How Our Favorite Upstarts Become Hideous Megacorps
It’s fairly central to the cyberpunk genre that there are a number of powerful mega-corporations governing the average citizen’s daily life, being resisted by only a very small number of people on the cutting edge of freedom and technology. We don’t have to look very hard to see that scenario developing in the world around us today.
To be fair, the average person probably doesn’t feel like Google, for example, is a dystopian nightmare megacorp in need of resisting. After all, they’re primarily known for offering a wide variety of mostly free products. Google Search, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Earth, the Chrome web browser, maps and driving directions, real time language translation on your phone, the list goes on. You probably don’t even realize how much free stuff Google is throwing at you, but you probably also don’t realize how much power and control they have, or how much they’re about to gain over the next decade.
Let’s look a little more deeply:
Google owns Android, which is the operating system that as of 2018 runs on billions of devices, including over 88% of smartphones. How much time do you spend on your phone? How much business do you do on it? How easy would it be for you to stay in contact with friends and family or apply for a job without it? How much of your interface with the real world does Google therefore have control over?
Google Assistant is an AI virtual assistant that can run not only on your phone and your computer, but also on the Google Home smart speaker. Back in the 1980’s heyday of cyberpunk fiction, the idea of an always-on recording device in your home would have horrified US-Russian Cold War era sensibilities. Today, people are buying surveillance devices to install in their own homes and carry around with them on their phones. Do you really want a corporate-owned AI listening to everything you say? Google’s official mission statement says that their goal is to “organize the world’s information.” How much power is there in compiling the collective total of everything you say, every single day of your life?
Waymo, also known as “Google’s self-driving cars project,” went commercially live in Arizona in December 2018. Meanwhile, they filed for a patent in 2011 which was granted in 2014, for a hypothetical free ride service. The Uber app has 75 million monthly users, and just under 29 million are using Lyft. If Waymo can successfully deploy their self-driving cars at scale for free (just like all their countless other free service) it’s extremely likely that they’ll completely dominate transportation. Imagine that you could simply ask Google Assistant on your phone to send a car to take you somewhere, and five minutes later a self-driving car would show up to take you wherever you want to go for free. Very convenient, yes. But how many people are going to continue to own their own cars in that sort of world? How much control is this going to give them over the movement of people from point A to point B? Not only will they know where everybody is at all times, their vehicles will give them the power to stop anyone or deliver them to wherever they want them to go at the push of a button. Your ride to the grocery store might instead deliver you to a detention center.
Is this not scary enough for you? Let’s move on:
Google is the developer of Tensorflow, which is a software library primarily used for machine learning and neural networks. In plain English, it’s a package for developing artificial intelligence.
Google X owns Boston Dynamics. Do you remember the infamous robot dog? What about Atlas, the humanoid robot? Those are Boston Dynamics machines. Google bought them in 2013.
Companies Start Flexing Their Cybermuscles
Do humanoid robots and artificial intelligence get your attention? These things are real, they already exist, and google owns them. Of course, it’s not actually “Google” because the company formerly known as Google Inc, reorganized itself in 2016 and is now known as Alphabet, and the current Google LLC is now its subsidiary. Why all the name juggling? Probably because you might be scared if you realized just how much control they have. Not only do you not know how big Google is or how much they already control, they’ve branded themselves and their products differently, making it hard to see just how many companies fall under their umbrella.
Meanwhile, “Google,” AKA Alphabet, is certainly not the only corporation exhibiting potentially scary levels of power and control. Consider the media circus and drama associated with the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The mere possibility of domestic collusion has held a death grip of terror on millions of people for years. And yet, corporate interference is well known. Consider twitter’s recent decision to ban the official campaign accounts of two different United Kingdom Independence Party candidates within hours of their announcements to run for office. What about political commentator Alex Jones being banned from Facebook, Apple iTunes, YouTube and Spotify all on the same day? You think that was a coincidence? Say what you want about these people as individuals, it’s very clear that corporations are meddling in politics.
But ultimately, corporate political meddling probably isn’t even very important. Sure, Google could very easily adjust their search algorithms to favor certain candidates to alter election outcomes. It would be hard to prove they haven’t already been doing it for years. But why would they even care about that, once they control communication and transportation, have AI surveillance devices listening to you 24 hours a day, and AI-controlled robots running around in the real world to do their bidding? Who cares who sits on the throne when it’s corporations that actually control everything?
Pay attention to the world around you.
Cyberpunk-style dystopian megacorps are either already here, or coming soon.