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.

2022 opened with more surveillance news, some automation, and fair amount of national decay.

Without further ado:

January’s dystopian developments:

  • The usual climate news. Three separate reports were released in early January. One found US greenhouse gas emissions rebounded faster than the economy in 2021; another found 2021 was among the deadliest weather years for the US in modern times; the third report declared 2021 the fourth hottest year on record for the US. For the world as a whole, 2021 was the 6th-warmest year on record. That means 2013-2021 all rank in the top 10 warmest years on record.
  • Antibiotic resistance. A huge study of the health records of 471 million people across 2014 countries recently estimated that 1.3 million people died directly of antibiotic-resistant infections around the world in 2019. It’s far more than died of malaria or AIDS. The study also found an additional 3.65 million deaths that involved some form of antibiotic resistance (but in which the connection was less direct).
    • In addition, recent studies have indicated malaria may be adapting to a popular treatment. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but an unfortunate setback.
  • Enbridge monitors protesters. To be clear, Enbridge isn’t wiretapping the Native Americans opposed to its pipeline. (At least, not to our knowledge.) It’s more banal: Enbridge basically uses a scoring system to map out the ways in which protestors hurt or can hurt its bottom line. More than anything, it’s just a good insight into how companies calculate risks for every single thing.
  • IRS requires your face. Beginning in the summer of this year, if you want to access your IRS account online, you will need to submit a selfie, alongside your ID, to a third-party firm. The third-party firm will use facial recognition tech to ensure your selfie matches your ID, and if you pass, you’re cleared to use your account.
    • Update: A few days ago, following some backlash, the IRS announced it would be phasing this out.
  • DoJ creates domestic terror unit. The Justice Department already has a counter-terrorism unit. And yet, here we are, with yet another expansion of the security apparatus. And as Jonathan Blanks put it in The Week, the new unit, by virtue of its existence, will always have an incentive to find new threats to crack down on.
  • Google’s tracking evolves. Last year, Google announced it planned to drop the use of third-party cookies, which were a core part of ad tracking. Its proposed replacement was FLoC, or “Federated Learning of Cohorts,” which Google said would alleviate most of the privacy concerns of cookies. The plan still received heavy criticism, so now Google has another pitch: Topics API. Unsurprisingly, it still entails building tracking tech into Chrome.
  • Video game mergers. The number of companies that own what you watch, read, and play shrinks every year. Microsoft’s $69 billion purchase of Activision-Blizzard is the tech giant’s biggest acquisition by a wide margin, and it comes a year after Microsoft purchased Bethesda. Consolidation begets consolidation, and so at the end of January, Sony bought Bungie, the studio that produced Halo.
  • Unions lost membership. A recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has shown the percentage of workers belonging to a union declined in 2021, continuing a long-term trend. The decrease was driven mostly by public sector union losses.
  • PPP loan distribution. The Paycheck Protection Program started as emergency stimulus in response to the pandemic, and issued low-interest loans (most of which will be forgiven) to businesses to help them stay afloat and preserve employment. A new paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research examined where the money went. The paper found 93% of small businesses received such loans — sounds like it worked as intended. Some other less exciting findings:
    • Only 23-34% of the funds went to workers who would have otherwise lost their jobs. The remainder went to business owners and stakeholders.
    • Ultimately, about 72% of PPP dollars flowed to the top 20% of income earners. The bottom 20% got about 2.6%.
    • Not to shit on the mom-and-pop stores, but if you try to ‘protect paychecks’ by paying businesses instead of workers, this is kind of what you’d expect to happen.
  • Infrastructure failures.
    • On Jan. 31st, a fire broke out at a North Carolina fertilizer plant that had about 600 tons of ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive substance, and was the chemical behind the 2020 Beirut blast. US oversight of ammonium nitrate plants is full of holes, and large amounts of ammonium nitrate are often stored near residential areas, schools, and hospitals. So when the fire at the NC plant started, 6,500 people had to be evacuated, out of fear that an explosion could destroy the thousands of homes within a one-mile radius of the plant.
    • On Jan. 19th, a fire at a New York City apartment killed 17 people. In the run-up to the fire, residents of the public housing complex had complained of malfunctioning doors and broken ventilation systems, and the complex had no fire escape.
    • On Jan. 5th, a fire broke out in a Philadelphia apartment, run by the city’s housing authority. 12 people died. At least four of six fire alarms were not functional, and the building had no fire escape.
    • On Jan. 4th, a winter storm left thousands of drivers stranded on a Virginia interstate overnight in freezing weather.
Pictured: Scenes from the NC fertilizer plant fire. Credit: USA Today.

Spotlight: John Deere’s autonomous tractor

John Deere, the agricultural equipment manufacturer, has a rosy vision for its upcoming rollout of the 8R tractor:

The autonomous tractor serves a specific purpose: feeding the world. The global population is expected to grow from about 8 billion to nearly 10 billion people by 2050, increasing the global food demand by 50%. Furthermore, farmers must feed this growing population with less available land and skilled labor, and work through the variables inherent in farming like changing weather conditions and climate, variations in soil quality and the presence of weeds and pests.

I’m all for feeding the world. I’m also all for using machines to reduce human labor — but only if that means most humans actually benefit from it.

You might have heard of John Deere before. If so, it might be because it’s infamous for forcing farmers into getting only expensive, “authorized” tractor repairs, by using embedded software to keep farmers from making repairs themselves. John Deere already holds the threat of remotely shutting down tractors over its customers’ heads; imagine how much easier it would be to facilitate the model when farmers are just managing tractors from their phones.

One agricultural engineer has expressed concerns that farmers could become far more reliant on John Deere in the long run, should the use of these become prevalent. And there are questions as to who would actually own the wealth of new data it would produce. One would assume that privacy goes out the window here, and John Deere would get reams of information on how farms are run.

In addition, automation inevitably brings employment concerns — jobs may either disappear, or more likely, simply become gig-ified. This may not be an immediate concern for farmers, given the current labor shortage in agriculture, and the fact that most farms are family-owned.

So, the gist for now is a mixed bag. Autonomous equipment might be able to increase farm yields and thus help feed the globe. If so, great. It might save farmers time, without immediately affecting employment. Also good. It might usher in a more feudal economic model, in which large corporations become the new lords of the land and farmers go back to being peasants.

Source: John Deere, via Wired

The not-so-bad and the …good?

It’s not all bad.

  • mRNA tech repairs mice hearts. Scientists injected mRNA nanoparticles into mice whose hearts they damaged; it temporarily reprogrammed cells to remove scar tissue. The result: after two weeks, the mice who received the treatment had half as much scar tissue as the untreated mice, and improved heart function.
  • Starbucks unionization wave. Starbucks got its first unionized store in the US at the very end of 2021. Since then, a second location has unionized, and employees at 54 stores in 19 different states have begun pursuing union elections.
    • That doesn’t mean they’ll all be successful. But as John Logan put it for The Hill, private sector union density is already so low that a wave of unionized stores could set a great example.
  • Advancements in nuclear fusion. An advanced nuclear reactor in China managed to sustain plasma at fusing temperatures (216 million degrees Fahrenheit) for an astounding 1,056 seconds. The previous record was 101 seconds. We’re still a long way off from nuclear fusion as a viable power source, but keeping plasma stable is a key component that scientists have thus far struggled with.

Good reads from January

  • Foreign Policy: Chinese Corporate Transparency Is Far Better Than America’s.
    • For now, it’s easier to get info about firms in Xinjiang than Delaware.”
  • Wired: The Capitalist Trap of Pig Organ Transplants.
    • I’ve listed genetically modified pig organ transplants as good news in these posts before. And I still think that ultimately, they’re a great development. The scarcity of available organs for transplantation is a hard problem that results in regular tragedy for thousands of people. Nonetheless, Wired correctly points out that, should pig organ transplants become more common, fault-lines between the haves and the have-nots are likely to emerge — between the privileged who can human organs, and those who must make do with experimental animal organs.
  • Naked Capitalism: “Want to See a Modern Country Commit Suicide? Take a Hard Look at Britain.”
    • What is happening in the UK is instructive, and may be predictive for the US. The UK is further down the neoliberal path than we are in terms of the decay of its once-vaunted civil service, the privatization of government functions, and the hollowing out of industry.”
    • This article is actually from October 2021. I didn’t see it until now and wanted to find an excuse to get this into a post somehow. Forgive me.

And that’s January 2022. ‘Til next time.

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One thought on “State of Dystopia: January 2022”

  • Petr

    The linked Naked Capitalism article is very poorly written. It appears to have been fabricated from twitter and misused / misunderstood statistics. I find myself surprised by how inaccurate it manages to be.
    I have lived in the UK for the past decade. An actual current major concern regarding Brexit and the pandemic is the rising inflation and cost of living (there are recent protests regarding this). Brexit hasn’t been the bomb I had expected it to be, so I am cautiously optimistic regarding how the “end” to the pandemic plays out.

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