The long-awaited video game Cyberpunk 2077 came out as an unfinished product with a bunch of technical flaws, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most important cultural phenomenons of recent years. And while some gamers are asking for refunds and the developers are hurriedly working on patches, I suggest we look at the enormously rich video game setting.
The picture is not very nice — this world is a real centralized hell. In the fictional world of Cyberpunk 2077, blockchain technology either never existed or was never massively implemented. This is a world where full-scale decentralization was never achieved, and the results are frightening.
The world of Cyberpunk 2077
The world of Cyberpunk 2077 is a world ruled by corporations. This is the kingdom of aggressive capitalism in its worst possible form — of a kind by which North Korea and the Soviet Union could scare their citizens.
Corporations here are not just big companies providing society with services and products. Rather, in this world, corporations are mighty, sinister entities striving for infinite power. Controlling all of the world’s manufacturing, agriculture, media, computing and medical services, these entities act not just as businesses but literally as sovereign nation-states.
Small- and medium-sized corporations of this world act above the law and try to cover the traces. They do not hesitate to use practices such as blackmail, extortion, bribery, espionage or the physical elimination of those standing in their way.
Big corporations of this world are the law. They establish the world governments and give orders to their own trained puppet politicians.
Night City, the city where the game takes place, is an independent city-state within the territory of the United States, which is fully controlled by the enormous Arasaka Corporation. The mayor and city council are chosen by corporate representatives, and the city police force mostly consists of so-called “corporate police” — highly paid special forces, loyal to death to their corporate leaders. Corporations, not the government, have a monopoly on violence here.
The corporate business center of Night City is an ultra-modern metropolis, a sparkling city of the future with lavish fortified skyscrapers where corporate offices are located. In areas like this, security is strictly guarded by corporate police, and only a select few — corporate employees — get to work and live there. Also, corporate employees and their families have access to a safe, prosperous suburb, which is also under corporate protection.
In contrast, poor areas of the city are full of violence and crime. These districts are home to the poor and homeless, filled with blocks of ugly high-rise buildings and graffiti-painted abandoned factories.
Various clans rule here: the Triads, the Yakuza and others. The corporate police don’t even look into these parts of the city. These districts are patrolled by ordinary state police, who are equipped and motivated incomparably worse than the corporate ones. These police officers are always ready to look the other way when the case requires it. In addition, the mafia itself often works for the corporations, protecting the corporate interests in those areas.
This dark representation of the city of the future is as far removed from the utopian smart city as possible.
Environmentally friendly companies?
To say that the corporations of Cyberpunk 2077 care little about the environment is to say nothing. They are not just irresponsible to the environment, pouring waste into rivers and polluting the atmosphere — as large companies periodically do in our time — no, they have gone much further.
When at some point two corporations failed to resolve business issues in a typical legal or semi-legal way, they began to openly use military-style warfare against each other. This is how the Corporate Wars began. In the world of Cyberpunk 2077, armed corporate conflicts have become a common business practice.
The corporations waged destructive wars with the use of nuclear weapons right in the territory of habitable areas. It resulted in huge losses among civilians, as well as in radioactive contamination of the territory. Thanks to the Corporate Wars, huge areas of the U.S. have been turned into lifeless radioactive deserts. In general, outside of Night City, the territory of the U.S. resembles the film Mad Max. This is a radioactive wasteland, filled with dead settlements through which motorcycle gangs of criminals and nomads pass by.
Inequality and the horrors of over-centralization
The cyberpunk genre originated in the 1980s in the U.S. as a reaction to both the development of computer technology and the society of late capitalism, in which large transnational corporations played a huge role.
The closed hierarchical structure of corporations, their excessive centralization, the lack of transparency in their activities and the emergence of huge monopolies led to wealth and benefits being distributed unevenly. Being focused mostly on achieving profits, large conglomerates could often afford to act not in the interests of society but solely in the interests of their own.
At worst, they created accumulated wealth but not prosperity. Their beneficiaries were a narrow circle of top managers and large stockholders, while the majority of the population only lost from high prices for low-quality products produced by monopolies, as well as suffering from collateral environmental damage.
The combination of high-end technologies with huge social inequality is a classic hallmark of the entire cyberpunk genre. This was classically described by authors such as William Gibson and Philip K. Dick. It was also embodied in classic cyberpunk movies like Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic and Robocop.
In the fictional world of the future, many opportunities are technologically available for improving and extending human life — for example, cybernetic implants or the ability to upload one’s consciousness to the network. But these benefits are unevenly distributed. The rich can afford to live forever. The poor, on the other hand, are forced to lead a miserable existence in impoverished, ecologically polluted areas, dying at a young age, either due to diseases associated with an unfavorable environmental situation or because of street crime. The universal health care system, which in the real world could thrive from the use of blockchain technology, is in a monstrously deplorable state.
Are we really going this way?
The current situation
Many experts predicted that with the development of the internet and information technologies since the beginning of the 1990s, huge centralized, monopolistic corporations would become a thing of the past.
Firstly, young tech startups emerged, competing with traditional companies.
Secondly, thanks to the internet, customers could have free access to information about all available companies and products. Now, any small company with its own website could compete with a huge conglomerate spending hundreds of millions of dollars on traditional advertising.
Finally, now any person in any country in the world with access to the internet could provide the services of their intellectual labor to the global market on an equal footing. This could lead to a more even distribution of wealth around the world, as well as to the emergence of a large number of local companies in developing countries.
However, not everything went so smoothly. We have watched small tech startups become huge monopolistic corporations themselves. These new companies were created on the same rigid, centralized hierarchical principles as the megacorporations of the past.
Today, these “new technological startups” have become the so-called Big Tech, which controls most of the world’s data and media. And these companies are not just market monopolists — as we can see, now Big Tech considers it possible and advisable to interfere in the democratic processes of economically developed countries.
Related: The data economy is a dystopian nightmare
Big Tech is known for its censoring of information it does not consider appropriate or politically correct. You can see a certain political agenda even in Google search results, where the visibility of certain materials is reduced but is promoted for others. YouTube and other companies act in a similar way.
Related: YouTube’s sleazy decline into scam promotion
Of course, you need a lot of imagination to bring the current situation to the absolute and imagine that in the near future, Twitter and Facebook may start a nuclear war, say, for the control over the online advertising market, as could happen in the world of Cyberpunk 2077. And yet, the trend is evident.
Blockchain as a solution
In their book Blockchain Revolution, published in 2016, Alex and Don Tapscott detail how blockchain could be used to decentralize big companies. In their opinion, blockchain technology should help rethink the very essence of companies’ work and make it much more transparent. Having a single, independent, reliable ledger of information could help create a new form of management as opposed to the current system of rigid hierarchy.
When every action of managers is displayed on a general ledger that is independent and not controlled by any narrow group of people, the temptation to conduct dubious transactions and cheat with accounting data is much lower. Access to the register can be provided to all interested groups — primarily, to the society and regulatory bodies, but also to the employees of the company.
It will no longer be possible to drain waste into the river or avoid a large tax by bribing an official with impunity. All these actions will immediately appear on the ledger built on the blockchain and become available to the public, including bloggers, journalists and prosecutors.
The use of blockchain makes it possible to create a new, transparent, open company structure as opposed to the current rigid hierarchies of corporations. Using blockchain, you can create a system that will fairly reward employees for actions that both benefit society and generate profit for the company. Thus, social responsibility will be distributed among a large number of people and will be transparent for society — which should reduce the level of corruption, which, as a rule, relies on the illegal actions of individuals.
The use of blockchain makes it technically possible to create more responsible, transparent business structures — which, in turn, can save us from the centralized hell that is shown in Cyberpunk 2077 and similar works.
But will business leaders agree to move to these new, transparent business practices? And who could initiate the evolution process?