Dispatch From the Cyberpunk City

jwz's essay on the world, posted on 2023-09-29 to his blog.

You know how we said 'No Future'? Well. This is it.

Blank Reg

Cast your gaze ahead, to the near future:

Public space has all but disappeared. Corporate landlords use AI-powered robots to harass the homeless. The robots, built slick and white with an R2-D2 friendliness now most resemble giant butt plugs covered in graffiti and grime.

A plague has swept the world: a vascular, neurological, brain-damaging multi-organ virus. Millions are dead, but the Zaibatsus, desperate to boost the economy at the expense of workers' lives, have used the media to convince the public that it's "just a flu". Consequently, most have dropped all pretense of trying to protect themselves or others. Thousands per day go into the meat grinder, and Line Goes Up!

Every person, even the homeless, carries a supercomputer in their pocket, combining aspects of the Cray XMP and the Connection Machine, but faster and without requiring a liquid nitrogen-cooled power plant. They have instant access to the sum total of human knowledge, and so are mostly used for chit-chat and looking at porn, which is boundless and free. These supercomputers also function as an always-on locator beacon for the ubiquitous Surveillance-Industrial Complex.

Cultists and conspiracy peddlers are ascendant, dwarfing the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s. Journalism no longer exists in a form that would be recognizable to someone from the Nineteenth Century. The very notion that there can be objective truth is in question.

Maniac billionaires compete to see who can be the first to colonize Mars, while they literally harvest the blood of the young in search of life extension. That the world might be a computer simulation is given serious consideration by people who should know better.

Fascism is on the march, globally and in the USA. And not some kind of "technical" fascism, we're talking kill-the-queers-and-the-Jews-style Nazis. Those assholes.

A teenage girl is imprisoned for having an abortion, the case against her only possible because of surveillance of her online communications. Engorged with success, the Fundamentalists are coming after birth control next.

California no longer has a rainy season, now it has a fire season. Major cities in the Southwest are expected to soon reach "wet bulb" temperatures where they cannot sustain human life if the electricity goes out. Wildfires blaze along the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Siberia. Fumaroles and craters in the permafrost belch methane. Zombie bacteria awake from thawing carcasses of animals who went into the ice millennia ago. Anthrax and bubonic plague make a comeback.

Speculators hook cargo containers carrying mobile data centers directly to oil wells, converting fossil fuels directly into cryptographic hashes of collectible trading cards, fleecing idiots at a scale previously unimaginable. Gas plumes light the sky to generate a cartoon of a monkey smoking a joint.

In San Francisco, the Mayor is a charismatic corporate crony, part of a dynasty of consecutive mayors fronting for the same crime syndicate for the past 30 years or longer. Seeing falling profits from their real estate investments, the Zaibatsus crack the whip: The Mayor dutifully responds with a renewed War on Drugs, massive increases to the paramilitary police budget, and a slashing of social services.

Autonomous AI-powered robots shaped vaguely like taxis prowl the streets, "deadheading" all day and all night long, in constant motion waiting for fares. Surveillance cameras pepper their surface like the guns on a battleship. Inside as well, but people fuck in them anyway. The corporations controlling them are immune to prosecution when their machines injure or kill someone. (One kills a dog; they blame the dog.) Activists fight back: they discover that placing a traffic cone on the hood disables the machine entirely. (Weapons systems have not yet been installed.)


Oh, did I say the near future? This is our lived reality today; in this, The Year Of Our Blade Runner, Twenty Twenty-Three.

So there's the prescience of Cyberpunk for you. People always joke, "Where's my flying car?" Sorry bub, unless you were born in 1936, you were never promised a flying car. You were promised a corporate surveillance dystopia on a dying planet. You're welcome.

A prevailing theme of Cyberpunk fiction has always been class war: the corporate rulers in their towers, versus "the street". Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic (which, make no mistake, is very much ongoing) San Francisco has been doing a speed-run into a Cyberpunk collapse -- financially at least.

The commercial landlords are in a panic at their corporate clients pulling out of office space and defaulting on leases. The foreign investors who use real estate as a store of value are in a panic that said real estate might be worth less. All anyone can talk about is how the Financial District -- always and forever the shittiest part of this city -- now feels like a ghost town.

But maybe this "Doom Loop" is the best thing that could happen to our beloved San Francisco.

In recent decades, our fair city was colonized by outsiders who just wanted to take from San Francisco without being a part of it, or giving back in any meaningful way. People who lived in their third floor glass box condominium, took the elevator to the basement garage, drove to their South Bay office park, then commuted back after sunset. They had food delivered to them by one of the several companies single-handedly debasing and destroying the restaurant industry, while never noticing that there was a struggling restaurant right across the street because they never used their front door or sidewalk. (It's dirty out there!)

Maybe as the real estate speculators, the middlemen, the techbro-rentiers, the data brokers, the rage amplifiers -- maybe as they leave, we finally get to take our city back. The rest of us -- the artists, the musicians, the dancers, the writers, the hobbyist welders and roboticists, the service industry wage slaves. Those who never had the luxury of monetizing the things that they love doing.

The City is still spectacularly beautiful. Maybe a bit grimier than usual, and sometimes you have to chew the air, but despite their best efforts, the takers haven't yet taken our parks, our climate, our fog, our Big Wheel races, our hill bombs, our nightclubs, our Critical Mass (in more ways than one).

San Francisco was founded by dictatorial naval mercenaries, followed by two centuries of explosive greed, mob rule, vigilantism, assassinations, hedonism, get-rich-quick schemes, and pillaging by outsiders. We've seen this before.

When this last round of parasites fuck off back to suburbia, The City can be ours again. Be the cyberpunk resistance you want to see in the world.

jwz August 2023 DNA Lounge still masking still mad