I had been dilly-dallying on the August list for a bit, but then the California wildfires made San Francisco look
really cool dystopian, and it prompted me to wrap this up. I’ll have to save that for the September list.
August has the things you’d expect, in terms of rising social tensions and coronavirus counts, plus a few more interesting bits of news.
Without further ado, here are the events of August 2020 that put us more firmly on the cyberpunk dystopia timeline.
August’s dystopian developments:
- Rising social tensions. Top of the list, because it’s the first thing a lot of people would think of. Another black person shot by police, then the unrest that followed. A vigilante shot and killed two people during the unrest. Then in Portland a Trump supporter was shot by a self-described Antifa guy, and in early September he was killed by a police task force. Everyone is waiting to see whether things will escalate or not.
- The US hits a milestone of 6 million coronavirus cases. Officially tallied cases, anyway, and that was the last day of August. It’s more like 6.3 million at the time I write this. That insane case count comes with about 183,000 deaths by the end of August, and the CDC projects we’ll hit a grim milestone of 200k deaths by late September.
- The Labor Department’s August jobs report. Technically the August jobs numbers came in this month, September. But as they refer to August, I think I can cheat. The numbers showed the unemployment rate dropping back to single digits. But a closer look at the numbers reveals the following:
- About a fifth of the job gains were the government’s temporary hiring for the 2020 Census.
- A misclassification error put the rate at 8.4%, but it should be 9.1%.
- More than half the gains in professional and business services were for temporary help.
- Neuralink’s live stream and brain chip demo. Pushing the boundaries of tech is great. The issue here is not the tech, but the question you have to ask: who owns the future? If brain interfaces are used to restore lost bodily functions, as Elon Musk advertises, that’s great. We should look forward to that happening. We should also be wary of a world in which brain interfaces are used to make consumption and commerce easier, or god forbid, advertising.
- California’s wildfires + heatwave. Still going strong in September too! But even in August, the fires and heat were making records.
- Death Valley recorded its hottest temperature in mid-August, and it may be the second-highest recorded temperature on Earth since we started keeping track.
- Meanwhile, just three California fires from August stand as the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th largest fires in state history.
- Florida releases 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes. It’s well-intentioned, with the goal of eliminating disease-carrying mosquitoes in the area. As with Neuralink, this could potentially be a great thing. But there’s still so much we don’t know, and limits to how much of a complex ecosystem scientists can actually model. So it’s functionally still an experiment, because frankly, the jury’s still out on this one.
- Blackstone to acquire Ancestry.com. Blackstone: one of the most successful private equity firms in the world, a company that manages half a trillion dollars in assets. Ancestry.com: the genealogy provider that holds and processes tons of genetic information. Ancestry was significantly owned by multiple private equity firms to begin with, and Blackstone just bought most of them out. Not much more to say—it’s another case of economic consolidation, but one that may leave a particularly bad taste in your mouth.
Perhaps the most fascinating August news story, and bleakest, is the CDC’s mental health survey for late June, which was released in mid-August.
The US, it should be noted, has already been undergoing a mental health and loneliness crisis. 2020, unsurprisingly, has not helped.
So rather than give it just one bullet, I thought I’d give a short list of some of the big findings. You can view an accessibly written description of the survey on the CDC’s website here.
- Among people 18-24 years old, 25.5% had seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before the survey was taken. That’s 1 in 4 people entering adulthood.
- 21.7% of essential workers had seriously considered suicide, also in the last month.
- At least one mental health symptom was reported by nearly 75% of people aged 18-24 and nearly 52% of people aged 25-44 years.
- The prevalence of anxiety order symptoms was 3x that of a similar period in 2019. For depression? 4x.
- Suicidal ideation went from 4.3% of all adults in 2018 to 10.7% of all adults this summer.
Good long reads/commentary pieces from August
- YanisVaroufakis.eu: Something Remarkable Just Happened This August: How the Pandemic Has Sped Up the Passage to Postcapitalism.
- Yanis Varoufakis used to be Greece’s finance minister, and is now a prominent advocate of a more economically just EU. Summer of 2020, and August in particular, represent a stark point in the trend of finance markets decoupling from actual markets and economies. Or, how the stock market is so distant from the “rest” of capitalism, so to speak.
- The New Republic: Who Will Get Rich Off of Hurricane Laura?
- A good look at disaster capitalism, and how investors have become experts at turning large profits by betting on calamities.
- Columbia Journalism Review: Journalism’s Gates keepers.
- On Bill Gates’ outsized role in a media industry that has struggled to stay afloat, and the risks it poses to press freedom.
- Texas Monthly: Why One Expert Predicts a Major Hurricane Hitting Houston Would Be “America’s Chernobyl.”
- On the vulnerability of the Houston Ship Channel (which houses the largest petrochemical energy complex in the country) to hurricanes. Of course, it didn’t come to pass this time around (though some chemicals did leak from the plant in question), but the threat remains.
- The Intercept: Online lenders are preying on desperate borrowers and could trigger a new consumer financial crisis.
- The latest surge in America’s enormous consumer debt has been driven by high-interest personal loans, offered to the financially vulnerable, and increasingly delivered by fintech companies.
And that’s all for now. An updated “Big List” of dystopian events from 2017 til the present will be coming soon. Until then!