America Is a Cyberpunk Dystopia

The women tar­get­ed by Gamer­Gate have final­ly come out with their books about the hor­ror — and it makes for har­row­ing read­ing. Zoë Quinn, whose ex-boyfriend start­ed the entire mess, is remark­ably san­guine about the nev­er-end­ing death threats.

It bare­ly even reg­is­ters when it hap­pens any­more because I’m used to it now”

Her expe­ri­ences, espe­cial­ly the frus­tra­tion with how feck­less law enforce­ment is about online forms of harass­ment, are an extreme case, but she is not alone in fac­ing a vio­lent hate mob online. Not only were sev­er­al women in the gam­ing indus­try tar­get­ed for appalling lev­els of harass­ment by an online mob, so too were female sup­port­ers of Hillary Clin­ton, as well as var­i­ous minor­i­ty groups.

This sort of harass­ment online is not going away: In 2015, the Supreme Court grant­ed speech pro­tec­tion for post­ing vio­lent fan­tasies on a per­son­’s social media. In oth­er words, peo­ple like Quinn still have very few legal recours­es when they are flood­ed with death and rape threats.

Social media was­n’t sup­posed to be this way. The inter­net was sup­posed to be a force for good: dri­ving democ­ra­ti­za­tion in the Arab world, break­ing down the old media bar­ri­ers that exclud­ed new voic­es, and cre­at­ing a free flow of ideas and infor­ma­tion to the mass­es. Let a hun­dred rhetor­i­cal flow­ers bloom.

And in some respects, social media achieved that: the inter­net did indeed play a vital role in the Arab upris­ings in 2010, and it did indeed break the tra­di­tion­al media, and it did indeed encour­age the free flow of ideas. The prob­lem is, none of this is nec­es­sar­i­ly a good thing. In the Arab world, the abu­sive regimes that sur­vived the upris­ings (that is to say, most of them) now use the inter­net to tar­get human rights activists for harass­ment, dis­rupt NGOs, and even spark inter­na­tion­al crises with faked out­rage. The break­down of tra­di­tion­al media has led to both the anti-fact rad­i­cal­iza­tion of that media and the expo­nen­tial rise of “fake news,” which has already led to real life acts of vio­lence.

It is dif­fi­cult to wrap one’s head around pre­cise­ly what, exact­ly, the rise of the inter­net and social media has done to pub­lic life in Amer­i­ca. But there is a term for what is hap­pen­ing. Amer­i­ca has become a cyber­punk dystopia. Con­sid­er:

  • Equifax, which lob­bied the gov­ern­ment to lim­it class action dam­ages result­ing from data theft, did not report for six weeks a mas­sive theft of hun­dreds of mil­lions of accounts con­tain­ing extreme­ly sen­si­tive data. In the inter­im, a few exec­u­tives sold their stock in the com­pa­ny. Now, using Equifax’s own tools to report and mon­i­tor the breach might exempt cus­tomers from suing the firm.
  • In the face of Hur­ri­cane Irma, Tes­la “unlocked” their elec­tric cars in South Flori­da, reveal­ing that the vehi­cles had hid­den capac­i­ties and capa­bil­i­ties that were only held back by an over-the-air soft­ware update. It seems Tes­la dri­vers do not actu­al­ly “own” their cars in any tra­di­tion­al sense of the word, and now there is the prospect of, say, a mod­ern car being remote­ly bricked by law enforce­ment, or hijacked by a hack­er (a scary pos­si­bil­i­ty in many cars).
  • Last Octo­ber, smart home appli­ances were hacked by a bot­net that man­aged to shut down a vast swath of the Inter­net. Most elec­tron­ic devices are not secure, despite being cov­ered in cam­eras and lis­ten­ing devices. It is unclear how to secure them, as well, with no straight­for­ward solu­tions in sight.
  • The Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion is busy unrav­el­ing con­sumer pro­tec­tion to bet­ter serve the abu­sive monop­oly ser­vice providers that lob­by its mem­bers exten­sive­ly, lead­ing to a future where Com­cast could con­ceiv­ably own the entire inter­net.
  • The prospect of hate-mobs flood­ing a per­son­’s account leads to self-cen­sor­ship.
  • Twit­ter and Face­book have become vec­tors for state mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns.
  • Let us not for­get the Gamer­gaters and Zoë Quinn, which was a 2014 move­ment that direct­ly pre­saged the rise of neo-Nazism and white suprema­cy in the 2016 elec­tion and now mass vio­lence in 2017.
  • Deep­er social changes as pub­lic spaces have been more or less destroyed, leav­ing us know­ing less and less about our neigh­bors, while the replace­ment online has giv­en us far too much knowl­edge of what oth­er peo­ple think.

Yet, as a genre, cyber­punk does­n’t quite cap­ture every­thing. It was nev­er a style meant to be espe­cial­ly pre­dic­tive — in many cas­es, it was just a new set­ting to place straight­for­ward detec­tive noir (where the city is always bathed in dark­ness and rain). Some authors like Philip K. Dick used the genre to explore the nature of per­son­hood and con­scious­ness, but he was nev­er focused on the effects of the tech­nol­o­gy itself. William Gib­son con­ceived of the inter­net as a dark place, but he nev­er thought of the pow­er of social media — his inter­net was basi­cal­ly mass media trans­lat­ed online.

Yet, while the genre did­n’t quite get things right (vir­tu­al real­i­ty is still most­ly vapor­ware), the basics are all there. Hack­ers play a pow­er­ful role in our soci­ety, whether at the NSA, the GRU, or pri­vate groups. Large cor­po­ra­tions and nation­al gov­ern­ments are jostling for ulti­mate con­trol of peo­ple, and there are already signs that poor­ly designed arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence pro­grams might dis­rupt some indus­tries.

Like many cyber­punk sto­ries, Amer­i­ca in 2017 is on an inher­ent­ly unsus­tain­able path. The sys­tem we have built on dig­i­tal foun­da­tions is sim­ply not secure. Is it pos­si­ble to design an inter­net that is less prone to data breach­es, less prone to spoof­ing fake sto­ries, less prone to hijack­ing? Maybe. Dave Eggers tried to imag­ine one in The Cir­cle, but it fell short in a lot of ways. At a fun­da­men­tal lev­el, the inter­net is sim­ply impos­si­ble to use secure­ly — it was nev­er designed for secu­ri­ty, and thus it has far too many loop­holes and tech­ni­cal flaws that allow mali­cious actors to break it.

Yet, despite being fun­da­men­tal­ly inse­cure, the inter­net is also vital to every day exis­tence. Every sin­gle thing a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can does, from apply­ing to jobs to pay­ing with a cred­it card, hap­pens over the inter­net. We are dri­ving full speed toward a brick wall, but there is very lit­tle inter­est in stop­ping or chang­ing course. An Enron-style col­lapse, where a $70 bil­lion com­pa­ny van­ished overnight due to a mali­cious hack, is inevitable, yet Enron was not enough to reform our finan­cial and account­ing sys­tems. I don’t see how it would be enough for us to reform how we relate to net­works and being online. The appetite to change how we use the inter­net and live online sim­ply isn’t there. So it becomes a wait­ing game to see what will break first. Encour­ag­ing, no?

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.