Welcome to Cyberpunk

When I wrote ‘The Atlantic Looks Forward to Americas Next Great Authoritarian‘ I did not know that Glenn Greenwald would shortly write a very similar article.  He too considered Trump’s supposed legacy as an authoritarian and found the evidence wanting on much the same grounds as I did.  He too followed up this initial ‘legacy’ section with a suggestion on the nature of the actual problem.  He was, to his very great credit, more explicit on the exact path this danger looked ready to travel.  At the time, I still framed the problem in terms of polarization and cleavage, under which perspective Parler’s right wing bias was as much of a problem as Twitter’s left wing bias.  That Twitter’s policies necessitated the creation of Parler means Twitter had more of the blame, but in my argument it was the cleavage that was the problem.  Glenn Greenwald boldly claimed greater certainty, and he seems to have been correct.  I shall quote at length from his Dec. 28 2020 article, “The Threat of Authoritarianism in the U.S. is Very Real, and Has Nothing To Do With Trump” with my own added emphasis.

Stay-at-home orders, lockdowns and social isolation have meant that we rely on Silicon Valley companies to conduct basic life functions more than ever before. We order online from Amazon rather than shop; we conduct meetings online rather than meet in offices; we use Google constantly to navigate and communicate; we rely on social media more than ever to receive information about the world. And exactly as a weakened population’s dependence on them has increased to unprecedented levels, their wealth and power has reached all new heights, as has their willingness to control and censor information and debate.

That Facebook, Google and Twitter are exerting more and more control over our political expression is hardly contestable. What is most remarkable, and alarming, is that they are not so much grabbing these powers as having them foisted on them, by a public — composed primarily of corporate media outlets and U.S. establishment liberals — who believe that the primary problem of social media is not excessive censorship but insufficient censorship. As Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) told Mark Zuckerberg when four Silicon Valley CEOs appeared before the Senate in October: “The issue is not that the companies before us today is that they’re taking too many posts down. The issue is that they’re leaving too many dangerous posts up.

The dominant strain of U.S. neoliberalism — the ruling coalition that has now consolidated power again — is authoritarianism. They view those who oppose them and reject their pieties not as adversaries to be engaged but as enemies, domestic terrorists, bigots, extremists and violence-inciters to be fired, censored, and silenced. And they have on their side — beyond the bulk of the corporate media, and the intelligence community, and Wall Street — an unprecedentedly powerful consortium of tech monopolies willing and able to exert greater control over a population that has rarely, if ever, been so divided, drained, deprived and anemic.

All of these authoritarian powers will, ironically, be invoked and justified in the name of stopping authoritarianism — not from those who wield power but from the movement that was just removed from power. Those who spent four years shrieking to great profit about the dangers of lurking “fascism” will — without realizing the irony — now use this merger of state and corporate power to consolidate their own authority, control the contours of permissible debate, and silence those who challenge them even further. Those most vocally screaming about growing authoritarianism in the U.S. over the last four years were very right in their core warning, but very wrong about the real source of that danger.

There is some irony in that Greenwald, who is politically to the left of myself, is the one who was more vocal in calling out the media/tech/Democrat hydra that is usually the right wing enemy of choice.  (Neither of us are typical of the respective sides that popular politics at present consigns us to, of course.)

Now my fears of mere polarization seem to be quaint and, dare I say it, optimistic, as libertarian Twitter competitor Parler is down and quite possibly dead.  Parler has sued Amazon & Twitter jointly, but without a revenue stream it’s not clear they can afford to prosecute the case to conclusion against the armies of lawyers employed by the two billion dollar corporations.

The lawsuit itself has several details that range from the interesting to the disturbing.

  • Parler was kicked off Amazon’s hosting after 24 hours, despite the contract stating even for-cause cancellation of contract would come with a 30 day grace period to repair and correct the breach.  I see no wiggle room here, so Amazon should be punished for their actions.
  • Amazon announced the decision to Buzzfeed (a tabloid level left wing internet news site) a full hour before giving Parler the news.  This strongly indicates that Amazon’s problem was not with Parler but with looking good in the media.  Specifically one subset of the media.
  • Amazon named 29 posts, and Parler claims under oath that all 29 and many more besides were removed on an ongoing basis and under the existing policies Amazon claimed were insufficient.  Despite this Parler was removed.  This strongly suggests that the ultimatum and explanation for breaking the contract were all pretextual not causal.

The direct conclusion is that you should have no faith that Amazon will treat a contract as worth the paper it’s written on.

For the less direct conclusion I shall return to Glenn Greenwald, who was this time was faster off the block than I and has already published “How Silicon Valley, in a Show of Monopolistic Force, Destroyed Parler”

On Twitter he adds to that article:

Do you know how many of the people arrested in connection with the Capitol invasion were active users of Parler? Zero. The planning was largely done on Facebook. This is all a bullshit pretext for silencing competitors on ideological grounds: just the start.

People in the comments disagree, pointing to a hacker’s purported analysis of GPS location data showing Parler users’ phones inside the Capitol Building, but Greenwald has a very good track record and even if he turns out to be wrong on the first sentence I’m confident of his evidence for the last sentence.  If he says, based on his investigation and interviews, that the planning for the now infamous protest turned riot occurred on Facebook, then that’s almost certainly what happened.  Even if ‘not all’ planning occurred on Facebook, it’s notable that nobody is targeting Facebook for its role in enabling the eventual riot.

[Update 2021 Jan. 15: Now being confirmed by more mainstream sources that planning occurred on Facebook, and that Facebook executives knew about this even before the fact.  Though I take issue with the word choice ‘insurrection’ there, the important takeaway is that Parler’s punishment is clearly on pretext, not on a rational accounting of the concentration of bad behavior.]

To make a callback to my previous article, this is where I have a problem.  We are being told to rise up in moral indignation by a bunch of hypocrites who are fomenting and then leveraging public crises to swell their own already enormous wealth and power.

To my previous article I will append more evidence.  Here’s a popular ‘supercut’ of cable news minimizing violence, refusing to condemn violence that happened alongside BLM protests, defending looting and vandalism.  Here’s a collection of headlines from print media doing the same: 

Here’s Pelosi, Speaker for the House, and over SIX MONTHS after the 2016 election calling into question election integrity and the validity of the outcome, something that is supposedly seditious when Trump does the same a mere TWO months after the election:

Our election was hijacked.  There is no question.  Congress has a duty to #ProtectOurDemocracy & #FollowTheFacts.  ~Nancy Pelosi, 2017 May 16

Recall that it was this calling into question the result (not calling for violence, because Trump never did that and even told people to go home when the protest began turning into a riot) and telling people to stand strong against his opponents that is Trump’s supposedly impeachable offence right now.  Pelosi is leading the charge.

Here’s another Twitter thread of collected videos on Twitter, covering all sorts of calls for violence and harassment and excuses for violence and suchlike.  Here’s an article about Kamala Harris publicly encouraging the paying of bail payments for various violent actors in the riots over the summer, a quite clear mark of endorsement of their actions – or, charitably but doubtfully given the available evidence and the rush to judgment on the right wing actors of January 6, their presumed innocence.  Here is a clear minimization of active participation in past acts of violent terrorism by Snopes of all websites, whose fact checks the public at large for some reason still trusts.

There’s more.  A lot more.  There is a frankly exhausting quantity more, but I don’t have the urge to find all the examples, and I don’t have the discipline to categorize, check, and save each one I happen across.

Let me first be very clear that everything above is legal.  The US has very expansive protections on free speech, and an extremely narrow definition of both threats and incitement – and I approve of these standards as a testament to our freedom.  None of the above, in my non-legal opinion, crosses legal lines.  Free speech lawyers agree.  And all of the same is also true for Trump.

The following was posted on Twitter by a person who, while not a sitting US politician, still obtained and maintains not only an account but a precious blue check mark of approval.

“Ashley Babbit [the lady shot by Capitol police during the riot] feeding the worms is one of the few good things that happened as a result of the Capitol “protest” and if you feel the need to mourn her Nazi ass it’ll be easier for both of us if you unfollow me now.

When a bullet goes through the fatty tumor a Nazi has in the space where a human being would have a brain, nothing is lost

A pile of meat that moved and spoke and acted like a person was made to stop moving, and thus could no longer fool people into thinking it was one of them

A Nazi is the opposite of a person, and therefore our morality to them must be reversed

To hate them is to love

To harm them is to heal

To kill them is to bring life

You should feel less bad than you do about putting down a rabid animal

In that case the rabies virus and the host are separate entities, one was the victim of the other

A Nazi is a disease

~ Arthur Chu (@Arthur_Affect)

This is one of the most disgusting examples of unrelenting dehumanization I have ever seen in my life, and I say that as someone who has read the manifestos of dictators, terrorists, and mass murderers.  It is a clear moral stance in favor of genocidal levels of violence and entirely Orwellian in the pitch-perfect ‘Ministry of Peace’ format.  Perhaps most disturbing of all, while Ashley Babbit was a right winger and an activist Trump supporter she was also a US veteran and by no account racist, anti-semitic, anti-homosexuality, or in any other objective manner notably Nazi-esque.  These tweets were taken down by Chu on sufficient viral noteriety – not any action of Twitter or threat by Amazon (which hosts Twitter as it no longer does Parler).  Meanwhile and vanishingly unlikely to be a mere corporate oversight as Chu could be, #HangPence was actually listed in Twitter’s top trending list for much of a day, and while this was eventually taken down it is well known that Twitter’s trending list is actively curated, not passively.  Somebody in Twitter decided to select the hashtag for boosting.

I detail this to say that, to the best of my knowledge all of it is legal under US law, and that includes Chu’s revolting, terrifying sentiments.  So when I say that I am entirely certain that Trump’s statements have always been entirely legal, no matter how provocative or unwise, I mean it.  Not only do I mean, I consider that one of the great things about this country.

And when I say Twitter in particular, tech in general, and a depressingly large swathe of the left at large are being hypocrites and disgusting opportunists over the January 6 riot, I mean it and I believe I have provided sufficient evidence.

Let me again be clear that I’m not defending the violence at the Capitol on January 6th.  I am attacking a collection of hypocrites who spent months minimizing some of the most damaging and deadly riots in US history and now are treating a singular riot, however showy, as an insurrection and the biggest catastrophe since 9/11.

Because Congress is happier when local cops, city politicians, and random business owners suffer a riot than when it’s on their doorstep.

Nothing says ‘cyberpunk’ like a monumental holographic billboard that uses a sexy lady to distract you from the ominous ‘REGISTRATION’. Credit to Grace Zhu, click for full version.

Because left wing media outlets saw the opportunity to forever tar, feather, and cow ALL Trump supporters without distinction even as they defend the BLM protests as “93% peaceful”.

Most of all, because tech billionaires saw an opportunity to squash their competition for the foreseeable future and be thanked for the privilege.

If these people at least accepted the standard they spent months setting, I would now be writing a calmer and more philosophical article discussing the history of the defense of violent/direction action on the two sides of US political thought.  They didn’t, so here I am saying that they are proving they have no principles, and that their lack of principles is enabling a massive growth in corporate power.

No matter how much I personally agree that the riot was bad, and agree that Trump’s typical bloviating rhetoric (while, again, entirely within the bounds of the law) probably contributed to a protest boiling over, I can’t take the condemnations of Trump or the riot seriously.  And further, because the left are soon to have dominance in the government, have maintained dominance in the media, and have a now uncontested hegemony over tech, they have pretty much all the power and therefore present the greater risk.

All of these people can’t even honestly criticize Fox News for suddenly giving the word ‘protest’ a real workout, because they’ve been doing the same all summer.  When you don’t have the moral authority to criticize Fox News’ journalistic standards maybe you need to take a step back and think about your life choices.

Beyond all that, if January 6ths riot were to be accurately described as a Trumpist coup attempt, despite even the boldest rioters looking aimless and lost, then I begin to think that Trump and all his supporters are laughable and of no real danger to anyone.  The tone of panic does not match the pathetic nature of the actual event.

Instead, when politicians, the media companies with their big screens, and the tech companies with their little screens, all tell me that this little riot was an existential threat that requires cutting out Trump and his supporters root and branch, now and forever, well then I begin to think of something different.

All of this is brings me, finally, to the title of this article.

Noir is a genre of art that ruminates on human failings, unconstrained urges, moral corruption, and a fundamental cynicism on human nature.

Cyberpunk is SciFi noir, and so narrows the focus to contemporary trends – a sickening consumerist veneer, corporations’ greed and their barely hidden aspirations to total control of (and profit from) your every decision in day to day life.  Where noir tends to dwell on simple, animal urges of lust and greed and apathy and violence, cyberpunk examines darker, more prideful wants, particularly the desire to use technology to overcome our baser limitations – and how in doing so people end up falling below humanity.

(It keeps the rain, though.  Rain is in all the best noir.)

Trump is very nearly an embodiment of base urges, and certainly of what we might call the base urges of America.  He is uncouth, loud, self-righteous, overly confident in himself, a hedonist, both vain and narcissistic, self-interested, boisterous, rich, and without any sense of class.

He is pretty much the stereotype of ‘an American’ according to everyone else in the world.

Now, a large portion of left-leaning individuals are cheering on a unification of government and corporate power to excise him and all he represents from the country.

But America once had the virtues of our vices.  In our self-confidence we have stood up for what we believed was right (even, yes, when we were wrong).  In our hedonism we created the American Dream and came, have come, closer than any society ever has before to making it available for all.  In our vanity, we were generous to friends and defeated enemies.  In our boisterousness, we were known to be remarkably open and friendly, and my sense is that Americans were widely popular abroad even when America was not.  In our self-interestedness, I like to think we meddled in the affairs of slightly fewer foreigners than we at times had the capability of doing – at least for a time.

It’s pretty clear to me that America without Trump, and not only without Trump but without even the essence of Trump, is at best the America of Kissinger’s cold realpolitik, or of President Wilson’s casually elitist plans for dominating the world.  Or perhaps the sour-faced moral busybodies of Prohibition, or even the eugenicists of Sanger and her ilk.  After all, that self-righteous purity obsession goes all the way back to the Puritans in American culture, for all the religious direction may have been lost (especially now that Trump rather than the Evengelicals is the activist force of the political right).

That is all very big picture though, so revisit the subject of Twitter’s hypocrisy, but this time with a focus on policy, authority, and power – and with the vision of Cyberpunk lurking behind.

Earlier this year Ted Cruz (who, whatever else he may be, is a Senator and a skilled lawyer) sent a letter to Twitter over how Twitter maintained a business relationship and provided services (i.e. account and hosting/display of posts) to several foreign nationals under direct, named sanction.  On April 3, Twitter replied with a letter from which I will quote.

In your letter, you state that OFAC sanctions generally prohibit U.S. persons and entities from providing goods and services to the Government of Iran. Making the Twitter platform available for use, however, as a tool of communication, is broadly exempted from OFAC sanction prohibitions.

This paragraph was written by the lawyers of Twitter, who are I am sure paid extremely well to be just as good (and probably to be better) than the lawyers like Cruz who write the laws.  All fine and good, a legal justification.  Yet Twitter refuses to let the matter end there and proceeds to grandstand.

Moreover, the public conversation occuring on Twitter is critically important during this unprecedented public health emergency. […] We consider government voices on Twitter an important element of the service.

The power of a uniquely open service during a public health emergency is clear. The speed and borderless nature of Twitter presents an extraordinary opportunity to get the word out and ensure people have access to the latest information from expert sources around the world.


Fundamental values of openness, free expression, public accountability, and mutual understanding matter now more than ever. Regardless of the political agenda of a particular nation state, to deny our service to their leaders at a time like this would be antithetical to the purpose of our company, which is to serve the global public conversation.

Translation: ‘even if we were in violation of OFAC (which our lawyers assure us we are not so there) we believe our moral good to the world supercedes the cited law’.

Well, here we are in January 2021.  The US Constitution prevents the government from coming after people for saying things far worse than Trump did.  The current push for impeachment is a reflection that, as a sitting US president, Trump has certain privileges with respect to legal proceedings, but also certain deficits – namely an impeachment proceeding that can be called more or less on Congressional whim.  Note well that this deficit only pertains to Trump himself, so even without the blanket Section 230 immunity granted to ‘platforms’ against legal harm arising from the posts of users, there is no conceivable legal blowback to Twitter from Trump’s tweets.  Yet even so Twitter found a limit to those “values of openness, free expression” and suchlike, a limit to their tolerance for the “political agenda of a particular nation state” and the leader thereof.  (If you have forgotten, President Trump is as of this writing still the sitting US president and a leader of a nation state.)

In the first case, and albeit with a legal defense, Twitter publicly thumbs their collective nose at US law.  In the second case Twitter publicly acts far in advance of what US law can even threaten.

Twitter is placing itself above the law, or rather, making a law unto themselves.

I did not write the sentence carelessly, and Twitter is not alone.  Companies around the world are going beyond the law, doing that which centuries of bloody revolts taught governments not to do.  Deutsch Bank blacklisted Trump for all future business.  Many, many tech companies have joined Twitter in blocking Trump and, to varying degrees, supporters or even vaguely supportive companies.  How far will this go?  If Lincoln Project’s pressure campaign succeeds, very far indeed.

Just take a moment to consider the aggregate power corporations wield on your life.  Sure, cable news dominates those big screens in Times Square, but then there’s Google and Facebook and others are watching your every move online.  It’s not just your computer or TV of course (Orwell was so very uncreative in only having one Screen per room), your phones can do the same, and also track your location with reasonable precision, certainly well enough to keep track of who you meet.  That’s all very important because of the pandemic, but the tools aren’t just going to disappear with the pandemic after all that money was spent developing, implementing, and deploying them.  The government could never create such a system, at least not legally, but of course they will be able to access the resulting data easily enough for anything they want, no matter the initial reason for deployment.  Meanwhile, Amazon is in the position to make or break the sale of any good, and as physical cash goes from eye-rollingly old-fashioned to a possible health and safety hazard mobile payment services like Venmo and Paypal join credit card companies in being the entirely private arbiters of all non-marginal participation in the economy.  Think this is far fetched?  Even the more staid regular banks close accounts for political reasons.  And the payment processor cartel upon which all credit cards rely have already set a precedent for blocking businesses on a whim.  Sure, Pornhub is sleazy and the accusations were horrific (though not at all unique to Pornhub among all sites that allow user uploaded content) but note that the decision was a very much a whim – no legal order demanded that they halt payments.

Today it’s just Trump, but there is not, and never will be, any LEGAL DECISION in the US mandating the actions that these companies have taken, and taken in concert.  This, the concerted actions of corporations across multiple industries without legal mandate to do so, is the real unprecedented action of January 2021.  This, and not the umpteenth violent politically motived riot in less than a year, is the precedent that has the potential to break the country.

What is the defense for allowing this precedent?  Why, it is that they are private companies and are free to choose who they serve and do not serve.

This argument is either very subtle or very stupid, depending on the proponent’s form.  It was also an argument that failed (at the Supreme Court level no less) for Masterpiece Bakery as it was decided that the company was a legal person separate and distinct from the owner/operators, and that whatever the personal convictions of the owner/operators, the person of the business had no right to free association.

The subtle form of the free association argument holds that the right of free association arises from the free association of the individual, and by this argument the defense holds most strongly for such small, personal scale businesses, and basically not at all for multinational conglomerates with thousands of employees and the inevitable diffuse morass of collective beliefs among so many.  Thus, the subtle form might hold to Masterpiece Bakery but could not not apply to Twitter et al by any stretch of the imagination.  (There is some merit to this subtle form, particularly when many single person ‘businesses’ are formed solely because of the pressures of various tax codes or bank lending policies – and not because of any realistic need for corporate governance and oversight, guards against embezzlement, or protections of shareholders’ interests.)

The stupid form of this argument somehow holds that the legal figment of a person does have free association (excepting explicitly barred protected classes), which is to say corporate personhood is a real concept, and corporate entities have their own distinct agency.  While the Citizens United decision does seem to suggest this theory is accepted it remains one of the most boneheaded things to come out of the dumbest section of the pro-business right – or at least lobbyists who purport to represent the right.  Democrats (once upon a time so recently) knew that and mocked corporate personhood as a concept.  Except now it’s being cheered across social media as the cudgel with which to finally beat Trump into obscurity, so a lot of people have no principles and are just using whatever arguments are most convenient to hand to arrive at the desired conclusion, but I’ve argued that already at length and across several posts.

And I will add that protected classes only became protected classes through the protections afforded to them (however grudgingly) as political dissidents, so this move not only invalidates the underpinnings of the protected classes, it is to bar the way to future civil rights campaigns.  All that is fluff, however – the core problem is the weakening of protections for political dissent at the hands of corporations.

There is a rejoinder to my rejoinder: that ‘freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of consequences’.  This is even dumber than the formulation of worst variation of corporate personhood and it takes but one sentence to dismiss it.  If a king ordains the right to free speech, and proceeds to arrest all speakers he does not like on the basis that the arrest is a mere consequence that does not interfere with the original right to speak, then free speech does not exist.  On some level, free speech means freedom from consequences or it means nothing.  If your response to this is an XKCD comic, then I reply that engineers and scientists are regularly shown to be atrocious philosophers, political or otherwise.  If your response is instead to point to the distinction between private (corporate) and government action, then you’ve missed several points.

To wit: the great danger to civil liberties today is not the government, or at least not the government alone, but corporations, and corporations lack the centuries of accountability people have fought and died to enforce on the government.   All deserve their share of blame – those on the right who bought the corporate personhood theory, those on the left now so eager ‘get Trump’ at the cost of their principles – but time is running late and first causes are becoming less important.  The immediate threat is the corporations.  Media corporations.  Tech corporations.  Social media corporations.  Banking corporations.  It is their power that is being leveraged.

What the left is currently cheering for is the transition from a twentieth century republic to a twenty first century corporate cyberpunk dystopia.  One of Cyberpunk’s enduring tropes is the divide between the clean, shiny lives of the ‘corpos’, that is, those running the corporate treadmill, and the gutter trash who have no access to the technology that forms the firmament of their urban world.  The corpos look down on the gutters for the trash and poverty, and the gutter rats look down on the corpos for the subservience to the corporate machine, but of course neither has any privacy or, in the end, any power over the post-capitalist panopticon.

Perhaps the left sees this as a key moment by which they, rather than the business-obsessed right, can be the corpos in a stunning reversal of expectations.  Though, the gutter rats’ perspective on the corpos is neither flattering nor false…

In any case, we, as a country, have three options.

We can turn around right now and break up these corporations, and further put laws in place that prevent them from going above and beyond the letter of the law.  Once the Bill of Rights only applied to the Federal government, not the states, and it took the Civil War for that to change.  We can now apply Constitutional rights to federal, state, and corporate power now and hopefully forestall whatever violent episodes that will result from the inevitable abuses of such massive power as corporations are now accruing.

We can turn around right now and nationalize all these corporations as natural monopolies, common carriers, essential services, and whatnot, in a move that will be the greatest explosion in government power perhaps ever but will at least mandate that those services be provided under existing protections and electoral accountability for civil liberties without additional legislature.


We can walk into our cyberpunk present.

Frankly, the first two options aren’t looking that great right now, so maybe it’s time to start collecting those LED-trimmed ponchos and umbrellas.  There’s a dark rain coming.



Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.