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.

Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for being slightly shorter than all the other months, February 2021 did its best to pack in as many timeline-ruining news items as it could.

The main themes in February were 1) environmental stuff, and 2) tech company stuff. (So, the usual). Without further ado:

February’s dystopian developments:

  • Report warns of “catastrophic” decline in freshwater fish. The report, a collaboration between 16 different conservation groups, came up with some unhappy numbers:
    • Nearly a third of freshwater fish are at risk of extinction.
    • Over the last 50 years, migratory fish populations have fallen around 75%.
    • Over the last 50 years, populations of larger fish have fallen by 94%.
  • Scientists estimate a third of cropland in the Midwest has lost its topsoil. The study’s estimate is far higher than the Department of Agriculture’s. Topsoil is pretty important to food production, to say the least.
  • Study says that air pollution from fossil fuels causes…1 in 5 premature deaths globally. It’s more than 2x the previous estimate.
  • CDC finds surge in overdose deaths. The 20% increase in overdose deaths translates to the highest number of OD fatalities recorded in a single year. The data covers only a few months of the Covid pandemic in the US (June 2019 to June 2020), so presumably the full scope of this under-discussed crisis is a good deal larger.
  • Study finds private equity kills nursing home residents. The study looked at nursing home data from 2004 to 2016, and found that going to a nursing home owned by a private equity company significantly increases the likelihood of an earlier death compared to a nursing home that isn’t. The big number? 20,000 nursing home deaths from that period specifically attributed to PE-ownership. David Sirota, who was Bernie Sanders’ speech writer, has a great blog post about the report and the larger phenomenon at play.
  • A winter storm results in...
  • Hack attempts to contaminate Florida town’s water supply. It was resolved quickly and I wouldn’t recommend freaking out about this, but cyberpunk is cyberpunk.
  • Ford partners with Google. The six year deal means that starting in 2023, most new Ford cars will come with an infotainment system based on Android. They’ll offer an in-car version of the Google Play store and Ford will use Google’s services in helping to analyze its cars…and customers, of course.
  • Appeals court rules that border agents can search your devices freely. According to 1st Circuit Court Judge Sandra Lynch, there’s nothing unconstitutional about border agents searching through a person’s phone or laptop without a warrant, and even copying the data on a device.
    • “[…] the bottom line is that basic border searches of electronic devices do not involve an intrusive search of a person.” Cool.
    • This doesn’t just affect travelers. It applies to all people living within 100 miles of a US border. That’s 2/3rds of the US population.
  • Nevada governor pushes cyberpunk law. There haven’t been significant developments since last month’s post, so I’ll keep this short: Governor Sisolak has been pushing a plan to allow companies—specifically large tech companies—to run large tracts of land with the authority of county governments. The plan specifically mentions companies being able to run school districts, courts, and impose taxes.
  • Amazon plans to install cameras in its delivery vans. The company that will be supplying the cameras offers AI-based surveillance of drivers. The data is used to provide real-time, automated feedback to drivers, and also is to be used for performance reviews.
  • Amazon’s anti-union campaign continues. Tired of being treated like robots, nearly 6,000 workers at a major Amazon warehouse are voting on whether or not to unionize. The stakes are high; if successful, it would be the first Amazon union in the US, and other unionization drives would likely sprout up around the country. Amazon has not taken it sitting down.
    • Although the National Labor Relations Board authorized a mail-in vote due to local Covid rates, Amazon requested the vote be held-in person, citing fears of ballot fraud.
Source: The Daily Beast

Spotlight: Tech company vs. wealthy nation state

Until recently, Australia was considering a law that would force Google and Facebook to pay news publishers for content. It makes sense; newsrooms are struggling across the Western world and increasingly reliant on Big Tech, while Google and Facebook are 2 of the 7 largest corporations in the world.

Google threatened to simply withdraw its services from Australia if the law passed, but backed down, and agreed to strike a deal with media companies. Facebook similarly threatened to suspend all news sharing on its platform in Australia if the bill passed. But Facebook must’ve been antsy, because it instead shut down news sharing early, while the bill was still being debated.

Supposedly the ban was only meant to target private news companies. But along with private outlets, the shutdown also removed content on the official pages of politicians, unions, charities, and government agencies.

And not just obscure, unimportant agencies. Australia’s main source of weather information, the Bureau of Meteorology, suddenly had no posts. Same for local fire departments. And for health departments, which had been actively providing updates about the imminent distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

I’m skeptical this was truly an accident: if you want to show that you’re really important, show that you can subvert public agencies without blinking, and then restore it a few hours later before any real harm happens. But even if this was accidental, is that so much better? No reading of this situation should allow one to say, “Ah, yes, Facebook can clearly be trusted to use their power over the discourse responsibly.”

You could argue, correctly, that this is really a battle between tech companies and the Murdoch media empire. Australia has one of the most concentrated news media markets in the world, and News Corp lobbied heavily for this law. In other words, it’s not exactly like news media is the good guy here, and if it’s just a battle between different capitalists, who cares?

But that misses the larger point: no company should be able to unilaterally decide that millions of people don’t need to see health updates anymore.

At least Facebook ended up caving. How could it not? The backlash was enormous. But even so, this has got to be one of the most foreboding bargaining tactics of the last few years:

Source: BBC News

The not-so-bad and the …good?

Maybe this section will be longer in next month’s post.

  • Mars exploration picks up. There are plenty of opportunities for space exploration to be dystopian. But also, space exploration is cool.
  • Covid rates fall, vaccinations pick up. Yes, yes, variants could upend this. But cases (and thus hospitalizations and deaths) are falling now. That’s something to appreciate.

Good reads from February

  • Bloomberg: Inside the ‘Wikipedia of Maps,’ Tensions Grow Over Corporate Influence.
    • OpenStreetMap is a free, open-source mapping service. Popular services you use every day, like Snapchat or Uber, use the service’s data. But with so much private sector reliance comes private sector domination.
  • Jacobin: Amazon’s Anti-Union Drive Shows Why US Labor Law Is Broken.
    • A good backgrounder on why Amazon can take its time bombarding its Alabama warehouse workers with messaging every day, and a real-world fix.
  • Rifters: Batman.
    • This is from the personal blog of a brilliant science fiction author, Peter Watts. In this post, Watts muses on recent research into bat biology, and its potentially dystopian applications. Don’t treat it as a hard prediction, but it’s fun food for thought.

And that’s February 2021. ‘Til next time.

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