Real life seems like Shadowrun - so why can't I throw fragging fireballs?!

Nov 26 2016

From time to time I sit down with my gaming buddies, and we both lament and observe how well reading and playing cyberpunk games has prepared us for life in the twenty-first century. I don't think that many people expected real life to track quite so closely with many a cyberpunk world penned by the masters, from William Gibson to Neal Stephenson to Bruce Sterling. Strangely enough, many of the lifestyle strategies depicted in these stories have helped keep our own lives (and those of our families) stable and, for the most part nice to live as human history has gone nonlinear all around us. Sure, we're seeing early experimenting with direct neural interfaces in hospitals, AI research is changing the world around us faster than we can see (and some of it's even open source), grinders are starting to do some pretty weird stuff with their own bodies, and we have stupidly advanced technology available for next to nothing on the street, but let's dig a little deeper.

What's really fucking with me is how much real life is tracking some of the backstory of Shadowrun.

When people think of cyberspace, they usually think of a user interface that makes system activities as intuitive as moving your hand or walking down the street. This didn't pan out in the 1990's, but once processing power grew to the point where just about everybody is toting around a couple of CPUs in their smartphones alone, people stopped caring about that. And this should make you wonder just a little bit. Not to say that people haven't been working hard to make nails that work with this particular hammer; case in point, stock traders who are fighting to keep up with algorithmic trading systems are exploring the possibilities of using VR to visualize complex data sets used to plan puts and takes for markets. Government agencies aren't safe from getting pwned. Stories about governments and militaries having the best electronic security just aren't so, which does turn that particular trope of cyberpunk on its head, and data you'd think would be impregnable has cheerfully taken a walk. Data you'd expect a corporation to safeguard is no different, but companies do a better job of hiding their getting cracked from their users, sometimes by going so far as to get the court system to keep them anonymous from their customers and shareholders. At least, until an enterprising cracker posts the booty to Pastebin... Companies are pulling black ops against one another to get a leg up in just about any competitive market space, including professional sports. Poaching employees from one another isn't a terribly new thing but it fits the trope, so I need to mention it (though we're not yet at the point of kidnapping employees because they can't or won't leave their old jobs). Secret treaties and agreements like the TPP (which is DoA, incidentally, but rest assured it'll come back under another name) are also pushing for wholly private legal systems that apply to corporate entities only, eerily reminiscent of the Corporate Court. Highly and rigidly operated schools that are run like old-school companies like IBM was are slowly appearing though there isn't any evidence that they actually help kids.

You pretty much can't tell the police from a military strike team anymore in a lot of places, including New York and California. Let me tell you, it's scary as shit to only see police on the street carrying kit like they're going to raid a James Bond villian's headquarters all the time (note that the last time I was in NYC for HOPE I tried to take a few pictures of some fully kitted out NYPD officers and was chased off; I'm not stupid). Cities like Detroit have hired private police departments to handle the job of law enforcement (with fully recognized powers and authority to use lethal force one would assume), and both individuals and at least one private military contractor are trying to get into the game also. Shades of Lone Star, to be sure. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the NSA practically has the ECHO MIRAGE team already, and there's evidence that they're not the only ones. It's also worth noting that counterterrorism professionals and some security experts are pushing for the widespread deployment and legalization of active responses to detected intrusion attempts... ICE, anybody? Nevermind the fact that it's standard operating procedure for crackers to bounce through a number of other people's systems and network connections (everything from VPNs to hacked wireless networks).

Say it with me, now: What could possibly go wrong?

When you think about it, Election Day 2016 would have been a perfect time to release the Crash Virus.

If you haven't been paying attention, drones are being used at just about every level of society, from the military using them to take out people at whim, to police departments using them to take out shooters, to drones for kids (to be fair, that Nerf turret does look kind of fun). Guess what, we've got riggers now. Coffin hotels? How about rent that is so exorbitant people are living in retrofitted shipping modules because two people working full-time can't afford an apartment? The Shiawase Decision? How about truly multinational companies whose financials are so complex that they dodge hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes every year because nobody can prove with any certainty where their money is for taxation purposes? GloFish? We've got those. Scary as shit nuclear reactor accidents? Fukishima. Defunding PBS? Well... not yet. Sesame Street is on HBO now but that probably doesn't count. Crime? How about drug cartels building their own submarines to smuggle millions of dollars worth of drugs? How about cartels hunting down and executing narcobloggers, citizen journalists who document how crazy things have gotten? The most violent cartels upload videos of said executions to the Net to frighten people (no, I won't link to any of these, you can see the never unseeable on your own). How about the Yakuza organizing an ATM raiding operation?

The appearance of Saeletra in 2011? Well, yeah. A lot of us had to make that one happen on general principle.

I think this needs no callback. It's scary when you think about what's happening there, and I can't help but wonder what might happen next.

You probably think I've blown my last buffer by the end of this post. Insane pareidolia, right? I write it half in jest, half as an exercise because art tends to imitate life to a certain extent, doubly so when the people making the art have the gift for seeing patterns arise, and half as catharsis, because it seems the world has turned inside out (oops - buffer overflow!) I'm not alone in saying that the world around us has become more strange, more frightening, and less comprehensible than any other time in history, though it's not even close to as over the top fantastic as Shadowrun depicts. We've entered a time when many are afraid to trust their own senses and anybody else's reports are questionable at best; you can never be sure what agenda somebody has because it all seems so reasonable. Researching the veracity of what you find if you do try to confirm or deny a story is fraught with peril because the information you uncover is dictated in part by systems that decide more often than not that articles and papers like those you've already seen are a more salient fit than different opinions or evidence to the contrary. You can't even be sure if evidence you find is legit because it's so easy to fake images and video. In point of fact, people are so mistrustful of evidence that they cling to their preconceived notions like a drowning sailor to a lifejacket because they seem like the only stability in a world gone mad.