Along with the rush of ’80s nostalgia which has taken the United States by storm, cyberpunk as a genre seems to be more popular than ever. The genre focuses on dystopian societies ruled by corporations, and typically follows characters who are disenfranchised and find themselves at odds with their corporate overlords. For decades, the horrors of cyberpunk fiction have been safely contained to books, movies, television, and games. But recent developments in technology, and the rise of large corporations may be making the genre a reality, rather than simple speculative fiction.
Here are 10 reasons why we are living in a cyberpunk dystopia…
10. Disinfectant Gates
Near the start of the pandemic, a Chinese company put up disinfectant gates in Wuhan. Industrial employees who passed through this metallic, circular gateway, were scanned by built-in infrared sensors before being sprayed with disinfectant. It looks like something right out of Blade Runner, or Total Recall. Officials in China had hoped that this would help fight the virus, but health experts were skeptical whether the gates would be effective at controlling the spread of the virus.
With concerns of the pandemic reaching into 2021 and beyond, is it possible that we’ll see the rise of disinfectant gates elsewhere?
9. Machine Brain Interface
Companies like Neuralink and Facebook are hard at work developing technologies that will be able to interface directly with the human brain. Elon Musk claims that the technology is essential in mitigating the existential risk to humanity that AI represents, and he’s been claiming for months that it’s closer to being a reality than people think. Neuralink would implant fiberoptic wires into specific parts of the brain via a robotic arm, giving patients mental access to their phones and other devices. Some experts suggest that the technology could be used to cure certain neurological disorders, paralysis, and allow the blind the ability to see.
We don’t know about you, but the idea of giving companies like Facebook access to our inner most thoughts is one of the most terrifying things we’ve ever heard—and it’s definitely cyberpunk.
Cryptocurrency is meant to be a digital form of e-cash which provides anonymity and privacy to those who partake in transactions. It’s the result of more than 40 years of research and development; from Alan Turing, to B-Money, hash cash, to the emergence of Bitcoin and beyond, cryptocurrency has remained decentralized, always keeping the privacy of its users in mind.
But what happens if a major corporation created their own cryptocurrency? What if it was a company with a history of violating the privacy of its customer base?
In 2019, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would endeavor to create the world’s first global currency, calling it Libra (and if that doesn’t send shivers up your spine, we don’t know what will). The currency (which was supposed to be backed by Visa, Mastercard, Uber, and Spotify) would potentially challenge the world’s banking system and replace the dollar in the US.
Fortunately, most of Libra’s backers have bowed out. However, Facebook and Zuckerberg remain optimistic that its dream of a worldwide currency will be made real.
7. Cybernetic Eyes
Engineers have been trying to create artificial vision apparatuses as good as the real deal for almost a decade, but until now, they haven’t been able to crack the curvature that makes human eyesight so good.
This new artificial eye, however, has a higher reaction rate than an organic one, and it’s just as sensitive to light. The device mimics the shape of the human eyeball, which is why humans have such a wide field of view and see in high-resolution (provided you don’t wear glasses). Zhiyong Fan of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology suggests that in the future, the device could be used for better vision in prosthetics and humanoid robotics. Fan and his colleagues used a curved aluminum oxide membrane, studded with nanosized sensors to external circuitry for processing. This circuitry sends relay signals from the device to the patient’s brain—just like a real eyeball.
6. Advanced Prosthetics
Prosthetic limbs have come a long way since the early days of hooks and clunky wooden hands. Most are virtually unusable to amputees, and the majority of them end up being discarded due to discomfort. But a new prosthesis which is installed directly into the bone, connecting to muscle tissue and nerves, may soon change the landscape of what’s possible for patients.
The new prosthetic limb doesn’t feature exposed wires or batteries, and all of its circuitry is contained within the device. Electrodes are implanted in the muscles of the upper arm, and nerves which control opening and closing the hand are re-directed. The hand has special censors in the thumb which send signals to the electrodes, telling the brain to feel pressure when the patient is gripping an object.
All four Swedish patients who received the prosthesis lived with the devices for up to seven years, and one of them even saw so much improvement in his dexterity that he’s been able to race and repair cars.
5. DNA Nanomachines
Like everything on this list, DNA nanomachines sound like something right out of science fiction, right? Well soon, they might not be. But instead of the metallic, silicon-based machines seen in most science fiction, scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians Universitaet (LMU) are using the DNA molecule as the basis for machines smaller than bacterium.
DNA sequences can form logical circuits for nanoelectronic applications and have even been used to calculate routes through cities. The microscopic robots, measuring thousands of times smaller than a bacterium, can perform a host of various tasks. They’re essentially molecular motors, and these researchers have even gotten them to walk! DNA walkers sort and transport molecular cargo as they traverse a path composed of DNA strands.
Researchers are confident that they will be able make nanomachines which “exert mechanical control over living systems.”
4. Black Mirror Contact Lenses
The idea of contact lenses (or glasses) which allow users to access the internet and record the events of their daily lives is not really a new one. Science fiction stories have long explored the concept, raising important philosophical questions about how such inventions might change our daily lives and behavior. Black Mirror, a science fiction anthology show which focuses on the abuse of advanced technology by less than savory human beings, uses a device just like this throughout the length of the series. And wouldn’t you believe it, Samsung recently registered a trademark for contact lenses which will be able to take pictures of whatever you see. These lenses would be connected to your cellphone and will be capable of showing information over your eyes, like a heads-up display.
However, Samsung isn’t the only company developing advanced contact lenses. The University of Washington’s College of Engineering is also working on a similar device, and people are losing their minds, many of them wondering how this technology might be abused to further reduce privacy in our homes.
One thing is for sure; when this tech hits the market, we’ll be waiting patiently for the viral video of some idiot live-streaming their favorite Twitch content while doing ninety on the freeway.
3. Drone Technology and State Surveillance
Can’t go through a cyberpunk list without talking about drones, now can we? Technology may be exciting, but when placed in the wrong hands it can be terrifying to the citizens of a state.
Drone technology has many positive uses, such as monitoring endangered species, search and rescue missions, and scientific research. But, to law enforcement agencies, drones are an enticing means of detecting crimes and surveying the populace. Drones are inexpensive, and law enforcement agencies are able to buy large quantities of them in place of older, more established means of surveillance. For example, one police helicopter often costs between $500,000 to $3,000,000, while a drone ranges from $3000 to $6000, meaning that police agencies can afford hundreds of the devices in place of just a single helicopter.
Drones can also be outfitted with facial recognition tech, lethal and non-lethal weapons, video and image taking devices, license plate readers, cell-phone interception devices, and GPS trackers. Only 18 states in the union have legislation on the books preventing police from using drones without a warrant. Drones are also extremely hard to spot and can be used during the day or night to peer into the homes of people, even if they’re engaging in constitutionally protected activities.
2. In Your Face Ads
Throughout the genre of cyberpunk, advertisements often appear as invasive popups on a character’s HUD, using facial recognition, retina scanning tech, or some other means to identify the person targeted. Something similar is happening in the world of social media. Have you ever noticed how you’ll see an ad for something you were just speaking to a friend about on the phone? Ever been searching for a product or service, and then immediately seen ads for the very same being directed at you on Facebook?
Well, if you’re feeling violated, you’re not the only one. Companies like Facebook often leave coding in their apps which allow them to peer at the data being harvested by other apps (such as Chrome browser, Twitter, or Amazon), this allows companies to better target you based on your likes and browsing history.
Though, Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly insisted that its app does not spy on the conversations of its user base, despite many people citing instances which might suggest the contrary.
TikTok has been under suspicion for having ties to the Chinese government, with bans being discussed at various times this year by US lawmakers. India has already banned the app, and companies like Wells Fargo have disallowed the use of the app on any company device. The company is currently gathering support from lobbyists to help strengthen their position in the US. The concern is that the company may be selling the data of its users to the Chinese Communist Party, where it will be used to help improve the country’s facial recognition tech.
1. Mega Corporations and Media Giants
In pretty much every cyberpunk story, mega corporations are the bad guys. They own everything from the media that characters consume, to the storage units in which they live. They often employ corporate police to keep users and employees in line and will spy on them to ensure that they aren’t engaging in activities which might be against their interests as a corporation.
In 2020, we’re facing a crisis of concentration—as one article puts it—where many industries in the US are being dominated by a single corporation, eliminating smaller companies all together. With the pandemic still raging on in the states, it’s been a growing concern for some market analysts and journalists that it might be a matter of time before small businesses as a whole disappear entirely.
This concentration has far reaching consequences to competition, wages, business information, and innovation.
In the realm of media and entertainment, no company is closer to the dangerous line of monopoly than Disney. With the recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox and its franchises, characters, and distribution deals, many are crying that it’s time to break the company apart. And while, at a surface glance, Disney appears to only control 40% of the market, it has been argued that companies often mask their status as a monopoly through owning subsidiary companies and brands. Anheuser Busch InDev owns dozens of beer brands and is one of three companies which control 75% of the beer industry’s distribution. Disney owns dozens of brands as well, and it has an unprecedented power to leverage its interests against movie theaters (especially now).
While we’re not quite to the point of seeing armed corporate police in the streets, each brandishing Disney’s Mouse logo on their uniforms, it’s hard to argue that Disney’s market practices are ethical.
Authors like William Gibson, Neil Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, and Shirow Masamune envisioned worlds where cars flew, cybernetics were the norm, and cyberspace was the great equalizer between massive mega corporations and the punks that fought against them. Given that cyberpunk as a genre saw its genesis in the 1980s, when most of these concepts were new, it’s kind of incredible that in such a short period of time, Gibson’s and many other authors’ visions of the future have been so accurately realized.