My obligatory "Cyberpunk is passe'" post.

May 30, 2011

In the past couple of weeks it's become something of a fad to post about the genre of cyberpunk becoming somewhat passe'. We now live in the twenty-first century, where much of the fiction that my generation grew up reading was ostensibly set. We don't have flying cars or jetpacks. We don't really have food pills, either, but the nutrient and protein shakes that you can buy in the cold case of just about every convenience store these days (or the frankly awful tasting energy drinks that are popular with the younger set) aren't that far off. We do have the Matrix (plus a lot of vignettes, two dodgy sequels, and a slew of animations better than both sequels put together) but that's not quite what William Gibson had in mind when he wrote Neuromancer.

Fully immersive virtual reality isn't here and probably won't be for a long time. Let's face it, head-mounted displays with decent resolution are really expensive and kind of clunky. As a user interface virtual reality is kind of pants; it's not nearly as intuitive as we thought it was going to be. You can't code with it, you can't hack with it, and you certainly can't get laid with it unless you take at least one of your hands off the console. Neural interfaces are largely hacker's projects here in the second decade of our dark, glittering, and shiny new century. On the other hand, shared virtual worlds like Second Life and just about every MMORPG out there would seem to fit the bill. Stepping back to the keyboard, mouse, and flatpanel display for a moment the Internet puts unfathomable resources at our fingertips. There is so much information out there on damn near everything that it's easy to get lost for hours unless you have a specific topic in mind (and you're willing to focus on it). Organized net.crime is now a profitable criminal enterprise (a few years late in coming, I think). No longer limited to blackmail or corporate espionage, now manipulation of a brand's reputation, manipulation of the stock market index (though this is more of a WTF than anything else, the century is still young), and even full-scale malware operations complete with call centers staffed by paid social engineers. Unfortunately one of the oft mentioned but little discussed tropes is a reality: the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is rapidly becoming an abyss and the middle class is steadily disappearing from view. The top fraction of a percent control most of the wealth, and the rest of us are fighting like cats and dogs for the rest. It's not as if we're sitting back on our laurels waiting for the money to roll in, some of us are clocking sixty to eighty hours a week at our day jobs and not a few of us have picked up secondary gigs on the side, and we're just barely making ends meet. That's not even going into sweeping layoffs in some industries, modern day union busting (as part of a larger political strategy) and foreclosure on apartment complexes has forced entire families onto the street. Again, it's not as if people are lazing around drinking beer all day, these are good, honest, hard-working people who've had the proverbial rug jerked out from under them. Furthermore, we live in a time in which compassion is treated not just as a weakness but like a social disease. We as a people delight in sarcasm, cynicism, and abuse - who of us hasn't laughted at Anthony Bourdain's wisecracks about his production team and rapier wit or Bill Maher's silver-haired cynicism and deadpan delivery?

It's certainly easier for us to laugh bitterly and move on to the next commercial rather than make a stand and try to help someone.

The largest scale bank crisis since the 1980's (hey, that's practically the time until the heat death of the universe in Internet time!) has gone largely unpunished. In some cases, financial bonuses amounting to millions of dollars were paid out to executives directly responsible for the collapse of financial entities that wrecked the lives of thousands without even so much as a nod or a wink. All the rest of us can do is pick up what pieces we can, grit our teeth, and go on another day. There isn't a single thing that we can do about this.

net.connectivity isn't ubiquitous as it was postulated to be. At least, not yet but some consider it a fundamental human right because of how it can advance the human condition. However, for those of us who do have it, we can maintain constant connections to the Net if we so desire using smartphones and netbooks. Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Livejournal not only let us stay in touch with people we've probably never actually met across the globe, but often lets us find out about things before the legacy broadcast media outlets have anything to say about it. In fact many of us are at a distinct disadvantage without a link to the Net of some kind. For example, try navigating in a new city without a smartphone to display a map and generate directions on foot or on the road to follow. For that matter, try calling someone on the phone these days. In many cases it's faster to send a text message or use instant messenger to get in touch; only for long and involved commiseration is it advantageous to place a phone call. More likely, only after a frustrating exchange of text messages and miscommunications will someone even be inclined to answer the voice function of their phone. Sometimes events take place that you will never hear about unless you're plugged into the right communities every day, all the time.

For years some hardcore cynics have made the claim that corporate entities donate large sums of money to political candidates to influence law and policy under the guise of tax deductions or freedom of speech. A few times it's been proven in court but largely these were statements that a lot of people simply assumed were true without proof (after all, what could we possibly do about it?) Just recently corporate personhood has given corporate entities the same rights and privileges as ordinary people walking down the street insofar as donating money to political candidates is concerned. Additionally, even more recently the law which prevented companies from donating money directly to political candidates was struck down, meaning that a company can give money to a candidate just as you or I can. The only real difference between buying law or justice under the table and buying it overtly now is that it's legitimized; after all, who really has the resources to investigate and prove that a donation was actually a bribe? It's now considered ethical and acceptible behavior, which means that protesting it can easily be construed as an unethical act.

Which brings me right along to doing something about everything. Protests haven't really accomplished anything useful for years. Not many people will come out and say it, but I will. What has gathering in the streets for something like the G8 or G20 summits really changed? At one time, protesting said to the powers that be "I'm willing to go to jail to speak out against what you're doing!" (I think Cory Doctorow said that but I can't find a link back to the post unfortunately; cue twenty-first world problem music) but now they seem to say "I'm willing to go to jail." In recent years protests have been nothing but an excuse to throw people in jail for exercising their rights, often without charging them with anything, and sometimes people are jailed days before the protests actually begin "just in case." Don't get me started on the use of sonic weapons on protestors to drive them away.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that gathering to protest peacefully is a legitimate expression of your First Amendment rights? Between that and net.censorship you can scratch that one off your copy of the Bill of Rights.

Grassroots protesting has begotten astroturfing, the practice of organizing fake grassroots movements that appear to be in favor of a company, law, or policy for the purpose of public relations. State sponsored censorship is becoming more common around the world as are ways of making legitimate expressions of free speech illegal. For that matter, photography in public is being treated like a crime, and it's becoming distressingly common to find that people recording the questionable actions of public servants are being convicted of felony offenses. Also - and this should come as no surprise if you know your history - activists who are working to change things in the United States are being harassed in some pretty frightening ways.

We haven't had the Third World War that so many novels and movies posited in their backstories but we do have lots of ongoing military conflicts that are pushing the technology curve faster and faster. In the past two decades we've had Gulf War I, Gulf War II, USian troops moved into Afghanistan, and now Libya. We also have the application of military technologies at home: near-ubiquitous SIGINT, PSYOPs, surveillance drones deployed at borders and over major cities, securicams all over the place recording everything they see... to where, exactly? And who, if anyone is watching them?

The oligarchs known to the media as the Koch brothers have pretty much bought an entire social movement and are using them to manipulate not only policy but social perception. The debate still rages over whether or not big-name media personalities are actually inciting susceptible people to violence by broadly hinting at but not actually calling for direct action, and that debate is never going to be settled. If you don't believe that, I only ask you to consider what a pair of billionaires could do if they decided to take action if they had the wealth of a multinational corporate entity. Another example of astroturfing are actors being paid to call into talk shows (which have the ability and are in fact used to manipulate public opinion because the dialogs enacted by the actors were written by the producers of the shows they call into) to reinforce or denigrate certain opinions or social movements. For that matter, political discourse has pretty much degenerated into nothing more than namecalling, harassment, and smear campaigns in the paper, on television, online, and on the radio.

On a more serious front, private military companies are beginning to be deployed at home where they once were only used abroad (well, not really; word got around about them if you had ears in the right circles). They're not really solos or street samurai (warning: TV Tropes page. Enter at your own risk!) but they seem to fulfill many of their stereotypical duties. However, when hired guns are too conspicuous to operate offscreen outsourcing your intelligence capability is now an option. Not too long ago alumi of Xe (nee Blackwater) formed a private intelligence contracting firm from which companies can buy volumes of data or analysis and research services. Rather than spending valuable employee time and money on developing your own OSINT capability you can now buy the services of someone to do it for you (which, you have to admit, is a lot less boring).

The state of implant technology in 2011 is quite crude compared to what we're used to reading about in the classics. We don't have skillchips yet that temporarily graft skills into our minds but we do have Wikipedia, eHow, and Instructables to serve as prosthetic bodies of knowledge in our day to day lives. We still don't have synthetic muscle augmentations or cybereyes (but we're slowly getting there). Direct interface to the human brain is still pretty primitive and the reverse experimental at best. Auditory implants are becoming more common and now there are now affordable, electively implantable hearing aids to help rectify nerve deafness in adults. Thanks to the Gulf War II and the US' military presence in Afghanistan the state of the art in replacement limbs is also advancing rapidly. Space travel isn't terribly advanced, at least not so much that you or I (or anybody but the extraordinarily wealthy) could book a trip to low earth orbit but the private sector is beginning to set itself up for a bright and profitable future. The X-Prize Foundation has offered substantial cash rewards for certain advances in technology, including the construction and launch of lunar probes, reusable launch vehicles that can transport 3 people to an altitude of 100 kilometers twice within two weeks, and the construction of a practical vehicle which gets 100 miles to the gallon. Virgin Galactic, winner of the first X-Prize is in the process of constructing a fleet of privately owned commercial spacecraft and is booking flights on them already (just $20kus down is enough to secure you a seat). On top of that Bigelow Aerospace is developing privately owned and operated space stations, the first of which it hopes to put in orbit by 2015.

I don't know what you're thinking, but I'm thinking data haven. Or genetics research labs outside of just about every jurisdiction.

We don't have mind uploading yet, we don't even have a theory of mind that even touches on the topic of building an artificial general intelligence yet. Thus we have no AI constructs of old friends riding shotgun with us as we cruise the Net looking for porn fame, adventure, and information. The closest thing we've yet come to this has been Agent Cameron, the brainchild of telecomix.org but sadly she's not yet sapient. However, the argument has been made that the contents of our e-mail archives, hard drives, websites, and social network accounts constitute external memories that extend both our consciousnesses and our identities. It is possible that, at some indefinite future time technology will have advanced to the point where alll those snippets of what we think and feel could help complete an artificial consciousness that is as close to us as can be. That then brings up an interesting question: Is all of the information contained within and referenced by my blog posts me? Is it any more or less than me? Can they be considered a part of me? If something happens to the database backing my blog and they go away, am I still really me?

Just to tweak your sectors a little, here's one for you that I'm still disturbed by. A few weeks ago at work I was called "a good and helpful corporate citizen" by a security guard and thanked for my time. My thoughts at that moment consisted of "What the almighty fuck? Did I stumble into someone's Shadowrun campaign??"

I don't think it's possible right now for anyone to be legally considered a citizen of a corporate entity. Corporations (in the United States, at least) are considered people now, and a person can't be a citizen of another person. Corporate employees don't really have part ownership in the property the corporation owns. Unless they own ordinary shares they don't have any say in what the corporation does. Most employees aren't in a position to sign binding contracts outside of "I work for you, here's what I agree to, here's what you agree to," i.e. they can't sign contracts that affect the corporate entity. It certainly doesn't grant you any of the usual rights or privileges of being a citizen. On the other hand, citizenship brings with it connotations of being part of a larger community as well as the responsibilities of whatever job it is that you do. You could make the argument that working for a company does make you a part of a micro-sized nation-state. We don't need visas to travel offsite (though the Common Access Card has some of the same abilities as a passport insofar as facilities are concerned thanks to HSPD-12). Working for a company doesn't really give you any political rights, though. At this point in time, at least, you can't be a resident of a corporation's property, nor do territorial laws apply.

I really hope that security guard was yanking my chain.

Japan and Russia have not taken over the world's economy, something commonly used as a background plot point in a lot of cyberpunk science fiction. The zaibatsu of Japan never really recovered after World War II but the keiretsu have shown themselves to be a more practical and sustainable model of big business through the late 20th and into the early 21st centuries. Interestingly and worryingly, an increasing number of companies in the United States can now be described as true megacorps. Right and wrong as most would reckon them don't factor into their plans for expansion and keeping the shareholders happy, and it's been shown to be true time and again that paying fines for not implementing legally mandated information security measures is actually cheaper than implementing good information security. It's kind of depressing when you take into account the contents of datalossdb.org; suffice it to say, if you don't have a backup plan in place in the event of identity theft, you're pretty well boned. Pretty much everyone knows someone who's either been screwed by corporate law or had their identity stolen without so much as a "Whoops! Sorry."

I don't have anywhere else to put this gem, but it's important enough that everyone should be aware of it: Companies hiding backdoors in their products isn't just an urban legend anymore. Expect more stories to leak out about this in the future.

At least the Middle East hasn't nuked itself into a glass crater yet but life there certainly isn't a walk in the park over there these days. Iran is looking at cutting itself off from the global Net entirely. You don't have to look too hard to see what's going on over there right now.

The revolution will not be televised because there isn't one coming. The revolution came and went while all of us were waiting for high-def and FiOS to be rolled out in our neighborhoods, and we forgot to look up and read the neon signs on the walls. Many of us count ourselves lucky to have four hour commutes and only paying $4.50us per gallon for gas. There are people who've been looking for jobs for going on five years now, and construction sites in Maryland are now posting signs that read "NOT HIRING - DO NOT INQUIRE" in several languges (I wish I'd gotten a picture of that). I try to write about things that all of us can do and use to make this world a better place, or at least post some things to give some people hope who really need it but I can't help but wonder if it's even worth it.

Welcome to the future. Don't get sick because your insurance (if you're eligible for it) won't cover it and save every last dime you can because you'll need it. Be careful what you do online because pretty soon cyberspace won't be your bright, shiny future, it'll be a carefully policed shopping mall where you'll be able to speak only when and how you're allowed to. Keep your hands in plain sight, don't make any sudden moves, and don't bother getting up to answer the door because it might get kicked in anyway.