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.

As usual, I’m a bit late. Forgive me.

Without further ado:

November’s dystopian developments:

  • A lockdown over pollution. New Delhi suffers from some of the worst air quality of any major city. By some estimates, breathing the air in New Delhi averages out to smoking 10+ cigarettes a day. So when the air got bad again last month, workers stayed home and schools shuttered.
  • Drone assassination attempt. On November 7th, two drones packed with explosives attacked the house of Iraq’s prime minister in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him. Nothing too groundbreaking here — after all, the same thing happened to Venezuela’s president in 2018. It’s just another sign of the new normal.
  • US report on China’s strength. Early November, the Defense Department released its annual assessment of China’s military strength. My concern here is less China’s development, and moreso what the Pentagon’s interpretation of that development means. I’ll summarize an excellent analysis from TomDispatch:
    • American strategists believe the U.S. is superior in modern, “multi-domain” warfare. Stuff like intelligence, coordination on the battlefield, etc. U.S. strategists believe being “intelligentized” is more important than superiority in raw numbers — which is where China maintains a lead.
    • However, the report estimates that China will achieve intelligentization by 2027. This is the point at which U.S. strategists believe China would be confident enough to engage U.S. forces (and possibly win).
    • The Pentagon also assumes current trends will continue: Taiwan will insist on independence, China will double down on taking it by force once it has the ability to do so, and the US will be compelled to respond with force.
    • The point of all of this is to say that the Pentagon believes a conflict is highly likely. It doesn’t have to be — but the Pentagon’s own assumptions may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • El Salvador’s planned ‘Bitcoin City.’ I’ve talked about El Salvador’s adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender in the last couple State of Dystopia posts. Now the country’s president has gone for an even bigger publicity stunt: the country will build a city dedicated to crypto, funded by bitcoin-backed bonds, and powered by a local volcano’s geo-thermals.
  • YouTube removes dislikes. With YouTube removing dislikes from its platform, only one popular social network has a meaningful ‘dislike’ system (Reddit). It’s a mundane change, to be sure, but one that further chips away at online expression. Another corporate attempt to sanitize the internet — an attempt that might succeed, sadly.
  • More tax breaks for the rich. It seems likely that Democrats will repeal a cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction in Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ spending bill. The SALT deduction allows people to subtract local tax payments from their federal taxes. Recent plans to raise the cap from $10,000 to $72,500 would only benefit about 1.6% of middle-income households. But over half of households above the 90th income percentile (households earning more than $254,000 a year) would see their taxes significantly cut.
    • It’s not a cheap tax cut. It would cost about $300 billion through 2025 (of which about $240 billion would be kept by those earning over $200,000 a year).
  • Another blow to local news. The hedge fund Alden Capital recently launched a bid to acquire Lee Enterprises, which holds 75 daily newspapers and hundreds of other outlets.
    • Earlier this year, Alden Capital bought Tribune Publishing (which owns the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, among others). Within 6 weeks of the purchase, 10% of Tribune Publishing’s newsroom staff had been laid off. Some papers saw 20% of their staff let go.
    • As described in The Atlantic: “The [Chicago] Tribune’s remaining staff, which had been spread thin even before Alden came along, struggled to perform the newspaper’s most basic functions. After a powerful Illinois state legislator resigned amid bribery allegations, the paper didn’t have a reporter in Springfield to follow the resulting scandal. And when Chicago suffered a brutal summer crime wave, the paper had no one on the night shift to listen to the police scanner.”
  • Environmental lawyer jailed. (Technically this happened in October, but I neglected it in last month’s post.) Steven Donziger sued Texaco in the 1990s on behalf of indigenous Ecuadorians after an oil spill. When Chevron acquired Texaco, it counter-sued Donziger, and through dubious legal proceedings (the judge in question had investments in Chevron), he was placed under house arrest for two years. In October, a judge sentenced him to 6 months in prison.
    • Of note, federal prosecutors refused to take up the case. So the judge had private attorneys hired to prosecute Donziger. Moreover, the UN noted Donziger had been under house arrest longer than the maximum sentence for his charges (and that’s under the assumption he’s guilty of them, which he isn’t).
    • In a bit of good news, on December 9th, Donziger was transferred from prison back to house arrest.
    • House arrest and 6-month prison stints may sound minor, relative to the U.S. carceral system. But this sets dangerous precedent, one in which corporations can imprison their critics.
  • More NSO Group news. According to international rights groups, spyware from the intelligence firm NSO Group has been found on the phones of at least 6 Palestinian activists. The Pegasus spyware program allows the buyer to see basically anything done on an infected phone.
  • Leaks reveal police surveillance. The activist group DDoSecrets posted a trove of footage from police surveillance helicopters in early November, apparently mostly from Dallas police. The footage shows…everything. Detailed footage of people in drive-thrus, talking on the street, standing in their own backyards, etc. As Wired described:
    • “Some of the leaked Dallas and Atlanta footage reflects the types of uses you might expect from police helicopters: crowd surveillance over stadium parking lots on game day, for example, or officers pulling a car over. But other scenes in the footage have a more aimless, roving quality.”
  • FBI informant powers. An original investigation published by The Intercept tells the story of Aswad Khan — a completely innocent man who was asked to become an informant for the FBI. Khan refused. Then he was almost certainly placed on a no-fly list and the terrorist watchlist, and his friends began facing detainment when they crossed the US border. For the crime of refusing to spy on mosques, Khan has been left socially isolated and virtually unable to visit the U.S.
  • DOJ targets unruly passengers. Obviously, someone who assaults a flight attendant on a plane should be punished. But should it warrant an FBI investigation? The Justice Department is trying to crack down on unruly passengers, which means the FAA will now regularly refer cases to the FBI for review and prosecution.
    • The problem here is less this specific minor policy change. It’s that it represents another small step for the expansion of law enforcement powers, particularly the FBI’s.

Spotlight: Tor network integrity

Look, Tor was never going to be perfect. Few people serious about online privacy expect perfect anything. But as accessible privacy tools go, Tor is far and away better than anything else — certainly much better than a VPN. (I say that as someone who uses a VPN regularly.)

Tor stands for ‘the onion router.’ Onion routing essentially involves encrypting and then routing a user’s traffic through several different nodes before delivering a user to their online destination. Traffic is encrypted, and each node in the path only knows the previous node and the next node. It should be impossible for any given node to see both the traffic origin point alongside the traffic’s destination point — meaning even if one node were compromised, its insight would be limited. Moreover, the nodes (also known as relays) are run by a network of volunteers. As NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said:

The design of the Tor system is structured in such a way that even if the US Government wanted to subvert it, it couldn’t because it’s a decentralized authority. It’s a volunteer based network. Nobody’s getting paid to run Tor relays — they’re volunteers worldwide. And because of this, it provides a built-in structural defense against abuses and most types of adversaries.

Which brings us to the issue at hand. A security researcher under the pseudonym ‘Nusenu’ recently posted disturbing findings on their Medium blog. A user named KAX17 has been setting up malicious relays for the last three years.

Bad actors have set up malicious nodes before, but at their peak, KAX17 ran over 900 active servers. It’s enough that Nusenu estimates you’d have a 16% chance of using one of KAX17’s relays on your first ‘hop,’ and a 35% chance of using it on your second ‘hop.’

We don’t know much more than that. But as Nusenu puts it:

We have no evidence, that they are actually performing de-anonymization attacks, but they are in a position to do so and the fact that someone runs such a large network fraction of relays “doing things” that ordinary relays can not do (intentionally vague), is enough to ring all kinds of alarm bells.”

The Tor Project’s community team lead said that the Project has since booted hundreds of non-exit relays from the network. But who knows whether that will stop KAX17, or whoever succeeds them. And as to who KAX17 is, we don’t know — but its an entity with the resources to keep hundreds of servers running for years on end.

The not-so-bad and the …good?

I must admit I don’t have much good news for November, but at least some of the news is more neutral than bad:

  • NASA’s asteroid defense mission. On November 24th, NASA launched the world’s first mission to test asteroid deflection technology. It’s not like we should expect this to be imminently useful, but it’s certainly worth being prepared for. Also, it’s pretty cool.
  • Paralysis-reversing injection. Well, paralysis-reversing in mice, for now. Even so, it’s remarkable: a single injection of the new drug helped mice with severe spinal cord injuries regenerate severed nerves and other tissues. The injured mice were able to walk again within four weeks of the injection.
  • Antiviral Covid pills. Two new medications, from Pfizer and Merck respectively, have shown efficacy in cutting mortality from Covid-19. More recent data shows Merck’s pill is much less effective than previously thought, and the FDA’s expert panel almost didn’t back it. Nonetheless, Pfizer’s pill appears promising: the clinical trials show it reduced the risk of hospitalization and death among high-risk patients by 89%. As important as vaccines are, Covid-19 treatments arguably matter about as much — so progress on this front is encouraging.

Good reads from November

  • War on the Rocks: Mexican Cartels Are Embracing Aerial Drones and They’re Spreading.
    • As the title says. Pretty cyberpunk.
  • Continuing Ed — with Edward Snowden: Cultural Revolutions.
    • In his Substack post, Ed Snowden reflects on the memoir of a Chinese artist, and how it resonated with his own experience working in the NSA.
    • I don’t want to be misunderstood as saying ‘East’ and ‘West’ were, or are, the same; rather, it is my belief that market forces, democratic decline, and a toxic obsession with ‘national security’ […] are drawing the US and China to meet in the middle: a common extreme.”
  • Rifters: COP/out.
    • This is from the blog of sci-fi author Peter Watts. In it, he rants about the latest iteration of the UN’s annual climate conference, COP26. Watts is a doomer. I don’t always agree with him, but his cynicism is certainly worth hearing out.

And that’s November. ‘Til next time.

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2 thoughts on “State of Dystopia: November 2021

  • Anonymous

    Hey! Awesome write up as always. Just wondering what your thoughts were on the metaverse and its potential implications/how likely it is to become a reality. Thanks!

    • Mr. Present Punk

      Hi! Sorry for the late reply — I’ve had some technical difficulties lately. Also, thank you for your kind words, and comment! 🙂

      Unfortunately, I don’t think I have a great answer for you, as I need to research this more first. Someday I will write a post about it — particularly as VR is such a big component of how we think of dystopia.

      Even so, here’s my basic and less-informed take: I’ve heard a lot of skepticism that Zuckerberg is being unrealistic in how much he thinks the metaverse will take off. Most of my well-informed friends have serious doubts it will become mainstream. In particular, they doubt ‘normies’ will ever have much interest in it.

      Personally, I wonder if that really matters. So what if consumers have no use for VR, if a VR world isn’t attractive right now? I thought the same thing about the iPad when it first came out, and I was proven wrong many times over. (Granted, I was a kid when the iPad came out, and Apple’s initial marketing of the iPad was superior to Meta’s marketing of VR.) I suppose my point is, although I think what consumers want is a big deal, I also believe large companies can make us want things if they’re invested enough in them. And in the case of VR, there’s no doubt that big tech is super invested. Facebook’s just the most obvious, because its seemingly staking its future on it and Zuckerberg is so clearly obsessed with it. Maybe the metaverse will have a rocky start, but I don’t see why it can’t become big. (Or if not the metaverse, some other company’s iteration.)

      As to its implications, naturally it depends on how widespread it becomes. However, my general take is that the metaverse represents a continuation of the ‘more for less’ trend. Even as wages stagnate, and the cost of the ideal middle-class life remains out of reach for most people, people can also get a lot more out of single devices than they could previously. Particularly among younger people. In this context, the metaverse would be yet another thing to give you the illusion of a higher standard of living — like a cellphone.

      I might be too optimistic, but I don’t think the metaverse would fully supplant in-person interaction. And if people ever do spend more time on the metaverse than with each other sometime in the future, I would bet it would be mostly the effect of years of cellphones and social media — people are already hooked on their devices, in other words, so I’m not sure how much the metaverse would change that in the scheme of things.

      In short, I would think that VR can take on more than the naysayers think, but I doubt it would be the full sci-fi vision Zuckerberg has. I think it’d just be another tool to keep the masses placated, in a long list of such tools. Would people ever be hooked on VR like a drug? I doubt it, but then again, who knows how ‘good’ it could get in the future as the tech advances. I guess we’ll see.

      Thanks for asking! As I learn and think more on this issue, I’ll write a long-overdue post on it. 🙂

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