays nuclear war or post-nuclear war settings. Fiction has been enraptured by nuclear war or nuclear disaster for a long time, and for good reasons. One might think a narrative concerned with our descent into a post-nuclear apocalypse is just that: not cyberpunk, but post-apocalyptic. Warranting a different name.
Fair enough, but I believe there’s plenty of room in present punk to account for nuclear weapons and the threat they pose. On the most basic approach, several cyberpunk works feature post-apocalyptic or post-nuclear settings, and several works that may be considered primarily post-nuclear-apocalyptic have cyberpunk elements. Do not spend too much time worrying about this.
Nuclear annihilation, apocalypse, Armageddon, etc, fit within present punk because it strikes me as unlikely all technology will be lost. Countless people might die, but not all, and even if most technology is destroyed, some would survive. The result of nuclear war in the future could potentially lead to humans reverting to a dark age, or becoming nearly extinct—who knows? What strikes me as more likely is the quality of life would worsen for most people surviving, and high technology would continue to rule the post-nuclear world. Inequality, technological oppression, and so on: these things will continue after the nuclear war. Cyberpunk can accommodate nuclear war, or even nuclear disaster, and present punk must do so to be a comprehensive idea.
I view it as largely self-evident that nuclear war will take place in the future, and that luck is the primary reason we have not suffered a nuclear war yet. You can research this further on your own, but I will outline the basic reasons why I have made these claims.
The odds simply are not good. We have only had nuclear weapons for a few decades, and have come within a hair’s breadth of actually striking each other several times (that we know about). One of the most notable incidents was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, in which a Soviet submarine came extremely close to launching a nuclear torpedo at the American fleet: two out of three ranking officers approved, but one vetoed and therefore saved the world from global nuclear war. A similar incident occurred in 1983, when the USSR’s nuclear early-warning system indicated an imminent nuclear strike from the United States. Once again, a Soviet officer was able to save the world from nuclear war, this time by identifying the problem as a technical glitch. There are a couple other incidents that were “less urgent” relative to the first two, but still alarmingly close considering the stakes. One example would be a computer error at NORAD headquarters in 1979, in which defense officials prepared nuclear bombers for takeoff in response to a computer error that indicated hundreds of Soviet ballistic missiles had been launched. Luckily, the error was discovered after 6 to 7 minutes—someone accidentally loaded a training scenario into a computer. 12 years before that, in 1967, the United States nearly launched a nuclear bombing strike of the USSR after a solar flare jammed NORAD radar. These are just the ones we know about.
In addition to the close calls we have already had, there are frighteningly little precautions in place should we come close again. The reason, of course, is that world leaders “need” to be able to react immediately in the event of an attack. But it also means that the United States president has full legal discretion to end human civilization. Humans have wielded tremendous power over the centuries, but never has one person had the firepower to destroy life on earth as we know it.
If our poor record and lack of obstacles to global nuclear war were not already alarming, there are plenty of factors lying in wait to impel a nuclear strike. The proliferation of nuclear weapons, and new arms races, greatly increase the chances of such attacks. Climate change, unless the international community comes together in a near-miracle, is almost bound to create some of the ugliest international tensions seen.
To simplify, the world has come to the brink of global nuclear war at least twice (and likely more, given these are the best-known of the “close calls”) only within the span of a few decades. There are not as many barriers to nuclear war as you may think, and there are multiple factors that can increase the chances. Those who hope the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is a reliable prevention are overly optimistic: if MAD was so effective, we never would have been saved by the luck of having the right people in the right place at the right time. MAD exists, but it pales in effectiveness compared to our good luck.
If you believe I am too paranoid, I find myself in good company. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the group that runs the internationally recognized Doomsday Clock, has put the year 2018 at 2 minutes to midnight and has maintained this time into 2019 (at the time of this writing, February), with their report declaring the world “as dangerous as it has been since World War II.”
What are the odds the world continues another seven decades without seeing nuclear war, given that it nearly happened several times in the last seven? Until we create more effective deterrents or even abolish nuclear weapons (unlikely of course), they will be part of the present punk narrative, part of the dystopia that awaits us.
One brief qualifier: I am not speaking of machines reaching consciousness. That is a separate issue, as much philosophy as it is engineering. I am speaking of increasingly intelligent computers.
Artificial intelligence is one of the present punk items which many people are beginning to recognize as a threat, even if only in a daze.
Many are optimistic, and this is to an extent justifiable. Automation offers us the possibility of freeing a lot of humans from work. Hypothetically, our economic system could change drastically for the better. Most of these daydreams feature universal basic income as a solution—something to allow humans to survive and pursue their own interests or entrepreneurial visions while robots do the drudgery. Many things are possible, and it is a nice vision. It seems more likely to me that our current system of capitalism-on-steroids will ensure artificial intelligence solidifies our inequality into a full-blown caste system.
Artificial intelligence does not simply pose a threat to us because it can assume our jobs. Artificial intelligence fundamentally reduces the bargaining power of the masses. How was India able to boycott and demonstrate its way into independence from Great Britain? The ability of people to withhold their labor and their consumption was very persuasive to the colonizer. Did unions get a place at the table because corporations and politicians felt bad for factory workers? Perhaps the ability of workers to stop working had something to do with it. Even dictators willing to watch millions of their subjects starve needed a bare minimum amount of people for their armies, hospitals, and bureaucracies. The cruelest of the powerful can shoot a lot of people, but they cannot shoot everyone.
Automation and artificial intelligence change that. Granted, presidents will probably not begin massacring people indiscriminately once people protest automation. Some systems will hold. Nonetheless, the basic power dynamic—already skewed—will tilt to an extreme. If you think unions have been weakened in the latter portion of the 20th century, wait until computers almost completely dissolve them.
And then there is another problem: the existential crisis humans will suffer on a psychological level. Speaking loosely, it seems humans got used to the industrial revolution because the machines then were never as smart as us—they just replaced a lot of physical labor. What happens when the things we pride ourselves on the most—our abilities to speak, write, paint, compose, or simply think—become the things we come in second place for? Science and technology put us in our place. We learned the earth is not the center of the universe, and that the universe is far more massive than anything comprehensible. We learned humans were not intelligently designed, but evolved slowly. We learned we do not have free will. We have only recently learned we can create machines that perform certain thinking tasks better than us, and we are about to learn just how inferior human mental faculties are to bits of silicon and wire. We might adjust as far as our self esteem goes (surprisingly, I am more of an optimistic on this problem myself). Even so, we simply will not know until we get there. If the near future holds massive unemployment and even more extreme wealth inequality, inferiority to machines may salt the wound.
In short, anyone can see that artificial intelligence offers a lot of potential for good as well as harm. That corporations have a tremendous role in the development of artificial intelligence is perfectly in line with the present punk worldview. Who owns the future of labor, production? Not us.
Of all the main current threats outlined here, this one requires the most speculation. To put it simply, science now is now capable of directly editing the genes of living creatures. The most infamous case is that of He Jiankui who claims to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies. CRISPR-Cas9 has been a topic of study for years, of course, but recent developments have made the gene-editing of organisms a practical reality. No one can deny we have a ways to go from more complex edits, or that there are limits to CRISPR. These facts mean little in the face of the fact that we have finally crossed the threshold.
No doubt anyone can see the ethical implications. This area of science awes anyone who knows of it, and naturally many have been quick to raise ethical concerns. Good. This should be the case. Pursuing knowledge is good, and there are many practical applications of gene editing—gene editing is another technology that could pave the way for true human prosperity. Somewhere out there, dreamers should dream about the potential benefits. We also need nightmares about what could go wrong.
We do not know who will control gene editing technology first. We do not know whether any militaries have secretly already made advances in this field, or whether they will. We do not know if an arms race of engineered humans—stronger, smarter, more agile than us—will take off or even if one is already taking place. We do not know that gene editing will be handled with proper public discourse, in a democratic fashion. We know that corporations rule the world and a few governments have massive, unaccountable factions with deep pockets that are likely even worse. Gene editing would be risky in any era, and for this one we must be especially wary.
Will gene edited humans become the new norm? Will us baseline humans with inferiority complexes kill off designed humans? Will superhumans wipe us out? Will we coexist in a biological caste system? Will edited humans be used for slave labor or experiments, as long as they are properly designed to be fit for such? Will we ban human gene editing outright, as a global community? If so, which states will ignore the world’s condemnation? And these questions do not even tackle the potential of gene editing outside of humans.
One could say that gene editing offers us a chance to remove many diseases and end world hunger. This is true, but we already have the means to end world hunger, and somehow it has persisted. Further technological developments will not necessarily end world hunger, particularly given it already need not exist. Who knows what CRISPR will do to global health Gene editing could change everything. CRISPR could change everything. We simply do not know what will happen, good or bad, but present punk cannot assume the best.
The person trying to explain why mass surveillance is wrong has a tough job. Not because they are in the wrong, but because it is difficult to know where to start. To put things simply, surveillance by the powerful (meaning governments as well as corporations) is a massive danger to the society that wants to be free and open.
Note that every authoritarian regime in recent history has sought the ability to surveil ever more people and ever more penetratingly. Modern technology has given the biggest blessings imaginable to the would-be totalitarians, and history’s totalitarians would have done anything for a chance to have our tools. There are already several notable instances of mass-surveillance and an invasive state, most notably in China, which is becoming increasingly totalitarian. The United Kingdom has also been incredibly monitored, as well as the United States. One can only guess how much farther democracies will go down the road of surveillance before that descriptor ceases to hold any meaning.
It is not just big governments and big government agencies, but little ones as well: in the United States, local police departments hold ever-more sophisticated surveillance tools (not to mention firepower). A 2016 study found about half of all American adults were in a police facial recognition database. This is just the tip of the iceberg, compared to more direct monitoring and the massive data-collections of unaccountable intelligence agencies. And of course, there can be no discussion of surveillance without mention of corporations. It is hardly a separate problem, as we all expect tech companies to turn over data to the government. Part of the developing techno-oligarchy may entail the increased surveillance of workers, but the larger problem (by pure numbers) of corporate surveillance is its focus on the consumers. Imagine traveling to 1984’s Britain, and telling Winston that people in your world pay to have surveillance devices in their homes.
There may have been a point we were able to choose. In 2019 the choices available to us are illusory. You can either be part of the modern world, or maintain a reasonable degree of privacy. You can delete your Facebook and uninstall Instagram, but the moment you’re on the internet, you’ve been compromised. It is more complicated than that, indeed, but have you ever tried to use Tor, or a VPN? Sacrificing privacy is free, fast, and shows an internet that knows you better. The choices we have as consumers to protect our privacy are shrinking in number and depth.
A final point on the dangers of modern and near-future surveillance: there was a time not too long ago when mass surveillance could be criticized on the grounds of its effectiveness. One could credibly say that the NSA’s mass surveillance program brought in too much noise and did not effectively deter or help catch terrorists. This is a practical argument that ignores the fundamental ethics in question, and now is increasingly difficult to make as surveillance gets smarter.
Suppose the goal of the surveillance was to identify crime, not just terrorism. Suppose also that the tools were simply better. It is quite reasonable to expect serious reductions in crime, and modern day China is an excellent example of such an experiment. Jaywalkers in Shenzhen find their faces displayed on massive billboards, and fines automatically extracted from their accounts. The province of Hebei unveiled an app that shows users when they are within a 500-meter radius of someone in debt. And as prevention is the best solution to crime and terrorism, it should come as no surprise that China disguises flocks of drones disguised as birds to surveil its Muslim communities. Perhaps the best form of prevention is education, so it is a great thing facial recognition in schools monitor students who are falling asleep or doodling. I do not mean to pick on China–it simply is the best example of extreme state surveillance.
The question, in any case, has become much simpler—safety or privacy? Once the question can become so simple, I think I know what most people will prefer, not simply which one governments prefer (though governments do not prefer it because they care). We have a right to be safe. Present punk opts for a world in which safety does not mean compromising privacy, and visa versa.
It has never been more feasible to control a population, let alone a smaller group of people or a single person. From facial recognition to robust psychological profiles, it will become increasingly difficult to hide anything, and thus dissent in any meaningful way.
One last item: “But I don’t do anything wrong. I have nothing to hide.”
Two responses to that: firstly, yes, you do. Secondly, saying that is roughly equivalent to saying “I will not bother the watchers.” If our collective response to mass surveillance is that we have nothing to fear, provided we are boring and passive, then we have already entered the first steps of the police state.
There are a lot of words we can use here, and I encourage you to use them all, even if your only goal is to irritate political scientists. For example: plutocracy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and if you are feeling particularly bold, kleptocracy.
I do not find it useful to distinguish between these terms within the present punk narrative, because the essential meaning will carry through regardless. However, I will for now say techno-oligarchy because our government is composed of officials who are owned by plutocrats and the aristocracy. Our government is not directly run by plutocrats, though perhaps by quite a few aristocrats, and many bureaucrats are of course closet kleptocrats. The short version is a society run by a very select, elite few, most of whom are either very wealthy and owned by the extremely wealthy, or who are just moderately wealthy and owned by the extremely wealthy.
One could say that even the most democratic societies will feature a disproportionate power wielded by wealth. This would be accurate. However, the present day trend in the United States (a trend mirrored around the world) is an extreme level of wealth inequality that has not been seen since those periods of history we distinguish for their inequality: the gilded age and the roaring 20s, primarily.
Present punk holds that the gilded age has been updated to the age of silicon. Today’s robber barons may own data instead of trains, but they are modern barons just the same. Of course, we should not forget about the “older” owners of this country, meaning more recently bankers and the miscellaneous conglomerates that tech has overshadowed. All these niches of the plutocrat class are just that: niches. Plutocrats still rule our world. It is important to keep in mind that all these groups also rely on modern computing to maintain their enormous wealth: for example, the largest banks purchase entire buildings for the sole purpose of housing increasingly faster computers to trade stocks.
All of that aside, it is certainly true that in our current moment, Big Tech is the name of the game. You can know this by the fact that almost everyone regularly uses a Big Tech product, be it their phone, laptop, or most visited websites. You can tell know this by the last few years of company valuations. A long time ago (in 2006 to be precise) the largest companies by market capitalization (in order) were Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Microsoft, Citigroup, and Bank of America. In 2017, the largest companies were Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. Moreover, the largest company in 2006 (Exxon Mobil) had a market capitalization of $540 billion. Of course, we cannot forget the importance of banks – even if they are no longer the biggest companies, relatively speaking, they exert tremendous influence over the world economy.
We can know that to be true and still appreciate the heights to which tech companies have risen. 2018, Apple became the first company to reach a trillion-dollar valuation. Since Apple’s peak, Microsoft and Amazon have become the most valuable companies. Sure, things are intense between those top dogs, and sure, you could say this is just the natural expansion of the markets (market capitalization has always increased with time, you scream). The simple truth of the matter is that, however you want to slice it, Big Tech has become the latest group of monopolists.
Here is one last way you can know that: from 2007 to 2017, the five largest tech firms outspent Wall Street in federal lobbying by a factor of 2:1. Google has outspent every other company in its federal lobbying investments. It is absolutely true that Big Oil, Wall Street, and whatever other Big Name you can come up with owns government. Big Tech, however, has been sitting at the top of that list for a decade and counting.
Present punk understands that rule by Big Tech is the most aesthetically cyberpunk outcome, but also that oversized corporate power has been decades in the making. Neoliberalism, increasingly unrestrained capitalism, however you want to call it—since the 80s at least, the landscape has been changing. Lobbying became commonplace to degrees not since seen since the Gilded Age. Wealth inequality began its rapid march and unions became increasingly crippled. The Democratic Party began adopting the strategy of their opponents by abandoning unions, labor, and small donors in favor of corporate money. Globalization made the consolidation of power even more extreme. So on, and so on—we can let the analysts determine the specifics.
So, here is our current situation. We are facing tremendous wealth inequality that does not seem ready to halt any time in the near future. The wealthy have gained outsized influence in the United States, but also in governments around the world. Tech companies dominate, but they are by no means the only players. While one could say there are numerous historical instances of such situations, including very recent history, never before has this process been accompanied by computing.
The advent of automation (as discussed earlier) seems poised to cement this inequality, as does the increased ability of the employer to surveil the employee.
This new oligarchy is characterized not just by the firm rule of the wealthy, but by the economic weakening of the masses. In the United States in 2018, this would appear to be the decline of traditional jobs with benefits and steady incomes, and the rise of contracting and freelancing. It also looks like the lack of wage growth proportionate to “economic growth” and especially the wealth of the bosses.
The monitoring of employees counts, as does the curtailing of their rights to organize. Unions have been attacked legally and in the workplace, major companies have been keen to push ever more work without due compensation.
One final note: this may be more my own flavor of present punk, but I associate the rise of a techno-oligarchy with the decline of property ownership: a world in which no one owns the media they consume, or their mode of transportation, or their computer, or God knows what else. Everyone, I’m sure, can see some of this trend already. The question is how far it will go, and how permanent it will be.
The rise of automation may play into this. While advancements in artificial intelligence could possibly hold opportunities for freeing humankind from work that we do not need to do, at the present moment it is far more likely automation will replace large swaths of the workforce—a workforce that will not receive any benefits to significantly improve their standards of living.
Climate change, similarly to nuclear war, is less obviously cyberpunk. However, several prominent works do feature the degradation of the environment (Judge Dredd, the Matrix movies, Snow Crash, Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). The present punk narrative has plenty of room for environmental catastrophe, and in fact it must if it is to be accurate.
Climate change will do many things, some of which we may not foresee. Simply from what we do understand, it is clear climate change is a catastrophic threat: rising sea levels that will swallow countless major cities, a refugee crisis of unimaginable proportions, intense scarcity of vital resources such as water, and intensive heats that simply make certain areas unlivable. There are more, but I have selected the more dramatic ones. By all means, others as you see fit.
Climate change will prompt wars and make already large governments even more controlling. Borders will be tightened, and states of emergency will become commonplace. Authoritarianism will become the new norm, and even replace democracies. There may be hope for a world that can come together to cope, but the anarchic nature of the international system makes this unlikely. We have yet to see how governments and corporations will react to climate change; what seems to me the most likely scenario is the powerful will have the resources to protect themselves. They will go to Mars (or more likely, within in our own lifetimes they will go to New Zealand) and live in relative prosperity while the rest of the world devolves.
Many effects of climate change are now inevitable (though things can always become worse), and the world will need to come together to focus on managing rather than preventing.
Brain Interfaces and transhumanism
Brain—Computer Interfaces (BCIs) have been a popular topic in science fiction (of course, especially cyberpunk) works. BCIs first appeared in academic literature in the 1970s, and most BCI research and technology has focused on addressing impairments in cognitive or sensorimotor ability. Fair enough—present punk does not dismiss the positive applications of this, or any other, technology.
The point, however, is that such technology is no longer science fiction. Neuroprosthetics have been used in humans since the 1990s. As recently as January 2019, neuroengineers at Columbia created a device that can translate thoughts into words, albeit to a limited extent. Neuralink is probably the most famous example of a major venture into BCI development.
BCIs are not the only category in town. I do not care much for semantics, and I include brain-to-brain interfaces, neurorobotics, neural engineering, and robotic transhumanism as roughly in the same cyberpunk category as BCIs. Advancements in all these fields are an increasingly common reality. Mind-controlled prosthetics have been around for years and are nowadays becoming normal. Brain to brain interface technology obviously has a long way to go, but that way it will go unless the world ends soon. As long ago as 2013, researchers at Duke University successfully wired together the brains of two rats. Successful in this instance means that sensorimotor information was successfully passed from one brain to another.
Once again, I do not mean to denigrate the medical value of such technologies. Without a doubt, these developments can improve life for those with disabilities. Present punk simply asks if all the consequences of such development will be good. Who will own them? Will everyone ten years from now be paying Elon Musk, Google, or Amazon for an affordable hive mind? Will you be, à la Deus Ex, partially owned by a corporation?
I do not mean to imply that the items listed before are the only ones we should be concerned about. Present punk is wide open. I strongly encourage anyone with an interest to expand the present punk literature to technologies and discoveries not often discussed. I will provide some examples of other technologies that could pose cyberpunk threats. Many of these, you will notice, have to do with brain research. I have a particular interest in these kinds of things. I apologize for the bias.
- Dream reading.
- Virtual reality. VR is a staple of cyberpunk tech and I regret reducing it to this bullet point. We have all heard someone say “VR is the next big thing” or speculate that VR is going to hypnotize the masses. I do not necessarily disagree, I simply weigh the threats of VR as secondary to, for example, climate change.
- Space exploration.
- Seriously, everything. Technology can and is revolutionizing everything, even things you have never given a second thought to.
Outline of political views
To some extent, even attempting an outline of the political beliefs of present punk is ridiculous. I will try anyway.
It ought to be a given, but present punk isn’t a rigid group with clear boundaries and membership. If a person with views opposite to mine call themselves present punk, there is little I can or will do about it.
Therefore, this rough sketch is a mix of my own views and of the views I believe fit the present punk mold, which I hope are relevant insofar as I have created the term present punk and this website.
It is very easy to laugh at the term libertarian socialism, but it most easily represents where I stand politically and where I think present punk also finds purchase. Libertarian socialism essentially has left-wing critiques of the economy and politics, but also prizes the freedom of the individual. The freedom and well-being of the ordinary person is of special importance, and as such libertarian socialists tend to reject state control of the economy—libertarian attitudes toward the state are prominent. Nonetheless, libertarian socialism recognizes the power of the economy to subjugate the individual, and advocates for a more democratic organization of the economy. Libertarian socialists often focus on wage slavery and the relationship between workers and capital; a stereotypical libertarian socialist, for example, wants to see more worker cooperatives.
Obviously a lot more can be said about libertarian socialism, and you should not take this brief summary to be sufficient for understanding the whole thing. I am simply saying that present punk finds as part of its dystopia narrative economic problems from a left wing (if not socialist) view point, but overbearing states from a libertarian view point.
Strands of libertarianism will always have a place in the present punk world view: the freedom of the individual is greatly valued as well as greatly threatened today. However, to the extent a libertarian dislikes government but loves corporate rule, they may have difficulty fitting in. While many American socialists take issue with state surveillance, it also strikes me as apparent that many on the left (by which I mean the broader portion of the country significantly left of center) are not critical enough of the surveillance state or militarized police: I hope present punk can help rebuild the distrust of unaccountable government agencies.
On that note, economics is both essential to present punk but also something ambiguous. The problems are what present punks need to agree on—the solutions will always be complicated and full of debate. Debate is good, but a proper grounding is even better. If it’s not already clear, economic problems as understood in present punk are:
- Unrestricted free trade and/or the corporatism that poses as capitalism (these tend to devolve into a game of semantics—many libertarians claim to want “true” capitalism and an end to “crony capitalism” or corporatism, while leftists might say that capitalism is crony capitalism). Naturally most of the rest of these problems can be directly traced to this one.
- Privatization and austerity.
- Severe economic inequality.
- Low wages and the general stagnation (if not decline) of personal wealth and well-being of most ordinary people.
- Decline of workers’ rights and the power of labor, which has been a trend for decades but faces new challenges in an economy increasingly characterized by automation and independent contracting.
- Debt peonage.
- Predatory companies and business models. This is especially true for the financial system, but Big Pharma and increasingly Big Tech are also big players here.
- The erosion of property (in favor of renting and streaming models).
- The constant consolidation of corporate power, in multiple ways. There is of course the most-understood way, referring to the formal organization of companies within companies — the growth of conglomerates. There is also the consolidation of corporate political power, as far as lobbying or even outright bribery goes, and corporate political rights or privileges (such as global trade rules that permit companies to sue governments).
- The role of the state in propping up large corporations at the expense of the citizen.
Before anyone gets angry about this whole section (or this whole manifesto)—who am I to decide that “cyberpunk in the present” means this or that political view—I would like to remind you that this outline is fairly consistent with cyberpunk works. One of the staples of cyberpunk is overbearing corporate power, and in many instances corporations have either replaced the government or otherwise fully corrupted it. Privatization is commonplace in these worlds. The corporations that run the world, and in some cases many worlds, are massive.
As far as mainstream politics goes, I would say what many call left is more of a center: today’s mainstream liberals have abandoned the worker and sold out to economic elites. It is self-evident the Republican Party is extraordinarily dangerous to the human race at least for its positions on climate change, and it is an instrument of the new oligarchy. While you may dislike those who equate the parties, present punk does call on people to recognize the tremendous failures of the Democratic Party in providing adequate resistance.
Lastly, present punk is very left on social issues. Sorry, there is not much of a way around this.
There is no strict set of positions I hope everyone follows, but basic principles of tolerance and empathy for marginalized groups should be highly informative. Simply put: cyberpunk backdrops often feature the poor masses constrained by techno-oligarchs. Surely the poor masses include those who have been historically hurt, and for whom progress has been anything but a full repair of the wound. It is a simple fact of recent history that dividing lines of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, and so on have privileged some groups over others. While some progress has been made, the knife has not been pulled out fully and the present punk threats are especially threatening to those who are already marginalized.
UTILITY OF PRESENT PUNK
I would guess the number one criticism of present punk is that it is too pessimistic, to the point of being ineffectual. Maybe if everyone assumes the world is headed for dystopia, they will not become motivated to fight for change and will instead be depressed into complacency—fair enough.
Here are a few counters to that.
First, has optimism helped us save the planet we are destroying? There is a little cottage industry of optimism studies in the West, primarily an urge from elites to recognize how capitalism has made the world the better than it ever has been. I will grant that by many metrics, substantial progress has been made over the decades in truly important areas (such as infant mortality, hunger, disease, etc). However, progress has been far, far more nuanced than Neoliberal Optimism Studies™ recognizes. And of that progress, the degree to which it is owed to capitalism is highly debatable. I believe there is reason to be skeptical about how optimism has helped us thus far. I would grant that to the extent progress has been made has been powered by optimism, that optimism was couched in massive fear.
Secondly, will optimism help us save the planet in the future? Of this, I am extremely doubtful. A belief that we will find a way out of it is far, far more damaging than believing we are doomed—particularly when there are still measures we can take to avoid the worst. Will believing that we will discover or invent our way out of catastrophic climate change help us avoid it? We have already advanced to the point where we can end world hunger. We can end child nutrition. We can power the world without completely destroying the environment. We have had these abilities for some time, and none of them have happened. If you agree that the problem is us and the way we organize, then bingo—but why would you think we suddenly reverse this trend in the future, if not because the alternative is too frightening?
This third point is directed to those of you who are assholes, and say things like “I’m not an optimist or a pessimist, I’m just a realist.” You are not intelligent or a realist for calling yourself a realist. Any realistic approach to the world right now should find plenty of reasons to be pessimistic. One can find reasons to be optimistic, but things such as nuclear war and climate change make those rather difficult (see point two). Realism with appropriate caution will have a naturally pessimistic twinge given only a few basic facts.
I will note here that optimism is not forbidden. There is no clear doctrine of present punk, however this manifesto sounds, and optimism may very well be necessary for individual motivation. It may be necessary for larger social movements. Optimism is fine, provided it is appropriately cautious. Some optimism is okay if you need it, but you better be properly pessimistic about some things as well.
For example, I hold the optimistic (and common) view that humans are generally good. Or rather, I believe almost all humans try to be good. We simply are imperfect and some are more successful than others, for various reasons. This is a good dose of tampered optimism—believe that humans are all trying or think they are, but that this does not necessarily matter much except to make us feel better. Many Nazis knew they were making the world a better place (sorry, Godwin), and yet that matters little to how I will judge the holocaust they waged. I believe automation has tremendous potential, but I am pessimistic that it will be used that way.
Fourthly: it is fun. Present punk is fun. You can look at the news and pick out bits that sound dystopian, or read about the latest implementation of artificial intelligence and exclaim that the future is here. For all the criticisms that present punk is overly negative, it is an entertaining process. And, I can almost guarantee that using present punk’s pessimism, you can impress your friends with accurate predictions.
If you were searching for an uplifting part of this manifesto, this is it. Present punk may have one positive aspect: we need punks.
Rebels, antiheroes, people who do not fit in. People who see how we got here, where we are going, and who do not like it one bit. Present punk calls for people to rise to the occasion—to be stars in this dramatic movie.
The marginalized are our greatest heroes. People who have been pushed aside by the system are the ones who will bring the fight back to it. Who are these people? I find they come in all forms. Those who do not fit in because of their gender identity, for example, or because they are too young or too old, or because they lack steady housing, and so on. Maybe you are a closeted gay teenager in a small town, trying to scrape together money for a one-way ticket to New York. You might be a person of color in a city where every block around your home has facial recognition cameras and police arrest you for traffic violations wrapped in war gear. You could be suffering from both depression and a cynical sense of humor, and find your best friend has become Facebook’s counselor bot. You may be fresh out of university, staring down five figures in debt and paying it off by working a dollar above minimum wage. Or you may be six decades into your life, watching your retirement get farther and farther away because all your decades of work have not produced the American dream.
Present punk supports the insurgent politicians. It supports the grassroots, and anti-establishment movements and characters (not universally, of course—open as present punk is, it is no place for fascism). It supports occupy, black lives matter, and the yellow vests. It supports unions. We need the masses to be stronger, healthier, and more powerful, both within the States and abroad. We cannot place our trust in elites, and in technological progress alone. Just ourselves; from there, managing the other two will be easier.
How you work to make the world a better place is up to you. Small things are fine–just do something other than post on the internet.
If you find yourself discontent with the way things are, and the way they are going; if you see the end of the world, and you wish to avoid that end; and if you worry about who owns the future – then welcome to present punk.