You are reading a State of Dystopia post. These entries note the news events that put us on the cyberpunk dystopia timeline. Read them now to see the future we’re going towards. Or read them in the future to figure out where things went wrong.
Happy New Year, all! I’ll get straight to it.
I didn’t do a State of Dystopia post for December, so here’s a brief list for the last month of 2021:
December’s dystopian developments:
- Arctic warming. It has been widely thought that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Recent research suggests that’s wrong; it’s actually warming four times as fast as the rest of the world.
- ‘Doomsday glacier’ risk. The Thwaites glacier is one of the biggest in the world, and so important to global sea levels that it has been nicknamed the “doomsday” glacier. In December, scientists found that alarming cracks were appearing in the ice shelf, and have estimated it will break apart in about 5 years.
- Himalayan glacier melt. The Himalayas have a lot of ice — so much so that the mountain range is sometimes called the ‘Third Pole.’ A recent study found that Himalayan glaciers are shrinking at a rate far faster than glaciers in other parts of the world. It could pose serious risks for the hundreds of millions of people who rely on river systems in the area.
- Suicide pod approved. The Sarco suicide pod has been in development for years (it’s one of the things that inspired me to start this blog in 2017, actually). Now, it’s finally been cleared for use in Switzerland. The capsule is operated from the inside; the user can press a button to release nitrogen gas that will kill them painlessly. If that weren’t cyberpunk enough:
- The nonprofit behind Sarco isn’t selling the pod; instead, it will make the design available so people may 3D print it by themselves.
- The inventor hopes to eventually have an AI screening system determine whether a person should be allowed to use the pod. (Currently, assisted suicide in Switzerland requires the involvement of a medical professional.)
- Cartel’s drone attack. About a week into December, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel attacked a town in Michoacán with drones packed with C4.
- Israel completes its ‘iron wall.‘ The underground wall fences off Israel’s side of Gaza, and it’s loaded with hundreds of cameras and other sensors.
- France threatens to block porn sites. Is porn good for anyone, let alone minors? Probably not. But should you be forced to give porn sites proof of your identity to use them? Such is the result of France’s national age verification law for adult websites.
- Amazon warehouse collapses. It’s not like people expected Amazon to literally stop a tornado. But Amazon could have closed its warehouses. It didn’t. When a driver wanted to go home because of the weather, Amazon could’ve let him go. It didn’t. And so Jeff Bezos’ special day was ruined — poor guy had to tweet out how sad he was that 6 of his ‘teammates’ died just hours after a successful Blue Origin launch.
- DoorDash’s ‘instant’ delivery. DoorDash has begun piloting ‘instant’ deliveries in New York City. Workers traveling by electric bicycle will get customers their food within 10-15 minutes. Generally speaking, this is ominous: the normalization of deliveries that provide near-instant gratification is built on the backs of precarious and exhausted workers. (Example: the bullet point above.)
- However, to DoorDash’s credit, couriers for its ‘instant’ delivery service will be actual employees, rather than gig workers. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Let’s zoom out a bit. Rather than simply list every single cyberpunk thing from 2021, I’ll point out a few clear trends from the last year. (If you do want to see a big list of dystopian stuff, you can check out my ‘Big List.’ It’s a bit outdated though.)
The police state in 2021:
The Jan. 6th riot pushed breathed new life into the War on Terror. Or rather, it rejuvenated the War on Terror’s public image, given that the War on Terror never ended. And yes, Jan. 6 was awful—but as I’ve argued previously, the powers that be have fear-mongered about it relentlessly in ways reminiscent of 9/11.
Remember: criticizing the response to the Capitol riot doesn’t mean I supported the riot or Donald Trump anymore than criticizing the Patriot Act makes me a supporter of 9/11 or Al Qaeda.
So with all that said, here are some tidbits of the quietly regrown War on Terror:
- Congress gave the Capitol Police billions in new funding. Some stuff, like money for counseling, is good. Some not-so-good stuff: funding for “new intelligence gathering,” as the AP put it. Ironically, it only passed through the House thanks to some of the Squad. So much for ‘defund the police.’
- In June, the White House unveiled a ‘four-pillar’ plan for combating domestic extremism. As I wrote at the time, a tiny bit of it sounds reasonable. But the plan also…
- Poured an extra $100 million for the Department of Justice, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security to increase their personnel and share intelligence with each other.
- Funneled an additional $77 million towards state and local law enforcement.
- And perhaps most chillingly, tries to ‘improve information sharing’ between law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and ‘private sector partners.‘ Which means, in all likelihood, Big Tech.
- The prosecution of the Jan. 6 rioters is questionable.
- Congress’ Jan. 6 committee has been largely political theater. But aside from the theatrics…
- It has created a risky legal precedent by subpoenaing the communications records of private citizens.
- And perhaps of most concern, the committee itself sets a bad precedent. Congress is not supposed to investigate or prosecute crimes; that is strictly for the other two branches of government alone.
- The Biden administration has expanded the use of ‘civil disorder’ prosecutions, a trend largely initiated under Trump. When it was Trump’s Justice Department, the prosecutions ramped up in connection with the Black Lives Matter protests; now that it’s Biden’s Justice Department, the heavy-handed tool is still being used, but with an emphasis on white identity extremists. Funny how that just flips around.
- Recently (technically from 2022) the Justice Department announced it had created a new domestic terror unit. They already have a counter-terrorism unit, but they’re so concerned about terrorism they went ahead and made a new unit to keep us safe. Cool.
Some of this stuff may sound boring and procedural to you. I regret to inform you that that’s how it works; bit by bureaucratic bit, the security state grows unless challenged at every point. Don’t mistake my concern for sympathy for the rioters — it’s tactical. You might think a heavy hand is warranted currently, but what about in a few years, when the “wrong” people are in charge again, using the precedents and tools built up now?
Anyway, beyond the powers of the state, corporate surveillance amped up a good deal as well.
- Amazon began placing smart cameras in its delivery vans to monitor drivers.
- Unfortunately, it’s not just Amazon anymore. UPS, FedEx, and Walmart have also rolled out driver-facing cameras, albeit on a smaller scale.
- Apple announced it would begin scanning iCloud and iPhone photos to detect images of child porn. It backed off after immense pressure, but that it was so intent upon pushing forward with this at first is a bad sign.
- Last summer, the world truly learned about the breadth of NSO Group’s dealings. NSO Group is an Israeli firm that operates essentially as a mercenary intelligence firm; its Pegasus spyware has been used by client governments around the world, and most infamously in connection to the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.
Some other miscellaneous news related to the curtailing of civil liberties:
- The Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s unprecedented push to prosecute Julian Assange. In December, the administration finally won an appeal against a British court ruling that prevented Assange’s extradition. The legal battle is still playing out, but Assange is now one step closer to landing in a U.S. prison.
- It’s worth bearing in mind that the Obama administration, which had prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined, decided not to prosecute Assange with the understanding that all news outlets would be made vulnerable by the precedent.
- We also learned this year that the CIA under Trump seriously considered breaking into the Ecuadorian embassy in London and kidnapping Assange, but since the actual deliberations took place years ago, it’s just an honorary mention on this list.
- Environmental lawyer Steven Donziger was placed on house arrest and then imprisoned, after Chevron sued him in retaliation for winning a settlement on behalf of indigenous Ecuadorians harmed in an oil spill.
- Disturbing 2022 update: a lawyer who worked on the team prosecuting Donziger has been nominated by the Biden administration to be a federal judge.
- An appeals court ruled that border agents can search your phone or laptop without a warrant. The decision overturned what had previously been a landmark victory for privacy rights. Don’t worry though — this really only affects people living within 100 miles of a US border! A measly 2/3rds of the population.
Economy and corporate power:
We all know the gist: the rich got richer (obscenely so), while everyone else was hung out to dry. That’s all bad. But the milestones of corporate empowerment and economic inequality are worth noting:
- The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet continued to grow. When the Covid recession first started to hit, the Fed began purchasing assets en-masse to protect the markets. Doesn’t sound bad on paper, but as Matt Taibbi pointed out at the time, this amounted to a dramatic rescue of capital, with the wealth of most people a secondary concern. (Remember, the wealthiest 10% of Americans own 89% of US stocks.) Taibbi was right. And two years later, most of the tremendous increase in billionaires’ wealth can probably be attributed to the Fed.
- The fed’s emergency actions are particularly stark when one considers finance’s divergence from the rest of the economy.
- Amazon struck a deal with British intelligence agencies (the GCHQ, MI5, and MI6) in October.
- Microsoft won a $22 billion defense deal in March to outfit the Army with 120,000 AR headsets.
- Private equity continued gutting local news:
- Alden Global Capital bought Tribune Publishing (which owns the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and dozens of others), and immediately laid off 10% of the newsroom workforce. Some papers lost a fifth of their reporters.
- Alden Capital launched a bid to acquire Lee Enterprises, which owns 75 local newspapers.
- Private equity also continued buying up single-family homes. Blackstone, one of the largest PE firms, bought 11,000 rental units in December, which followed its purchase of 17,000 homes in June.
- A couple huge media mergers:
- Google completed its acquisition of Fitbit in January 2021.
To focus a little more on the changing nature of work:
- The popularity of ghost kitchens, restaurants that offer take-out and delivery services only, increased. It might sound innocuous at first, but it’s a feudal model — comprised of small restaurants that always owe a portion of their money to delivery apps, and a workforce of precarious gig labor.
- CloudKitchens, a ghost kitchen startup that has received hundreds of millions from Uber founder Travis Kalanick and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, claims that 51% of US restaurateurs have already shifted to the ghost kitchen model. I’m not sure if the number is quite that high, but there’s bound to be some truth to it, and that’s alarming.
- A Pew Research Center study has yielded some insight into today’s pool of gig labor. One concerning, if unsurprising, finding: among people who worked for gig platforms in 2021, 61% said they did so because it was necessary to cover gaps or changes in income.
- Amazon has expanded its warehouse gamification program. The initiative gives employees digital rewards based on their level of efficiency.
Climate change in 2021:
Some of the scariest climate news to come out of 2021 concerned the collapse of major climate systems.
- The Amazon rainforest became a carbon source rather than a carbon sink for the first time, a pretty colossal shift, and a major climate tipping point.
- A recent study also found that the Gulf Stream, which plays a critical role in the Northern Hemisphere’s climate, is showing signs of collapsing.
- Glacial melt, as described above in the December section.
Then there’s the more ordinary bad climate news:
- 2021 was the 6th warmest year on record, which means that 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have happened in the last 10 years.
- The Western US continued to be…hot, dry, and on fire. The federal government declared a water shortage, as the West suffered its worst drought in a century; California experienced its second-largest wildfire; and heat waves in the Pacific Northwest broke records and buckled roads.
- Floods wreaked havoc across Europe in July, particularly in Germany, where it was the deadliest natural disaster in decades, as well as the costliest.
- Of note: the fact that the flooding was so destructive despite being in wealthy countries with advanced flood forecasting and preparations. (Naturally, things would’ve still been worse without those investments.)
- One study of 400 lakes in the US and Europe found oxygen levels have been falling for the last four decades. The disruption of these ecosystems could lead to loss of animal life, algal blooms, and methane emissions.
- The global coral reef population has halved since the 1950s, according to a massive review of 14,705 reef surveys. Reef destruction has large and negative implications for biodiversity and food production.
U.S. life quality in 2021:
For all the flashiness of advanced tech, the biggest marker of dystopia is how people are actually doing. (Note that this section is solely relevant to the US.)
- 100,000 people died of drug overdoses between April 2020 and April 2021, most of them opioids. The highest on record, and a big increase from last year.
- A lot of people died of Covid (more than in 2020), but that’s rather obvious, so I won’t elaborate.
- Mortality also increased for most leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer. The stat I’m citing is actually in reference to 2020, but the data brief came out in December 2021, so it counts.
- 2021 saw a continuation of 2020’s surging homicide rates.
- An important caveat: while murder rates have increased notably in contrast to recent years, they are still nowhere near the murder rates of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
- Self-harm among teenagers nearly doubled in 2020 compared to 2019, according to an analysis of 21 billion health insurance records. (Yes, 2020 again — but the report came out in 2021.)
- Suicide attempts among teenage girls were 50% higher in early 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.
- 50% of Americans carry medical debt, up from 46% in 2020. Most owe more than $1,000.
- Child tax credits expired at the very end of 2021. The credits amounted to a form of basic income for families and reached 61.2 million kids. Triumphant headlines from the summer exclaimed that the tax credits were halving child poverty. (More updated estimates put it at 30-40% reductions.) Anyway, it was a great bit of good news, and therefore could only be short-lived.
- Since Congress has failed to extend the policy, current projections say about 10 million children are going to immediately fall back into poverty. The impact on minorities is going to be more pronounced. 22% of black kids will be in poverty, compared to 13% currently, and the number of Latino kids in poverty will roughly double.
The not-so-bad and the …good?
It helps to take stock of the things that were not only positive, but simply neutral — it keeps us from going insane, and also makes our ultimate assessment of present-day dystopia more realistic.
- Labor activity. This has been probably the single most positive trend of 2021. I would caution that labor action in 2021 isn’t even close to scale of labor activity seen in decades past. Further, not all of the new contracts that have been won are ideal. But at least labor is flexing its muscle, and that’s a sight for sore eyes:
- In December, a Starbucks store in Buffalo, NY, became the first Starbucks location to unionize in the US. Just weeks later, a second location also voted to unionize.
- Kellogg’s employees ended a three-month strike in December, after agreeing to a new contract.
- Over 10,000 John Deere employees ended a 5-week strike in November, accepting a new contract with substantial wage and benefit increases for union members.
- Film production workers accepted a new contract with studios (by a thin margin), averting a strike that would have involved tens of thousands of workers.
- Over a thousand Nabisco workers overwhelmingly approved a new contract in September, ending the company’s first strike in 52 years.
- The Teamsters, one of the largest unions in the US, vowed to unionize Amazon workers across the country.
- Antitrust action. Still early days, and I wouldn’t be too optimistic — but there’s a glimmer of hope.
- In general: Lina Khan was appointed head of the FTC. Khan is a leading antitrust scholar, and has shown signs of pursuing a more aggressive agenda.
- The FTC sued to stop Nvidia’s acquisition of Arm, which would have made it a powerhouse in chip manufacturing and one of the most valuable companies on the planet.
- The FTC revived a lawsuit against Facebook, though how that will fare remains to be seen.
- Space exploration. It’s cool to explore space, and 2021 had some phenomenal success stories.
- The James Webb telescope launched in late December. Assuming all goes well, it is hoped that the telescope will help us learn about the origins of the universe, and space more broadly. (And as of January 2022, its most crucial benchmark has been cleared!)
- In early December, the Parker Solar Probe became the first spacecraft to enter the sun’s atmosphere.
- NASA launched the world’s first asteroid deflection experiment in November.
- In April, NASA’s Mars rover successfully deployed a remote helicopter — three times. It represents the first time humans have run a controlled flight off of Earth.
- On a more cyberpunk note, the billionaire space race kicked off in 2021: Virgin Orbit reached orbit for the first time in January 2021, and Virgin Galactic launched its first manned flight in July; Blue Origin also had its first manned flight about a week later; SpaceX continued making successful launches and won a $3 billion NASA contract to develop a lunar lander.
- Advancements in medicine and health science.
- In October, scientists successfully transplanted a genetically modified pig kidney into a human. “Successfully” is a bit of a mixed bag here: the patient was deceased, and sustained on ventilators, but the body didn’t reject the new kidney, which is a big milestone for xenotransplantation. (And in January of this year, scientists conducted the world’s first pig heart transplant, this time into a living person.)
- Pfizer produced a very promising antiviral pill for Covid-19, though adequate supplies are an issue.
- DeepMind released a database of millions of protein structure predictions, the most comprehensive such database to date. Scientists hope it could speed up advancements in healthcare.
- The world got its first malaria vaccine, though it took 30 years. Meanwhile, BioNTech is working on an mRNA vaccine for malaria, which seems poised to reach completion within a year or two — a sign of the revolutionary potential of mRNA technology.
Good reads from 2021
Needless to say, there were plenty of thoughtful and informative pieces of writing published in 2021 — far more than I could list here. So these are just a few that stood out to me:
- Rolling Stone: Fort Bragg Murders.
- An impressive piece of investigative journalism asks questions about dozens of Fort Bragg soldiers that have died , many of them linked to drug trafficking and special operations forces.
- Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: The Industrial Infrastructure Catastrophe Looming Over America’s Gulf Coast.
- The Houston area has about 900 facilities with toxic chemicals in flood-prone areas. Zooming out, just under 5,000 sites that handle toxic chemicals are in storm-and flood-prone areas in Texas and Louisiana.
- Quillette: How Liberal Elites Use Race to Keep Workers Divided—And Justify Class-Based Inequities.
- Skeptical of Quillette? Can’t blame you. But trust the author: Catherine Liu is a Marxist professor who’s done great work analyzing elite cultural disposition. In any case, this piece is a worthy read.
- The American Conservative: How American Journalism Became A Mouthpiece Of The Deep State.
- Put your misgivings aside and read it — it’s well-sourced. And true.
- MIT Technology Review: How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras.
- Good insight into how consumer surveillance devices are marketed to law enforcement and local officials.
And that’s all for now. ‘Til next time — the State of Dystopia for January 2022 will come soon.