Ethnology S1 Cyberpunks
2056. If the 20th century was the story of emerging technologies, the first half of the 21st century is the battle for ownership and access of technology. Nothing new there. But it’s not all bad news. Advances in nearly all areas of science and engineering mean that, on average, humanity is plugging along. Food and nutritional substitutes keep starvation numbers low. Cheaper manufacturing methods make basic tech access ubiquitous; internet access reaches 97% of the human population.
At the edges, life looks different. Wealth inequality, racial injustice, and extreme climate events force unpredictable shifts in power. Money accumulates in one quarter, a mass revolt or lone hacker pushes back. Migrants move to escape political, economic, or environmental threats, a billionaire sees an opportunity to become a trillionaire. Punks flock to these contested zones, looking for justice or opportunity. Sometimes both. Untethered to existing social systems, millions of humans—and thousands of humanoid robots—believe the same thing: live independently or become the plaything of governments and the wealthy.
How did we end up here? A few major historical events combined to make the world the way it is now.
By the 2040s, several startups tried and failed to build synthetic humans—robots so lifelike they could be humans. The billionaires who lost all their money trying to make this Sci-Fi trope a reality failed to see a simple trend. Humans want robots to be like pets, not like peers. Roombas over Replicants. One company managed to make highly evolved, incredibly sophisticated humanoid robots, but the success of the design didn’t matter when the public was more into purpose-built tasking robots. Over 50,000 robots were made before the company went bankrupt. People used robot parts as prosthetics, and computing power for other machines after the robot companies abandoned the humanoid project. The remaining robots are out in the world, living independent lives and, like humans of 2056, are just trying to make their way in the world.
The big developments in energy gave new opportunity for increased mobility. By 2032, Safe, clean nuclear fusion power was a reality. Combined with giant leaps in green energy, electricity became very cheap and readily available. The groundbreaking development of artificial graphene, combined with new polymers and waste recycling methods presented the world with energy storage to meet the needs of highly mobile populations. Inventors giving away this renewable resource specifications for free meant that this open-source technology assisted the jet-setting wealthy and the migrant workers. Everyone could have small, cheap, batteries that can store 1000x the capacity of previous Lithium ion batteries, while holding the charge indefinitely and filling to capacity in seconds. Supplied with water, food, and these portable power stations, living off the grid became much easier.
Wealth inequality, volatile economies, climate disasters, and racial injustice continued to motivate upheavals and large movements of people away from trouble or towards safety. With new technologies easily poached from vulnerable servers and handed out by growing cadre of Robin Hood hackers, and the cheap and customizable graphene batteries, millions of people began to cut ties with traditional socio-economic and political systems. Why stay in this physical location when you can be your own power station and communications system? Computers are tiny and powerful, wifi and other connectivities are abundant all over the planet. At first it was the doomsday preppers who pulled away from society. But quickly millions found security and opportunity in being a completely independent, sovereign entity. Part mercenary, part freelancer, part temp worker, millions of people strike out and look for work and adventure. Many of them use technology they have stolen, modified, customized, and created to earn money, fight injustice, commit crimes, or just have fun.
They all have a punk ethos: the status quo cannot continue, and revolution is coming.
But ya gotta eat, so earn some cash while you fight the man.
Robots, or Stewart’s Folly
Dr. Merit Vredenburg spent the 2010s and 2020s developing next generation machine learning for self-driving cars. In the early 2020s, they felt uneasy about the industry reality that human death was an inevitability and even within “acceptable risk” to achieve ubiquity. An encounter with billionaire Stewart Foley caused an industry shift. Vredenburg convinced Foley’s deep pockets to move into humanoid robots. A huge sci-fi fan and non-binary advocate, Vredenburg saw promise in making highly realistic humanoid robots to evolve the way humans understand humanity in the next millennium. Foley saw vast riches, helped by Vredenburg’s masterful stroking of Foley’s already massive ego. Seeking empathetic technology without a high body count, the Tyros Corporation (A portmanteau of Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation and Karl Capek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots) sought to make truly realistic humans that would redefine humanity and identity by 2040.
The task of making a synthetic human is unbelievably daunting. Presuming humans were capable of creating a self-sustaining AI as the “brain”, and even “personality” of the unit, the physical engineering of the body and systems would require several major leaps in chemistry, metallurgy, physics, energy storage, biological synthetics and more. The “mouth team” spent nearly US$200m alone, trying to develop articulated soft tissue for lips, tongue, and hundreds of small sensor arrays in the jaw and gums. Everything about the project became quixotic and complex. Eyeballs, toes, muscles, hair; all miracles of evolution and insanely complicated, even for the smartest minds of 2030. And then there was the question of overwrought designing. Should a synthetic human eat? Even if it was for show? What systems would then be required for that? Chewing motions, proper swallowing and storage of chewed food, then a “digestive system” for waste removal would need to be designed and implemented. How do you make realistic skin? How do you stay away from the uncanny valley cringes that come with falling short of perfect simulation? With costs approaching $1trillion, sacrifices to the design meant settling on a first version that, while an astonishing accomplishment, was far from a convincing human.
Synthetic skin, at first biologically produced then eventually more chemically made from rubber and polymers, was limited to hands, and the robots would all wear jumpsuits and shoes to save on skinning. The face never approached convincing, scaring focus groups with the dead eyes and strange lip curls. A small team building sensor arrays for the robot devised a clever solution making a micron-thick curving screen that would show a variety of faces on the same mannequin head. It was a compromise Dr. Vredenburg should have learned from early on: people respond to non-human faces all the time. As long as they move with empathy and connection, it doesn’t have to fool anyone. Puppets and dogs sneezing can delight people for their moments of humanity. In the end, the robots were a strange mix of hyper realism, exposed parts, and very lifelike but flat faces. By 2040, 50,000 units were in the field, but other robots made directly to address specific tasks with inventive form factors (called “Roomba’s Children” for their efficient, task-specific designs) were far more sophisticated and easier to build. Humanoid robots went the way of flying cars—a sci-fi staple that provided delight in the imagination, but conceptually incompatible with the reality of human interaction and needs. In the end, humanoid robots fell in the chasm between technology that enhanced human abilities and developments in genetic engineering/cloning that directly enhanced humans from birth.
Thanks to the sophisticated development of the robot brains and alleged independent intelligence, questions remain about the ethics of harvesting the robots for parts, as was common after Tyros Corp folded. Millions of components, from microprocessors to fully-assembled robotic limbs, flooded the streets before Tyros Corp could sell off its inventory. Activists Have suggested that independently functioning robots should receive protected status. Legislation is stalled as two factions bicker over competing proposals: animal rights activists want to protect humanoid robots as protected species, while human rights activists want to give humanoid robots autonomous civil rights.
Batteries Now Included
By 2032, physicists had created stable Nuclear Fusion Power Plants, but that was only useful if you happen to run a small country or you launch space missions to Jupiter. Energy became plentiful and efficient, but still centralized and controlled by governments and corporations.
In the aftermath of failed personal power plant startups, energy technologies found new directions after Graeme Tufnell and Aadriti Mukesh, husband-and-wife chemists at Oxford, developed a fast and inexpensive process for making artificial graphene. This superconductor material, made from natural graphite, had long been known to be the future of capacitive and conductive technology, but was difficult and expensive to produce in quantity. Apurva Singh, chemistry student under Tufnell-Mukesh, struck gold a year later when his Bengaluru, India startup Chikara (after the Japanese word for “energy”) released the first mass-produced solid-state battery based on cheap and plentiful graphene. Holding 100x the charge of lithium-ion, filling from empty to full in seconds, and offering near-zero capacitive resistance, Chikara batteries made every device lighter and smaller. Within a few years, over-the-air charging and infinitely expanding configurations with graphene supplements meant big Fusion Energy produced in central locations could be easily distributed and indefinitely stored by anyone.
In 2038, Italian chemist Nicoletta Fiore accidentally discovered a compound to rearrange polymer molecules, making any plastic as tough as tungsten. Within a year, Fiore was able to stabilize the process, allowing her to use small drops of the compound on plastic waste, temporarily melting the plastic and rendering it moldable into any shape before hardening in about an hour. Since there is no heat involved, and the compound is non-toxic, anyone could take a plastic milk jug and reform it by hand into any shape. No special equipment required! Her new company Plasto produced the compound as a new recycling process usable by anyone.
2042 began with a bang. A fire in one of the Chikara factories caused a setback in production, temporarily crashing the crypto market. Blockchain became highly dependent on graphene batteries to allow nano-second ledger transactions among mobile and off-shore servers far from centralized government power sources, and any disruptions to the process would ripple through the markets. In the aftermath, Chikara announced a partnership with Plasto. In that fire, a graphene storage unit melted in the same lab where Chikara engineers were using Plasto to recycle battery housings. One engineer noticed that some Plasto and graphene had fused. A chunk of lightweight plastic, as durable as any metal, was now exhibiting conductive and capacitive properties of graphene.
Plasto-Chikara was born. The solid-state battery was now easily moldable and shapeable with ease. A user could shape a hunk of Plasto-Chikara (affectionately called PlasChik) and while soft, embed nano/microcontrollers, sensors, transmitters and more. Using a manifold parser, the user didn’t even need to connect the components with traditional circuitry. The microcontroller simply “recognized” any components embedded in the highly conductive PlasChik. With a handful of parts, anyone could make a computer, a Wi-Fi repeater, or even bionic augmentations. Fiore and Singh earned billions.
The Plasto Foundation, Fiore’s charitable NGO, gave components and millions of PlasChik kits to impoverished regions and oppressed people. Fiore gave nearly all her wealth to these efforts, living modestly as her net worth went towards charitable goals. The global south quickly built free and accessible electricity and wireless infrastructures. African and South American citizens were now connected and electrified. Several regions experienced “Orchid Revolutions”, peaceful uprisings against oppressive regimes, coordinated over untraceable devices named after the vaguely purple tint of their hardened PlasChik. Dozens of countries mired in poverty, exploited by richer nations, and ruled by despots, took real steps towards self-rule and new economic prospects. Fiore won the 2047 Nobel Peace Prize, dedicating the award to the dispossessed, the displaced, and the world regions too often regarded as the first world’s property.
In 2049, Fiore and Singh had a falling out. Singh had visions of interplanetary colonization and leaving a dying Earth behind. Yes, the Green China Initiative was turning the tide of climate change, but it wasn’t fast enough. The environmental catastrophe had slowed, but it was still coming. The hyper-rich planned their exodus. Fiore, raised an Italian Socialist by university professor parents, and now a global icon in human rights, became increasingly uncomfortable with Singh and the stingy oligarchical class, especially the heirs to early 20th century billionaires (Singh was rumored to be pursuing an extraterrestrial rendezvous on his planned Mars development with X Æ Musk).
Later that year, Fiore published the Plasto compound formula and the top secret process for blending abundant and cheap artificial graphene sheets at home. Every engineer, scientist, and DIY techie now had powerful, lightweight custom batteries whenever they wanted and no profit-making oligopoly in the way to deter them. Official Chikara batteries were now obsolete. Global markets collapsed under the threat of free and open source power. In the shuffle, international conglomerates tanked, while smaller independent collaboratives emerged. Fiore, ever aware of history, published the open source data on the 15th anniversary of the 44-Hour Coup, a radical theft and open publication of all proprietary technologies in Shenzhen, China. These two events, connected by global redistribution of intellectual “property”, became known as Radical Open Source (ROS) events (this is the term preferred by nation-states and apolitical parties; end users and beneficiaries of the ROS event prefer “Revolutionary Open Source”).
Redistribution of wealth, information, and technology comes with a price. National economies became unstable. While there was no threat of government collapse or imminent anarchy, governments struggled to adjust to their loss of monopolies on economies and citizenship. Wars continued to crop up, but conventional warfare became rare, as state-sponsored cyberterrorism and full cyber-incursions proved efficient ways to defeat your enemy. A slim majority of the world’s 14 billion people still participate in a “traditional economy”, defined as fiat currency exchanged for defined labor roles. Another 15% work steady jobs as in a traditional economy, but for cryptocurrency or other non-fiat compensation. It is estimated that over 500 million laborers worldwide are unaffiliated (no consistent employer/sponsor) uncitizens (voluntary rejection of citizenship benefits and responsibilities). These UU (“Double U”, “W”, “Dubs”, or “Dubdubs”) have traded the connection to standard economic practice for “superfree lance” living: earning goods, service-in-trade, currency, etc. from their technological skills, expertise and cunning.
Living mostly online to connect with prospects and access information, the UU movement promotes any legal or illegal activity that creates a benefit. For some, this is gathering wealth (personal benefit). For others, it’s Robin Hood actions (societal benefit). For most, it’s simply gig work, trading tax liability and government intrusion for independence (benefit of self-direction). While much of this work is legal, it may be dangerous. UUs often quip: “being super-free sometimes requires a lance.”
Unaffilited Uncitizens find work anywhere in the world, feeling decreasing affiliation with geography or regional culture. They grew up under the first Gig Generation, where early 21st century “killer apps” promised independence and provided slave wages. Today’s UUs saw how the old gig economy broke their parents and leveraged open tech access to untether from tyrannical big tech. To the UUs, unplugging from national citizenship means plugging into self-determination. Perhaps unsurprisingly, wealthy citizens flocked to UU status, seizing an opportunity to shelter fortunes, even though most earned their fortunes by playing the crypto markets completely out of governmental view. Many earned billions in cryptocurrency investment schemes, so-called “Wedge Funds”—a play on “hedge fund” with “Double-U status”, and Star Wars character Wedge, Death Star destroyer and idol to hyper-masculine tech investors self-styling as antigovernment, anti-tax, anti-oversight renegades. Rich UUs thought their superior tech (military prototypes, high end manufactured gear—yes, Apple and Google are still around making super slick and glossy tech) would mean easy earnings. But after a series of well-publicized hijackings, brain dumps, IRL robberies, murders, and cryptoswipes, rich UUs got nervous. Their money and tech were quickly taken and sent around the world, equipping average UUs with high-end gear. With the playing field leveling, the rich were on the run from relentless, unregulated Robin Hood hackers and malicious killers alike. When billionaires realized that their former governments not only had no jurisdiction, but also no responsibility to an aggrieved UU, the wealthy applied for asylum.
For a time, national governments bolstered their economies charging billionaires enormous sums and high future tax rates for regaining citizenship status and promising to investigate every crime on the wealthy former UUs. (To date, no one has ever been caught or prosecuted for any of these crimes).
Opinion has shifted over the last five years, but nearly 45% of American Citizens find UUs “disruptive to traditional economics”, and “violently antiestablishment.” An overwhelming 87% of those also say that the “counterculture” nature of UUs “threatens their (fiat currency) economic choices”, suggesting that negative opinion of superfree lancers stems from threats to personal economic survival.
In 2056, the UN brokered an international agreement known as Schengen II, or “Next Schengen”, named after the open-border agreement in European Nations. Schengen II allowed citizens of nations to reject citizenship to any nation but not face deportation or prosecution for merely residing in a country. They must register as an Unaffiliated Uncitizen (the registry stored on a blockchain ledger far from governmental access). They don’t pay any taxes, but they must also forgo using resources reserved for taxpayers. Since most UUs have power, internet access, and basic bionic equipment made from PlasChik, many opt for the freedom despite potential personal risk. This does not protect UUs from prosecution for illegal activity (digital or IRL), so a hacker, thief, assassin, drug runner, bionic poacher, or organ harvester are not immune from arrest and conviction. But for the code makers, scavengers, developers, data miners, crypto skimmers, Hz riders, donglers, technoevangelists, and other laborers looking to make a living, it’s a good deal.
There’s so much opportunity in the world.
And with all kinds of tech—from DIY kit made from upcycled PlasChik to military-grade weapons to custom gear made by/for wealthy tech families—anyone can put together a combination of gear to make a life in the 2060s.
ENTER THE LEGEND