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.
June has had the most overtly cyberpunk news events in months. Starting us off is some environmental news, then the usual corporate malfeasance, some experimental military tech, and more.
Without further ado:
June’s dystopian developments:
- Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit record high. 419 parts per million is the highest amount of CO2 in the atmosphere in the 63 years we’ve been consistently recording it. But the real kicker is that estimates suggest this amount of CO2 hasn’t been seen since the Pliocene era, over 4 million years ago.
- Northwest faces record-breaking heatwave. A heatwave so intense that it has melted power cables, caused the roads to crack, and likely caused hundreds of deaths.
- Maybe: a Miami condo collapses. We don’t know for certain the reason why the condo collapsed, so including it on this list may be too hasty. Certainly, pre-existing structural failures appear to be a large factor. But climate change may have compounded the problem as well.
- El Salvador becomes the first country to use bitcoin as legal tender. This isn’t cyberpunk because of the word “bitcoin.” This is cyberpunk because it represents the key dichotomy of the genre: high tech and low life. El Salvador is not a wealthy country. 20% of its economy is based on people sending money from abroad, and 70% of residents lack a bank account. Those are the explicit reasons why the country’s government has embraced bitcoin.
- Blackstone continues its buying spree. Blackstone, an enormous private equity company, recently bought a company that rents out over 17,000 single-family homes. Blackstone’s real estate buy-ups have a poor record: a recent UN report criticized Blackstone for buying up single-family homes after the 2008 financial crisis, jacking up rents, and neglecting quality.
- Dystopian Airbnb. PadSplit connects landlords with low-income renters. The start-up encourages landlords to remodel their properties into boarding houses; then, the company connects prospective residents with the remodeled properties. The result is poor people get places that are far more affordable than a typical apartment, while landlords 2x their profits by cramming more people into their existing properties. PadSplit has been around for a while, but the New Republic‘s recent report on it is the first I’ve heard about it. Ideally, it won’t gain much traction, but if it does, one imagines this is how America’s 21st-century slums will be run.
- Amazon Sidewalk kicks in. Amazon Sidewalk: in which Amazon siphons off a small amount of internet bandwidth from households with Amazon smart home products, and uses it (along with bandwidth taken from similar households in the area) to create a network for the neighborhood. You have to opt out if you want to avoid it, because it’s been implemented automatically.
- DARPA funds research for making a “living pharmacy.” The “living pharmacy,” as intended by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is an implantable device that provides everything the human body needs in times of duress. Hypothetically, it would make soldiers more durable: eliminate their jetlag, reduce fatigue, and solve stomach issues, among other things.
- Army researchers look into smart uniforms. The idea is to have “electronic textiles” sewn into clothing that can collect (and report) data on the wearer and their environment, plus give the wearer warnings about dangers ahead.
- Israeli army develops camouflage tech that makes wearers invisible. You might think I’m shitting you, but it’s real. The unique material renders the wearer functionally invisible to both the naked eye and to thermal imaging equipment.
- Operation Ironside. The FBI, in collaboration with dozens of governments (prominently, Australia’s Federal Police), created a fake encrypted messaging app as part of a massive global sting operation to crack down on drug trade. Undercover agents encouraged criminals to use the fake app (“Anom”) to communicate. Everything every sent on the app, from the get-go, was recorded by the FBI. The result was…a success, I guess.
- Look, I don’t have a problem with law enforcement doing their jobs (kind of). I just find it creepy that the FBI can invent a “secure” app, and don’t trust them to limit this tactic simply to drug dealers.
- And as Elizabeth Brown put it for Reason: “For a global spy enterprise with seemingly unprecedented access to criminal communications—spanning tens of millions of messages on thousands of devices reviewed by more than 9,000 cops in 16 countries—the results actually seem … rather lackluster? Internationally, the operation seized 250 guns, 55 cars, and $48 million in cash and cryptocurrency, plus 22 tons of marijuana and marijuana resin, eight tons of cocaine, and two tons of methamphetamine and amphetamine.”
- The rich pay nothing in taxes. ProPublica‘s blockbuster report on the taxes paid by America’s billionaires doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know. Nonetheless, the numbers are galling, and the tax records obtained by the outlet are new. ProPublica compared the taxes paid by America’s 25 richest people to how much their overall wealth grew to come up with their “true tax rate.” Billionaires pay hefty income taxes, but most of their wealth lies outside of income, and is hardly taxed. Thus, Warren Buffet’s “true tax rate” the last few years was 0.10%, and Bezos’ was 0.98%.
- Teenage girl suicide attempts jump. A CDC survey of emergency departments in 49 states found a large increase in suicide attempts among children aged 12-17, particularly among girls. The number of ER visits for girls 12-17 increased 50% in early 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.
- Shitty infrastructure deal progresses. At first glance, any large amount of public spending on infrastructure seems like a good thing right now. That “it’s not what I want, but it’s something” impression is illusory. First, it’s incredibly watered-down from the initial proposal. Secondly (and arguably more importantly) as David Dayen described in The American Prospect, Biden’s plan is a “stalking horse for privatization.” In this moment of upheaval, shifting more public goods into the private sector is not only immoral — it’s dangerous.
- Subway’s tuna sandwiches have no tuna. Enjoy your nutrition paste, serf. From Deseret News: “The study, however, did not identify any tuna DNA within the Subway tuna. And, to make matters even more mysterious, there was nothing in the ‘tuna’ that pointed to a specific animal.”
- No judgment here. I actually like Subway.
Lastly, check out this advertisement I saw while taking the metro in D.C. (apologies for my nonexistent photography skills). Welcome to the future, where Amazon is gracious enough of an overlord to halve the price of Prime for people on food stamps:
Spotlight: A New Counter-terrorism Plan
On June 15, the Biden administration unveiled a national plan for countering domestic extremism. Brought on by the Jan 6 riot and an increased anxiety among liberals about far right extremism, the plan accepts that domestic extremism is the greatest terror threat to Americans, and offers policies to address it.
A couple of things right off the bat:
First, it’s not that extremism isn’t a problem. And those who point out that terrorism committed by right-wing extremists used to be overlooked are generally correct. The problem is that this woke analysis of terrorism wholly embraces the post-9/11 framework. It takes for granted that terrorism is an incredibly pressing threat to normal Americans and that a heavy-handed security state is needed to stop such violence. Put simply, if the progressive take is “white conservatives are the real terrorists,” then the practical implication is that the intelligence agencies just need to change targets. Proof of concept: the fact that the Biden administration has this plan in the first place.
Second, I would like to acknowledge that some of this plan could be more talk than action. The funding listed in this plan is small relative to the countless billions the U.S. spends on its overall domestic security apparatus.
With that being said, this plan contains policies that will tangibly strengthen our existing police state. These are the plan’s “four pillars” as outlined by the White House.
- Better information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies…and “where appropriate with private sector partners.”
- Prevention. The Department of Homeland Security will grant $77 million for state and local law enforcement agencies to focus on preventing and responding to domestic extremism, and training will be given to retiring service members to inoculate them against extremist recruitment.
- More deterrence. U.S. attorney’s offices and FBI field offices will now classify domestic terrorism as a top priority and will reallocate resources accordingly. This includes an extra $100 million for the Department of Justice, FBI, and DHS to increase their personnel, and (again) intelligence sharing with state and local law enforcement.
- “Confronting long-term contributors to domestic terrorism.” Essentially, recognizing that there are long-term and large-scale drivers of extremism that need to be addressed in different areas of governance, aside from just policing — issues like economic inequality and structural racism.
Is every single thing outlined in the plan bad? No. (Addressing economic inequality sounds like a good idea, although I have little faith this part of the plan would be executed.) On the whole, though, it’s more of the same. More funding for cops to charge anti-pipeline and BLM protestors with terrorism. More funding for the FBI. The plan essentially says ‘the real problem with the War on Terror was that it wasn’t domestic enough.’
As for what collaboration with tech companies looks like, it would likely involve more of this stuff at the very least:
Facebook started piloting this as part of its collaboration with the Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online. Christchurch Call to Action is an international partnership between countries and companies, and the U.S. just joined the partnership as well under the new plan. And what’s key is that such efforts like the ones above will now take place in part thanks to intelligence shared by the feds.
Lastly, if you think the awful record of the anti-terror framework (I made a short list of how it’s been used to target the left in the last decade alone) is behind us, I must ask you what you think prompted 2020’s record number of domestic terror prosecutions.
The not-so-bad and the …good?
Eat your vegetables. Not all news is bad news.
- UFO report drops. Good? I don’t know. But it’s interesting, and I don’t really know where else to put it (even if, admittedly, UFOs aren’t exactly cyberpunk). Don’t worry, a post about this is coming up soon.
- House committee passes 6 anti-trust bills aimed at tackling Big Tech. If passed by Congress and signed by Biden, the bills would represent some of the biggest changes to anti-trust law in decades. Of course, that’s a huge “if.” Don’t hold your breath, but this at least encouraging. It couldn’t have happened ten years ago.
- Lina Khan appointed head of the FTC. As with the previous point, this is something to be cautiously treated as good news. But it is good news, because Lina Khan is one of the most influential critics of big tech, and her legal scholarship on Amazon’s monopoly power is widely cited.
- Teamsters vow to unionize Amazon workers. The Teamsters are one of America’s last large unions. And as Amazon is driving down wages in the types of jobs most Teamsters work in, the union has a pretty good incentive to start fighting. As Steven Greenhouse put it for The Guardian:
- “It’s one thing for Amazon to deploy its crack team of anti-union lawyers and consultants to stomp out a union drive at a single warehouse center in Alabama, but it will be quite another thing for Amazon and its anti-union Swat team if the Teamsters mount union drives in 20 or 30 warehouses at once.”
A couple interesting articles from June
- MIT Technology Review: These creepy fake humans herald a new age in AI.
- About the cottage industry of generating thousands of digital humans to feed into machine learning algorithms.
- Foreign Policy: The U.S. Midwest Is Foreign Oligarchs’ New Playground.
- If the article is paywalled, try going incognito.
And that’s June. ‘Til next time.