Los Angeles, November 2019. A cityscape littered with an innumerable amount of lights, with a haze of pollution covering the sky. Perpetual lightning storms block the sun from ever reaching the ground floor of the city. Violent flames burst from the peaks of chemical factories. A lonely, single vehicle flies across the night sky.
The decadence of pure technological achievement, driven by greed and profit at the expense of humanity, contrasted with the plight of the everyman: this is cyberpunk.
Along with being immersive windows into worlds of wondrous high tech achievements and the struggle of living in such worlds, cyberpunk media provides us a glance at the sheer horror of a future completely controlled by megacorporations. What would happen if you gave a centralized corporation (we’ll use Wells Fargo as an example, if only because they royally screwed up recently) say, the keys to human cloning? Grab a copy of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and find out. The book doesn’t exactly spell it out, but this is what would happen: Wells Fargo would singlehandedly destroy the world’s food production while dooming our species to be replaced by physically superior synthetic humans. The horror in cyberpunk isn’t what happens to the characters — the horror is in the realization that our world could be headed down the same path as these cyberpunk dystopias. Who or what will keep us from sliding down this road?
Let’s look back at the original cyberpunk novel: William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Neuromancer reflects a future where extreme technological advancements are the norm, with corporate control permeating through every aspect of life. People use technology as an escape from reality, leaving their humanity behind.
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.
— Neuromancer (William Gibson)
The “cyberspace” presented in Neuromancer serves as a reminder that each of our senses — from our sight, hearing, smell, touch, to our taste — can be represented by a series of 0s and 1s. At their very core, sensations exist as pieces of data that travel to our brain in the form of electrical signals. There isn’t anything objectively special about smelling a sunflower; the line between the scent of a sunflower and the scent of a piece of steak may only be divided between some very small pieces of data.
Now, we get into the horror aspect of Neuromancer; what if cyberspace was controlled by megacorporations that exist only to churn out profits and exert dominance over other companies? The novel doesn’t go too much into sociopolitical aspects of cyberspace, but the implication is there: megacorporations exist on an almost totalitarian level. They control all aspects of life for citizens, ignore laws, and have monopolistic grasps over multiple markets. It seems too crazy to even imagine, but fear not! You don’t have to imagine.
Ten — count them. Ten. Coca Cola, Pepsico, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, P&G, Nestle, and Kraft control most of the world’s consumer goods. These names may not sound as threatening as “Tyrell Corporation” or “ Weyland-Yutani” and probably do not compete in as many industries as the megacorporations described in cyberpunk media, but they are getting there. What if Coca Cola decided to get into IT? What if Nestle decided to merge with AT&T? It seems ridiculous, but just recently Comcast attempted to purchase Time Warner Cable.
It’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information. Fragments that can be retrieved, amplified…
— Johnny Mnemonic (William Gibson)
We’ve only scratched the surface of companies that may one day become powerful enough to influence every aspect of human life. We haven’t even gotten into tech companies who hold monopolies over user data. Just recently, Google updated the Chrome browser to force anyone using Gmail or other Google services to also sign into the browser itself. When you’re signed into the Chrome browser, Google saves your web activity to their servers and uses it for whatever Googly reason they want. Google stated that this was done to fix cookie syncing issues and that users aren’t “fully” logged in during this scenario. However, the proverbial line in the sand with regards to privacy seems to have shifted and more tellingly, Google failed to call attention to the change in the first place.
It‘s probably impossible for anyone to predict when or how megacorporations will spring up into existence. An even more terrifying reality may be that we won’t even notice when certain oligopolies gain full control over the way we live our lives. With all this doom and gloom, what are we to do?
Our first and final line of defense: Cryptopunks. Cryptopunks are blockchain enthusiasts who support decentralization projects not because of monetary interest, but because they believe in a future outside of the megacorp dystopia.
A natural extension of the cypherpunk movement, cryptopunks are activists for decentralization. They believe in social and political change through cryptography, blockchain technology, and truly trustless systems. Satoshi Nakamoto was a cypherpunk who created blockchain technology — cryptopunks are the adopters and supporters of the blockchain. More info on the cryptopunk movement can be found on this awesome write-up by Trent Lapinski of Hacker Noon.
The key tenets of cryptopunks (decentralization, equality, transparent systems, personal privacy, and anti-corporatism) are all shared with the cypherpunks of old. The main difference between these idealistic movements lie within available technology. Cypherpunks were working with 90s era technology — a top of the line computer in 1995 had 8MB of RAM and a 33mhz CPU. Today, with advanced processing speed and the advent of blockchain technology, cryptopunks have a much better grasp at destroying and rebuilding inefficient old-world systems. As blockchain technology and hardware solutions develop, the power to truly decentralize the future and fight against corporatism lay at the fingertips of cryptocurrency enthusiasts.
If you believe in the promise of crypto and actively support its use in demolishing corruption and greed in corporate systems, you are a cryptopunk.
The battle has already started. This is the ballad of the cryptopunk.
The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.
— William Gibson