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.
Please forgive me for missing a monthly post — I just moved to a new area and have been between jobs. Anyway, here’s a roundup with dystopian events and reporting from both April and May. As always, this is loosely organized: starting with environmental news, then corporate evil, surveillance, and so on.
Without further ado:
April and May’s dystopian developments:
- Western U.S. entering severe drought. How severe? We don’t fully know yet of course, but some expect that this could be one of the most intense droughts in the region in recent history. Some scientists even think that the region is close to entering a permanent state of drought.
- Landmark glacier study finds..nothing good. Most studies on glacier loss have been rather limited, extrapolating from hundreds of glaciers out of the roughly 200,000 glaciers on the planet. This study, the first of its kind, examined nearly all glaciers. Its findings drastically reduce the uncertainty science currently has around ice loss: ice loss is accelerating about as badly as we think it is.
- Climate change responsible for 37% of heat-related deaths. That’s the number from a sweeping study that measured three decades of temperature and death statistics from 43 countries.
- Given the scale of total global deaths in any given year, heat-related deaths may not seem so pressing. But that belies the point, which is that we’ve already entered the period in which climate change is taking a toll.
- Student gov proposes tolerating homeless peers. California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly SLO), home to some of the top engineering schools, has a problem: about 12% of students lack secure housing. The student government humbly proposed the school allow homeless students to sleep in their cars in parking lots.
- Too bad Cal Poly can’t use the money it gets from the leaders of large weapons companies.
- This isn’t listed to knock on the student government. The whole situation is just pretty bleak.
- Army begins experimenting with biohybrid robotics. Looking to make bulky robots more nimble (and efficient), the Army has kicked off research with the eventual goal of fusing organic tissue to robots.
- Air Force tests new AI system for the first time. The ‘Skyborg’ AI system aims to bring automated drones together to fly with piloted fighter jets. At the beginning of May, the Skyborg system flew an autonomous drone for the first time.
- The first use of an autonomous drone in combat? According to a UN report that was released in March (and went unnoticed until recently), a lethal drone was deployed to attack the forces of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. Though we don’t know for certain, it appears likely that it did kill soldiers — which would be the world’s first instance of such a thing.
- A couple of high-profile hacks: The Facebook breach that compromised the details of 500 million people’s accounts and the hack that temporarily shut down the Colonial Pipeline, which carries about half the east coast’s fuel. Plus the JBS hack, but that was in June.
- Microsoft buys Nuance. Nuance is a well-known company in the artificial language recognition market. Its technology is used in 77% of US hospitals and by 55% of physicians, and its acquisition comes as tech companies race to take over healthcare.
- AT&T merges WarnerMedia with Discovery. WarnerMedia is the spinoff subsidiary that AT&T made after it purchased Time Warner in a colossal merger from a few years ago. Now AT&T has purchased Discovery and is merging it with its previous acquisitions — with the result being that it now owns one of the largest digital libraries around.
- Amazon buys MGM. Not to be outdone, Amazon spent $8.5 billion to buy MGM, well-above its projected value. As with AT&T’s purchase of Discovery, the buy gives Amazon’s film division an enormous media catalog.
- Twitter, Facebook, remove pro-Palestinian posts. Wait, this isn’t just a fake issue made up by crazy right-wingers? With Facebook’s secretive moderation policy resulting in the deletion of a lot of criticism of Israel (including proof of Israeli state violence), and Twitter’s algorithms doing basically the same thing, perhaps demanding the world’s largest corporations police speech wasn’t such a good idea.
- A woke CIA ad. It may be old news by now, but there are two important things to keep in mind:
- First, it’s not just that woke language gets co-opted by the powerful. That’s too forgiving. The fact of the matter is that this CIA ad proves that woke language is welcomed by the powerful, because it does not meaningfully challenge them.
- Second, do you think the CIA put out this ad because it wouldn’t be effective? We may groan, but there’s a specific category of young, socially-progressive liberals at elite institutions to whom this would appeal, and to whom it is meant to appeal.
- Local police navigate the use of robot dogs.
- FBI surveilling founder of Sci-Hub. Sci-Hub, if you didn’t know, is an enormous online library of research papers. Academic publishers do not take well to its existence, and the Justice Department has acted as Elsevier’s goons in investigating Sci-Hub. The recent development: Sci-Hub’s founder recently tweeted proof that Apple handed the FBI access to her account.
- FBI requests. In February, USA Today published a story about a Florida shoot-out that resulted in FBI agent casualties. In April, the FBI issued a subpoena to USA Today, demanding something alarmingly broad from the news site: identifying information of every device that viewed the story in a 35-minute window the day it was published.
- Thankfully, the FBI withdrew its request in June.
- DHS considering partnering with private firms to monitor extremists. The inevitable outcome of panicking over the Jan 6 riot as a severe national security threat, and the constant rush to the ‘terrorism’ label: even more state surveillance. As this CNN article admits:
- “It would, however, involve empowering a unit at DHS that is already under fierce scrutiny for its bungled handling of the Portland riots last summer, an episode that included collecting intelligence reports on journalists and unmasking private citizens, according to a source familiar with a recent internal report on the matter.“
- Some recent numbers on Amazon’s Ring. This comes courtesy of an excellent article in The Guardian. The basics are not new, but it’s always worth noting the latest info on how widespread our private surveillance network is. Plus, not everyone understands how Ring works. Let this be a good backgrounder.
- “That is, in as little as three years, Ring connected around one in 10 police departments across the US with the ability to access recorded content from millions of privately owned home security cameras.” (Without a warrant).
- “Because Ring cameras are owned by civilians, law enforcement are given a backdoor entry into private video recordings of people in residential and public space that would otherwise be protected under the fourth amendment.”
- “In doing so, Ring blurs the line between police work and civilian surveillance and turns your neighbor’s home security system into an informant. Except, unlike an informant, it’s always watching.”
An anecdotal dose of dystopia
I usually don’t do this kind of thing, but in this month’s round-up post, I’d like to talk briefly about a banal moment of dystopia.
Today I went out to do work in a café, for the first time in over a year. I work in cafes because I enjoy pretending I’m a young professional earning a six-figure salary, rather than a dude with ADHD trying to juggle a couple writing gigs. In any case, the place I went to was unexpectedly bleak. Consider this a Yelp review from the future.
- To use the café’s free WiFi, I had to register my name and an email. In the scheme of things, this isn’t a huge deal. I know it’s not uncommon for public WiFi networks to do this, and in any case, I just used a fake email + name. But still.
- There was a sign below the cashier counter that told customers they should tell staff to wear masks if they felt uncomfortable.
- Don’t freak out, I’m not an anti-masker. The issue I take with this is that an employer is actively encouraging wealthy patrons to boss around people earning minimum wage, even if the action is at this point more or less hygiene theater (judging from the high vaccination rates and low Covid deaths in my area).
- How do I know patrons of this café are wealthy? Read on…
- About 2/3rds of the café’s area was cordoned off, reserved for people paying a subscription fee to use a “coworking space.” $20 for a “day pass” or $100 a month, just to sit in a completely normal cafe. And you know what? Most of the people in the café were in the coworking space. So I guess the joke was on me.
The not-so-bad and the …good?
Some news is bad, and propelling us to the dystopian side of cyberpunk. And some news is neutral, or even good, despite also doing its part to push us into a cyberpunk timeline.
- NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter takes flight on Mars. Three times! Space exploration is cool. Potential for dystopia, certainly, but cool nonetheless. And in this case, the success of the Ingenuity has implications for our ability to learn more about the solar system.
- Dutch court rules against Shell. It goes without saying for basically all “good” climate news: don’t get your hopes up too much. Still, forcing one of the world’s largest oil companies to reduce emissions 45% by 2030 is a nice win, and a historic one. As the ruling took effect immediately, irrespective of how long the appeals process is, Shell has had to begin accelerating its investment in renewables.
- 44 state attorneys general challenge ‘IG for kids.‘ In writing that Facebook’s upcoming plans for a separate Instagram app intended for children under 13 are abhorrent (they didn’t use that word), dozens of states effectively signaled that they would be willing to sue or regulate Facebook. The letter isn’t an empty threat: several of the state AGs that signed the letter have previously sued Facebook over antitrust concerns.
- Advancements in brain-computer interfaces. In a recent experiment, a new BCI allowed a paralyzed man to produce 90 characters a minute by simply imagining he was writing with his hand. That’s more than double the previous record for similar experiments.
- IBM chip breakthrough. IBM made a new computer chip that, at 2 nanometers, is ‘significantly’ smaller than the common 7nm chips, and can perform just as well. Moore’s law gets some new life.
Good reads from April and May
- Fast Company: How holograms, deepfakes, and AR are raising the dead.
- Argues that the 19th and 20th century Spiritualism movement could be making a comeback.
- Slate: Why ambitious predictions about AI are always wrong.
- A good reminder for the AI-panic crowd.
- The Conversation: Shhhh, they’re listening – inside the coming voice-profiling revolution.
- “[…] Marketers say they are on the verge of being able to use AI-assisted vocal analysis technology to achieve unprecedented insights into shoppers’ identities and inclinations.”
- The American Conservative: How American Journalism Became a Mouthpiece of the Deep State.
- I’m sure the outlet’s name and the article headline are enough to make most readers cringe. Don’t. The outlet aside, it’s a well-sourced article, and the argument it presents should be the default outlook for anyone even remotely left-leaning.
Okay, that’s April and May. ‘Til next time!
P.S. – stay tuned for a couple of forthcoming posts, one on how well a classic sci-fi work has aged, and another on declassified UFO docs.