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.
2020 has been a particularly cyberpunk year, and the month of November certainly did a lot of legwork.
Contents: a list of November’s dystopian developments, then a quick focus on CA’s Prop 22, followed by some good news and links to recommended reads.
November’s dystopian developments:
- Residents of Rio’s slums use apps to avoid open gun battles. In 2020, over a hundred people in Rio died from stray bullets alone. Although Rio has “only” had an average of 14 shootings a day in 2020, down from an average of 20 a day in 2019, it’s still a common danger. The solution? Crowd-sourced apps, telling users where gunshots were last noted.
- Inmates in El Paso paid $2 an hour to dispose of Covid-19 fatalities. You probably heard of this. There isn’t much else to say.
- Japan and South Korea see spike in suicides. Japan in particular lost more people to suicide in October alone than to the entire coronavirus pandemic. Japan never had the rigorous lockdown many other countries had, but many still worked and lived from home.
- It’s worth noting for clarity’s sake that Japan and South Korea already have the highest rates of suicide among industrialized nations. Even so, these spikes have been significant compared to previous years.
- Plastic found on Mt. Everest. With the discovery of plastic at the top of Mt. Everest, humans have officially polluted both the Earth’s greatest depths and its highest peaks. It may not be as weighty as other climate news, but it’s symbolic as hell.
- Trump administration rushes to auction off Arctic refuge. Since 1960, the U.S. has protected 1.5 million acres of the Arctic as a national wildlife refuge. Earlier this summer, the Trump administration announced it would open up the refuge to drilling. In November, the Bureau of Land Management began to formally call for input on which areas ought to be sold. At the current timeline, drilling companies will get to bid days before Biden takes office.
- Blog argues much of the U.S. may be uninhabitable by 2050. If you’re skeptical, check out the blog post itself. There’s less conjecture here than you may think: it mostly goes off what we already know about the human body’s limits and climate change.
- McDonald’s introduces McPlant. Perhaps this ought to be included in the “good news” section below. After all, these would presumably emit much less than business as usual, and emissions are a first-order priority. But the eternal ability of the megacorp to adapt and subsume everything into its business model is especially represented here; for that reason, it’s hard to put it anywhere else.
- Spotify purchases advertising platform Megaphone. Why care? Because it’s a step away from a consumer economy founded on payment for goods, and yet another step towards a consumer economy founded on data extraction.
- Viacom CBS sells Simon & Schuster to Random House. Sure, it’s not aesthetically cyberpunk, just a boring corporate merger. But Simon & Schuster competes with Random House; the result is a clear strike against market competition and means a smaller amount of publishers will have outsized influence on who gets an audience.
- Salesforce buys Slack. Again, just another drip in the steady stream of consolidation; in this case, the category is stuff you have to use for your job. Salesforce’s CEO said the merger would “transform the way everyone works in the all-digital, work-from-anywhere world.”
- Amazon introduces pharmacy service. Already having made some forays into healthcare, Amazon has now taken its biggest leap. It couldn’t come at a better time, with an economy and healthcare system in crisis. Who needs insurance, when a Prime membership can get you 80% off some prescriptions?
- Students balk at invasive exam technology. This is not limited to November of course, but the article I’m citing is: Reuters reports the example of law school students who are required to authenticate their identities with their faces to take mock-exams online.
- Appeals court rules Baltimore’s surveillance plane is constitutional. The arguments behind the ruling are that the surveillance plane is less invasive than physical searches and even street cameras, that the tracking is short-term, and that Baltimore’s murder rate warrants it. After all, it’s just a powerful camera moving over an entire city 40 hours a week, and Baltimore’s police are not known for abuses of power.
- U.S. argues it can kill its own citizens. A recent hearing before a federal appeals court centered on the allegations of two journalists that the government targeted them as terrorists in Syria and tried to kill them. The United States has withheld information relating to the journalists on the basis of national security. The lawyer representing the United States Department of Justice argued that the U.S. can kill its own citizens without judicial oversight as long as state secrets are involved.
- Biden stocks up his administration with the best D.C. has to offer. A (long) post will be coming shortly about the 2020 election. Until then, here is a brief overview of some recent picks.
- Biden’s transition teams are stocked with lobbyists and corporate insiders. From tech companies, defense companies, banks, you name it.
- Biden’s pick for Secretary of State ran a lobbying firm (whose clients are not fully known but include Fortune 100 companies) and was Biden’s top aide when he pushed for the Iraq War.
- Biden’s new top economic adviser is an executive from BlackRock, one of the largest private equity firms in the world. But it’s okay, because he’s the head of BlackRock’s sustainable investing division!
- One of his top advisors, Cynthia Hogan, was one of Apple’s key lobbyists when it pushed for Trump’s 2017 tax cut (which was an enormous giveaway to the wealthy)
- Biden has also picked Neera Tanden for the powerful position of director of the Office of Management and Budget. There’s a lot you can say about Neera Tanden, but it’d be best to let her speak for herself: see her 2011 email in which she said the U.S. should ask Libya for oil in return for bombing the country.
Spotlight: CA’s Prop 22
Proposition 22 is a referendum in the state of California. It was put in place by rideshare and delivery app companies to gut a 2019 California law that mandated most gig workers be classified as employees.
It’s worth noting the passage of Prop 22, because it cements the gig economy firmly into the biggest U.S. state, and may result in similar efforts by gig platforms in other states.
And in turn, it’s always worth keeping an eye on how the gig economy is doing, because it is one of the more practically cyberpunk aspects of the last few years. Few things better represent the increasingly feudalistic aspects of the modern economy, and this is particularly the case in California, a state with drastic levels of inequality, sky-high costs of living, and powerful tech companies.
- Rideshare and delivery apps spent over $200 million lobbying for Prop 22, making it the most expensive Prop in CA history.
- The opposition spent about $20 million.
- It does require companies offer drivers more benefits, but it’s far short of what the original California law mandated. It does not include minimum wage.
- Uber and Lyft used their apps to send drivers and riders political messaging about Prop 22.
- Instacart pushed its Bay Area workers to place pro-Prop 22 stickers and flyers in the bags of customers.
- Prop 22 has a provision that bars drivers from collective bargaining or joining unions.
- Prop 22 not only effectively neuters state legislation, it requires a 7/8ths majority to be changed. Not overturned, just changed.
- Prop 22 is so bad in what it portends that Human Rights Watch called it “a devastating blow to the rights of app-based workers.”
The not-so-bad and the …good?
Accurately accounting for dystopia means recognizing the good things when they come, and more mixed events as not wholly awful. That being the case…
- Florida votes to raise its minimum wage. It’s a start.
- War on Drugs takes a hit across the country. State referendums in many parts of the U.S. saw varying victories for drug legalization and drug decriminalization.
- Vaccine progress. It is fairly well-known by now that three leading vaccines (from AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Moderna) have published results showing high efficacy from their phase 3 trials. Regulatory approval is now all that awaits. It’s a triumph for science, and though vaccines aren’t a silver bullet, it’s still good news.
- Note: no one should be too rosy-eyed about this. There are concerns about a rushed process leaving room for error and dangerous side-effects. The science is still being reviewed. And the U.S. government will protect companies from liability if side-effects cause harm.
- DeepMind’s AI makes breakthrough discovery in biology. DeepMind’s deep learning system, AlphaFold, won a long-running contest in which researchers (including deep learning systems) try to understand protein structure. AlphaFold showed it was able to predict the structure of proteins to within the width of an atom, in a much shorter time span than other methods of prediction.
- The good: It’s not simply a milestone in AI, but in biology. As one lifelong biologist put it, this opens up a whole new area of research. It may accelerate and even birth new treatments for difficult diseases.
- The bad: DeepMind is owned by Google, and Google has been investing heavily in healthcare, specifically with health-monitoring services. It wouldn’t be surprising if this led to a world in which Google provides not only health monitoring services, but medicines and the methods to create them.
Good reads from November
- The New Republic: Hazard Pay Was Just a Brand Exercise.
- Big companies famously handed out hazard pay at the start of the pandemic. What ever happened to that?
- The New Republic: What If Democrats’ Message Just Doesn’t Matter?
- From the subheading: “Florida voters backed a $15 minimum wage. So did Joe Biden—and he lost the state. There are important lessons here for the party.”
- Brookings: Where Midwesterners struggle, Trumpism lives on.
- Coverage of the election may lead one to believe Democrats learned from 2016’s mistakes and figured out how to win the Midwest. A closer look casts doubt on that.
- The New York Times: How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart?
- A look at scholars who study the collapse of societies, and their reactions to the current state of affairs.
And that’s November. A lot more content is coming this month–stay tuned.