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.
You know the drill: I’m sorry for missing 6 months. I’ve got good excuses — family emergency, a lot of changes at my job — but being honest, there was too much dystopian stuff in the last few months for me to keep up with. Every time I got close to wrapping up a monthly roundup, I’d be halfway through the next month, and so on.
So here’s a post wrapping everything up since April. I didn’t want it to be too long, so I only included the stories I found most noteworthy. That said, if you feel I omitted something important, let me know!
Without further ado:
- Climate-accelerated disease. A recent study in Nature modeled how animals would migrate in response to climate change, and found cross-species virus spread would likely occur thousands of times among mammals.
- To be clear, not every instance of cross-species virus spread would result in a major pandemic, and modeling is an imperfect science. Nonetheless, the more cross-species spread, the greater the likelihood of something dangerous emerging.
- Reptiles stay endangered. A new report found about 1 in 5 reptile species are in danger of extinction.
- Pollution report. A recently-published Lancet study found that about 9 million deaths around the world — 1 in 6 — were caused by pollution in 2019. In India alone, pollution was attributed to 2.3 million premature deaths, with air pollution causing 1.6 million of those.
- SCOTUS limits the EPA. In a June ruling, the Supreme Court limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to set carbon emission limits for industries, arguing such rules should come from Congress. In theory it might be preferable if regulations came from the legislature rather than the executive branch. In practice, virtually all notable federal action on climate change has had to come from the EPA, and it’s hard to imagine Congress doing anything substantial without severe restrictions on corporate lobbying.
- Drought + extreme heat, everywhere.
- One heatwave left thousands of cattle dead in Kansas.
- Drought in the Western U.S. has only become worse. Southern California mandated historic water cuts. Capacity at the Colorado River basin system is at historic lows, with one official saying (in reference to elevation in Lake Mead): “We are 150 feet from 25 million Americans losing access to Colorado River water.”
- A heatwave in South Asia resulted in the highest temperatures since records began over a century ago.
- China suffered its worst heatwave in 60 years, the effects of which were so severe that it had to shutter factories.
- Flooding in Pakistan. As Pakistan’s climate minister said in August: “Literally, one-third of Pakistan is underwater right now.”
- A post-Roe wake-up. As receiving, performing, or otherwise aiding an abortion becomes a criminal offense in much of the country, concerns have emerged over data privacy. So far, large tech companies are likely to comply with prosecutors’ requests for abortion-related data, just as they comply with other requests for data.
- Federal agents’ immunity boosted. In June, the Supreme Court ruled against a man who had sued a federal border agent for excessive force and violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The main question before the Court was how broadly it should interpret a 1971 Supreme Court precedent that has since given people a limited avenue to sue federal agents. The new ruling greatly narrowed the interpretation of that precedent, to the point that it is now practically useless, arguing Congress should be the party to authorize such lawsuits.
- The FBI’s malware fight. According to Politico, the Justice Department’s anti-malware tactics increasingly include directly removing malicious code from infected computers — without the owners’ consent or knowledge.
- DC’s surveillance machine. New documents have shined some light on the scope of DC’s surveillance apparatus. The short version is that DC, as home to the country’s major institutions and as a unique legal jurisdiction, has a sprawling law enforcement apparatus that includes not just the city’s own police, but many other agencies — local, state, and federal.
- For example: the Joint Operations Command Center, or JOCC, is the DC metro police’s intelligence center, but it can be accessed by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.
- A nonprofit association of local and regional government leaders (the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments) has its own set of surveillance systems. The council’s license plate reader system scans over 500,000 license plates a day, and shares the data with 24 law enforcement agencies.
- Until 2021, the council had a face recognition system that contained 1.4 million people in its database, which was accessible to 14 local and federal agencies. Police used it 12,000 times from 2019 to 2020.
- International biometrics sharing. The US is offering dozens of countries access to a Department of Homeland Security database of biometric information — the second-largest biometric database in the world. The US expects to get access to similar foreign databases in return.
- Amazon’s jailer. Dayna Howard was once a manager for one of the country’s largest private prison firms. She has worked for Amazon since 2012, but was recently promoted to a new position. Guess which!
- She’s now the director of warehouse training programs.
- Amazon worker chat. Internal company documents show that Amazon’s planned employee messaging app could come with a screening system that automatically blocks certain words. Words like… “slave labor,” “prison,” and “restrooms,” or things related to unionizing.
- School shooting precautions. Schools have already been increasing surveillance over the years, and especially post-Uvalde, schools are understandably eager to ramp up security even further. There’s a lot of skepticism as to the usefulness of high-tech security systems, especially as Robb Elementary School itself had good security on paper.
- Texas’ second-largest school district recently announced it will require students to wear transparent backpacks. I’d be more sympathetic if it worked, but there’s little evidence for that — and as some experts point out, it takes away from more effective approaches.
- In Denver’s 200 public schools, every exterior door is now equipped with sensors. The district, among other Colorado districts, is also investing in upgrading cameras.
- The company that produces the Taser, Axon, unveiled plans to develop drones equipped with cameras and Tasers for schools to use. Thankfully, the company has suspended such plans amid backlash. Most of the company’s AI Ethics Board resigned in protest. But that ethics board has no real control over the company, so one wonders if this is the last we’ll hear of the idea should the right conditions arise again.
- The CHIPS Act. The CHIPS Act is essentially a neoliberal corporate giveaway masquerading as industrial policy. The $76 billion law is ostensibly intended to promote the domestic production of semiconductors — ideally, a boon to domestic manufacturing/jobs and something that can alleviate the chip shortage. But Bernie Sanders puts it best: while we should promote US chip production, US chip companies are already quite profitable and are already moving to expand US production.
- As Doug Henwood points out in Jacobin, the 10 largest chip companies (which will see the biggest benefit from the legislation) have spent more money buying back their own stocks in the last decade than they are set to receive from the CHIPS Act. The CHIPS Act bars companies from using the money for stock buybacks, but it’s still a hell of a reward for companies that spent years neglecting US investment to artificially boost their valuation.
- JetBlue buys Spirit. JetBlue and Spirit are the 6th and 7th largest airlines in the US, respectively — the merger will make them the 5th largest.
- Broadcom to buy VMware. You may not have heard of VMware, but it’s essentially a big software company. So big that Broadcom’s $61 billion purchase of the company would be among the biggest tech acquisitions of all time. Broadcom makes chips, and much of its growth recently has been driven by smaller acquisitions.
- Amazon buys iRobot. iRobot is the company that produces the Roomba. Amazon’s interest is obvious.
- Amazon buys OneMedical. OneMedical is a subscription-based primary care provider that also has a big focus on telehealth. The deal gives Amazon an immediate, physical foothold in healthcare — and reams of customer data, something the FTC has noticed.
- Publishing merger trial. Less than 10 years ago, the largest publishers in the US were known as the “Big Six.” In 2013, Penguin and Random House merged, giving us today’s “Big Five” — which control 80% of the publishing market. Now Penguin Random House is posed to merge with Simon & Schuster, which would bring us down to a “Big Four.” It means a single company would publish about a third of all books in the US. Biden’s Justice Department, to its credit, sued and brought the case to a trial. We now await the result.
- CIA invests in resurrection tech. The CIA has a venture capital firm that funds various tech startups that could one day be useful for national security. That firm is now an investor in Colossal, the startup that hopes to use gene editing technology to revive extinct species.
- Saudi Arabia funds aging research. The Saudi royal family created a nonprofit that will spend $1 billion a year supporting research into aging, with many hoping the research will produce anti-aging drugs.
- Amazon’s reality show. Last year, Amazon bought MGM. The fruits of this purchase are becoming apparent quickly: MGM is producing a reality TV show based on footage from Ring doorbells.
- As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, one particularly unnerving thing about Amazon is its effort to normalize surveillance. It’s not simply that Amazon has a vast data-collection apparatus, but that Amazon is constantly pushing consumers to accept as many invasive ‘smart’ products as possible. In creating a TV show that draws from such products, Amazon is not merely advertising Ring doorbells — it’s telling viewers how acceptable it is to have the entire class of products in the first place.
- US military’s microscopic research. The Army Research Laboratory is quietly doing groundbreaking research on different materials at the microscopic level. The goal is to do the “basic research” that will lay the groundwork for practical innovations farther off in the future.
- Plants grown from lunar soil. Although the plants were not as robust as those grown from Earth soil, the NASA-funded study could still pave the way for developing food off-world. As an added (and more practical) bonus, it may help scientists learn about growing food in inhospitable areas here on Earth.
- Walmart expands drone delivery. Walmart has ramped up its use of autonomous drones to deliver products ordered online to reach about 4 million households.
- Amazon launches drone delivery. A decade after Jeff Bezos first promised drone delivery, Amazon is letting Prime members in a small California town use it as a delivery option.
- A robotic finger with cells. The biohybrid system is, at its core, mechanical. The mechanical finger was dipped into a solution of collagen and skin cells, resulting in a robotic finger that looks much like a human finger. The robot finger’s skin can heal itself from injuries just like human skin as well.
- First synthetic embryos. In a sign of the field’s rapid progress, two separate teams of researchers used stem cells from mice to generate functional embryos with beating hearts in a lab — and without using eggs or sperm. The embryos did not survive past 8 days, but as a full term for a mouse is 20 days, the advancement is significant.
- Indian sanitation workers tracked. About 4,000 sanitation workers in Chandigarh, India, most of whom are lower caste, are forced to wear smart watches during their shifts. The watches, called “Human Efficiency Tracking Systems,” come with a microphone, GPS tracking, and a camera so workers can send photos as proof of attendance.
- Saudi Arabia unveils “The Line.” In July, Saudi Arabia unveiled specifications for its planned futuristic city, “The Line.” The city would be a 105-mile-long, 200-meter-wide line that cuts through the Saudi desert. There would be no cars, with inhabitants either walking or using high-speed rail, and the government hopes to have 1.5 million people living in the city by 2030.
The “low life” side of “high tech, low life”:
- A baby formula shortage. It’s a complex problem that involves both government and corporate culpability. But at the end of the day, we’ve got a handful of companies dominating the market so extensively that a single plant’s closure can result in 43% of formula going out of stock nationwide.
- Incidentally, Amazon has seen an opportunity in the shortage. Politico reports that the company’s lobbyists have been talking with lawmakers to get a foothold in the industry.
- A tampon shortage. Tampons: one of the many casualties of supply chain chaos. And because tampons are more crucial than most other consumer goods — ie., because customers will put up with a lot to get them — companies are happily taking the opportunity to jack up their prices.
- A teacher shortage. The US was suffering from a teacher shortage before the pandemic — but the pandemic accelerated it a good deal.
- From the AP article linked above: “In rural Alabama’s Black Belt, there were no certified math teachers last year in Bullock County’s public middle school.”
- Florida passed a law making it easier for veterans to become teachers, and a new Arizona law will allow college students to teach.
- About 25% of school districts in Missouri are now going by a 4-day school week.
- Drug overdose deaths continued to surge.
- In 2020, drug overdose deaths hit a record high. The rate of increase from 2019 to 2020 was also a record 28%. In 2021, overdose deaths hit another record high. But look at the bright side: the rate of increase from 2021 to 2020 was a mere 15% surge!
- Meanwhile, teen overdose deaths doubled between 2019 and 2020, and surged another 20% in the first half of 2021. Drug use has remained stable — the increase in mortality is almost entirely due to fentanyl.
- Europe prepares for a cold winter. The UK is one of the world’s richest countries, yet soaring energy bills have led to UK health officials warning of a looming “humanitarian crisis” as millions of households struggle with costs and cut back on heat. Things are little better in Germany.
- Blame Russia all you want, but what did Europe expect? European leaders are throwing their own citizens under the bus to wage a proxy war with the country they depend on for gas and oil.
- Medicare privatization. The Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s policy of letting private equity firms and healthcare companies ‘participate’ in Medicare. Companies contracted out to provide coverage are guaranteed a set payment from Medicare no matter how much care they approve, perversely incentivizing them to offer less care for the sake of profit.
- Fed raises rates. Raising the cost of borrowing is a very blunt tool that hurts most ordinary people, and the Fed has a history of raising rates when concerned that labor has too much leverage. In this case, the Fed has been explicit about its goal to reduce wages.
- If the Fed can achieve its “soft landing” — ie., reduce inflation with a minimal economic slowdown — then the rate hikes might look better in hindsight. The problem is: 1) the first couple rate increases this year did little to slow inflation anyway; 2) rate hikes can’t do much about supply chain issues; 3) the Fed gets things wrong all the time.
- Sri Lanka’s economy collapses. It’s a confluence of factors: an unpopular government that mismanaged the country, a pandemic-induced recession, and an existing inflation worsened by the Ukraine war. The result is that the cost of food doubled and rolling blackouts became common. Classified as an upper-middle income country just two years ago, this summer it became common to see people waiting in line for days to get gas.
- I normally don’t talk much of international developments because I know less, and because each post would be impossibly long. I included Sri Lanka’s plight because it illustrates what happens when the global system’s weak points get pushed. Let’s hope it is not a harbinger of more to come.
- Global hunger surges. The number of people facing food insecurity has increased by 150 million since the start of the pandemic, with 46 million going hungry in 2021. That number is likely higher now due to the war in Ukraine, which is increasing the cost of food. (See: Sri Lanka.)
- Household debt increases. Americans’ credit card balances in May were nearing an all-time high. Because of that, the Fed’s rate hikes, and an increase in mortgage balances, total US household debt has hit a record $16.2 trillion.
The not-so-bad and the …good?
That was a lot of bad news. It’s worth keeping in mind the good points.
- High-profile labor wins. To be clear: private sector union membership in the US is still very low, and high-profile victories do not necessarily boost overall numbers. Nonetheless, unionization votes against major brand names get lots of media coverage and can inspire copycat elections.
- The best example of this is Starbucks. When I last mentioned Starbucks in February, two locations had voted to unionize and 54 locations were pursuing union referendums. Now? 245 Starbucks locations have unionized.
- For the first time in the company’s US history, an Apple store unionized.
- Workers in a subdivision of Activision Blizzard voted to unionize. Though small, covering just over two dozen people, it marks the first union at a major gaming company in the US.
- NASA bumps an asteroid. The DART mission would have been classified as a success if it had managed to change the target asteroid’s orbit by 73 seconds. Instead the collision succeeded in altering the orbit by 32 minutes. So while the threats of climate change and nuclear war remain large as ever, at least we now know we can probably deflect a dangerous asteroid in the future.
- Farms — in Alaska. One very minor silver lining to climate change is that some areas may become riper for agriculture. Such appears to be the case in Alaska, where the number of farms has been rapidly increasing despite the fact that the U.S. as a whole has seen its number of farms decrease.
- Cancer drug progress. The drug trial was very small, with just 12 patients involved, but every single one of those 12 saw their cancer go into remission. Such strong results are unprecedented. But the study is limited: aside from its small sample size, all patients had an uncommon variation of rectal cancer, and the drug’s already used to treat endometrial cancer. So it may not be a game-changer, but it’s a point for optimism.
- DeepMind does it again. DeepMind stunned the scientific community in 2020 when its AI, AlphaFold, demonstrated an ability to predict the structure of proteins. Understanding a protein’s structure is critical to understanding how it works, and the traditional methods of understanding a protein’s structure require a lot of time and resources. In 2021, DeepMind put predictions for 98% of the human body’s proteins in a public database. And in July of this year, DeepMind went further: it released the structures of almost all of the 200 million proteins known to science.
- The upshot is that it’s a simultaneous advancement in AI and in biology. It’s not just health science that could be advanced; it could help scientists understand plants and animals too.
- And the potential downside? DeepMind is owned by Alphabet (Google), and its advances come as the company is expanding into healthcare services.
- Pig cells revived. Yale scientists hooked up recently deceased pigs to a machine that kept pumping blood and other fluids into the body. The result was a historic first: the cells of the pigs’ heart, liver, and kidneys showed signs of life an hour after the body had died. The technology could potentially be a boon towards alleviating the short supply of available organs for transplantation.
Good reads from the last few months:
- Jacobin: Multinational Corporations Are Sucking Mexico Dry.
- Mexico extracts more water from the ground than almost any other country on Earth, and as half the country is in a drought, that’s not a bad thing. But of that water, 1% goes towards domestic use, and 99% goes to industry. And even as a third of Mexican households lack regular running water, a few thousand licensees own a fifth of the country’s supply — and earn millions selling it back to people in bottled form.
- Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: How a dispute over sharing coronavirus genomes is threatening a vital tool for tracking variants.
- A publicly-accessible database of virus genomes, the GISAID initiative, was a literal lifesaver in helping scientists track Covid-19 variants. As the dust from the pandemic has begun to settle, private actors — like Microsoft, Oracle, and Google — are showing interest in surveilling virus genomes.
- Wired: The Infamous 1972 Report That Warned of Civilization’s Collapse.
- A reflective piece on how a well an influential doomsday vision has aged, 50 years later. A good article for fellow dystopia-minded thinkers to bear in mind.
And that’s half of 2022. I do have an upcoming post on the Ukraine war, which hopefully will be out within the month, but no promises.