When I think about digital technology, I think about many things: when it entered my life, what it promised, what it has done to the world. I think about hope and potential. I think about an emotionally stunted childhood spent in front of flickering screens. To this day I still see fine mesh of a CRT’s shadow mask on the backs of my eyelids. I think about capitalism, accelerationism, hypermediation, and control. I think about medicine, I think about citizen journalism. I think about the hope contained in the technological landscape of the past, and the potential (horrors?) contained in the technological landscape of the future.
The first technology I fell in love with was videogames. I grew up on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Each game was a magical container of a new world. Used games often were sold as a bare cartridge with no manual. I'd insert a chunky plastic box into the machine and imagine my own backstory for the fairly abstract worlds being presented. And I'd have to reverse-engineer the controls and rules. I've always enjoyed poking around at the insides of things. Some kids poked around tunnels dug in the back yard; I poked at digital tunnels in the living room. The synthesizers mesmerized me. I recall sitting at the title screens of games for minutes carefully listening to the music before pressing start. I still love synthesizers. It shaped how I listened to classical music – I thought about the sound as timbres coming together, the way a smooth sine wave and a buzzy triangle waves would stack to form a voicing in a composition, instead of as discrete instruments. It took me a long time to map the sounds I heard to the instruments that made them.
My father is Japanese. That makes me part Japanese. He was raised to be as white as possible so he did not talk about Japanese stuff ever. These games became my connection to whatever Japanese heritage I wanted to claim. Immediately I was drawn to the craft and the care of the Japanese games. Japanese developers built much more careful and deliberate experiences than most American developers. They understood that the limitations of the hardware suited abstraction better than direct representation. Many American console games seemed arbitrarily hard. They didn't feel good to control. Attempts at shading often looked muddy. Japanese console games were beautiful pieces of pop art, composed of clean lines and tasteful colors. Each felt different to control; each felt good.
Unlike American console games, American computer games were great. They also lacked the polish of American console games, but many of the computer games were made by a few people in a garage or a small office. They felt intensely personal. It was easy to become fans of the developers at id or Looking Glass or the brothers Gollop or Will Wright the same way one could become a fan of a rock musician. American computer games tended towards simulation, even if it was simulating something fictional. These games were gorgeous maximalist pieces, finding interesting ways to systematize both grandiose as well as microscopic aspects of life. American computer games were so detailed and so expressive in their systems. Bennett Foddy, a notable ethicist (ex-Oxford; current NYU) claimed that the way Ultima IV modeled morality shaped his personal philosophies. I believe him.
I also grew up on BBSes. BBSes were like little websites, except people had to dial in to them over the phone line, and the system could only They were like tiny nerd-villages where we shared the best shareware, played MUDs, and swapped messages. I loved BBSes. I miss BBSes. I miss a sense of having a small, private, community that isn’t composed solely of your friends.
Technology is brutal to people who tend towards nostalgia; like [mythical person – Orpheus?] you must never look back, only forwards. At least, that’s all that technology cares about, and that’s probably the best for your emotions. Maybe it would be good for culture for us to look back a bit more, no matter how difficult that would be.
Later I dialed in to a Unix terminal on the LA Free Net and got a taste of the good stuff – the Internet. Via 'pine' and 'links' I discovered networks of networks of mail and text and files. The discrete BBS villages lost some of their lustre. I remember the feeling of the web being a wild west, like it was a tangible thing. When it seemed practical to catalogue the entire internet, shoving every link into an index. (That’s how Yahoo got their start!) When creating a taxonomy of internet content could be done in the head. One time I saw a yellow pages, but for the internet. It was printed and you could lift it with one arm. In it, I looked up sites on fractals and how to do your own raytracing with POVRay. One page of the book had a picture of Jenni from JenniCam. I visited Jennicam. I was 9 or 10. That's how I 'discovered girls'.
I built my family's first computer. My dad helped choose the parts, but I had to put it together and install DOS myself. Those were the rules. If I wasn't learning about computers, my parents feared it would become a moral hazard. I learned lots about computers and it became a moral hazard anyway.
My grandfather helped me build a transistor radio. It was from an old Heathkit. I think he'd purchased it for my uncle when he was a child, but they never got around to building it. It felt like magic when it turned on and pulled sound from the air and spit it at us with a small, tinny speaker. We’ve been swimming in information and its infrastructure since before we were born.
My father was a Fountainhead-thumping libertarian; my mother was a crunchy 60s co-op earth-goddess turned yuppie. Somehow the acid-drenched California-Doctrine aesthetics and politics of computer culture in the early 90s fit right in the middle between their worldviews. On the internet, I remember downloading a feminist tract (the SCUM Manifesto), the anarchist cookbook, a bunch of levels and mods for DooM, some pornography. At the time I was too young to recognize the tension between the porn and the feminism; the 'anarchism' being distributed over corporate infrastructure co-opted from academia, funded by the military. I caught traces of the individualist Whole Earth Catalogue turning into Whole Software Review metastasizing into the hard counter-culture of Mondo 2000 (example: Genesis P-Orridge interviewing William Burroughs next to a radical Black feminist playwright discussing cyber-voudoun. In the mid-90s!), both getting eclipsed by their straight-edge capitalist fink of a younger-sibling WIRED (which wants nothing more than to sell you technological solutionism, or at least acquisition as the solution to emotional problems). I loved the psychedelic liberatory promise of these hippie techies. I loved their projects like Community Memory, putting networked computer terminals in public as a proto-Craigslist for everybody.
I liked Usenet. Usenet was like a set of forums for the entire internet. When you connected to a Usenet server, you’d get a list of all the boards. It was so organized. It was an alphabetized ontology of the consciousness of the net. And of course there was sex. alt.sex was one of the most popular trees. it had everything from alt.sex.cthulu to unspeakables. I wonder how many people developed fetishes for balloons instead of zoophilia simply because they didn't key down far enough to reach zoophilia.
The videogame Quake was preceded by much excitement. Its online component, QuakeWorld, was going to be the first metaverse/multiverse, the groundwork for the sort of VR that was supposed to make us check out of the physical world. I think the Quake community was my first online community. I checked the blogs for news multiple times per day and fingered all the id plan files. Tracking the development process of Quake taught me half of what I know about project management and how the design process can go awry (and still result in something amazing). Quake eventually came out. The singleplayer was boring – a bunch of self-similar brown mazes with annoyingly durable enemies blocking your progress. It wasn’t elegant the way DooM was elegant. The multiplayer turned out to be 'just' a highly moddable DM experience. It still was groundbreaking. It was very fun. I joined a clan. I was good at clicking the faces of other peoples' avatars and watching the polygons stutter towards the ground with arms and legs dramatically raised from the impact of the virtual projectiles.
I always liked the idea of VR. I was a fat kid. My joints hurt. I didn't like how I looked. I didn't like my gender, either. When I was in pre-school and Kindergarten, when we were asked to line up by gender, I lined up with the girls. Each time I did that, I got in trouble. I learned to line up with the boys, but only to avoid trouble. Online had its own gender. At the time it seemed agender -- it was much softer than the trucks-and-football or yacht-yuppie conservativism of Orange County. Now I can see that it was still very male, and very misogynistic, but, at least at the time, less so than my surroundings. Online you could play, via text, at whatever persona you wanted. Primarily I lied about my age. I was 12 but wanted to be seen as a high schooler. I didn't think I could fake anything older than that. But I totally bought into the rhetoric of the likes of Jaron Lanier, that virtual worlds would supercede our material experiences. Soon I hoped I could leave my uncomfortable body behind. I hoped that VR would be a social revolution – our identities mutable, deconstructed, and, hopefully, respected and understood.
I loved cyberpunk. It presented a dark future, but with empowered individuals. And in its early days it was a fictional space created and inhabited by women and queers – notable given that sci-fi is a genre where women writers had assumed male-psesudonyms. Superficially it was a world of high-contrast neons against black. What stuck with me was the depiction of overcrowding and scarcity overcome by resourcefulness, by adventure, by underground groups forging friendships and alliances. It seemed like no matter how overbearing corporations and governments got, there would always be an underground.
Then The Matrix came out and made a billion dollars and, despite the presence of Lawrence Fishburne, Keanu Reeves in a trenchcoat and greens on black became the face of cyberpunk until people got tired of white men in trenchcoats and green and black and cyberpunk fell out of fashion.
But that didn’t stop us from getting our cyberpunk dystopia. We have the overbearing corporations and governments and the surveillance and the state-sponsored violence and the inequality and slow strangulation of the ‘free’ internet. But instead of darkness, our aesthetic is high-lumen 5600K LEDs, rounded aluminum cases, bright, flat primary color interfaces, people permanently imitating [that surrealist painting with the apple in place of the man’s face] with their phones. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, but who controls the sunlight, and who is classifying what is infectious? Maybe we need darkness to build a proper underground.
In college, I assumed I'd do a math + computer science double major. It turned out that I was real bad at abstract geometry, and I got real bored thinking about graph traversals. Computers also seemed horribly inhumane: developers built tools designed to be used in a particular way, then refused to share how the tools were intended to be used. It seemed to come from the old lab culture before personal computing, where you could get a hands-on lesson on Emacs if you couldn't figure out how to use it efficiently. Or, cynically, it comes from people who contribute the most open-source code wanting to maintain power by at least knowing best how to use their code. I also realized that I didn't know what I wanted to do with computers. I didn't understand the world, or how to think about the world in a sufficiently robust way to know how I wanted to shape it, and how to shape it in that way. So I switched to the most interdisciplinary liberal arts major I could find so that I could acquire as many lenses as possible through which to look around myself. I settled on Ancient History, a rigorous major within the Classics department and started learning languages, philosophy, archaeology, history, historiography, literature, and more. The ancient world continues to fascinate me. But more fascinating still was the insight into how we've constructed (emphasis on 'constructed') our narrative and our history via enormous interpolations of very limited artifacts. I realized that our consensus reality was perhaps a reality only via consensus. And in areas where that was problematic, I began to agitate against it.
After college, I moved in with my then-girlfriend in Cambridge, MA. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a job. All I knew was that I needed a job quickly, because I did not have much money, and I did not want to sponge off of my then-girlfriend. My first job interviews went terribly: law offices laughed at me for being kind of disheveled and kind of unmasculine and probably obviously disinterested in the work. This was months before the financial collapse, and coffee shops were uninterested in hiring college grads, figuring we'd all quit in a few weeks after finding better jobs, because better entry-level jobs existed then. As I watched my bank account falling from four figures to three figures, I realized I soon would not be able to pay rent the following month. On the way home from another failed interview, I walked by a door that said HARMONIX MUSIC SYSTEMS on it. I stopped by, still wearing a suit, and dropped off a resume. The receptionist laughed at me for being overdressed and said she'd be in touch if there were any openings. The following day I was called in for an interview to join the QA team. I was offered a job. I took it.
Rock Band was slated to ship in a few months. The plastic guitars had major reliability issues. We had to discover which factory was producing crappy guitars. We hooked the guitars up to computers that counted the strums then strummed the guitars for hours on end, waiting for the guitar to break. We were like robots, except we were cheaper. We ferreted out the bad factory in time for production to scale up. During an all-hands meeting we got a glimpse into the factories where the peripherals were being made. We saw enormous factory floors of miserable workers at tiny workbenches inserting tiny parts then testing the contacts between these tiny parts. This wasn't their role for this one task, or this one project. This was their role for their life. Eventually I parted ways with Harmonix. The story why is one that I'm ashamed of, but it's one that I've learned from and atoned for. I won't share it here.
I loved 4Chan. This is where I should come out as being an ex-terrible-person. I voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger to be governor of California. I also voted for Bush. That was a long time ago, before a Grateful Dead roadie gave me a fuzzy business-card that happened to be dosed with acid. I tore off a strip and ate that acid during golden hour while riding a bus along the New England coast. It was so beautiful that I cried. My mind wandered, and I imagined what it would be like to embody many of the things in my life. I love oranges. I try to eat citrus every day. So I imagined myself as the orange seed, then the tree, then the fruit, then the undocumented worker picking the fruit making barely-subsistence wages while dodging law enforcement, then the person on the side of the highway with a shopping cart full of oranges trying to hawk them to people trapped in cars during rush hour and, inevitably, making just enough to keep going but not enough to do something else. I thought about how rote, how dark, how hard working, how crucial that work was, and how totally unrewarded it was: the reward was a cycle of poverty via exploitative immigration/undocumented worker laws, via predatory payday loan and check cashing operations. I thought about the social systems that kept it all out of sight. I thought about the economic systems, the housing regulations, the zoning, the redlining, the business of newsmedia, etc, that came together to form this situation that seemed in many ways impenetrable, and maybe unfixable without rebooting many systems all at once. I cried again, for different reasons from the first.
Anyway, I loved 4Chan. Espcially /b/. This was a board where people could anonymously post images and text on any ‘random’ topic. You can imagine the sort of images and text that appeared there. It seemed wild and dangerous. It was like a cesspool – disgusting, but it also spawned most of the internet memes of the early 2000s. Those cat memes? Yeah, 4chan. It was problematic, for sure, but it was like a release for real-life weirdos and misfits; it seemed collectively understood that it was a place for performance.
Eventually ‘Anonymous’ began breaching the barrier between 4Chan and 'real life', sometimes in very cool ways, harassing the (notoriously hatefully homophobic) Westboro Baptist Church. And kids started joining the site who never knew a world without broadband, and maybe didn't get out enough to perceive some of the more vile elements as being tongue-in-cheek (not that that makes it ok!!). Or maybe younger people don't see as strong of a dam between online and real life, that online does grant special agencies to shape the realities you depict and deploy. I remember /b/ joking about bombing the Super Bowl, just to troll the FBI. It's dark 'humor', but I don't think anyone on the board expected it to happen.
One time in 2010 I watched a video where a Bjork fan shoots himself in the head, splatting his brain onto a poster hanging behind him. The poster read, “THE BEST OF ME”.
As much as the internet can connect people, it can allow people to self-select their peers. Sometimes this results in sexually frustrated misogynists forming their own enclaves and egging each other on into murderous rages, a la the UCSB shooter. His final youtube video chills me, deeply.
Yesterday a lone white cis-male gunman shot 16 people on a college campus in Oregon. He'd posted a warning on 4Chan the night before. After the murders occurred, a chorus of celebratory cheers kept the thread alive all night, proud that someone finally reified their crazy rant. I hadn't logged on to 4Chan in maybe 5 years; I hope I never look at it again.
One disturbing cyberpunk thing I've seen is the murders of news producers Alison Parker and Adam Ward. We saw the live coverage on air. We also saw the first person video by the murderer. The availability of information is kaleidoscopic; in various ways we all are complicit. Maybe ISIS is the most cyberpunk entity – a terrorist organization appropriating the visual language of action movies, the marketing methods of American corporations, and some of the individualistic rhetoric of the US army itself to draw 'fans' from all over the world to create their own state. It's taking the noise from the system and feeding it back into itself, albeit to objectionable ends.
After Harmonix, I joined a non-profit consulting firm. Nowhere else would hire me, again because I am bad at feigning interest, but I was excited by the idea of seeing into the non-profit world. I was too naive at the time to know it as the 'nonprofit industrial complex'. The firm was run by conservative Jews and I think my Yiddish last name made them like me ("Beilin? Are you related to Yossi?" "Uhhh, probably."). Although I was raised only culturally Jewish, I'd always been interested in exploring Jewish culture more deeply. I also needed a job. This job was weird. Part of the weirdness was from the Yale frat-boy mentality of the boss – I had to outdrink him after my first day at work. He had nearly a foot of height and 75 pounds on me, but this is the one circumstance where my experiences at Dartmouth benefitted me in life (I 'won', and also got banned for life from Boston Billiards Club). Relevant trivia: I no longer drink alcohol. He gave me a company award for being the 'most sexually ambiguous'. I talked to a lawyer about how I was tired of those sorts of comments. The lawyer told me that I'd make myself unemployable if there was a record of me filing a harassment suit against an employer. I clenched my teeth and left the room.
It turned out that the company was not a non-profit consulting firm; it was a for-profit consulting firm for non-profits. Exclusively Jewish nonprofits. Many of which were Zionist. At least we mostly were skimming money off of them in exchange for rote powerpoint decks. I learned things, like how United Jewish Communities was compiling a Mormon-like database of all the potential Jews in the world and was tracking data on kids since birth and performing analytics to identify various triggers: what made them more or less Jewish, what made them donate more or less. It was an odd semi-consensual self-surveillance. My boss wished that he was building a sexy tech startup instead of a small consulting firm. He paid me a near-poverty-level wage for 80 hour weeks and told me things like, "We need to recreate Excel and Powerpoint online. You have three months. All the code is out there, you just have to copy and paste it together." I tried to tell him it was unrealistic. He told me to find a way. There wasn't a way. I saved money by doing unsavory things on the side and quit my job.
The first tech bubble was less cynical than this bubble. It was plenty cynical, but it seemed like the cynicism was coming more from the people with the established money. Sure, some techies made off like bandits with shitty no-product startups, but it felt like the sort of prank The ([enter the name of their cynical book]) KLF played with their Dr. Who single than an entitled rich 22 year old Stanford graduate trying to make their first millions as fast as possible. And the rest of the projects were full of naïve enthusiasm which is valuable in its own right. The context was different – the entire economy was healthier and there wasn't a huge housing crunch, so some nerds getting rich didn't mean displacement the way the Web 2.0 bubble is on track to make San Francisco literally 100% rich and white in the coming years should the growth continue. The cultural referents for the projects of web 1.0 felt more vital as well. Both hard and light sci-fi played a part, but perhaps the key difference was that what we call the real world was the primary experience of the people building those products. How can we make everyone producers and consumers of video from all over the world? How do we make the internet into an infinite Telegraph Avenue? How do we let people explore the world and each other from their computers? How do we let people make their own worlds from their computers? Now it feels like the consumer tech scene is run by kids who grew up on Facebook building crap on top of crap. The question driving many ‘entrepreneurs’ now is along the lines of “how do I make Snapchat cooler?”.
Web 2.0 started out cool. Or at least it seemed cool. It felt like it was mostly hobby projects by people who got rich on Web 1.0. It seemed like founders didn't start by raising millions of dollars of institutional investors thus making them accountable to capital-C Capital before launching a product or even having a firm idea. Founders were less obsessed with calling themselves 'founders' and 'makers'. Companies that survived the first bust seemed unstoppable and poured (what now seems like insane) amounts of resources into hobby projects like Google Reader. People who left the big companies of the first go-round started sites like Twitter.
I loved Google Reader. I encountered it two years after its launch, in 2007. The key feature for me was not the RSS aggregation – I’d been using a desktop RSS reader for a while – but the sharing. The sharing was incredible. You could be ‘friends’ with anyone with a gmail account. Everyone had a gmail account at this point. You could then share any article or link with your friends. Shared articles would appear in their streams. They could add comments. They could re-share. You’d see friends of friends making interesting comments and make them your friends. By the time some stories reached you, you were reading many degrees outside of your network. This was the first time I broke far outside of my bubble online – I was following black urban youth sharing the dopest mixtapes and essays, I found the most radical (and patient) feminists who called me out & called me in, I found scholars, I found weirdos, I found artists.
In 2007 I was slightly older and wiser than I was in 1997 and saw that mid-90s visions of VR were impractical, and that no companies were chasing it, and that maybe it never knew what it wanted to be, or maybe it never was an actual usable thing, after all. And either way, VR was awfully simple in its approach towards privilege and identity politics.
What we had with Google Reader and it sharing was a limited metaverse. It was limited to web media, but it was like a really hip virtual coffee shop that never closed.
Then Google Reader killed sharing, then merged with Google Plus, then died.
Some of us are still friends. We talk from time to time. Sometimes we share links, but now it’s on email, or in a Facebook group. The attention and engagement is not nearly the same. It feels like the local watering hole burned down and we all moved away. We're still friends but the entire context for our friendship is gone, leaving us with nostalgia and stilted attempts to recreate the conversations we used to have.
You can recreate the friend-lists from dead platforms, but sometimes the shape of a new platform doesn't fit the old relationship.
My friends and I all were early Twitter users. We loved it. It felt like the early days of the web again. There was enormous breadth of content, but you could still read your entire timeline each day, and you felt like you could be at least vaguely aware of most of Twitter. Then the 2009 Iran election happened and we saw Twitter being used maybe as an organizing tool, maybe as citizen journalism. We were all hanging out at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society because we were nerds, and on top of that, nerds who liked Open Culture and the EFF and Creative Commons &c. Twitter was interesting for research because it had an open API, meaning we could strip-mine it for content (thus, data). We poked around and saw that all the Twitter whitepapers being published were either wholly quantitative or wholly qualitative; each felt like it was missing half the puzzle. So we pulled gigabytes of tweets about Iran and analyzed them. We looked at networks, we looked at content, we looked at how tweets mapped to real life timelines. Then we released a report. That report was widely read. Then the CIA and Northrop Grummond contacted us and wanted to learn more. We loaded up ourselves and our backpacks into an old chevy with upholstery held by thumbtacks and roadtripped to Washington DC. We were asked terrifying questions about what sort of efficiency we could promise, as in, how many targets (as in for drone strikes) we could deliver, and with what certainty. We answered "none" and walked out.
Somewhere in this process of burning out on jobs, I broke up with my ex and moved out. I found a craigslist roomie. He was seven years older than me. He turned out to be very cool and became like an older brother to me. He taught me how to code. We decided to make games together. Y Combinator opened applications for teams to make products for the iPad. We applied. We got in. We moved from MA to CA in a dash.
Our own startup! Now we could see how the sausage was made. I saw how cynical and greedy most founders are. I couldn’t cheer for bullshit companies like ‘Yo’ rasing millions of dollars to make an app that sends a notification that says ‘Yo’ to other users, because ‘Yo’ raising money meant they would hire people and waste dozens of human years on a not-funny joke. We saw how narrow-minded and underconsidered many 'thought'- and industry-leaders were. We saw that, oftentimes, idealism ended when it obstructed capital. And every company had some disingenuous mission, like how Soylent claimed it would end hunger, how Uber would free labor (more like make labor near-free in cost, amirite?). It was disenchanting. Billion-dollar valuations and a new wave of IPOs made companies more monetarily ambitious, but perhaps less ambitious in terms of what they were going to build. Everything that wasn’t exploiting labor became explicitly and foremost a platform for serving or displaying ads, or both. Twitter decided autoplaying video ads would be the forefront of its user experience, clamped down its API, and started shutting down radical leftist accounts (while allowing mainstream harassment to continue unabated). Then the second tech bubble started growing at full-force and slowly pushed much culture and many friends out of the Bay Area. Then it pushed me out of the Bay Area. I was sad to leave, but I also had to acknowledge that I was mostly in love with the ghosts of the Bay Area I imagined during my childhood, moreso than the Bay Area that exists today.
The Occupy Movement is the watershed moment for radicals of my generation. I don't believe there will be anything on that scale again for us – that was the moment where we learned not just how militarized police were, but also how willing they were to deploy their arsenal against peaceful citizens. People of color have known this for years, but this was a moment where, for a few months, white radicals faced police harassment sort-of similar to what people of color face every day. It also completely busted apart our received histories and faith in newsmedia and, well, discourse in general. Those of us on the ground saw reporters leave protests early and later file articles based on, I guess, what the police told them. We saw police demarcate 'press zones' that were significantly occluded. We saw police arrest embedded journalists. We saw cameramen look to interview people who fit their preconceived narrative about Occupy, and refuse to air coherent speeches from people about the importance of public space and temporary autonomous zones. I now swim in anomie.
Following the inability to congregate in public without attracting a militarized police presence, radicals have had to move online. Suddenly the reach is constrained. Astra Taylor's Debt Collective sprang from the ashes of Occupy. It is a movement for collective direct action against debt in general, first focusing on student debt. It is anti-capitalist. It is very good. It also seems very small in scope compared to Occupy; it is limited to money, to numbers representing a thing completely defined by computers.
Sometimes I consider technological determinism. Maybe natural systems are arranged in such a way that technology and how we make it and in what form we make it and how we use it is embedded in our DNA and in the materials themselves. Sometimes I think that technology reached a level of power and we reached a dependence on it such that we now can merely play out systems that have already been put in place, bound to the intentional and unintentional consequences of their design.
Sometimes I get knocked out of my daydreams in a sweat. That usually happens when I contemplate complexity. Alongside the ever accelerating pace of everything, there is an ever accelerating complexity to everything. Can a single programmer reason about all the code of a complex project any longer? (No! It's too much!) Can a single Apple electrical engineer reason about all the parts of an iPhone? (No! It's too much!) Can a single politician reason about even one aspect of a system, soup to nuts? A system like … the international financial system? (No! It's too much! Not even economists who have to focus solely on that can understand it!) We have incomplete information about unreasonable systems and somehow we must swim in this murky ambiguity. The concept of having a belief seems absurd. It seems reasonable to decide that things are 'basically true' and act on them as being true while accepting that they are also somewhat untrue and that, probably very soon, a better truth will emerge.
We have the core of the cyberpunk dystopia imagined in the 80s, albeit with a different aesthetic. There is ubiquitous surveillance, a fascist, violent government, corporations-as-people in many ways supplanting governments, immovable endemic issues such as poverty, etc. Except our present wasn't built by a SkyNet or a TriOptimum; it was built by Wal Mart. Note their scale in terms of workforce, of technology, of data; their insights into consumer desires, their control over manufacturing and shipping. Their ability to move material across the world, driven by algorithms. Consider how Google transformed from chasing a transhumanist utopia to digging deep into banal consumer products and ever more advertising … in pursuit of what?
Our cyberpunk is a fat man in a cheap trenchcoat and fedora (plus beaten up sneakers, 'dad jeans', and a startup t-shirt) vaping under a cold fluorescent light. Our cyberpunk is endless flat vector designs with slightly too-slow animations holding our hands, telling us how to use the latest e-product we don't need, or maybe even want, but that will somehow become necessary to participate in the market, which is necessary because there is no more public space, no more public infrastructure, and all arable land in the US now has a claim on it. This is the aseptic, Wal-Mart cyberpunk, and somehow it is more crushing than the dark, acid-rain OmniCorp cyberpunk.
Speaking of e-cigarettes, I find them depressing and aesthetically horrible. Nicotine is a hell of a drug, and it used to have to be earned. You traded a bit of your health and your life for the drive and the high it produced. E-cigarettes side-step that entirely. It's sidestepping the faustian bargain of cigarettes, which maybe is good, but one also must consider the amount of material and human energy that went into developing and manufacturing e-cigarettes, and all of a sudden it feels certain that the market isn't going to support the sort of hard, potentially unfruitful research that put us on the moon. Capitalism is good at using -- consuming, extracting value from -- transformative technology but is not particularly good at creating it. Note how heavily SpaceX leans on NASA's research and technology. How much publicly funded research invented unix and the net and more. Capitalism can synthesize technology and iterate on technology, but seems unable to take the best on things that will fundamentally shift how technology acts in the world