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Is Cyberpunk The New Normal?

by David Rutland

What Is Cyberpunk? A Neon City in the Rain?

The scene opens on a rainy, smog-shrouded, hypercapitalist, neon, surveillance state and the viewer is dropped in without context. There’s an inciting incident to plunge you into the story, and you, the viewer, are gripped for the next two hours.  Any scene setting is left to the imagination, and questions of why the world is this way, and how it came to be, are left to fan fiction and speculation.  

Up-front world building isn’t always necessary for the story, and any important historical notes are dropped in by characters, as and when a yawning plot chasm needs filling. This is the future. Deal with it. 

Watching the Start of the Fall

It’s rare to see the start of a dystopian nightmare on film. Notable exceptions include Idiocracy, a satire so satirical that it narrates the backstory in a History Channel-esque monologue which could be easily understood by the future-people it mocks. And of course, there is the slow-paced technological creep of the recent six-part drama, Years and Years, in which the overlay of Darwinian change on the social equilibrium is punctuated by Gouldian apocalyptic events. 

We watched this series with an awful sense of dread that never really left us. The steady growth of technology mirrors that of the real world. The earth-shattering national and international events which allowed governments, corporations, and people to take unprecedented actions, and to restrict individual freedoms, landed with only a minimum of foreshadowing. 

Is Cyberpunk The New Normal?
Phone parts implanted on the hand. A non-surgical procedure in HBO's Years and Years

Years and Years allowed us to watch the future starting right now – with its trappings of constant surveillance, fascist demagoguery, and burgeoning sense of doom – arriving in fast forward. Three decades of progress and societal shift compressed into six hours. By the series’ final episode, the stage is set for a full length cinematic dystopian nightmare. The world is already built, and we, the viewers, had the privilege of watching as it came, brick by brick, into being.

There is no single inciting event causing the series to veer off towards catastrophe, and its believability hinges on the creeping normalcy of the situations which arise. A refugee crisis in Europe? It barely registers on our collective consciousness these days. Cybernetic implants and enhancements? They still raise eyebrows, but are by no means as shocking as they would have been a decade or two ago. Your cell phone and computer are being used to spy on you? That’s old news. That’s the new normal.

If you want to see the walls closing in as we funnel ourselves every closer to the cyberpunk singularity, there’s no need to resort to fiction, however gripping. You only need to turn on the news, or flip to the news from elsewhere section of your favourite tech publication to see what’s coming, what is the next new normal, and how it will affect you.

DNA Profiling At Birth

Inherited diseases suck, and there’s a whole host of them to watch out for. Cystic fibrosis will, in most cases, see sufferers on the slab before their 40th birthday, after an abbreviated and painful life of trying not to choke on their own mucus; People unfortunate enough to inherit Huntington’s chorea will watch in horror as they lose control of their own bodies in middle age, even as their minds slide downwards into dementia; Individuals who were born with hereditary hemochromatosis are faced with a coin flip of living healthy, normal length lives or developing symptoms including sexual dysfunction, heart failure, cirrhosis of the liver, and diabetes.

In a country such as the UK, where healthcare is free at the point of delivery and is ultimately funded by taxpayers, it makes sense that the National Health Service will want to begin treatment as soon as possible. Cystic fibrosis sufferers need a regime of physiotherapy and drugs if they’re to live anything resembling a full life.

For a centrally administered service, it’s also highly desirable to know what’s coming up on the horizon.

A genetic database can let administrators know many people in a country have a predisposition to heart disease or certain types of cancer; it can help predict what proportion the babies born today are likely to succumb to autoimmune disease in 2060. It has the potential to help with resource allocation and to ensure that facilities are there when they’re needed.

Knowing that an individual has a predisposition for, say, clogged arteries in middle age, will have them regularly popping into the doctor’s office for scans, and tailored advice on diet and exercise. They’ll live longer and be happier.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Is Cyberpunk The New Normal?
Starting in 2020, UK parents can opt to have their child's DNA mapped, scanned and stored.

Starting in 2020, the parents of every baby born in the UK will be given the option of having their child’s DNA mapped, scanned and stored, at the same time as other tests for childhood illnesses. And why wouldn’t they? The benefits listed above are valid, and as genetic medicine advances, more treatments are likely to become available.

Although the profiling is optional, it is so clearly beneficial that to turn it down could be seen as equivalent to anti-vaxxers refusing to allow their offspring protection to common childhood diseases.

The social pressure, the potential of being shunned and labelled a negligent parent will all but guarantee the test will, in the UK at least, be administered to the vast majority of those eligible for it. 

Having access to a database with a list of the genetic faults and advantages of every human being would be a huge temptation. Surely it’s in the interests of the human race for people to be as healthy as possible. To live long lives and to drop dead, painlessly at the age of 108 having been able to work until the end.

At the very least, we can eliminate the genes which cause crippling and painful illnesses which are a drain on society. Thanks to the database, we know who carries the genes, and by requiring them to undergo IVF treatment and embryo selection instead of natural conception, governments, or even hospitals can ensure that the next generation will be free from genetic disease.

Genes which don’t give the best chance against heart disease, against cancers, against arthritis can all be selected against. It’s not even like most people would need to be compelled to choose seek treatment to ensure their sons and daughters have the best chance at life. It’s a natural urge.

In a few generations, the human population of earth could be supermen as we discover the genes for more and more traits, and can select either for or against them.

Sure, it will be rough on the first generation or two, as in countries without nationalised healthcare, they may be denied coverage with their genetic heritage counting against them as a pre-existing condition. 

And then there’s the question of who has access to the database. Private genetic databases, such as that owned by 23 and me have been responsible for catching killers based on the profile of relatives who sent genetic samples out of idle curiosity. 

There’s no reason to think that for-profit companies which hold a copy of your genome won’t sell it to whoever appears on their doorstep with a thick wad of cash. The tendency to become an addict has significant genetic factors, and given the behaviour of pharmaceutical companies, it makes sense that they would want to know to whom they should direct their marketing. A variation in the oxytocin gene has been linked to both chocolate craving and a larger waist size. It’s almost guaranteed that there’s a market for that information.

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Is Cyberpunk The New Normal?
Cyberpunk Implant - X-Ray of Gerod Buckhalter

Brain Implants to Control Behavior

Sometimes, it seems like your own brain is out to get you. Sometimes it’s out to get other people too. According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Sometimes, it’s depression or anxiety. Very occasionally, it’s a variety of paranoid schizophrenia which leads the sufferer to go on a killing spree against pensioners.

For most of us, however, it’s that old chemical dependence on drugs, alcohol and nicotine.

Chemical dependence is a crutch. It’s a reassurance, and a habit. And it feels so very good – until you wake up in a dumpster, having pawned your shoelaces for a packet of Marlboro Lights and half a bottle of pink Chardonnay.

But urges are difficult to fight, and addictions are hard to break free from. Most long-term ex smokers still crave their nicotine fix, while harder drugs, such as heroin, alter users brains to the extent that evidence of their addiction is detectable after death.

Few people make a conscious choice to become addicts, but as with Pringles, once you pop, it’s really, really difficult to stop.  Having to constantly fight your own mind for control of the pleasure and reward centres is exhausting, and a little surgery to take away that itch would be a price worth paying for peace of mind.

Is Cyberpunk The New Normal?
Cyberpunks drink the good stuff.

In early November 2019, the first brain implants to control behaviour were embedded in a human being.

The procedure is as simple as brain surgery can be. A small hole in the skull in order to insert a tiny 1mm electrode in the specific area of the brain that regulate impulses such as addiction and self-control. It’s powered by a small battery under the collar bone, and uses deep brain stimulation to do… something.

Brain implants have been in use for nearly two decades, successfully treating the symptoms of debilitating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, dystonia, and depression. The mechanism by which it works is still unknown.

The November trial is the first time it has been used to alter behavior rather than treat illness.

Getting people to say no to drugs is hard. Altering their brains with electricity so they want to say no to drugs looks like it might be quite easy. What else can you get them to say no to?

Crime is a good start. Giving people an aversion to violence and murder would doubtless result in a better, more wholesome society. Instead of sending people to prison for violent crimes, society could simply make sure that they never want to do it again.

How about chocolate. Instead of crash diets or dangerous gastric band surgery, would-be losers could opt for a deep brain stimulation implant to numb the craving for high sugar, high fat foods. A nation of beautifully slim supermodels awaits us. A blue nation, that is. Because 60% of neurologists in the US vote democrat. 

Even Friendly Robots Inevitably Become Terminators . . .

This is the 21st century, and robots are a real thing, with most of them used for noble purpose in the betterment of mankind. Under human control, we’ve seen seen snake-bots slither into the wreckage of buildings to search for survivors. We’ve seen bizarre multi-legged robobeasts lugging, and Atlas, Boston Dynamics’ flagship humanoid is capable of entire gymnastics routines as well as flipping switches, shutting off valves and opening doors in situations an organic human would have difficulty. And then, of course, there are the sex bots.

But as fantastic as these examples are, the robots we’ve mentioned are also limited. Search and rescue bots, in particular are poor at recognizing people. Sure, they can get into difficult to reach places, they can scale buildings, and they can snap pictures and stream video feeds, but these need to be examined by real human people to ensure that this is the person who is being sought. It’s no good sending a rescue crew to someone who isn’t missing and doesn’t need to be rescued.

Police Scotland has a problem with missing people. Sometimes people wander off on ill-advised mountain treks into the wild highlands. More often, like the central characters in Trainspotting, they decide that Scotland is shite, and move elsewhere without telling anybody.

Regardless, the Police Scotland missing person page currently holds 34 mugshots, and in 2016, the force made 22,000 separate missing persons investigations. It’s a lot of legwork for the bobby (or Jock) on the beat.

In November, Police Scotland unveiled their new tool to help in the quest to find people who may or may not want to be found.  It’s a drone unlike any other, and it can discern a person, animal or vehicle from just a handful of pixels in a huge moving colour image. It can spot someone from up to 150 metres away, and recognises what the objects are from “pretty much any orientation.” Processing is done on a mobile phone, rather than in a data centre, and in real time. If you’re missing, it will absolutely find you. 

Is Cyberpunk The New Normal?
Scotland Yard drone

Currently, the low budget device needs to be piloted by police officers using their mobile phones, but there’s no reason it needs to stay that way. Solutions already exist which allow drones to fly autonomously in an intelligent manner.

Once the two technologies are married together, we have the potential for autonomous hunters, sent off onto the Scottish moors to find their targets.

The Police Scotland drones aren’t going to be scouring the grim inner cities of the far north for wanted criminals, and it’s very unlikely that they’ll ever be armed. But Scotland is a small country within another small country. Out in the wider world, there’s no telling what will happen with the technology.

Flying assassin Terminators, anyone?

Life-Logging As Legal Protection

From automatic Facebook and Snapchat uploads, to the recordings constantly being made by cutesy so-called assistants manufactured and operated by giant tech corporations, most people are recording their life whether they realise it or not. If you own a smartphone, the chances are that your current location, along with a history of everywhere you’ve ever been, and everyone you’ve ever visited are sitting on servers owned by either Google or Apple, along with the myriad of shady marketing companies who track your real world location. Likewise, if your phone or digital assistant responds to voice commands, you have to assume that device is recording constantly.

Perhaps justifiably, this has caused some disquiet among privacy activists and the general public who are concerned – with good cause – that random employees are snooping on their dull day-to-day lives and getting off to the sounds of grunting and groaning as recorded through a lo-fi audio interface.

Rather than simply refusing to have an Alexa, Siri, Bixby, or Google assistant in the house, many are pushing to have the recordings, and associated text transcripts, deleted from company servers.

They’re taking the wrong approach. 

Is Cyberpunk The New Normal?
Adam Reechard Crespo (left). Seen with Silvia Galva on right.

In July 2019, 32 Silvia Galva was found dead, after being impaled on her bedpost. It wasn’t a sex game gone wrong, and Florida police (because of course it’s Florida), believe that her 43 year old boyfriend, Adam Reechard Crespo murdered her, and charged him accordingly.

The house had only two people in it at the time, and there were no witnesses. Who’s to say what actually happened?

If, as the police suggest, Crespa pulled Galva from the bed onto a spear-tipped bedpost after an argument, then Alexa will have been listening. There will be an audio archive, and a text transcript, which will lead to Crespo’s eventual conviction and possible execution. Crespo believes they will prove his innocence.

Amazon has provided multiple recordings, but their contents have not been disclosed.

Crespo’s case presents us with a sincere argument for constant self-surveillance to avoid  legal misunderstandings. Many people already use dashcams, so if there’s an argument, they can prove it wasn’t their fault. Logging the soundtrack to your entire life can provide all kinds of legal protections – whether it’s proving you were mis-sold your new car as having one careful lady owner, or proving that you weren’t outrageously racist at your uncle’s 90th birthday party. It will instantly settle arguments of the, ‘he said, she said’ variety, and drunken verbal contracts, bets and dares will be enforceable. If there’s a disagreement over terms, just rewind for clarity. 

Everything will be on record, which is great. Except that you were outrageously racist at your uncle’s 90th birthday party. You were absolutely in the wrong when arguing with your other half, and really, drunken dares are stupid.

Yeah. The future sucks.

Hey, chum. These posts don't write themselves. If you wanna stay in the know, it's gotta be a two way street.*

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