When did cyberpunk dystopia arrive? It’s a question we may all be asking soon enough. Upon reflection, we’ll realize there was no single moment. Perhaps some stood out, but it was countless things, over many years.

It’s a mistake to expect all those developments to be dramatic. The road to dystopia is banal, something you get used to. A court decision here, a corporate merger there. One shiny new tech product one year, a lot more the next.

Maybe California has a weirdly long drought for a few years, and then some big fires a bit later in 2019, and then one day in 2020 people wake up to a sky out of Blade Runner.

This is the big list: a collection of news stories, studies, and findings published within the last 2-3 years that help argue the case we are effectively transitioning to cyberpunk dystopia.

All sources are relatively reputable in that they are mainstream. It’s not that I love mainstream outlets (quite the opposite), but that it’s an easy way of making the point, accessibly.

Please understand that this list only refers to relatively recent events. If I did not set a close boundary, it would become impossibly long for me to make or for you to look at. Further, please understand I picked more noteworthy items to make this list’s point more effective.

Note: this list is updated regularly.

Note 2: Yes, this is pretty US-centric. That, after all, is what I’m most familiar with. Though you’ll find present punk to be resonant all over the world, and I did throw in some international stories that are more overtly cyberpunk.

You are getting poorer

These are the headlines that give a pretty clear indication of how everyday people are seeing a decline in their standards of living, aside from simply financially.

When I first compiled this list, in 2018-2019, mainstream news coverage largely described a robust American economy with low unemployment rates and a record-breaking stock market.

Coronavirus obviously ushered in an economic calamity. But this list ought to give you a sense of how vulnerable we already were, let alone now.

  • One survey finds 78% of American workers say they are living paycheck to paycheck (2019; CNBC)
  • The Federal Reserve Board reports that 40% of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense (2018; CNN)
    • According to the report, 25% of Americans have no retirement savings.
  • Study finds average American worker cannot afford home in 70% of the country (2019; CBS)
  • The bottom half of Americans, combined, have a negative net worth (2019; Bloomberg)
  • Just under half of GoFundMe money raised between 2010 and 2016 was for health-related campaigns (2017, Quartz)
    • Only about 1 in 10 health-related campaigns meet their goal (2018; Chicago Tribune)
  • Drug overdoses in 2016 alone cost more American lives than the entire Vietnam war did (2017; Vox)
  • 1 in 5 deaths for those aged 25 – 34 are opioid related (2018; WaPo)
  • American life expectancy continues to fall (2019; US News & World Report)
    • “Deaths of despair” are apparently the driving factor.
  • Suicides outpace automobile deaths (2013; The Atlantic)
  • Study finds suicidal behavior in children has nearly doubled since 2007 (2019; US News)
    • From over half a million ER visits in 2007 to over a million in 2015.
  • Study finds 2/3rds of bankruptcies tied to medical expenses (2019; CNBC)
  • Study finds half of Americans suffering from heart or blood vessel disease (2019, NBC)
  • Trump administration changes food stamp requirements, expected to eliminate assistance for nearly 700,000 people (2019; NPR)
  • Census Bureau data finds U.S. income inequality at highest point in 50 years (2019; NPR)
  • Anti-poverty group reports 26 people own as much wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion (keep in mind our population is 7 billion). (2019; Time)

They are getting stronger

Not just corporations, governments too. But corporations especially.

  • Verizon buys Tracfone, the largest prepaid provider in the U.S. (2020; CNBC)
  • Nvidia purchases Arm Holdings, paving the way for it to become a giant in computer chips (2020; MarketWatch)
  • Private equity giant Blackstone to acquire Ancestry.com (2020; MarketWatch)
  • Amazon gets permission from FCC to deploy 3,200 satellites to provide internet access (2020; MarketWatch)
  • Private equity firm buys bankrupt newspaper chain McClatchy (2020; Poynter)
  • Uber buys Postmates (2020; CNBC)
  • GrubHub sold to European company Just Eat Takeaway (2020; Bloomberg)
  • Facebook launches Shops to bring ailing small businesses online (2020; The Verge)
  • Intuit buys Credit Karma (2020; TechCrunch)
  • Morgan Stanley buys E-Trade (2020; Reuters)
  • Federal judge approves T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint (2020; Ars Technica)
  • DuPont’s nutrition unit merges with International Flavors & Fragrances (2019; CNN)
  • Private equity firm nearly acquires entire .org domain registry (2019; Naked Capitalism)
    • The governing body of domains (so to speak) killed the deal in May 2020 after receiving scrutiny (2020; ICANN)
  • Google to offer checking accounts (2019; TechCrunch)
  • JEDI contract hands over $10 billion to Amazon, as well as the entire online infrastructure of the department of defense (2018; Vanity Fair)
  • Google is building a “smart city” in an area of Toronto, which really means Google is building a perfect surveillance state (2018; The Intercept)
  • Disney successfully buys 21st Century Fox (2018; NYT)
  • Bayer successfully completes Monsanto buyout (2018; CNBC)
    • This merger accompanies ChemChina’s acquisition of Syngenta (2017; Reuters)
    • And the merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont (2017; CNBC)
    • This means 3 companies now represent the vast majority of the agro-chemical and pesticide industry.
  • AT&T merges with Time Warner (2018; The Guardian)
  • Cities bow down to Amazon, because they’re desperate to be awarded its 2nd HQ (2018; Seattle Times)
    • Chicago offered Amazon $1.3 billion in its workers’ income taxes, effectively making Amazon workers pay their taxes to their employer
    • Fresno offered to make a fund composed of 85% of all the taxes and fees generated by Amazon. These public funds would be spent according to decisions made by a board 50% city officials and 50% Amazon officials.
    • Chula Vista, CA, offered 85 acres of land for free and to not impose property taxes for 30 years (rough value at $400 million)
    • Stonescrest, GA, offered Amazon 345 acres of the city. This land would be de-annexed and named “Amazon.” In other words, this city offered Amazon its own city.
    • Not a city, but Maryland offered the largest tax incentive for Amazon: $8.5 billion.
  • Project Maven: Google builds out artificial intelligence for the Pentagon’s drones (2018 – 2019; The Intercept)
    • Supposedly, Google backed out of the secretive contract after its workers protested.
  • The five largest American tech firms have outspent Wall Street in federal lobbying 2-to-1 for the last 10 years (2017; The Guardian)
  • The general trend of police militarization. (Numbers from this 2014 NYT article unless otherwise noted)
    • Los Angeles Unified School District and San Diego Unified School District both came under fire in the early 2010s for acquiring Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (i.e., tanks from the War on Terror)
      • LAUSD received grenade launchers, dozens of assault rifles, and the MRAP, but after some community anger, returned the grenade launchers (2014; CBS LA)
    • 5 decades after Bull Connor had civil rights protestors attacked in Birmingham, Birmingham county police acquired the following from the federal government (as of 2014):
      • 95 assault rifles, 2 helicopters, and a mine-resistant vehicle.
    • 5 decades after the march from Selma to Montgomery, Montgomery county had received the following from the federal government (as of 2014):
      • 276 assault rifles, 9 grenade launchers, 1 mine-resistant vehicle, 1 plane, 11 helicopters
    • Maricopa County under sheriff Joe Arpaio had acquired (2014; Business Insider):
      • 1,696 night vision pieces, 406 assault rifles, a 0.50 cal machine gun, 2 planes, 5-10 helicopters, 4 mine resistant vehicles, and 7 “other armored vehicles.”
You can’t make this shit up.

Coronavirus accelerated some bad trends

Note: I do not in the slightest deny the reality of coronavirus. Nor policies necessary to preserve health. But the transfer of wealth and power that is occuring now under the cover of coronavirus is hard to comprehend.

The points in this section would fit well in the other categories. But they are so interconnected, and rooted in a particular moment in time, that they warrant their own grouping.

  • The Federal Reserve’s intervention involved unprecedented measures–like directly buying poorly performing assets and corporate debt–that were/are geared almost entirely at keeping assets afloat, with little concern for unemployment. (2020; Wall Street Journal)
  • The CARES Act in March included, among other things, tax provisions benefitting the wealthy. I’ll let the article speak for itself. (2020; USA Today)
    • “The result of the two provisions is stunning in its size: $195 billion taken from the public treasury. […] 43,000 million-dollar-plus income earners will reap over 80% of the windfall — coming in at an eye-popping average of $1.6 million each in 2020 alone.”
    • That’s 1,300 times what regular Americans are getting with their $1,200 checks going out under the CARES Act.”
    • “At $195 billion, these reverse-Robin Hood provisions are nearly twice the $100 billion Congress provided to American hospitals and far more than the $150 billion going to state and local governments already buckling under the weight of the crisis.”
  • The Payment Protection Program, a part of the CARES Act meant to help small businesses, is now well-known for providing loans to major companies and politically connected institutions.
    • Of nearly 5 million businesses that received loans, about 650,000 got 3/4ths of the total aid (July 2020; ProPublica)
    • At least $11 million went to businesses and lobbying firms linked to members of Congress (July 2020; Politico)
    • Millions more went to companies tied to the Trump and Obama administrations (July 2020; Daily Beast)
    • It’s okay if some aid recipients are larger, if employment was protected. The issue is a great many certainly did not need it, and employment could have been much better protected.
  • 27 clients of Trump administration-connected lobbyists received $10.5 billion in coronavirus aid, $6.3 billion of it in grants (July 2020; Public Citizen)
  • So it shouldn’t be surprising that in mid-August, the S&P 500 hit a record high. (August 2020; Washington Examiner)
    • This is helped along by the presence of tech stocks in the S&P’s index. Amazon, Alphabet, Amazon, and Microsoft each are worth over $1 trillion in market cap by now, and account for nearly 1/4th of the index at $6.7 trillion (August 2020; Barron’s)
  • Or that in early June, the same thing happened to Nasdaq. (June 2020; Business Insider)
  • Or that by August, U.S. billionaires had increased their collective net worth by over $600 billion since March (2020; Business Insider)
  • Remdesivir’s price unveiled at $3,100 for a course of treatment. (June 2020; NPR)
    • Remember that taxpayer money invested nearly $100M into developing this treatment.
    • And the cost of manufacturing may be as little as $10 (Bloomberg, The New Republic)
  • Tyson Foods chairman warns about meat shortages in highly-publicized op-ed. (April 2020; CBS)
    • Trump signs executive order forcing meat plants to stay open, without any real protections for workers (May 2020; ABC)
    • To be factual, it’s unclear how much the order actually does (May 2020; Washington Post)
  • Reliance on big box stores has soared:
    • Target’s Q2 earnings saw record sales and share prices, and a $5 billion increase in market share–likely from smaller competitors closing (August 2020; MarketWatch)
    • Walmart’s Q2 earnings were its biggest in 31 years, as its U.S. ecommerce sales rose 97% (August 2020; CNBC)
    • And Amazon has added half a trillion in market capitalization, while its stock price has hit a new record (July 2020; Forbes).
  • Meanwhile, as of July, 60% of business closings on Yelp are permanent (2020; Business Insider)
  • CDC study released in August finds 1 in 4 young adults seriously contemplated suicide in the last month before taking the survey (2020; CDC)

You are being watched

By corporations, or the government, or the unholy alliance of those two Big Brothers.

  • Former head of the NSA joins Amazon’s board of directors (2020; PCMag)
  • Amidst an increase in remote work, the rise of bossware, or programs allowing employers to monitor employees (2020; Electronic Frontier Foundation)
  • In internal presentation debuting features for Facebook Workplace (Facebook’s Slack competitor), one pitched feature is the ability to blacklist words (2020; The Intercept)
    • The example in the presentation was a blacklisting of the term “unionize”
    • Some groups that use Facebook Workplace: Walmart, Starbucks, the government of Singapore
  • Amazon-owned Whole Foods caught using a “heat map” to track which locations across the country are at risk of unionizing (2020; The Verge)
  • Clearview AI becomes known to the world for scraping billions of images in service of its facial recognition tech, which is used by law enforcement (2020; NYT)
  • Walgreens invests in trials of “smart” coolers — fridges that track shoppers’ faces to determine their interests in certain products (2019; The Atlantic)
  • Thousands of employees listen to you through Alexa, ostensibly to improve the AI (2019; Bloomberg)
  • Chicago outfits children on bail with ankle bracelets that listen to them and can speak to them (2019; The Appeal)
  • Trump administration demands 5 years of social media history from immigrants seeking entry (2018; CNN)
  • One study finds half of all Americans adults are in a police facial recognition database according (2016; The Atlantic)
  • There’s been a general uptick in facial recognition in schools (2018; The Intercept)
  • Workers implanted with chips (for now, it’s voluntary)
    • In Sweden, workers (presumably tech-optimists) are volunteering (2017; WaPo)
    • In Wisconsin, 50 out of 80 employees at Three Square Market have volunteered to have chips implanted (2017; CNBC)
      • The company says future uses could include GPS technology and that there is interest in introducing a chip (with GPS) for children.
    • In the UK, BioTeq has fitted 150 chip implants. Mostly for individual/personal use, some for employees. (2018; The Guardian)
  • Major tech companies introduce plan to make it easier to share data across platforms (2018; The Verge)
  • Walmart files patent for “sound sensors” by checkout lines, i.e., a surveillance device for employees and customers (2018; The Guardian)
  • Amazon files patent for bracelets that track warehouse workers and buzz when they are being too inefficient (2018; The Guardian)
  • Mastercard and Microsoft partner up to make it “easier” for consumers to consume. Meaning, let’s make sure everyone only ever has one identity online, linked to everything. (2018; Mastercard)
  • Dakota Access Pipeline protestors surveilled by TigerSwan, a private surveillance company previously hired by the Department of Defense for the War on Terror. (2017; The Intercept)
    • TigerSwan described the pipeline protests as “an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component.”
    • You should seriously check out the Intercept’s series on this.
  • Homeland Security hired private intelligence firm to monitor family separation protests (2019; The Intercept)
  • University of Kentucky spends $5 million on security system that includes 2,000 cameras and student ID cards that track students (2013; Lexington Herald Leader)
  • Facebook bragged to advertisers it can identify when teenagers feel “insecure” and “worthless” (2017; The Guardian)
  • Calls are being made for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Amazon for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (2019; the Intercept)
    • Because of the Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition.
  • Amazon has been aggressively marketing facial recognition tech to local police and the feds (2019, NYT)

Global calamity is coming closer

What you expect. Climate change mostly, but a couple points on nuclear war thrown in.

  • Trump administration rolls back decades-old, foundational piece of environmental legislation, the National Environment Policy Act (2020; CBS)
  • Trump administration allows companies to break pollution laws during pandemic (2020; Ars Technica)
  • Trump administration rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards (2020; The Guardian)
  • Trump administration rolls back Obama-era clean water rule (2019; Roll Call)
  • Study finds Greenland lost a record amount of ice last year, 15% more than its previous record in 2012. (2020; Reuters)
  • Arctic sea ice reached its lowest level on record in July 2020. (2020; Bloomberg)
  • IPCC report says we will see a 1.5C global temperature rise in 12 years unless we radically change everything – the result will put hundreds of millions of lives at risk (2018; CNN)
    • We’ve already warmed 1C. We’re 2/3rds of of the way there!
  • UN report warns 1 million species face extinction (2019; CBS)
  • New report, co-authored by a former fossil fuel executive, suggests “high likelihood of human civilization coming to an end” starting 2050 (2019; Vice)
  • Pentagon report predicts the U.S. military could collapse in 20 years because of climate change (2019; Naked Capitalism)
  • Russian Navy will be armed with hypersonic nuclear weapons (2020; Reuters)
  • United States and Russia withdraw from key nuclear arms treaty (2018; The Guardian)
  • Doomsday Clock begins 2020 at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s been in decades (2019; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
  • Ocean plankton levels have fallen 40% since 1950 (2010; Scientific American)
    • Ocean plankton account for at least half of the air we breathe–as much as plants and trees on the surface.
  • Study finds carbon dioxide levels highest in 3 million years (2019; USA Today)
  • One-third of the planet’s soil has already been degraded (2017; The Guardian)

Who owns the future?

Many innovations appear benign or even like guarantors of a better tomorrow. While those are certainly possibilities, we should view them with caution.

Given all the economic and political trends of the last decade, let alone last several decades, one would expect groundbreaking innovations to be wholly privatized.

As things progress, the key question is about who will own the technology of tomorrow:

  • Human embryo genetically modified, results in first successful birth of genetically modified human (2018; BBC)
  • Scientists at Columbia build AI with rudimentary self-awareness (2019; Columbia Engineering)
  • Columbia engineers create device that can translate thoughts into speech (2019; Zuckerman Institute)
  • Scientists help rats navigate mazes using wireless interfaces with the human-brain — a major breakthrough in brain to brain interface technology. (2019; Harvard)
  • Nanobot kills cancer in mice (2018; Nature)
    • The paper says “DNA nanorobot” but it really means a programmed bit of DNA that is effectively a robot.
  • Some scientists worry DARPA’s plans to load insects with protective germs will quickly transition to loading insects with diseases for bio-warfare (2018; Newsweek)

Could it be more obvious?

This section is for the news that’s just dystopian on its face.

  • Tech billionaires and 1%-ers are prepping for the collapse of civilization.
    • Peter Thiel has been buying land in New Zealand, which he considers best-suited for weathering global catastrophe (2018; The Guardian)
      • He essentially purchased citizenship to New Zealand to buy the land more easily. He had spent 12 days in NZ beforehand, and was awarded citizenship in a consulate in Santa Monica.
      • Sam Altman, a Silicon Valley investor, has an agreement with Thiel. He’s allowed onto the survival property in New Zealand.
    • This author and speaker describes an event with a hundred investment bankers and hedge-fund managers, in which they consider how to maintain authority after the collapse of global civilization (2018; The Guardian)
    • Antonio García Martínez, former product manager at Facebook and popular writer, bought 5 acres of land in the Northwest, along with lots of solar panels and ammo (2017; The New Yorker)
    • Robert A. Johnson, a hedge fund manager, says he has 1%er friends all over the world investing in New Zealand property
    • Doomsday real estate is a cottage industry. One entrepreneur bought an underground nuclear silo and spent millions refurbishing it into luxury bunkers. Over 55 super-wealthy people had already bought apartments by late 2019. (2019; The Guardian)
  • Saudi Arabia becomes first country to grant citizenship to a robot (2017; Independent)
    • For the irony-lovers: a female robot.
  • EU developing autonomous weaponized drones to patrol the border (2019; The Intercept)
  • Dubai sets goal: at least 25% of police force should be robots by 2030 (2017; BBC)
  • The mayor of Rio introduced the Allimento program. The idea is to feed poor people this (2017; Vice):
  • China disguises surveillance drones as flocks of birds (2018; The Atlantic)
  • Chinese app alerts you when someone in debt is within 500 meters of you (2019; Business Insider)
  • Chinese school uses facial recognition to make sure students are paying attention (2018; The Telegraph)
  • Florida high school sells bulletproof panels for students’ backpacks (2017; USA Today)
  • Former Walmart converted into detainment center for migrant children (2018; NYT)
  • American farmers have been hacking their tractors because manufacturers rigidly control them (2019; Vice)
    • They are not allowed to make repairs on their own and many fear the tractors can be remotely shut down.
  • Tommy Hilfiger releases new clothing line embedded with computer chips that will monitor how often buyers wear them (2018; The Guardian)
  • Russian startup hopes to put massive ads in low-earth orbit (2019; Russia Today)
    • It may be far-off, but you have to admire how cyberpunk the vision of the startup is (minus self-awareness it seems)

Recommended reads

Most of the links in the lists above are to news outlets, for a basic citation of what I’m saying. Here you can find material better for analysis and insight.

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