Note: the currency denomination used in this post is the United States Dollar ($).
I don’t know about you, but my gut reaction to hearing the word Cyberpunk is to think of Blade Runner, Deus Ex, Snatcher, Uplink, V for Vendetta, Alita: Battle Angel, Altered Carbon, and of course, the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077. These are the most readily identifiable types of cyberpunk …in fiction.
In real life, we’re very much living in a cyberpunk world without the flying cars and futuristic cityscapes. I love technology as much, if not more than the next person. But I am increasingly conscious of what, where and how I am using it.
For many of us, we look at CCTV in numerous cities or the social credit system employed in China, and tell ourselves not to worry about it because it’s in a distant land. I am not going to lay into China, because that is the obvious thing to do. Hell, it is not even that terrifying.
The most terrifying is what is happening in our supposed democratic countries. Let’s go through a bit of history, shall we?
For the duration of this article, I want you to think of these two terms:
Throughout the 20th century, neoliberalism slowly took hold. I am mostly exposed to Western lines of thinking, so I am going to highlight two key turning points in history. Incidentally, they both happen to be in America.
The first is the case of Henry Ford v. the Dodge Brothers. In 1919, the Michigan Supreme Court’s verdict was that the Ford Motor Company had to operate in a way that benefits the shareholders and not the employees or customers. Mr. Ford’s defense was that he cared for employees because it was the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, for his workers and the rest of history, he was terrible at defending himself in court. Here’s a quote from a Reddit post:
“In writing its opinion, the court strongly suggested that it would have sided with Ford if he had elucidated any reason /at all/ that the choices he made were in some way for the good of the company. Even something as indefinite as “giving to charity benefits our company because it makes people like us more.
If I recall correctly, the court even gave Ford several opportunities to amend his defense to make such an argument. Ford declined, sticking by his position that he did it for no other reason than that he thought it was the right thing to do.
Courts have upheld this reasoning since then. Company managers are not required to make every decision based on maximum profit. They /are/ required to make decisions that they feel will benefit the company in some way.” - Arctica23
But, most people will interpret it as profit.
The second is the extreme free-market principles championed by Ronald Reagan during his presidency. As a small example, he reduced the maximum tax rate from 70% to 28% in 5 years. Crazy, right?
Since then countless micro- and macro-events have pushed towards where we are now. With freedoms lessening by the day, and we only point figures at heads of state such as Jacob Zuma, Jair Bolsonaro, Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán and of course, Donald Trump.
These people are mere microcosms. Symptoms of a disease we have let seep in and fester worldwide, and enabled a world where governments lessen our freedoms daily, and we willingly give out most intimate details of our lives to companies that seek to profit out of by any means necessary…under the guise of making our lives simpler and faster.
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” - Benjamin Franklin
While I prefer stories with faceless villains, I know many do not. As we have it, we do have a couple of easily identifiable ones. One of them is this little known company called Amazon.
Let’s go through some of their greatest hits:
- Amazon is one of two $1 trillion corporations (the other being Google parent, Alphabet);
- In 2019, 238 cities in America spent more than a year lobbying them for the privilege of hosting their new offices;
- The company will get $3 billion in tax breaks, grants and subsidies;
- It is known for labor abuses, privacy abuses;
- It has spread its tendrils to become a large part of the backbone off the internet. Kashmir Hill explains how here;
- Its founder and CEO, the richest man in the world, had the gall to ask for donations from people for COVID-19. He caved later and donated some money himself.
Note that I ignored the wide shared story of them not paying tax. This is commonplace amongst middle-sized to large companies, and is largely due to the fault of tax policies in place worldwide.
I criticize equally, so we’ll come back to Amazon in a bit. Let’s look at some other developments throughout the years:
- The financial bailout of 2008/9 of all the megabanks for gross financial stupidity (subprime loans);
- News networks that are increasingly polarized instead of being neutral and fact-based;
- A reality TV show star and billionaire with non-existent political experience is the president of the largest economy on the planet;
- Drones. Remember those? Obama used a ton of those;
- In many places, including my own country, police are using APCs in some instances instead of plain old cop cars;
- The crackdowns of the revolutions in Arab countries;
- The company responsible for the world’s largest environmental disaster was hit some fines, but they’re doing okay;
- All the corporations that do not pay tax;
- In America, some people who are denied access to health insurance, have no other recourse than to buy their legal prescription drugs illegally on the Dark Web. These drugs are cheaper to buy illegally online and some people will die if they don’t get them;
What a wonderful world.
Let’s return to Amazon and the reason why I wrote this post in the first place. Earlier in the year, one of my close friends and I had a conversation about how corporations are going to act shamelessly this year. Then COVID-19 arrived, and the timeline of things was sped up. Around March, I tweeted this:
Of course, no one paid any attention to me. I am just an English teacher in Tokyo. And I come from Mozambique.
Then a couple of days ago, I was hit with two articles in quick succession. The first, written by the estimable Casey Newton, talks about how Amazon is growing its power during the pandemic. The second is by way of Comparisun, who crunched some data and shared that Jeff Bezos could become the world’s first trillionaire by 2026.
All the while, Amazon is ending hazard pay for its workers at the end of May. However, do not make the mistake of thinking that this stuff only affects developed countries.
I actually dislike the term developed countries or first world. I prefer industrialized and less industrialized. What makes them more developed? Industries? Culture? What? I simply used to get my point across quicker.
Even places like South Africa are not immune, where Amazon is slowly taking a foothold via Cape Town.
As with many other things, the current system is not beyond fixing. But there are too many people around the world who wholly believe in it and/or do not want it to change. As long as you’re not getting hit in the pocket, it doesn’t affect you, right?
Others would argue that they're happy to see the end of Pax Americana. I am too, but not in this form. The alternative would be this:
That is the Serbian president kissing the Chinese flag. Yes, I know the Chinese government helped them during this pandemic. But, we gotta think long-term. Okay?
Next week, the blog post will be hopeful. I promise.
- A High-Tech Coronavirus Dystopia - Under Cover of Mass Death, Andrew Cuomo Calls in the Billionaires to Build a High-Tech Dystopi
- Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox (2017)
- Amazon and Facebook Reportedly Had a Secret Data-Sharing Agreement, and It Explains So Much (2019)
- James Daunt: He stood up to Amazon — and saved our bookshops (2018)
- Jeff Bezos’s $150 Billion Fortune Is a Policy Failure (2018)
- The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp (2015)
- The Rise of the Plutocratic Insurgency (2014)