Evidently, it’s been a while. I don’t really mind taking forever on these roundups, at least for now, because I haven’t tried to make this blog very public. In the future, if I ever have readers, I’ll worry about making these roundups regularly.
In any case, I’ve accumulated a ton of stories, small and big, over the months for an eventual roundup. Rather than making several shorter lists or one big one, I’ll just make one short roundup. Covering August 2018 to March 2019, these stories are ones I find to be prime present punk. Enjoy.
#1. Howard Schultz announces presidential ambitions (Jan-2019)
To be specific, Howard Schultz (founder and CEO of Starbucks) announced that he was establishing an exploratory committee. He’s not exactly in the running yet, but he has certainly made his ambitions quite clear.
The gist? “The center is being marginalized. As a self-funded centrist, I can save America from extremism.” Something like that. Schultz’s net worth is around $3.5 billion at the time of this writing, and I could not be more optimistic about our future.
Here’s the news link I’ll leave you with: an article by David Frum titled “Howard Schultz May Save the Democratic Party From Itself.”
I’m crossing my fingers for Michael Bloomberg to run for president, and if we’re really really lucky, Mark Zuckerberg. The last one’s a long shot, but a dystopian can hope. Anyway, nothing screams that the future will be a cyberpunk dystopia more than a billionaire running for president against a billionaire president.
#2. Study finds that almost half of all Americans have some form of heart disease (Jan-2019)
The American Heart Association released a report late January declaring 121 million-plus Americans to have a heart or blood vessel disease.
It’s a sizeable jump from last year’s numbers, mostly because the bar for hypertension was lowered by the AHA, and not all have life-threatening heart diseases.
Nonetheless, I’m hard-pressed to think of a more visible sign of “decline.”
#3. A Chinese app that notifies you when you’re near someone in debt (Jan-2019)
The title says it all, but essentially: a province in China has developed an app that will alert users when they are within a 500 meter radius of someone in debt. It’s called a “map of deadbeat debtors” and ideally app users will be able to “whistle-blow” on people who seem to be able to pay their debts. This way everyone can, you know, hold each other accountable.
Can things get any more dystopian than this? Well…
#4. China disguising surveillance drones as birds (Aug-2018)
You seriously cannot make this shit up. I can almost guarantee you that if you think this or that sci-fi movie did something over the top, something equally dramatic has happened or is happening. In this case?
The Chinese government’s “Dove” program sends up drones to monitor citizens, primarily the province of Xinjiang (which has a large portion of China’s minority Muslim community). These drones are modified to look like birds, and are so realistic it’s genuinely difficult to tell them apart from real birds.
#5. A Russian startup that wants to put ads in low-Earth orbit (Jan-2019)
StartRocket is a Russian company that has a grand plan for the future of advertising. Imagine if we sent a lot of tiny cube satellites into low orbit, and gave each satellite an inflatable sail that would reflect the light of the sun. By arranging these floating cubes in the sky, you could create massive messages in the night time sky.
What would you use these massive messages for? Well, advertisements of course.
This idea admittedly sounds far-fetched. However, I have absolutely no doubts that enough corporate interest would not only fund this venture entirely, but persuade international regulators to sign off on a humongous floating advertisement in the sky.
#6. The wealth gap continues to widen (Jan-2019)
Any recent report on the growing wealth gap counts as evidence of present punk. Here’s the latest bit, from Time:
“While the poorest half of humanity saw their wealth dwindle by 11%, billionaires’ riches increased by 12%. The mega-wealthy have also become a more concentrated bunch. Last year, the top 26 wealthiest people owned $1.4 trillion, or as much as the 3.8 billion poorest people. The year before, it was the top 43 people.“
#7. Students protest being forced to participate in Facebook’s educational/data collection programs (Nov-2018)
100 students at Brooklyn’s Secondary School for Journalism (a high school) protested, by walking out of classes, an online education platform developed by Facebook engineers.
The students said they weren’t learning on the Summit Learning Platform and were concerned about data collection on it:
Formally this program isn’t developed by Facebook, but I would certainly consider it part of the Facebook machine. 11 charters in Washington and California developed the platform, and Facebook engineers and Zuckerberg money were integral to the process.
It sounds nice–personalized learning. Students were essentially given the platform and told to use it. The student protesters sent a letter to Zuckerberg, and here are some cool parts I cherry-picked:
Students feel as if they are not learning anything and that the program isn’t preparing them for the Regents exams they need to pass to graduate. Most importantly, the entire program eliminates much of the human interaction, teacher support, and discussion and debate with our peers that we need in order to improve our critical thinking.
Another issue that raises flags to us is all our personal information the Summit program collects without our knowledge or consent. We were never informed about this by Summit or anyone at our school, but recently learned that Summit is collecting our names, student ID numbers, email addresses, our attendance, disability, suspension and expulsion records, our race, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status, our date of birth, teacher observations of our behavior, our grade promotion or retention status, our test scores and grades, our college admissions, our homework, and our extracurricular activities. Summit also says on its website that they plan to track us after graduation through college and beyond. Summit collects too much of our personal information, and discloses this to 19 other corporations.
— From the letter sent by student protesters to Mark Zuckerberg
What gives you this right, and why weren’t we asked about this before you and Summit invaded our privacy in this way?
#8. Google endures continued protests over their (formerly top-secret) contract to build a censored search engine in China (Jan-2019)
Once again, the title says it all. Project Dragonfly was going to be a great search engine for the people of China, developed by Google, with all the appropriate censors. And presumably, surveillance.
Internal protests had supposedly shut down the project, but its state is currently unknown and the lack of a hard confirmation from leadership has led many to renew their protests. Good.
American companies do a lot of unethical things. Companies writ large do a lot of unethical things. But in my young life time, I think this is one of the most blatantly unethical things a major company has done.
#9. The JEDI contract (Aug-2018)
Everyone knows Amazon is a powerful company. Amazon Web Services is a subsidiary that provides much of Amazon’s strength. In short: everyone uses AWS’ servers, including Amazon’s competitors (like Netflix). You can’t talk about the infrastructure of the modern internet without talking about Amazon.
How would you feel about the entire Department of Defense–the largest employer in the world, the entire military of the United States and all the bureaucracy surrounding it–relying solely on the Amazon cloud?
The DoD’s data is all over the place, in hundreds of data centers, and top officials have been wanting to consolidate everything to the cloud. So, the Defense Department issued a request for proposals from companies in July.
The winner would get $10 billion and be expected to host all of the defense department’s data.
The request for proposals has been controversial because it appears to have been written specifically with Amazon in mind: many of the requirements for even filing a proposal rule out most of Amazon’s competitors. This may not be surprising, given that James Mattis (our Secretary of Defense) consulted with an Amazon lobbyist before calling for proposals.
#10. Kim and Kanye hire private fire fighters to save their mansion while everyone else’s homes burn (Nov-2018)
In the closing months of 2018, thousands of Californians fled and lost their homes from wildfires.
But Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have a big fancy home–a $50 million mansion–that their insurance simply couldn’t afford the burning up of. So they hired private fire fighters to save their mansion, while everyone around them had to just leave what they had behind.
This is just one flashy example of a phenomenon that will definitely become terrifyingly common practice.
#11. Columbia AI developed with capacity for understanding its own image (Jan-2019)
Well, the title really says it all. To be clear: it’s not that this AI has developed consciousness. That’s still waiting for future development and really, waiting for philosophers of the mind.
Nonetheless, it’s a major advance. The robot was not created with a prior knowledge of physics, geometry, motor-dynamics, or its own shape. It learns it by babbling and thus creating a self-simulation. This can be used to adapt to new problems, do self-repairs, and who knows what else.
This is insanely cool. You can read more about it in this post on Columbia Engineering’s site. I’m just adding it here because it’s good to document.
#12. Google building a “smart city” (Nov-2018)
Imagine the smart neighborhood of the future: tons of self-driving cars on standby for quick ride-shares, heated streets, everything we can do to make a city utopian with our current (or near-current) tech.
If this sounds cool to you, you’re not alone.
The genesis of the thinking for Sidewalk Labs came from Google’s founders getting excited thinking of ‘all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.’— Eric Schmidt.
Enter Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s holding company) that focuses on urban development. Sidewalk Labs is working in Toronto, with the help of the city, on a project called Quayside.
Quayside is supposed to be the smart neighborhood of the future, built by Google via Sidewalk Labs. It’s self-explanatory how this is a dystopian trend. But adding to it:
- Part of the main proposal includes a centralized identity management system. All the residents can use it to get their library cards, health care,
- There has been very little public debate about the project, and significant public backlash. In case you were worried about
#13. Michael Bloomberg’s campaign budget (Feb-2019)
Michael Bloomberg is richer than you think. Currently (as of February 2019) he ranks as the 14th richest person in the world, and 10th richest in the United States with a net worth of $57 billion.
Bloomberg has been frequently named as a possible presidential candidate for the last couple cycles.
The present punk here: Bloomberg allegedly is prepared to spend at least $500 million of his own money defeating Trump. The most likely scenario? Either Bloomberg runs as a self-funded billionaire candidate, or Bloomberg uses his money to both defeat Trump and defeat any Democrat that is too progressive (i.e., would threaten Bloomberg’s wealth).
This makes Howard Schultz’s run look silly. Both are tremendously rich, but Bloomberg is a scale of his own. Want a clear sign oligarchy in the U.S.? Take a look at one of the world’s richest people casually mentioning $500 million as his bare minimum.
Personally, I really want Mark Zuckerberg to run. This would give us a record number of billionaire candidates, would be the ultimate affirmation of my present punk worldview, and most importantly–it would be hilarious. It probably won’t happen, but at least Bloomberg is enough of a vindication.
#14. Walgreen’s smart coolers (Jan-2019)
Said it before, I’ll say it again: the worst thing about our dystopia is it’s stupid. Case in point: Walgreens slapping smart cameras on all its fridges, which will proceed to scan shoppers’ faces. The Atlantic article I linked to says “crucially,” these aren’t facial recognition cameras. As in, shoppers aren’t identified when their faces get scanned and their iris movements get tracked. Great, sounds super cool then!
It’s just a pilot program “for now.”
#15. MIT and Qatari scientists try to build anti-fake news AI (Oct-2018)
If you didn’t know, I personally am really skeptical of the term “fake news.” While the proliferation of untrue news stories is certainly not a good thing, I have an instinctual mistrust of authority figures and elites condemning the spread of fake news.
It’s an easy scapegoat and provides incentives to police what people read and write on the internet. And in my book, most ordinary cases of fake news are relatively harmless and come from smaller outlets–compared to serious instances of the mass media deceiving the public.
For example, coverage that helped get us into the Iraq War (or for that matter our war against Spain over a century ago and a lot of wars since then) or the hare-brained Russiagate coverage. Reputable and popular media outlets did not outright lie (well, sometimes they did), they lied by omission and by dressing up the actual facts to appear differently.
So when I hear that scientists from MIT and from the Qatar Computing Research Institute are trying to build an AI that can detect sites likely to put out fake news and those that aren’t, I don’t feel optimistic about the implications.
Maybe we’ll get lucky, and the internet will be cleared of a lot of bullshit stories. More likely though, elites will keep deceiving us–they’ll just have new tools for telling us what’s okay to read and what isn’t.
#16. Report finds average American can’t afford a home in 70% of the country (Mar-2019)
Yessir, I am aware all popular reports and statistics on such large numbers are bound to be caught up in some flaw or another.
But the simple fact is that report after report, it’s pretty clear the American population is generally not so healthy. Even if only a fraction of this report were true, it would still be damning–and that tells me all I need to know.