The absolute worst that can happen in 2019, or, Imagining a dystopian corporatocracy emerge after a permanent government collapse
Let’s kick off this dystopian nightmare with a scene from the final episode of Travelers. Travelers is a Netflix show where humans in the future — at a time when humanity is on the brink of extinction — transport their consciousness back in time (to our present day) to correct the chain of events that led to the escalating catastrophes and decimation of humanity. In the final episode of season 3, Grant MacLaren, one of the Traveler team leaders, explains to the FBI director (who is not a traveler) what went wrong to cause the future decline:
It’s a sobering scene. The idea is that events can compound in a rapidly escalating way, creating massive change in a short amount of time. MacLaren identifies a particular decade as a turning point for the decline. What if 2019 turns out to be one of those turning points? Given the state of affairs, I don’t think anyone would rule it out. So let’s imagine the absolute worst that can happen.
(By the way, this is not my typical post. Instead, it’s my fun, winter-holiday-take-a-break-from-being-serious post. If you’re looking to learn something about tech comm, you can skip this one.)
2019 starts out with the government still in shutdown, the markets in turmoil. The stock market has been going downhill, with uncertainty not only on U.S. soil but across the rest of the world as well. Brexit threatens to destabilize Europe. The trade war with China threatens to disrupt exchanges of goods. Relations with Mexico and Canada are also strained and fragile. North Korea keeps up their nuclear missile development.
In all this political turmoil, Trump tries to retain a foothold of power. He holds out on his demands to build the wall, seeing this as the building blocks of his larger plans to secure America and his credibility. The shutdown continues a few more weeks than anyone anticipates.
After weeks of standoff, the public, tired of the political logjam, demands a compromise to facilitate progress. And what is the compromise? Instead of a physical wall, the solution involves high-tech drone surveillance and monitoring. A series of sensors and autonomous drones, controlled through sophisticated AI programs, monitoring the southern border with more accuracy and intrusion detection than a physical wall could provide. Congress approves the drone-tech solution, reasoning that the same technology developed for the wall might be used for military purposes as well. A drone developed to guard a border can just as well protect American bases from insurgents abroad.
The drone protection is implemented quickly. The autonomous drones connect with sensors on the ground, which also interface with monitors in cameras, gates, and other dynamic alerts. One IoT sensor acts on data from another — detection of movement on the ground sends signals for more focus and fly-bys from the drones, and so on.
But like a spider who is tapped in front and retreats directly into a cup waiting behind it, the mesh of drones, sensors, and IoT devices play right into the plans of the enemies. Hackers turn the mesh of devices into a botnet that creates distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on larger systems. First, the drone protection program is brought down through the DDoS, but then the hackers soon penetrate other air traffic as well. Air travel comes to a halt, disrupting business and market stability.
With many government servers down due to DDoS attacks, tech teams scramble to restore stability and go back online, but other countries use it as an opportunity to step up their attacks. Cyber warfare escalates. Foreign hackers try to destabilize as many systems as they can — nuclear facilities, hydro-electric dams, communication systems, the Treasury, and more. It’s not an overnight takeover. There are wins and losses and both sides, like a traditional battle. One side wins one resource only to lose another.
In the midst of the cyber assault, massive roid-raged hurricanes, double or triple the size of anything seen before, decimate the east coast. Endless fires ravage the west coast. The government is slow to send relief to devastated areas, and soon the reason surfaces — corruption has spread within, and resources and funding have been depleted.
The hurricane/fire victims erupt in anger. Meanwhile, the government still struggles to defend itself against cyber enemies. As soon as one computer system goes back online, another is brought down again. The people grow restless and impatient. They want the government to attack, but who and where? The locations where command centers wage their cyber-attacks remains fuzzy, unknown. Aerial bombing campaigns prove ineffective and result only in massive civilian casualties, enraging pacifists and other moral objectors. Protests fill the streets of Washington. Russians amplify their polarizing campaigns in social media, sowing division and escalating social chaos. It’s impossible to know what’s real news anymore.
The confidence of the American people in their government wanes. Not only has corruption spread but the government officials also lack the sophistication and bandwidth to get out from under the cyber attacks and misinformation. They can’t seem to make progress to bring back normality. Private companies start to step up their game, promising protection, outlining solutions. Private companies yield massive wealth and have the bandwidth of thousands of highly skilled engineers.
Federal functions become more and more privatized. Big tech companies start playing critical roles in military weapons development, healthcare, security, intelligence gathering, natural disaster relief, and more. They can do it better, faster, and cheaper than the government ever did.
At first, the government tries to contract out the work, but the funding for the needed initiatives is too high. The government can’t afford the services they need at the scale they need them. The tech companies compensate, but only by dual-purposing the developed technologies. They have profit motives — they have to sustain revenue to survive. Every solution they develop must provide additional functions in a capitalistic enterprise. Build it for the government, but also sell it to others. This is the only way for corporations to thrive long-term.
A handful of big tech companies expand and expand. Monopolies and regulations are relaxed out of necessity to let the corporations grow stronger. Stock buybacks are freely allowed, monopoly regulations are relaxed. Corporations become more powerful and dominating. They privatize their control and decision-making. Small companies are squeezed out. Startups are almost extinct. The handful of big tech companies command tens of thousands of engineering resources in solving the crises. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook start building out their empires, expanding their reach into new markets, buying up competitors and consuming markets entirely. Facebook rebrands to “Playbook,” promising to execute on corporate media and PR initiatives with unprecedented influence.
The government tries to curtail corporate power through more regulation. Not just privacy regulations, but regulations about board member elections and constituency, regulations about competition and trust limitations. But the government is simply bullied over. Already in so many contracts and dependent relationships with these companies from critical services, the government can exert little influence or pushback. Government funds are nearly bankrupt. They try to raise taxes, but the people rebel, citing corruption. The tech elite override and overshadow the government’s power.
The private corporations manage to defeat foreign cyber-attacks and information meddling. They secure the country again, though the government has learned its place. With these wins, big tech corporations gain the confidence of the people. The people perceive the government as weak, outdated, feeble, dependent. The tech companies extort the government for more freedom and even less regulatory governance. Soon the government becomes a puppet of the tech companies. The tech elites take on senator-like power and the president’s role changes to one who tries to arbitrate among them, to steer them in desired directions but with no real control.
Without regulation, tech companies dig in to make their apps more sticky, more addictive, more profit-driven. Social and streaming media fuel this stickiness. The Internet, once seen as democratizing force that leveled the playing field, is now an unrestricted means for cognitive distortion. Companies give out smartphones, tablets, and computers for free. The more devices in homes and public spaces, the better. Companies manufacture all kinds of devices at alarming rates. Devices for every living space and scenario. All the devices are bundled with periodic advertising, with a suite of programs that users cannot uninstall. Companies learn to control and manipulate users through their addiction and dependence on these devices.
TV fully merges with the Internet. Cable is obsolete. Everything is an app, rendered visuals on a screen. Screens are embedded everywhere in society — screens in the kitchen, living room, bathroom, garage, on buses, public bathrooms, libraries, parks. People are desensitized and distracted, numbed. Views and clicks and other metrics are 100% trackable. PII policies exist only as a joke. The algorithms driving advertising become much more precise and granular. The always-on devices are always listening, and with supercomputers processing the data in real time, a conversation you have at the breakfast table about one topic leads to a saturation of ads about the topic at lunch and dinner. The devices are free — every first-world tech is free — as long as you give up your privacy. This is the only cost, and it is one people are willing to trade for the devices.
There are Luddite groups that try to steer clear of devices. They throw away their phones, get rid of TVs, and do not accept the constant handout of free devices. But they find they cannot get by very easily. Societal structures evolve to reinforce the need for devices to live. Phone numbers are required for employment, for credit cards, for any registration. Landlines don’t exist. Carriers support only smartphones. Credit cards are required for every transaction, and almost all transactions take place online only, through web interfaces. Without the Internet, you can’t set up or pay for utilities, rent, or food. Driving apps, maps, health monitoring, appointments, work profiles — you can’t function in society without being fully connected and hooked in. You need the devices to function, but they also influence how you function.
People become intertwined with their devices, and the algorithms that personalize the advertising become smarter. Progressive iterations of A/B testing ratchet up the effectiveness of AI-driven algorithms in influential ways. AIs teaching AIs, zeroing in users with infinite loops of learned adjustment. Every time an ad is shown, the user’s response impacts the algorithm, making the next ad more targeted, more impactful.
Tech advancements with health monitoring advance. Wearable devices not only tell you your heart rate but build a health profile and disposition as well. Genetic profiling and data science combine with a 90 percent accuracy rate to predict health risks and dangers across the population — health monitoring can detect early signs of cancer, brain tumors or other diseases, signs of diabetes and other health issues. You can abstain from these health monitors, but the risk to your health is too great.
Almost everyone is hooked up to real-time health monitoring — bracelets that constantly monitor heart rate, oxygen levels, degrees of stress, movement, blood sugar levels, and more. The equipment is free, provided by tech companies controlling healthcare. The incoming data is crunched and correlated, making it more accurate and predictive. Genetic sequencing massively improves the insights of health analyses, making it impossible for people to pass up in favor of privacy. People sacrifice privacy for the sake of disease prevention. This is the cost of health. Insurance companies switch to selling prevention rather than care post-diagnosis.
With innovations in AI, many low-level jobs are eliminated, making work more scarce. Universal Basic Income keeps the masses afloat and relatively appeased, but more ambitious workers strive to fill high-profile jobs at companies. Companies learn to gamify salaries through efficiency-producing incentives. Employees willing to participate in learning programs, on-campus housing, on-site meals, and focus groups receive salary increases and bonuses.
Recognizing the productivity boost, companies offer additional incentives around employee diet, sleep, and exercise regiments to improve employee health and work efficiency. These additional restrictions aren’t mandatory, but for those willing, the extra salary boosts pay by 30% or more. As the economy grows tighter and the cost of living rises (due to the salary boost from participating workers), other workers can’t afford not to participate in the programs.
Corporations expand into mini-cities, replacing the traditional city boundaries with centralized workplaces. A corporate city grid consists of many miles of employees all working at the same company. Shuttles and other company-provided transportation allow employees to arrive on campus in a timely, efficient way. Companies even issue their own form of money in each city grid. This currency reinforces employee loyalty and adherence. With provisions for scholarships, daycare, and retirement options, funded through company-specific currency, companies lock employees in for the long-term. Companies also provide climate incentives in their respective city grids. Clean air and water are company perks. Those outside the city grids pick their way through trash heaps and tainted water. Air quality outside the grids is poorer, as non-city grids lack the colossal air filtration systems present in city-grid areas.
Smaller companies trying to compete in niche markets can’t offer the same full-service living arrangements and incentives as big corporations. To compensate, they go fully distributed and remote. Workers in these small companies don’t earn enough to survive and thrive, especially competing against global resources. They move to other countries, become entirely virtual, representing themselves through internet connections and online avatars. They are cut off from their nation, traveling from place to place like nomads as they make their way through lawless, unprotected world regions.
Their fluency with the language, once a distinguishing capability that allowed dominance in their profession, is leveled through advanced language checkers that smooth out writing, identify grammar and stylistic roughness, and make even the most inarticulate foreign speaker sound native. Translation algorithms convert any language into near-perfect English.
Given the scarcity of employment, people feel lucky to work in a corporate city grid. Corporate workers are slow to participate in any moral opposition efforts since doing so would lead to expulsion to the nomadic lifestyle outside the city grid. Corporate workers dedicate long hours, making a comfortable salary inside the corporate bubble. Their spare time is short, and they often relish the clean water and air while watching their children excel in their private corporate schools and colleges. From time to time they hear news of the outside world, and it deepens their engagement and loyalty to your company, their nation.
So this is just about the worst that can happen in 2019. Corporatocracies replace government functions, internalize the workforce into city grids, and enslave workers by protecting them from a world in disarray. Welcome to the future!
Post note: Do I really think any of this will happen in 2019? Not really. In reality, we’ll probably see greater government regulation holding corporations in check, and more regulations to control data privacy and disrupt trusts and monopolies on the markets. But that’s not to say some highly transformative events couldn’t shift this balance and send us in another direction.
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About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.