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 to my subscribers for missing several monthly round-ups — the gig work life can keep you busy sometimes. In any case, given that there’s four months of events to cover, I decided to organize things thematically.

Without further ado:

Climate

  • Dubai uses drones to create rain. It’s 2021. You run a petrostate’s city of the future. Things are getting hot, and water is getting scarce. What should you do? Dubai’s solution: send drones to zap clouds with electricity, prompting the clouds to release large amounts of rainwater.
    • It worked, by the way.
  • Athens appoints a ‘heat officer.’ Athens became the first city in Europe (and the second in the world, after Miami) to designate a chief heat officer. The officer’s job is to help the city cope with intense (and deadly) heat in ways that do not contribute to the climate crisis.
  • The Amazon rainforest now emits more CO2 than it absorbs. The Amazon rainforest is one of the planet’s climate “tipping points.” That means if a certain threshold is crossed, the effects will cascade into a large and probably irreversible ecological change. So when a recent study found that the Amazon appears to be reaching its tipping point, you can imagine the alarm of scientists.
  • Signs of collapse of Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is an essential ocean current system that heavily impacts the climate of the Northern Hemisphere. Like the Amazon, it’s a climate tipping point. A recent study found that the system is likely approaching “a critical threshold beyond which [it] could collapse.” If the Gulf Stream collapses (and this is not yet guaranteed), sea levels would rise, storms would get stronger, and rainfall could be substantially disrupted in the agrarian economies that rely on it.
  • Rain falls on Greenland’s summit. Rain is not supposed to fall on the highest point of Greenland’s ice sheet — so the rainfall seen in August is the first such on record. It came after Greenland saw an abnormal mass melting event in July.
  • Coral reefs have declined 50% since the 1950s. The study is among the most comprehensive of its kind, and while we knew reef populations have been dropping, half of the world’s reefs is jaw-dropping.
  • July 2021 was the hottest month on record. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said…”it’s official.”
  • Water shortages in the Western US. Lake Mead is the country’s largest reservoir, and its water levels have run so low that the federal government formally declared a water shortage in the area for the first time. As this article from The Guardian discusses, water cuts could translate directly to severe electricity shortages in the West Coast communities that rely on hydropower.
  • UN’s verdict on latest climate pledges. In recent months, major countries have announced updates to their existing climate pledges (or even made new pledges). The UN Environment Program’s latest Emissions Gap Report finds that the pledges are…not enough. Sorry to disappoint — I’m sure you were expecting otherwise!
Source: page 64 in the UN report linked above.

Surveillance state:

  • NATO’s cognitive warfare research. Original reporting by The Grayzone has revealed NATO’s research into waging a “battle for the brain” (direct quotes). A NATO-sponsored study has described “the human” as a new domain of warfare, in addition to land, sea, space, etc. Crucially, the report itself states “the objective of Cognitive Warfare is to harm societies and not only the military.”
  • Singapore’s behavior-policing robots. Singapore is currently trying out wheeled robots loaded with cameras that go out on patrol to stop ‘undesirable’ behavior, like breaking social distancing rules, smoking, or incorrect bicycle parking.
  • Pegasus revelations. Pegasus, spyware developed by Israeli intelligence company NSO Group, can record essentially every single thing you do on your phone. The NSO Group sells it to governments around the world, and a coalition of media outlets released new information on the tool’s deployment in July.
    • So far, there is evidence of the software on the phones of 37 activists, journalists, and businesspeople. Additionally, Amnesty International released a list of 50,000 phone numbers suspected of being of interest to NSO Group’s customers.
    • From The Guardian: “In 2019 WhatsApp revealed that NSO’s software had been used to send malware to more than 1,400 phones. Simply by placing a WhatsApp call to a target device, malicious Pegasus code could be installed on the phone, even if the target never answered the call.”
  • Facebook expands its parameters for hate speech. Formerly, Facebook (like other social media companies) defined removable hate speech as that which could lead to imminent harm. Now, the company’s latest update forbids users from posting “content attacking concepts, institutions, ideas, practices, or beliefs associated with protected characteristics” that is likely to lead to imminent harm.
    • On the surface, this seems like a benign update. The problem is that you should never take what large companies say they will do at face value. This proves a point made by many free speech advocates: that the parameters for what you can say continually shrink, bit-by-bit.
    • Further, Facebook cites, as an example, that burning a national flag or religious texts, or “criticism of ideologies” may lead to imminent violence in “certain contexts,” and so will be scrutinized much more.
    • As Eugene Volokh points out in Reason, this could make it much easier for Facebook to proactively block criticisms of foreign governments. If that strikes you as too speculative, remember that the company has already come under fire for automatically blocking non-hateful criticism of Israel.
  • Tech companies expand an anti-terrorism initiative. The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism was founded by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft. It maintains a database of terrorist content to streamline content removal across platforms. 14 companies can access the database, including Reddit, Snapchat, and Verizon Media. The GIFCT is now expanding what the database collects and flags to include far-right and white supremacist material.
    • Don’t misunderstand me: if the only change here was that far-right and white identity extremism was viewed as seriously as radical Islamic terrorism, that’d be fine. But again: it depends on how seriously you take the word of the world’s largest corporations.
    • Emma Llansó, the Director of Free Expression at the Center for Democracy & Technology, described some concerning points about the database in this 2020 Wired article:
    • No one outside of the consortium of companies knows what is in the database. There are no established mechanisms for an independent audit of the content, or an appeal process for removing content from the database. People whose posts are removed or accounts disabled on participating sites aren’t even notified if the hash database was involved. So there’s no way to know, from the outside, whether content has been added inappropriately and no way to remedy the situation if it has.”
  • Apple ‘fights child abuse.’ In early August, Apple announced new tools to fight child abuse that would involve automatic scanning of all customers’ iCloud and iPhone photos, and all iMessage images on accounts owned by minors. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains:
    • Apple can explain at length how its technical implementation will preserve privacy and security in its proposed backdoor, but at the end of the day, even a thoroughly documented, carefully thought-out, and narrowly-scoped backdoor is still a backdoor.”
    • All it would take to widen the narrow backdoor […] is an expansion of the machine learning parameters to look for additional types of content, or a tweak of the configuration flags to scan […] That’s not a slippery slope; that’s a fully built system just waiting for external pressure to make the slightest change.
    • “Take India, where recently passed rules include dangerous requirements for platforms to identify the origins of messages and pre-screen content. New laws in Ethiopia requiring content takedowns of ‘misinformation’ in 24 hours may apply to messaging services. And many other countries—often those with authoritarian governments—have passed similar laws.”
    • In September, Apple announced it was pausing this feature. I’m leaving this entry in, because they were this close to going forward with it, and it may only be a matter of time until it’s reintroduced.
  • Amazon drivers’ surveillance nightmare. Earlier this year, Amazon began forcing its delivery drivers to sign “consent” forms allowing constant surveillance. AI cameras now monitor everything the drivers do, to ensure they are safe (productive and obedient). Now drivers are complaining that they have been unfairly penalized, and thus lost pay, for supposed infractions the cameras automatically recorded and fed into weekly performance reviews.
  • New info on CBP interrogations. New documents uncovered by The Intercept and Type Investigations have revealed that Customs and Border Patrol deploys secretive counter-terrorism units to monitor ports of entry. According to the documents, these Tactical Terrorism Response Teams have detained and interrogated over 600,000 people between 2017 and 2019, a third of whom were US citizens.
  • Docs reveal the CIA’s plans to silence Assange. I highly recommend everyone read Yahoo News‘ full report, as it offers a fascinating look into the security state’s bureaucracy. A brief summary:
    • In 2017, WikiLeaks began publishing its “Vault 7” leak, which reveals sensitive information about CIA hacking tools. The CIA considers the leak to be the largest data loss in its history.
    • The CIA was so outraged (and humiliated) that it formally designated WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service.” The designation allowed the agency to treat WikiLeaks like a foreign power.
    • Under then-director Mike Pompeo, the CIA began making plans to break into the Ecuadorian embassy in London and kidnap Assange.
    • Assassination was also discussed as an option, but it is unclear how seriously those proposals were taken.
    • For what it’s worth, it does seem clearer heads ultimately won out here. Although it also seems the state had a major incentive to not violently silence Assange because its nonviolent prosecution of him would have been jeopardized, and because it would have hurt relations with the UK.
  • The FBI’s role in the Whitmer kidnapping plot. Remember when a bunch of far-right extremists tried to kidnap the governor of Michigan? It served as a scary reminder of how far-right extremists are on the verge of destroying democracy. Luckily for us all, the FBI foiled the plot at the last minute! Except, as documents obtained by BuzzFeed (not a typo) revealed, the plot probably wouldn’t have even happened without the FBI egging it on:
    • “[FBI informants] had a hand in nearly every aspect of the alleged plot, starting with its inception. The extent of their involvement raises questions as to whether there would have even been a conspiracy without them.”
    • One informant even ended up being second in command, and then eventually the highest-ranking member of the group. He used his position of authority to help deliver thousands of rounds of ammunition for training exercises, used the FBI’s money to pay for potential militants’ lodgings, and gave advice on how they could manufacture weapons.
    • When other Watchmen backed out of the emerging kidnapping plot, viewing it as too extreme, he recruited new members to join the plot.
Source: The NATO-sponsored report on cognitive warfare described in the first bullet.

Megacorp consolidation:

  • Netflix to start offering games. Personally, I’m mildly interested. But Netflix’s announcement indicates the subscription-based economy has no signs of slowing. Welcome to the glorious high-tech future — where you rent everything and own nothing.
  • Google funds a lot of ‘independent’ research. An investigation by the New Statesman found that Europe’s leading academic institutes have taken tens of millions of dollars from large tech companies, with Google being the most aggressive. Ostensibly, this funding does not make the research any less neutral. However, it’s silly to assume this money would be thrown around without strings attached, especially given the track records of Big Tobacco and Big Oil in funding research.
  • Ford and Lyft prepare to launch a self-driving car fleet. If things go according to schedule, autonomous Ford cars will be available on Lyft in Miami by the end of this year. It could be years before this fully takes off, but it’s another step in a troubling direction. Gig companies are nothing without their precarious workforce, yet as soon as they’re able, they’ll automate away those same jobs.
  • Facebook shuts down NYU researchers. The researchers were studying political ads and misinformation, and relied on data voluntarily given by some Facebook users. In shutting down their accounts, Facebook essentially killed their research project. Personally, I think misinformation is an overhyped problem — but who cares? Research is research, and shutting it down was wrong.
  • Amazon enlists its sellers. Amazon’s marketplace is enormous, and hundreds of thousands of businesses have come to rely on it. The company recently started sending out emails to thousands of its third-party sellers, telling them that antitrust legislation working its way through Congress could shut down the marketplace. The megacorp that thousands of smaller companies rely on is telling them to advocate against legislation that would curb the power of said megacorp. Perverse, isn’t it?
  • Amazon (sort of) wins the JEDI contract. The JEDI contract is an enormous defense contract that would hand over the Pentagon’s entire online infrastructure to a single large tech company. Amazon and Microsoft have been at each other’s throats for it for the last two years. Ultimately, the Pentagon canceled the contract this summer, and both companies will likely get contracts to supply digital infrastructure. Yay! Everyone wins, except us.
    • In the scheme of things, it wouldn’t matter if Microsoft ended up getting the whole thing — because either way, the role of tech companies in the defense industry balloons. But there’s just something particularly sinister about Amazon still getting something here:
    • As I discussed last year, the company put the former director of the NSA on its board of directors last year to help them land the contract, supplied police departments all around the country with facial recognition tech, and has smart devices in millions of homes.
  • Amazon strikes deal with UK intelligence. If you thought it was frightening enough that Amazon had such sway with the world’s strongest military, you might be comforted to know that it’s also been granted a contract by the United Kingdom. The contract will have Amazon host classified material for the GCHQ (Britain’s NSA), MI5, and MI6.
Credit: the New Statesman report mentioned in the 2nd bullet.

Misc stuff:

  • Chile has a debate over “neuro rights.” Chile, which is in the process of rewriting its constitution, has interesting legislation under consideration. A couple bills would establish neuro-rights for Chileans, including the right to personal identity, free will, mental privacy, and protection from algorithmic bias.
  • Army researchers work on anti-aging pill. SOCOM, the defense organization that manages special forces, is starting clinical trials for a pill that could slow the degradation of the human body. The pill would likely be in the form of a food supplement, and thus exempt from the FDA’s most rigorous standards.
  • Hypersonic missile tests. I have no interest in fear-mongering about Russia, China, or North Korea. But arms races simply are concerning. Hence, Russia’s successful missile tests in July and October are worrisome, as is North Korea’s September test. So is the recent news of China’s successful test (though the ‘sputnik moment’ comparison is typical mainstream hysteria).
    • As I argued a year ago, the world is probably closer to nuclear annihilation now than it was during the Cold War.
  • Anthony Bourdain‘s voice simulated by AI for documentary. Pretty self-explanatory: a filmmaker wanted a dead man’s voice for his documentary. So he got it.
  • Startup hopes to revive the woolly mammoth by 2077. Colossal has raised $15 million so far, which they reckon is enough to develop a viable embryo. And while only time will tell whether this was ever feasible, it may not be so insane: one of the founders is a pioneer in the field, who helped initiate the Human Genome Project.
  • Facebook launches Horizon Workrooms. Have you ever found hours of Zoom calls to make for an alienating social experience? Maybe it would be better to just see all of your coworkers represented by cartoonish avatars in a virtual conference room. That’s the bet Facebook is making with Horizon Workrooms, a new conferencing tool launched by Oculus.
Source: Oculus, linked in the last bullet.

High tech, but low life:

  • Overdose deaths hit a record high. Drug overdose deaths rose 30% in 2020, meaning 2020 saw the highest total of fatal ODs in a single year on record at 93,000.
  • US households’ savings wiped. A recent poll of over 3,600 US adults found that 20% of those surveyed had lost their entire savings during the pandemic. And that number increased to 30% among those making under $50,000 a year.
  • McDonald’s moves to automate drive-thrus. Automation is not inherently bad. But its realistic near-term applications tend to be: destroying or gig-ifying jobs without returning any of the surplus value back down to the little guy. I don’t know why we should expect anything different from McDonald’s new partnership with IBM.
  • Billionaire space race. Space exploration is cool. I’m excited to see it develop. But is the only way forward here really a privatized one? I know a lot of people might think that this is a triumph of the private sector and a huge milestone for space exploration. I’m not so sure — government funding still made much of this possible to begin with, and private companies are not interested in venturing far beyond Earth, thanks to a certain thing called…the profit motive.
    • On July 11, Virgin Galactic completed its first crewed flight to space. Company founder Richard Branson was on the flight as well.
    • On July 20, Jeff Bezos entered space for a few minutes on a Blue Origin craft — the first Blue Origin flight to space with passengers on board.
  • Jeff Bezos, Russian billionaire fund anti-aging startup. Altos Labs is a new biotech company that is pursuing “biological reprogramming technology,” a way to rejuvenate cells and thus prolong an organism’s life. The company will give top scientists generous salaries to conduct whatever relevant research they want.
  • Brazilian bank heist. A gang of robbers in Brazil broke into at least two banks, then strapped hostages to the tops of their getaway cars to avoid being shot at. To impede the police further, the robbers detonated explosives around the city, set fires to cars to block major routes, and used drones to monitor police movements.
  • El Salvador’s adoption of bitcoin. In early September, El Salvador became the first country to adopt bitcoin as a legal currency. As I wrote in June’s state of dystopia post, this is cyberpunk because it’s emblematic of the genre’s key dichotomy (high tech, low life). A fifth of El Salvador’s GDP comes from people abroad sending money back home, and 70% of residents lack bank accounts. That’s why the country is trying to adopt bitcoin — despite large protests.
  • A Honduran ‘start-up’ city. What happens when American investors get to use a poor island community in Honduras as the staging ground for an innovative ‘start-up’ city? Well, years into the experiment, some early results are in: when relations with neighboring villages soured, the leaders of the experimental city cut off their neighbors’ water supply.
  • Los Angeles criminalizes homelessness. Few things better symbolize the late stage of capitalism than this. Faced with an explosion in homelessness, a city home to the world’s wealthiest people has chosen to simply outlaw sleeping outside virtually everywhere in the city.
    • Perhaps the most dystopian aspect of this is the fact that it is an admission that the city will simply not bother trying to bring people out of poverty anymore, or curb addiction. The city has decided it will have a permanent underclass. ‘It’s true that fines and misdemeanor charges will make it more difficult for you to find a job or apartment. But it doesn’t matter if we punish you, because you’ll be homeless forever anyway.’
  • SF tries out cyber trash cans. Refusing to be outdone by LA, San Francisco has a quirky initiative of its own. The smart trash cans are a lot harder to tamper with, and have sensors that alert public works crews when they’re almost full so they can be emptied more quickly. Ostensibly so junkies can’t rifle through trash bags for drugs, but probably also to prevent the hungry from trying to find scraps.
Source: “Trash Can Redesign,” SF Public Works

The not-so-bad and the …good?

That was a lot of bad news. It’s worth keeping in mind the good points.

  • Labor organizes. The last few months have seen several encouraging moments of labor organizing. At the end of the day, organized labor is one of the only real counterweights to corporate power, so anything here is good news.
    • In Topeka, Kansas, hundreds of Frito-Lay employees went on strike for 3 weeks in July. Their strike was a success; their new contract ends “suicide shifts,” in which workers do 4 hours of overtime in addition to their regular 8-hour workday, raises pay for all employees and gives workers more days off.
    • In August, over 1,000 Nabisco workers in 5 states went on strike. It was the company’s first strike in over 50 years, and it resulted in a mixed victory: the new contract increases pay for all employees, and ups other types of compensation. However, the deal will not cut the company’s plan to allow 12-hour weekend shifts without overtime.
  • DeepMind releases protein database. Last year, DeepMind’s AlphaFold program demonstrated its ability to predict protein structure with a high degree of accuracy. Understanding a protein’s folding structure allows scientists to understand the protein’s function, so AI advances in predicting protein structure have tremendous potential. In July, DeepMind released millions of protein structure predictions. 98% of human proteins can now be accessed by anyone from a public database, and many think this could revolutionize health science.
    • The release is undeniably good for science, but DeepMind is a Google-owned AI research lab. One can’t help but be a little cynical — that the release is an effort to look good for regulators, as Google expands more and more into healthcare.
  • Brain implant advances. An experimental brain implant allowed a fully paralyzed man to generate sentences on a computer using only his thoughts. It took months of adjustment, and is still much slower than regular speech, but is nonetheless a promising advancement: currently, paralyzed people can only use devices that detect eye or head movements to spell out words one letter at a time.
  • First successful pig organ transplant. To temper your excitement: the patient was already dead. So we’re still far away from serious implementation. Nonetheless, it’s a huge step forward for animal organ transplants, as all previous attempts to implant pig kidneys have resulted in rejection from the host body.

Good reads from the last few months:

And that’s the last four months. ‘Til next time.

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