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.

Apologies for the late post — family emergency.

Without further ado:

Dystopian developments from February and March:

  • Southwestern drought. A recent study found that the Southwestern US, which has been in a drought for about twenty years, is experiencing its driest conditions in 1,200 years.
  • Sea level projections. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study with the most recent projections of how rising seas would impact the US. The NOAA says the US will experience as much sea level rise in the next 30 years as it did in the last 100.
  • Antarctic ice shelf deterioration. Shortly after undergoing an extraordinary heatwave, Antarctica’s Conger Ice Shelf collapsed. It’s a small ice shelf, and so not a huge threat to sea level, but is ominous for a couple reasons:
    • First, it was well-known that ice melted quickly in other parts of the world, but East Antarctica’s ice loss had been much slower. The Conger Ice Shelf’s collapse means the region is less resistant to global warming than thought.
    • Secondly, the Conger Ice Shelf is in East Antarctica. East Antarctica holds more ice than the rest of the world combined. As IFL Science puts it: if all the ice in Greenland and West Antarctica melted, sea level rise would be catastrophic but probably survivable for civilization, whereas severe melting in East Antarctica could put most major cities under water.
  • Microplastics found in blood. Microplastics have been found everywhere, from the deepest part of the oceans, to Mt. Everest. And now, microplastics have been found in human blood — in fact, researchers found it in the blood of 80% of the people they tested. Granted, it was a small sample size (just 22 people), but is alarming nonetheless.
  • Salmon stock decline. A study examined salmon populations in Norway from 1989 to 2016. (The choice of Norway isn’t random — the country provides 55% of the world’s salmon supply.) The researchers found the size of the salmon decreased drastically after 2005, and the population growth rate slowed.
  • An unprecedented coral bleaching. The Great Barrier Reef has undergone a sixth coral bleaching event. It’s the first time a mass coral bleaching has occurred during a La Niña year, which is supposed to be cooler and a time for coral recovery.
  • GMO mosquitoes. The EPA has approved Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquitoes for release in California and Florida (pending approval from local authorities). Oxitec’s plan is to set loose 2.4 billion male mosquitoes that can only produce male offspring, effectively killing off the mosquito population, for the ultimate goal of curbing mosquito-borne illnesses.
    • Full disclosure, I’m not even sure this is a bad thing. (Have to research it more.) It’s just cyberpunk. It does seem that Oxitec has little appetite for public input, though.
  • Autonomous Black Hawk. DARPA, the Pentagon’s research agency, modified a Black Hawk and had it fly autonomously for 30 minutes.
    • Stay tuned for an upcoming post on advancements in military technology.
  • Frontier buys Spirit Airlines. Frontier and Spirit are the two largest discount airlines in the US; their merger will create the 5th largest airline in the country. Consolidation never stops.
  • Another setback for Julian Assange. With Britain’s Supreme Court ruling that Assange cannot appeal a lower court’s ruling that allowed his extradition to the US, the UK’s Home Secretary will make the final call on his extradition. Which means, in all likelihood, Assange is set for a long stint in a US prison.
  • California’s mental health courts. CA Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a plan to tackle the state’s homelessness crisis: institutionalization “mental health courts.” All counties would be required to create mental health branches in their courts that could compel psychiatric treatment and/or conservatorships for people with psychosis or addiction disorders. The plan is still subject to approval from the legislature.
  • Alcohol deaths surge. Given that drug overdoses have hit new highs in the last couple years, a surge in alcohol deaths shouldn’t be surprising. The numbers are still astonishing:
    • Alcohol-related deaths increased 25% from 2019 to 2020. (For context, the average annual increase from 1999 to 2019 was 3.6%.)
    • Among adults under 65, alcohol-related deaths outnumbered Covid-19 deaths.
    • Among adults aged 25 to 44, alcohol-related deaths surged 40% from 2019.
    • Bear in mind that these numbers are just cover 2020; whatever happened in 2021 has yet to be fully understood.
  • Afghanistan asset split. Frankly, this is worth its own post, but here’s the very short version:
    • When the Taliban seized Afghanistan in the summer, the US froze about $7 billion in assets that had been held by the Afghan central bank, and the country was effectively cut off from the global economy.
    • Thanks to that, and a harsh winter, about half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people are suffering from acute hunger, and 9 million are in famine conditions. As of late March, 1 million children under 5 were at risk of starving to death.
    • Afghan officials estimate 13,000 newborns have already died of hunger since January.
    • The Taliban has been requesting that the aid be unfrozen. But not just them: the head of the UN, Human Rights Watch, and numerous other organizations.
    • The Biden administration, faced with such pressure, split the funds between Afghanistan and the families of 9/11 victims who had sued the Taliban. Even getting just half of the funds to the country will take weeks.
    • In what is perhaps the most galling aspect of this, the payouts for the attorneys are going to be enormous. Under a conservative estimate, a handful of lawyers could get $525 million in legal fees, even as millions of Afghans go hungry.
    • You may be recalcitrant about the Taliban obtaining more funding. Understandable. But look at the facts: they’ve already won. All this does is starve millions of Afghans for having the wrong government. It’s needless, a spiteful punishment, and literally threatens to kill more civilians than two decades of war did.
  • Bloomberg’s cushy defense job. Michael Bloomberg, who has an estimated net worth of $70 billion, has been named the chair of a Pentagon oversight committee. It’s hardly new for billionaires to head the board; the first chair was former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
    • But only Russia has oligarchs, right?
  • War in Ukraine. I won’t say much about this here — partly because everyone reading this has likely been inundated with Ukraine news, partly because I have a forthcoming post on related dystopian undercurrents that have gone unnoticed.

There was also a whole lot of surveillance news:

  • Suicide hotline shares user data. The charity Crisis Text Line, which is one of the most widely used suicide hotlines, has a for-profit spinoff with which it shares user data for marketing purposes.
  • Azena’s cameras. Bosch, the home appliance giant, owns a startup called Azena. Azena is leading the development of a line of smart cameras that have their own processors and computing systems. The cameras can connect to app stores, which customers can use to acquire different analytics tools.
  • X-Mode gains clients. X-Mode is a controversial data broker that places lines of code in 100+ apps, which it claims allow it to track the location of over 25% of US adults. New records show X-Mode has been recently contracted by the IRS and Department of Homeland Security.
  • Cellebrite’s growth. Cellebrite is a hacking-for-hire company that gets government contracts to break into phones and computers. Recent documents obtained by The Intercept reveal that 14 out of 15 cabinet departments have bought Cellebrite tools in recent years. A company filing indicates the company has 2,800 government customers in North America, meaning not just federal agencies, but local prosecutors and police agencies. Its clients also include 6 of the world’s 10 largest pharmaceutical companies and 6 of the 10 largest oil refiners.
  • Minnesota’s surveillance machine. Original reporting from the MIT Technology Review reveals that authorities built an extensive surveillance apparatus in response to the George Floyd protests.
  • CIA data collection. A recently declassified letter from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board implies that the CIA has been engaging in mass surveillance. The surveillance has been conducted under a different legal framework than the one used by the NSA in the Snowden disclosures, making oversight more difficult.
    • Want to know more about this surveillance? Well, too bad. It’s almost entirely classified. What I described above is about as much as is publicly known.
What a ‘declassified’ letter looks like. Source: U.S. Senate.

Spotlight: Trucker Protests

*A disclaimer, lest I get accused of being an antivaxxer: the Covid-19 vaccines are safe, and you should take them if you haven’t already.

Given the invasion of Ukraine, this probably feels like ancient history — but it was news a couple months ago.

  • Canadian truckers, in protest of vaccine mandates, formed a protest convoy that disrupted the capital and major border control points.
  • Trudeau invoked the 1988 Emergencies Act. The Act was intended for use as a last resort, when no other law on the book could end a national emergency.
  • Using the Emergencies Act, Canada’s law enforcement agencies collected intelligence on protestors and people who donated to the protests, and shared the information with banks to freeze bank accounts. By the time Canada ended its emergency actions and restored access to the accounts, 206 bank accounts had been frozen.
  • GoFundMe froze about $8 million raised for the protest and returned the money to the donors.

The trucker protests may have been disruptive, but were they really a national emergency, on par with terrorist attacks or a natural disaster? There were reports of violence, but only scattered isolated incidents.

And as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s director of criminal justice said:

“Protests are often disruptive, that doesn’t mean they are violent. But they are often disruptive: we’ve had protests that have blockaded railways, we’ve had protests that have taken over the streets of downtown cities for months at a time,” she said. “All of those things have happened and been dealt with under normal policing powers.”

Many may argue that actions by GoFundMe and other corporations don’t violate anyone’s free speech, since they are not government entities. I think Ben Burgis put it best:

Mainstream liberals have increasingly adopted the right-wing libertarian view that “free speech” only applies to actions carried out by the state, and that private businesses are free to censor as they please.

Many on the left have traditionally understood that ignoring the power wielded by private businesses, on the grounds that anything such they do is “voluntary,” is dangerously misguided.

And by the way, GoFundMe’s actions are nothing to sneeze at — that’s private technocrats unilaterally freezing $8 million in grassroots money. Today it’s the ‘wrong’ protestors — what happens when the ‘right’ protesters lose funds tomorrow?

(Actually, we don’t need to wait for some hypothetical. GoFundMe already canceled a fundraiser for indigenous pipeline protestors. No free speech issues there, right?)

The not-so-bad and the …good?

Not much this time, but what we have is pretty solid.

  • Amazon warehouse unionizes. Amazon’s been the big fish in retail unionization. It’s not just about Amazon’s infamous warehouse conditions; when a fulfillment center moves into an area, local wages stay depressed. When the Teamsters vowed to unionize Amazon warehouses, they did so with the understanding that Amazon was driving down wages and working conditions for the industry as a whole. Well, workers at a Staten Island fulfillment center voted to unionize, marking the first and only instance of an Amazon warehouse unionizing in the U.S. For now, anyway.
    • Making things even more impressive, the workers in Staten Island organized and won under their own independent union rather than a national union.

Good reads:

And that’s the last two months. Stay tuned for a post on Ukraine! ‘Til next time.

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2 thoughts on “State of Dystopia: February + March 2022

  • Anonymous

    Hey there,

    I wanted to respond to your spotlight on the Trucker protest. I am not defending the government or GoFundMe action, I just want to share my perspective as a Canadian.

    While I can’t answer whether this was a national emergency, I think you may be lacking some information about why people were calling these actions violent.

    Although direct attacks were scattered, the folks occupying ottawa were blaring truck horns at volumes loud enough to be considered torture at all hours, which affected many residents. A truck at the Coutts border blockade (one of several other protests that were part of the Freedom Convoy) was found to have weapons, ammunition and some body armor (illegal in Canada) with patches for the violent far right group diagalon. So there was concern that things could turn violent, even if the majority of the people participating were non violent.

    Government authority is always used more heavily against Indigenous peoples in Canada. When land defenders were blocking railways (as mentioned in the quote from the director of criminal justice), a provincial law was created in Alberta that would allow authorities to heavily fine and even imprison people for even discussing action to disrupt “critical infrastructure.” This law was not used against the Freedom Convoy blocking the Coutts border between Alberta and America.

    The Emergencies Act ended shortly after the Ottawa occupation was cleared out. Folks continue to Convoy on weekends in Cities across Canada or stand outside legislative buildings with flags. None of these continued actions have been deemed an emergency nor have they caused major police action. Meanwhile RCMP continue to harass and arrest Wet’suwet’en on their own unceded territory.

    To the quote about free speech. We do not have free speech laws like those in America. We have “freedom of expression” but it is subject to “reasonable limits.” Unfortunately limits continue to be imposed much more strictly on indigenous land defenders and left leaning actions.

    • Mr. Present Punk

      Hello,

      First, thank you very much for your thoughtful comment! It’s quite thorough and I hope everyone who sees this post also sees your comment to get some helpful context. As you can probably guess, I don’t live in Canada, so when I saw the wall-to-wall coverage likening the truckers to a hostile or foreign occupation, I started getting skeptical of the protests’ severity.

      To your point on noise, that is more serious than I had previously understood. On the weapons — that’s definitely bad too, and I take your point that that is worse in the Canadian context than it is here. But I still don’t really see that as valid grounds for the invocation of such a drastic law. Maybe I’m too desensitized to it, but here in the US there are always crazy fringe elements that show up at protests, and those elements are frequently used as justification for overpolicing (usually against the left, as I’m sure you’re aware).

      I do believe it’s good the Emergencies Act ended quickly. But I also don’t think it should have been used in the first place, and probably sets a dangerous precedent. Since I can’t predict the future, maybe it’ll be a one-off. I certainly hope so. But I don’t see why normal or even stepped-up policing actions weren’t sufficient, and if it’s because police would’ve had a tougher time, I don’t consider that a strong enough reason.

      On free speech – point taken. However, I believe free speech ought to be upheld as much as possible in most countries regardless of the laws they have on the books.

      As for indigenous land defenders and left-leaning movements being disproportionately cracked down on, I’m not surprised, and that is genuinely awful. Not too different from things here. However, that doesn’t justify the use of the Emergencies Act. The underlying problem to the disproportionality is that such pressure is used to curb free expression in the first place. And part of my concern about the Emergencies Act is that it emboldens the state, or normalizes the practice — I don’t see how it leads to less pressure on indigenous movements.

      Can’t speak for Canada, but in the US, rhetoric from the Democratic Party and the Biden administration tends towards hyping up the threat of domestic far-right extremism, especially white identity extremism. Centers of power here take the problem of disproportionality in policing and say the solution is to crack down more on whites, rather than to crack down less on everyone. (Of course, if Trump or a similar figure wins the next election, they’ll instead hype up the treat of antifa and thinly-veiled stereotypes of black people looting.) Again, this may not be relevant to the Canadian context, but that’s just some of the background for my concern.

      I targeted the truckers as an issue because I felt there was little dissent among the mainstream here in the US, and it fed our dangerous fixation on home-grown threats. I also felt that the truckers were a generally unsympathetic group, which made the use of the Emergencies Act more palatable — and thought pushback was essential. (Still think that.) But as I think you were getting at, it’s sad that curbs on indigenous speech don’t make the news, and I’ll try to take them more into account going forward as well.

      Anyway, sorry for the long-winded response, and sorry if I rambled. Thanks again for taking the time to clarify things. 🙂

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