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Tag: corporatism

Imagining a Cyberpunk Social Safety Net

I’m still thinking about how to structure the rewards for readers who financially support Exolymph. But one of the current ones is that people who contribute $10 via Patreon can choose a topic for me to write about. Beau Gunderson posed the question, “What would a cyberpunk social safety net look like?”


A social safety net is a formalized way of catching people when they fall. Traditionally, the government pays for a few survival-level services, like food stamps and homeless shelters in the United States, or healthcare in more civilized countries. (Sure do love our privatized medical system that totally doesn’t punish the poor!)

But a cyberpunk future-present is dominated by corporations rather than the state — would they be inclined to pick up the slack?

In a way, the ideal version of a cyberpunk social safety net would be a bit like how things used to function for the middle class. You had a decades-long career at a big company; in exchange for your labor and loyalty, they provided your family’s healthcare and a pension. The Baby Boomers are the last generation to participate in this scheme.

1950s motivational posters. Image compilation via Kevin Dooley.

Image compilation via Kevin Dooley.

I don’t mean to romanticize the past — a lot of things about the 1950s through ’90s were awful, especially if you were a person of color, a woman, LGBTQIA, or any combination of the above. Even if you were a straight white man, striking out on your own, whether as an entrepreneur or a societal dropout, was pretty risky. (It’s still pretty risky.)

Regardless, the “work for BigCorp until you turn sixty-five and eat cake at your going-away party” paradigm is being dismantled by the twenty-first century. “Precariat” is a hot buzzword; labor is contingent and people hop from gig to gig.

Workers get shafted unless they have particular scarce skills (like programming or deceiving the public). Broadly speaking, the causes are globalization and technological advances. No need to pay for benefits in [rich country] when workers in [poor country] don’t expect them!

At this point I’m just reviewing things you already know.

One vision of ultra-capitalist social services comes from radical libertarian David Friedman (as quoted by Slate Star Codex):

[A]t some future time there are no government police, but instead private protection agencies. These agencies sell the service of protecting their clients against crime. Perhaps they also guarantee performance by insuring their clients against losses resulting from criminal acts.

How might such protection agencies protect? That would be an economic decision, depending on the costs and effectiveness of different alternatives. On the one extreme, they might limit themselves to passive defenses, installing elaborate locks and alarms. Or they might take no preventive action at all, but make great efforts to hunt down criminals guilty of crimes against their clients. They might maintain foot patrols or squad cars, like our present government police, or they might rely on electronic substitutes. In any case, they would be selling a service to their customers and would have a strong incentive to provide as high a quality of service as possible, at the lowest possible cost. It is reasonable to suppose that the quality of service would be higher and the cost lower than with the present governmental system.

If you want a LOT more speculative detail about edge cases and such, read the SSC review (or Friedman’s book itself). To be clear, I don’t think privatized protection agencies are a good idea.

The cyberpunk social safety net that would be easiest to implement is a sort of collectivized insurance, modeled on Latinx tandas — lending circles. You could probably even incorporate a blockchain to make it trendy — or possibly to make it scale better? I am not a software engineer. Anyway, imagine this:

Every month, fifteen friends put money into a pot, which is kept by a mutually trusted member or a trusted third party (e.g. church pastor or bank safe). Whenever one of the friends has a crisis, like losing their job and needing to cover rent, the necessary funds are dispensed to them.

Before you email me, yes, there are a million ways this would be complex and difficult in practice. What if someone tries to claim something that a third of the group thinks is a illegitimate expense? Okay, majority rules. What about vote brigading? How do you vet people who want to join?

Mixing social relationships and money tends to be tricky.

That doesn’t even address the problem that arises when someone undergoes a real catastrophe and needs hundreds of thousands of dollars to start resolving their issue. But hey, it might be better than nothing. It might help the half of the American population who can’t come up with $400 in an emergency.

If that’s not pessimistic enough for you… I asked members of the chat group to weigh in, and @aboniks elaborated at length:

If this is a cyberpunk vision where people can be digitized, social security is basically a programming exercise, right? The safety net is actually a safety network. Contractors design theme parks for our digitized psyches and call it a day. Or people each get X amount of storage space and X number of processing cycles to run their own virtual retirement. AIs sell them experience-design services. People duplicate themselves with falsified credentials to engage in benefit fraud and increase their storage space.

Political arguments over meatspace benefit levels and healthcare could translate into arguments about involuntarily putting people into hibernation mode. Article 12 of the Digital Rights Act ensures equal access to services, but people with certain neurological conditions are being discriminated against when they apply for control of real-world mobile camera platforms; rich meatspace Thiels find the erratic movement of their drones to be unsightly.

Anyway, however you pitch it in the end, keep in mind that social security is fundamentally about having and not having. It’s going to be the believability of the conflict between the service users and the service providers that makes your vision work. Or not work.

More realistically, I expect we’ll see something like the private prison industry being broken up and reforming as a service provider for social security beneficiaries. The idea that we’re all going to have a 1/1 bungalow with a garden and an aging Labrador in front of a crackling fire… no. Looking at how people with only SS income are living these days, even an institutional housing project with razor-thin profit margins would be a quality-of-life improvement for a lot of urbanites. The extended family is largely a thing of the past unless you go out of your way to make it happen, and the nuclear family is headed the same way. Lots of poverty-line “senior singles” in our future.

I’m still looking into incorporating my family though. The future I’m likely to live through is much more friendly to corporations than it is to humans.

(Lightly edited for style consistency.)

So, what do you think?


Easily the best response, from reader Brett:

Maybe in a cyberpunk social safety net, there would be a (computer) program that would calculate and dictate when volunteers should steal a roll of toilet paper from their work. The toilet paper would be hoarded and then sent along to those who need it. The computer program would subtly manage the rate of stealing across its networks of humans so the thievery is distributed across many different corporations and never detected by competing algorithms looking for “leakage” in their expenses.

Counterintuitive Meshing of Activism and Hashtags

Social media is very cyberpunk. I covered the Facebook-and-censorship angle last week, and Ben Thompson wrote a longer piece on that topic. But think about just the normal, everyday operations on a platform like Twitter.

Twitter's logo as a skull, by Adam Koford.

Twitter’s logo as a skull, by Adam Koford.

For example, Black Lives Matter and its attendant hashtag have flourished in streams of 140 characters or less. (Black people in general are disproportionately represented on Twitter, which is surprising when you consider how many white supremacists flock there.) The mainstream spotlight on BLM waxes and wanes depending on the latest high-profile tragedy, but the group been around for years now.

Twitter's custom #BlackLivesMatter hashtag emoji

Think about how weird that is: a radical justice movement is organizing protests and recruiting supporters via a corporate media distribution service, which is oriented towards earning advertising revenue. Aren’t they at cross-purposes? How strange for the incentives to align. It reminds me of that famous William Gibson quote: “The street finds its own uses for things.”

When BLM activist DeRay McKesson was arrested in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he was wearing a #StayWoke shirt created by Twitter’s in-house diversity group, Blackbirds. It’s the same shirt that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wore onstage at Recode’s flagship tech conference.

Meanwhile, 2% of Twitter’s US employees were black as of August, 2015, compared to 6.7% of Bay Area residents. The company’s “vice president of diversity and inclusion” is a white man in his fifties.

McKesson broadcast his arrest live on Periscope, an app owned by Twitter.

Conversion Ratio

The following short story was written by ReTech and edited for this venue.

Bright neon Wheel of Fortune machine in a casino. Photo by La super Lili.

Photo by La super Lili.

Swen saw the glow from his forearm underneath his shirt. He’d muted his phone, so now someone was pinging him. It was almost an even bet: either his boss or Sully. After a long week it felt nice to be offline, even if it was only for a few ticks.

“Should’ve muted ’em both,” Swen thought as he slid his sleeve up. The loop was swinging underneath the south pass of the Rockies so the cabin dimmed for a moment as the lighting adjusted. His dermdisplay lit up his face as he read: WTF? Need to talk ASAP. You don’t just get recoded and go offline like that. Lemme know where you are. Ping back dammit. (-.-) Sul

Sully might be genuinely worried or he might think that he’d be on the hook. After all, Sully was the one who took him to the clinic, so maybe he was feeling nervous. Swen thought, “I’ll let him sweat till I get to the strip. It’s only twenty more minutes.” He smiled and muted his arm in the same motion as slipping his sleeve back down. The flesh no longer glowed.


Fourteen days ago Swen’s hours had been increased at work. He was given no say in the matter. He was on mandatory rotations for the next three years. Swen had gotten shafted with the most depressing job he could imagine: death-sitter. More accurately, or more officially, “Hospice End-of-Life Observer”. People were too busy to give a shit about a dying family member and headchats just weren’t the same as holding a hand.

Since 2031, WellSys had mandated death-sitters as part of their Grace in Dying initiative. Marketing had originally called it Dignity in Life and Death Options. Apparently not a single person working on the multimillion-coin campaign had abbreviated that. Exactly two hours after the campaign hit the feeds, DILDO was pulled and rebranded as the GD hospice plan. The lesser of two evils.


Thirteen days ago Swen held the hand of a 147-year-old woman who did not receive one call, one text, a single feed mention, nor have anyone claim her things after she died. This was not the sad part to Swen. Millions died like that every year. What made him maudlin was that he’d end up in a bed the same way, in a hundred or so years. The thought of some young forty-year-old sitting with him as he died, just because the kid had to, was repulsive enough.

But the thought of an adventureless life nauseated Swen.


Twelve days ago, he asked Sully if he still had friends that recoded. Swen didn’t try to get Sully drunk first. He didn’t do it over dinner or in some coy fashion, just-so-happening to mention the topic in conversation. Instead Swen walked into Sully’s apartment, smiled, said hello, kissed him lightly, and asked matter-of-factly: “Can you get me in touch with a recoder? I’m tired of being on basic and I want to make enough money so I’m not stuck anymore.”

Sully paused mid-breath for a moment. A slice of black hair slid down over his left eye. He didn’t bother to push it back. He didn’t even bother to breath until his brain reminded him to. Then, slowly, he sputtered: “Is this legal money or illegal?”

Swen’s smile broadened. “It’s legal if you win it.”

Read more

Corporate Ecology

Sci-fi author Charlie Stross wrote the following in 2010:

“Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.) […]

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don’t bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.”

This is true to an extent, insofar as any way of regarding a system can be true. But it’s more complex than what Stross has laid out. Real life is always more complex than the aesthetically appealing description.

To grab the most recent counterexample, the results of the Brexit referendum were abhorrent to London’s financial sector. It remains to be seen whether and how the UK will withdraw from the EU, or if it will have to relinquish Scotland in the process, but it’s pretty clear that outcomes fiercely opposed by the corporatized elite can come to pass and gain tremendous public prominence.

This is also a simplification: “those who participate within [a corporation] subordinate their goals to that of the collective”. Not exactly. I might say “those who participate in a given system act according to the system’s incentive structure” instead.

You get ahead in a big company — companies of most sizes, actually — by making your boss look good. Raises and promotions are allocated to employees who boost their supervisors’ status. (Wisdom from my dad, who’s worked for the same giant enterprise tech company for thirty years.) Making your boss look good may or may not align with helping the company succeed as a whole.

In 2007, political humorist and journalist Jon Schwarz defined the Iron Law of Institutions:

“[T]he people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution ‘fail’ while they remain in powerwithin the institution than for the institution to ‘succeed’ if that requires them to lose power within the institution.” [Italics in original.]

This could be summarized as “people care about their status among members of their ingroup, not members of the outgroup(s)”. Almost all cultural entities — and corporations are encrusted with culture — can be examined as communities going through hipster hype cycles and jockeying for power among themselves.

But of course, reality is also more complex than this paradigm. People can and do raise a cause above their individual wellbeing.

Corporations are assemblages of different types of people arranged in various idiosyncratic feedback loops. For the corporation to be sufficiently successful and stick around, the system must be reasonably optimized for its own survival. But it doesn’t have to work well from any objective standpoint. It can lurch in one direction or another on both macro and micro levels (the infamous Nokia acquisition and employee rating system are beautiful examples).

Anyway, we should not forget that regarding a company as a united entity with clear goals is just a rhetorical device, not a 1:1 reflection of reality.

Suicide Mortgages for the Digitized Self

"My suicide mortgage is 80% paid," meaning 80% of the digital self-copies you pledged into slavery have earned their deaths

@ctrlcreep on Twitter.

This idea of a “suicide mortgage” that @ctrlcreep came up with is fascinating. They expanded the concept on Tumblr:

“Death is not as easy as deleting a file: the powers that be work to preserve, do not grant you root access to your self, insist that you persist even as they chide you for burdening the system, move you to welfare servers, and ration your access to escapism. […] Euthanasia permits are the only way out, but their price is steep […] Under suicide mortgages, [exploitative] corporations sponsor swarms of copies, who work non-stop, pooling their wages to buy up euthanasia permits. Permits are then raffled off, and the winning copy meets death far sooner than would have otherwise been possible. Somebody who says his suicide mortgage is 5% paid means that 5% of his copies have earned oblivion.”

The appeal of this system to the “buyer” of the mortgage — who is a fully digitized person, which is why they’re unable to die in the first place — is that they might get to be the first copy deleted. However, intuitively, as the pool of copies working together gets smaller, they earn less, and it takes longer to buy the next euthanasia permit. Eventually the mortgage isn’t sufficiently useful anymore, and maybe each remaining copy arranges for its own suicide mortgage. The original digital self’s clones proliferate again.

Of course, there’s a hole in this idea: why use digitized selves for labor in the first place? In a future where we’ve figured out how to upload humans, we’ve certainly also figured out how to make artificially intelligent algorithms and scripts and programs, etc, etc. Maybe there’s some kind of draconian intellectual property regime that makes it more expensive to use AI than digitized human laborers? That seems fitting.

I’m sure there’s a startup in this imagined ecosystem trying to disrupt the suicide mortgage financiers. Let’s root for them, I guess.

Foozles + Whizgigs + Dopamine

“Humans are actually extremely good at certain types of data processing. Especially when there are only few data points available. Computers fail with proper decision making when they lack data. Humans often actually don’t.” — Martin Weigert on his blog Meshed Society

Weigert is referring to intuition. In a metaphorical way, human minds function like unsupervised machine learning algorithms. We absorb data — experiences and anecdotes — and we spit out predictions and decisions. We define the problem space based on the inputs we encounter and define the set of acceptable answers based on the reactions we get from the world.

There’s no guarantee of accuracy, or even of usefulness. It’s just a system of inputs and outputs that bounce against the given parameters. And it’s always in flux — we iterate toward a moving reward state, eager to feel sated in a way that a computer could never understand. In a way that we can never actually achieve. (What is this “contentment” you speak of?)

Computer memory space. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Kate Losse wrote in reference to the whole Facebook “Trending Topics” debacle:

“no choice a human or business makes when constructing an algorithm is in fact ‘neutral,’ it is simply what that human or business finds to be most valuable to them.”

That’s the reward state. Have you generated a result that is judged to be valuable? Have a dopamine hit. Have some money. Have all the accoutrements of capitalist success. Have a wife and a car and two-point-five kids and keep absorbing data and keep spitting back opinions and actions. If you deviate from the norms that we’ve collectively evolved to prize, then your dopamine machine will be disabled.

It’s only a matter of time until we make this relationship more explicit, right? Your job regulating the production of foozles and whizgigs will require brain stem and cortical access. You can be zapped with fear or drowned in pleasure whenever it suits the suits.

Large Nonbiological Organisms

Back in late January, ReTech sent me this email. He gave me permission to distribute it.


My observations over my life have shown me that once humans create an organization it becomes a living system independent of its creators and members. To wit, it satisfies some basic rules of a living organic system. If you look at Apple or any other corporation, this becomes painfully apparent. Same goes for any government agency.

Image via al tuttle.

Image via al tuttle.

  1. collect resources / food to sustain life
  2. protect self
  3. propagate self
  4. spread / integrate into established environment
  5. create perception of need AKA mask / hide to help protect and spread

This came to light when I was reading about the March of Dimes’ original charter and how they evolved.

This is all my opinion and completely subject to the bullshit rule: everything is 99% bullshit and 1% truth. So take it for what it is.


ReTech is one of the most interesting people I’ve met through this project. He’s on Facebook as well.

Quick Anarchism

The essence of cyberpunk is anti-corporatism. All the other principles follow from this. Technology wielded by a large company must be combated, by the police (hence Ghost in the Shell) or by hackers (hence The Matrix). A corporation is a quasi-governmental economic organization — a power structure that coalesces in favor of profit.

Personally, I am not inherently opposed to market operations. But I am opposed to power beyond oversight, which corporations tend to aggregate for themselves. Why wouldn’t they? We need to provide them with alternative incentives — selfish motivation is key. The system must be constructed so that personal benefit is good for others as well.