Without a doubt, this month saw a ridiculous number of stories that I would consider part of our cyberpunk trend. As with every month, I’m sure there are things I’ve missed–but at this point, I’d feel a little depressed having to add anything else here. Without further ado, and in no particular order…
#1. Alexa’s creepy laughing
Yep. Amazon certainly seems on track to be the dystopian company we’ve all been fantasizing about. In early March, reports of Amazon’s Alexa creepily laughing unprompted made waves on social media. It didn’t take too long for Amazon to “figure out” why Alexa was laughing–supposedly Alexa was misinterpreting consumers, hearing “Alexa, laugh,” when they had not said such things.
#2. Russian hacking of American power plants
I don’t want to enter a new cold war here so I feel a bit hesitant to add it to the list, but this is certainly something worth noting.
In mid-March the Trump administration accused Russia of launching cyberattacks over the years that likely compromised nuclear power plants, and water and electric systems. It’s pretty scary stuff, to think of a few Russian neckbeards holding power over our critical infrastructure.
What makes it scarier? Only an idiot would assume we haven’t tried something similar with Russia, with the American deployment of Stuxnet in Iran, attempted deployment of Stuxnet in North Korea, and successful anti-missile cyberattacks on North Korea providing a good hint of where we are with all this.
It came quietly, but welcome to the age of digital warfare.
#3. British police using Amazon Echo
Participating in the first program of its kind in the United Kingdom, police in Lancashire have been “broadcasting crime updates, photos of wanted and missing people, and safety notificaitons to Amazon Echo owners.” This was done via a direct partnership between the police and Amazon developers.
Now this isn’t too dystopian yet, but I wouldn’t count on any optimism. The county will be storing citizens’ crime reports on Amazon servers, instead of the police, and if you’ve been paying attention, you know that Amazon servers are a huge, and rarely talked about, part of the company’s formidable power. What’s more, is this program will allow users/participants to report crimes directly to their smart speakers. The man in Lancashire’s police department that’s been innovating this program imagines police using this same reporting mechanism, not just county residents.
It seems a harmless way of innovating policing now, so the jury’s still out. Nonetheless, I think we should all still be wary of Amazon intruding into government duties. The way North American cities have been desperately begging Amazon for the establishment of a second headquarters provides an example of the power dynamic between local government and the tech giant (example: Chicago proposing Amazon workers should just pay their taxes to their bosses).
#4. Google providing AI tech for drone strike project
In early March some reports came out about Google’s recent and incoming involvement with the Department of Defense. Google recently secured a contract to “work on the Defense Department’s new algorithmic warfare initiative, providing assistance with a pilot project to apply its artificial intelligence solutions to drone targeting.”
The Pentagon is also, of course, aware that we’re heading into a cyberpunk dystopia, and has been trying to make sure the military doesn’t lag behind. Additionally, few others have a stronger hold over AI innovation than Google, so the contract certainly makes sense.
A Google spokesperson told Bloomberg that the technology flags images (from drone surveillance) for human review, but is only for non-offensive uses. Heh, yeah right. Can’t wait for the day when our drone warfare runs on Android…
#5. Chinese police begin using facial recognition sunglasses
Isn’t it a little weird how terrifying things come in goofy formats? You have to admit–if you saw facial recognition sunglasses in a movie, you might think it’s a bit goofy.
For about a month, China’s police have been testing sunglasses with facial recognition capabilities, and now the program is being extended to the outskirts of Beijing as oppose to the city center. The glasses basically pick up facial features (and car registration plates) and match them in real-time to a database of suspects.
This is of course part of a larger trend in China of vast increases in the use of big data, AI, and facial recognition. How have these sunglasses in particular been used? Well, aside from casual, day to day use, they’ve also been used for extra security during the Parliament’s vote to extend Xi Jinping’s limited term to a lifetime.
Any guesses on how long it will be before NYPD, or some other major PD in the U.S. or England, starts using the same tech?
#6. New Orleans’ revamped surveillance network
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana condemned the original New Orleans City Council proposal for a revamped surveillance network way back in December 2017 when it was first voted through. From the ACLU:
“This ordinance would put the city’s surveillance apparatus on steroids, subjecting New Orleanians to near-constant monitoring of their daily lives and stifling our vibrant public spaces – without meaningfully reducing crime.”
So a few months later, what’s become of the passed measure? It’s been implemented, of course, and implemented pretty well. 80 surveillance cameras have been installed around New Orleans, 250 more are supposed to be installed by spring 2018, and these are in addition to the installation of 100 license plate readers. It’s not just the city putting out its own surveillance cameras though.
The ordinance requires every business that sells alcohol to put cameras outside their buildings, and the footage will be fed live into a NOPD monitoring center. What’s New Orleans known for? As linked article from the Intercept notes, “New Orleans has more bars per capita than any other major American city.”
#7. New startup offers fatal procedure that will (hopefully) eventually allow the upload of your consciousness
Nectome is a startup whose founders claim to have invented a method of perfectly preserving the brain. The mission of Nectome is to preserve the brain well enough to keep the memories intact, so that as science develops, the memories and personality of the individual can be uploaded and preserved digitally. It’s totally fatal, and aimed towards those who are terminally ill. Here’s a link to the company’s ‘about’ page.
It’d be sensationalist to say that the startup has actually figured out a method of uploading your brain to the cloud, which is the way some people are talking about it, but it’s still a step towards one of the ultimate sci-fi tropes.
#8. The CLOUD Act
I remember being in high school, and feeling very proud of the internet for the SOPA/PIPA online protests. Of course, at least a solid portion of the success of these protests should probably be attributed to the major tech companies that opposed the legislation–many people have described the situation as a battle between the entertainment industry and Silicon Valley. This of course, leads one to wonder: what do we do when draconian legislation is supported by Big Tech?
Whelp, I guess we’re about to find out. In late March, the CLOUD Act was passed as an addition to recent spending legislation. This mostly affects people in other countries, so I understand why there’s been little uproar from Americans. The CLOUD Act essentially allows foreign powers to more easily access information about their citizens stored on American companies’ servers. It removes existing safeguards and gives the Attorney General and Secretary of State much more power over the transfer of information with little oversight or balance.
It may not matter to us, but this is certainly potentially terrifying news for people all over the world living under less-than-friendly policing authorities. And in my humble opinion, it’s an additional indication of how much credit we should give tech companies as defenders of internet users.
Who’s supporting it? Well, here’s a joint letter on Microsoft’s blog expressing support for the legislation on behalf of Apple, Facebook, Google, and of course, Microsoft.
#9. Illinois’ Democratic nomination for governor is a billionaire
In late March the results for the Illinois’ democratic party nomination for governor came in: billionaire J.B. Pritzker secured the nomination. He spent a record amount of money on the campaign: $69.5 million. The next highest amount of money donated to his campaign was $14,700, and the third highest was $3,000 (that should give you a sense of how popularly supported this candidate really was).
His two main competitors in the Democratic primary raised $6.9 million and $6.7 million.
It’s as if Democrats have decided the only way they can counter Trump is by pushing their own billionaires through… I think the Democratic Party’s failures are one of the major reasons we’re sliding into the cyberpunk future, and if it’s not one of the reasons, it’s certainly one of the symptoms of the cyberpunk future (and I say this as someone who’s pretty left-wing).
#10. Alibaba joins ALEC
ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a very infamous lobbying group. They’re infamous for being basically a legislation-ghostwriting group, and a very successful won at that. Most recently, they’ve been associated with the private prison industry and Arizona’s racial profiling law, SB 1070. ALEC is basically the stereotypical, dirty-politics lobby.
Alibaba is China’s Amazon equivalent, and as such is consistently one of the world’s largest retailers and internet companies. Actually, it’s just one of the most valuable companies by market cap, period. So the only thing that could be more dystopian than Amazon joining ALEC would be it’s counterpart, Alibaba. This is part of a larger trend of powerful Chinese companies increasing their influence in American lobbying (though Chinese companies are far from the only foreign companies trying to exercise influence in American politics). Another example of this trend, which we mentioned in last month’s round up–in February, a Chinese state-owned chemical company joined a dark money lobbying group.
#11. Trump administration fighting Uber union efforts
If anything is cyberpunk about today’s jobs, it’s the gig economy: lots of people doing work for average or low pay, without benefits, juggling lots of small jobs or contracts, and typically through using the internet.
In 2015, Seattle became the first city to allow ride-share drivers to unionize. However, as the Intercept puts it, an “alliance” between Uber, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the Trump administration threatens to rule Seattle’s ordinance as a violation of antitrust law. The argument goes as follows: as, technically speaking, Uber’s drivers are independent business operators, collaboration between the drivers would be able to set prices illegally, just as a monopoly would be able to do.
I’m aware that at first glance this may sound more like boring political news, and not very cyberpunk. Well, imagine this: in the future, the only people who work, work shitty contract jobs for a handful of corporations, and they have no real rights as workers because they’re, you know, contractors. This sounds dramatic (I am dramatic myself, so sorry about that) but it’s not as much of a stretch as you might think: 94% of net job growth from 2005 to 2015 was in the “alternative work category,” mostly due to the rise of independent contracting, freelancing, and contract companies. Traditional jobs are disappearing, and if anything is taking their place, it’s contracting. Boring stories like this matter–they affect the rights the workers of tomorrow will have (assuming automation leaves work for tomorrow).
#12. Cambridge Analytica
As I update this post in April, I’m surprised to note that people are still upset about this thing. Yeah, it is a big deal I guess, but it’s only going to get bigger in the coming years. I’m gonna go out on a limb (sarcasm, because this is obvious) and say Cambridge Analytica is just the tip of the iceberg. Keep in mind that Cambridge Analytica was actually first put on the radar in 2015 when Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign hired them, but it’s only recently that a whistleblower enlightened us and made it blow up on the news.
In any case, the gist of this is that once upon a time, a few hundred thousand Facebook users took quizzes online and then their information, as well as the information of all their friends, got sucked into Cambridge Analytica’s collection. Cambridge Analytica was hired by the Trump campaign and now we’re in a debate about how vulnerable our data is (answer: vulnerable is probably the best adjective you can use to describe our data) and about the extent to which big data can influence politics and elections (see #13).
Mark Zuckerberg apologized in April as the number of users whose data has been used went higher than originally thought, to 87 million. I still think he’s going to run for president, win the Democratic primary, and end up losing to Trump.
#13. Facebook deletes page bragging about its ability to influence elections
Someone once asked The Zucc if Facebook could influence elections, and big surprise, he said no. At the same time he said that, Facebook had a very public page talking about its ability to influence elections.
This is Facebook’s “success stories” page. They don’t have it anymore, but a couple years ago in their list of industries, they had a “government and politics” section. With all the flak they’ve gotten recently, the page has been deleted. What was on it before? Here are a couple samples of the strong success stories that used to be on the section…
- Republican governor Rick Scott used Facebook advertising to boost Hispanic voter turnout 22%
- Supposedly gave the Scottish National Party (in the UK) a landslide victory
Yeah, the section is gone, but some of the pages are still active.
This isn’t groundbreaking news by any means, but definitely worthy of a spot on the list. Best of all, this is good for understanding the context we’re in when Marky runs for president.
#14. The formation of a war cabinet
It would be a mistake to assume changes to Trump’s white house are going to be fixed for the remainder of the presidency. Nonetheless, it’s hard to not be alarmed by the latest shift: Mike Pompeo from CIA director (which was pretty scary in the first place) to Secretary of State, Gina Haspel for CIA director, and John Bolton as new national security adviser.
Mike Pompeo is what I, and a few others, would call a Christian extremist. He was scary enough as CIA head, but Secretary of State is a new level of terrifying. Gina Haspel is infamous for taking charge with waterboarding and covering it up. And John Bolton? Where to start with this guy…he really helped get the invasion of Iraq of the ground, and even now he still think it was a good idea. Here’s an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in February, advocating a preemptive strike on North Korea. He supports regime change in Iran as well as North Korea. This man is terrifying, and will be one of the premier voices in Trump’s ear: his new job is to synthesize what he hears from all the intelligence and defense agencies and advise the president based on these things.
You don’t need to be a scholar to figure out what this looks like, and what the rest of the world is seeing here–the formation of a war cabinet. Maybe this isn’t cyberpunk so much as it is apocalyptic, but eh–I think a cyberpunk future can definitely have constant war. Maybe World War 3 is what gets us to our cyberpunk dystopia.
#15. Trump administration to require incoming immigrants to submit 5 years of social media history
As part of the Trump administration’s proposed “extreme vetting” for incoming immigrants, almost all visa applicants would be required to submit 5 years of social media history in their applications. This idea isn’t new, and has gone back to the Obama years, but now it’s actually being implemented. It’s not for sure yet–there’s still a chance some checks and balances will kick in. No surprise here, but I’m not too optimistic.
#16. Malaysia’s anti-fake news bill
For those who don’t know, near the end of March Malaysia’s legislature began considering a bill that would give the government the power to jail or fine those deemed guilty as spreading fake news. Jail terms could go up to 6 years, and fines could go up to $130,000.
This would be scary in ANY society, no matter how democratic, but especially so in Malaysia, a less than democratic country. It’s not that Malaysia’s a firm dictatorship, but they’re certainly in that in-between space: the ruling party has been in power for decades, so that should give you an idea of how competitive elections are.
Giving the government the power to determine what is true and what is false is pretty scary. It’s hard to imagine a better way of censoring and controlling information in the information age than this. Can’t wait for this to pass America’s congress…