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?

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