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.
September’s events have the usual: a pandemic, a struggling economy, high social tensions. Those mostly aren’t included this time, as they’re more or less a given.
Noted here are several high-profile corporate mergers that mark the continuation of our path to an economy dominated by just a few tech megacorps, plus some miscellaneous items.
Wrapping it up is a special list just for Amazon–which really outdid itself in September, bravo!–and some recommended long reads.
September’s dystopian developments:
- Microsoft buys ZeniMax Media (Bethesda’s parent company). This, in and of itself, is not outwardly cyberpunk. It’s on the list because it’s yet another significant corporate consolidation.
- Verizon purchases Tracfone. Same logic as above. Tracfone is the largest prepaid service in the U.S. Verizon’s $6 billion purchase gets it Tracfone’s 21 million customers. The number of companies you use to communicate with the world grows ever-smaller.
- Nvidia buys Arm Holdings. Nvidia: a major chip manufacturer. Arm Holdings: designer of the ARM processor. Arm Holdings is one of those enormously important companies you haven’t heard of. There’s a good chance you’re reading this with the help of an ARM processor. Nvidia’s $40 billion purchase gives it enormous control over the chip market, leading at least one analyst to outline how Nvidia could become a trillion-dollar company.
- AT&T considers a phone plan subsidized by ads. AT&T is a company with quite a few problems on its plate. One solution? Step farther into the ad industry. Phone carriers have tried lowering costs with ads without much success, but that was a while ago–and AT&T thinks it can target advertisements better to make ad-supported phone plans viable. Their engineers are working on it now.
- Civvl becomes known to the world. Civvl is a gig economy startup. It’s basically Uber for evictions: landlords can use it to hire process servers and eviction agents as gig workers. The good news here is that it doesn’t seem to have taken off like wildfire yet.
- Julian Assange’s extradition trial begins. Regardless of your thoughts on Julian Assange as a character, his extradition trial is undeniably a threat to press freedom. The charges the U.S. has filed against him would set legal precedent affecting any journalist who sees sensitive information. In other words, any journalistic work that matters.
- $1 billion in Pentagon coronavirus aid went to contractors. The major stimulus bill passed in March, the CARES Act, provided $1 billion in funding for the Pentagon to use towards responding to the pandemic. Instead of using the money to procure medical equipment, the majority of the funds went to defense contractors for military equipment.
- Japanese convenience stores test robot staff. For now the bots are just being tested for stocking shelves. It looks pretty cool, to be honest, and whether it’s a net good or net bad, it’s definitely cyberpunk.
- Recent wage gains are not what they seem. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that a recent statistical increase in wages is not from a recovering economy. In the Fed’s own words: “This acceleration has been almost entirely attributable to job losses among low-wage workers.”
- The Arctic loses a near-record amount of ice. Two weeks into September, satellites recorded ice in the Arctic ocean at its second-lowest point in 40 years of record keeping.
- California looking like Blade Runner. Nothing more needs to be said; record-breaking fires burn through millions of acres and turn the skies of one of the most unequal metro areas in the U.S. orange. If you live under a rock and haven’t seen any drone footage yet, you’re missing out.
More than anything, though, September 2020 was Amazon’s month. Maybe, given its stunning growth, every month of this year thus far has been Amazon’s month. Yet, there were quite a few things that took place in the last four weeks that warrant their own Amazon grouping.
Amazon’s September cyberpunk accomplishments:
- Amazon casually dropped $24,000 to lobby against Portland’s proposed facial recognition ban. What made Portland’s proposal stand out from other cities’ bans, is that it would ban the private use of facial recognition surveillance along with public use. A first in the U.S., in fact. And Amazon, of course, is one of the biggest providers of facial recognition tech in the country—not just to law enforcement, but businesses.
- Amazon got caught systemically monitoring its drivers’ social media groups. The tool in question was used to catalog the comments and trends of dozens of Facebook groups for Flex drivers in different cities, among other social media forums. Reports from these pages, which included drivers’ real names, would be sent regularly to Amazon employees, secretly, who were (presumably) on the lookout for union-talk. I strongly encourage you all to check out Vice’s original reporting on the matter.
- Amazon introduces Sidewalk. Sidewalk was just one of a number of products rolled out by Amazon at once. But Sidewalk is Amazon’s move from the smart home to the smart neighborhood. It’s a new protocol, wholly managed by Amazon, for users of Amazon’s smart home products. It allows smart devices to have low bandwidth connections at greater distances than WiFi can manage. If your dog, wearing a smart collar, wanders outside a perimeter you set in your neighborhood, Sidewalk allows the notification to get to your Ring app. That’s Amazon’s benign example of Sidewalk’s applications.
- Amazon introduces Amazon One. Or, the pay-by-palm device. It’s primarily intended for use in Amazon Go grocery stores (the largely automated grocery stores Amazon hopes to roll out nationwide). All you have to do is connect your palm’s unique image to your credit card, and then you can hover it above an Amazon One device to quickly checkout at the cashier-less stores soon to sweep the country. Don’t worry: As an Amazon executive says, it’s a more privacy-conscious alternative to other forms of biometric payments.
- Amazon hires the former director of the NSA. This may not be as aesthetically cyberpunk as Amazon One, but it’s certainly the biggest fish on this list. Keith Alexander oversaw the creation of the mass surveillance programs that Snowden blew the whistle on. So the fact that he’s joining the board of directors for a company that runs one of the largest private surveillance empires in the world—likely to help the company obtain lucrative defense contracts—is obscene.
Good long reads/commentary pieces from September
- ProPublica: The Big Corporate Rescue and the America That’s Too Small to Save.
- Centered around a struggling small business owner, who operates in the shadow of a corporate skyscraper above him. Guess who got more assistance?
- Time: Wildfires, Droughts, Pandemics. Is this Our Future? How to Build a Safer World.
- The world is becoming more dangerous. Our modern, global civilization provides many benefits, but new vulnerabilities to approaching dangers as well.
- Fast Company: ‘We were shocked’: RAND study uncovers massive income shift to the top 1%.
- One study finds that, if American economic growth had been as equitable in the last 45 years as it had been from WW2 to the ’70s, the median worker would be earning around six figures. As opposed to the current median salary of $50,000.
- Boston Review: The Trouble with Carbon Pricing.
- Carbon pricing is a highly popular solution to the climate crisis, and has been dominant in environmental discussions for years. The problem? You may be surprised to find that it’s not effective.
- The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: The brain-computer interface is coming and we are so not ready for it.
- Exactly what it sounds like.
- Catalyst: The Poisoned Chalice of Hashtag Activism.
- The subheading: From #OccupyWallStreet to #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo, Twitter is now recognized as an important medium of progressive activism. But while hashtags may be the quickest way for anyone to tap into the turbulent and frenetic world of online social justice discourse, their record for building the sort of institutions that can build popular power is an unbroken pattern of defeat.
- Jacobin: How Trump’s Department of Justice Just Gave Hollywood Megacorporations Unlimited Power.
- A recent court decision effectively neutered antitrust legislation that had been around since 1948, paving the way for an even more intense consolidation in media.
And that’s September. Stay tuned for a more in-depth look at Amazon’s hire of Keith Alexander.