Sky-ads and the shittiest cyberpunk

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From “Blade Runner” to “Cyberpunk 2077,” the cyberpunk genre has carved out its own little place in our society. Typically set in near-future dystopias, the science fiction genre’s portrayal of collapse and destitution contrasted with futuristic technology has fascinated us for decades. Cyberpunk has a pretty interesting history and has inspired a lot, including many online aesthetic movements and even popular fashion movements such as tech wear.

At its core, cyberpunk is ultimately a moral tale — a scathing criticism of our current society and a warning of the techno-fascist future awaiting us should we continue on our present-day trajectory of limitless capitalist accumulation above all else. Worryingly, we largely pay no heed to these warnings, instead choosing to indulge in the cyberpunk fantasy while spiraling towards that very same bleak future.

The most depressing part of all? Every day, with every new "brilliant" idea, we creep closer towards possibly the shittiest cyberpunk future ever conceived. It really is a testament to human creativity that cyberpunk’s masterminds craft some of the most destitute and depressing forecasts of human civilization imaginable and yet real-life civilization succeeds at exceeding these in spectacularly morbid fashion.

Take, for instance, the latest installment in our Shittiest Cyberpunk: Sky-Ads.

In New York City this week, advertisers showcased a new project in the night sky. The demonstration consisted of a mess of lights formed by a swarm of small, unmanned aerial drones flying through the sky. How the project works is rather straight-forward: It is essentially gigantic pixel art. Each drone operates like a free-flying pixel, capable of emitting light and changing the color. When the drones coordinate to build formations, according to pre-programmed maneuvers, each individual "pixel" combines to form an image or even create an animation. The drone technology has existed for some time and has been used elsewhere in interesting applications, such as part of marvelous light shows.

So, what was the showcase in New York using the drones for? To project giant advertisements into the night sky. The demonstration is part of an emerging technology used to turn the sky into the planet’s largest digital screen and thus, effectively, the world’s largest billboard.

You heard it right, folks. Corporations and the rich have decided it is finally time to venture out into new and bolder frontiers — it is time to colonize the sky! For too long have our desires been tethered to the Earth! For too long have those avian miscreants flaunted their freedom unabashed, gloating in their skyward haughtiness! Enough is enough. Today, we demonstrate our technological superiority and assert our aerial supremacy! Tonight, we paint the sky in our colors!

But, in all seriousness, this is royally fucked up. Suffice it to say, I have no positive words or emotions for this newest technological marvel. The technology itself is undeniably interesting, but its application only reveals how pathetic the cyberpunk dystopia unfolding before our eyes is. Forget holographic gravure idols soliciting you in some grimy, neon-tinged red light district, or a cacophony of artificial reality pop-ups beamed directly into your cornea from your Google Glasses as you stroll down the street. The future is looking up into the night sky to gaze upon the stars… and the stars remarkably resemble Mario, or Charizard, or Hyundai’s new Genesis G80 luxury sports car. Honestly, setting the sky ablaze with swarms of glorified lightning bugs is not exactly my idea of cyberpunk.

But it is a fitting depiction of the cyberpunk future billionaires imagine. These sky ads are a very rude reminder of the bottomless greed of corporations and their capitalist owners, who seek to monopolize every second of our attention in pursuit of further wealth.

This whole ordeal strikes me as nothing more than a gimmicky stunt, and New Yorkers seem to agree. But to these corporations, advertisers, and their investors, as their language seems to indicate, they see this as a real opportunity. With the sky seemingly in their reach, they see a new real estate market opening up before them.

This is a reality most of us should be well aware of by now. It is common knowledge at this point that we as people have become both consumers and products. Our time, attention, and data has become commodified and sold to companies always seeking out new consumers. Our use of services, and even goods, is increasingly connected to a complex and convoluted system of rent extraction. Even Pantone is now demanding you pay a subscription to use their colors in digital media, literally paying money for a pixel’s RGB value under their license. Anything and everything that can be commodified is commodified.

Corporations are finding ways of monetizing the sky, selling parcels of airspace like broadcast time on the radio or an ad-slot for the most horrendous Republican attack ad imaginable on YouTube. Although we are accustomed to this reality, this latest gimmick reaffirms our reality, providing another look into the perverse way in which the wealthy capitalist class conceives of our world. Presented with the awe-inspiring wonder of the night sky, a sky already tainted by the city’s light pollution, they reduce such a beautiful expanse down to the question of: “Can I make money off of that?”

It bears repeating that this is exactly what cyberpunk warns about: unrestrained corporate consolidation, concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and extending market logic into every conceivable facet of life are not good omens for our future.

The most remarkable and oh-so-richly-ironic part, the super-wealthy, a central antagonist of the genre, have deliberately molded themselves into pioneers of a cyberpunk future. It honestly should come as no surprise that these billionaires, so bereft of critical thinking — an apparent prerequisite to being admitted into the ranks of the unethical super-rich — seeing in cyberpunk stories not an admonishment or criticism of a society they have built, but rather a blueprint for the future.

Presented with the option of either working to avert a possible dystopian future or willfully ignoring the warnings the genre offers in favor of self-enrichment, billionaires have chosen a miraculous third option: deliberately and eagerly rushing headlong into a cyberpunk hellscape.

Yet billionaires are proving, like they always do, to be absolute trash at ushering in this nightmarish future. Instead, these billionaires have set us on our current course towards the multiverse’s shittiest cyberpunk. Their brilliance has produced for us marvels of the pre-cyberpunk age: from a virtual reality "Metaverse" equivalent to Nintendo releasing "Wii Sports" in 3D, to a defective, polygonal excuse for a car named the Cybertruck of all things. How have we come so far as a civilization that the architecture for our future digital reality has been placed into the hands of a person incapable of relating to a human being on a macro-level? How did Marty McFly screw up so bad that the richest man on the fucking planet is a dude whose marketing strategy was advertising his steel-coffin-on-wheels as “briefly able to be a boat?"

Future historians, if those end up existing, will look back and see how we entrusted our future to a self-destructive billionaire currently demonstrating his scientific genius and business acumen by nose-diving the internet’s favorite bird-watching app into the Atlantic like one of his rockets (minus the self-landing feature).

In case you haven’t noticed, I have no love for these billionaires and their fetishization of cyberpunk. And no, I will not be fielding opinions from the tech-bro-wannabes in the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship. But, despite my morbid outlook as of now, I do not think we are resigned to some atrocious dystopian fate. There is hope for the future. But it will not come from the billionaires, as they have always proven themselves incapable of working for the interests of the people.

From trucks literally designed for a dystopian future to turning the sky into a billboard, the greed of a few is pushing us towards a reality I have no interest in partaking in. We might enjoy exploring the dystopian possibilities and futuristic aesthetics of cyberpunk worlds, but we should always remember the futures they represent are ones of collapse and impoverishment. We will not be the billionaires or trillionaires living luxurious lives in their penthouses in neo-Japan. We will become the victims of a catastrophic future we did not engineer, unless we push back against such outrageous ideas as the drone-based monopolization of the sky.

The most dreaded part? The ad was for "Candy Crush." What the fuck.