Whenever people imagine a dystopian future, they conjure up images of rain-soaked, neon-lit alleys, androids that walk among us, and people with cybernetic implants that allow them to transcend what it means to be human. Slap on some Asian iconography and a few evil megacorporations and you’ve got the template for Blade Runner, Cyberpunk 2077, The Ascent, Deus Ex… the list goes on. Reality is unfortunately far more dull and insidious than the sci-fi we love. We may dream of taking down the big bad CEO with our cool robot arms, but the dystopian future is here, and Watch Dogs nailed it.
Despite its dystopian sci-fi setting, I don’t often see Watch Dogs mentioned in the cyberpunk video game canon. In a Chicago not unlike the one we live in today, the main caveat is how connected the smart city is. We already have smart homes. Soon we’ll have smart apartment blocks, smart streets, and eventually, smart cities. At the centre of it all is a centralised operating system, CTOS.
It may seem absurd to have entire cities running on one network, but at the moment there are only two operating systems in mainstream use, Windows and macOS. We have antitrust laws in place that should prevent Apple and Microsoft from merging, but laws can’t keep up with technology, so who knows what will happen in five or ten years?
Meta already owns Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook, three of the West’s most popular social networks. They’re all under the roof of one company, so a single breach not only affects selfies and catching up with friends, but slows business for much of the global South, which uses WhatsApp Business as its primary work software.
As companies keep swallowing each other up, our internet and technological infrastructure become more centralised than ever, and therefore more open to exploitation and accidents. Last year, an Amazon Web Services outage shuttered Twitch, PSN, Xbox Live, and Epic Game Store. Six months before that a similar incident took out a load of gaming services such as Steam and PSN.
At the end of the day, most people use the technology they do out of convenience. If you need to replace your old iPhone, would you want the hassle of switching to an Android and having to transfer all your data manually or start from scratch? Or would you rather plug a new iPhone into your Mac and transfer everything over automatically in a few minutes? Everything being in the same ecosystem make things vulnerable, but it also makes them easy, and people will choose easy nine times out of ten.
A vulnerable smart city like Watch Dogs’ version of Chicago is going to happen, sooner rather than later. If it’s easier to accept it than resist it or deal with a disconnected alternative, people will begrudgingly accept it and eventually come to love it. What makes the future of Watch Dogs even more believable is not only is CTOS responsible for keeping the traffic lights on and the trains running, but for keeping an increasingly close eye on the population.
Cameras are everywhere in Watch Dogs. Street corners, ATMs, laptops – just like in real life. In the real world, even cars have multiple cameras to assist with parking. If they’re all connected to the same network, one door or window left open means anyone could get in and snoop around. In Watch Dogs, it transpires that CTOS is being used to spy on people and predict crimes. It’s all very Minority Report. Again, this feels like far-flung dystopia, but the UK has recently passed a law known as the Snoopers Charter that allows the government to order private companies to store our electronic data for it. Criminal or not, your online data is up for grabs. It’s our version of the PATRIOT Act.
So, how are we going to fight the growing rise of technofascism? Cybernetic implants, obviously. Only, we’re not. Tesla was recently in the news because reports of its cars locking people inside while the vehicles were on fire kept surfacing. If a car can fuck up that badly, would you really trust Daddy Elon to put microchips in your brain? What if Meta goes down again for a day and suddenly you can’t use your arm? Your iPhone becoming a brick for a day is annoying, your iHeart not beating for a few minutes is a death sentence.
Some people would unfortunately throw caution to the wind and become these companies’ guinea pigs. I even have a friend who put a microchip in her hand that stores her card information on it so she can use contactless payments with a flick of the wrist. She can wirelessly update her info when her card expires or she changes banks, but what happens when we no longer use NFC for contactless payments, or when that chip eventually starts to break down?
Body hacking is a very real phenomenon, but it’s still in its infancy, and we’ve got a long way to go before people will trust companies enough to let them turn them into full-on cyborgs. We’ve got the surveillance state and connectedness of the future, but none of the transhumanist resistance. Aiden Pearce may be a miserable prick, but he’s got the will to fight back and a smartphone – that’s all the resistance we’ve got.
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