hckr.fyi // thoughts

Welcome Back to the Sprawl

by Michael Szul on

This post is a rewrite from the Apotheosis project, and was previously published in both blog and podcast form on Codepunk.

2022 has mostly certainly been a year of purging. I've been specifically reducing many of the things on my plate to spend more time on those things that actually matter. This began in 2021 as I started to reduce social media use. I would still pop on Facebook once in a while to see what family was up to, or dive into Twitter—and regret it later—to check in on the Internet culture. 2022 has been different. I haven't been on Facebook for a long time (only once to check on an art show), and I'm currently several weeks out from accessing Twitter. The more I'm away; the more I want to stay away.

2022 has also seen a reduction in newsletters that I subscribe to, but more importantly, also a reduction in the amount of newsletters that I pay for. I can pay Azeem Azhar for his thoughts on VC in technology, or I can pay the local Chinese medicine clinic for Baguazhang lessons. Sure, I could pay for both, but if I can pay for both, I could expand my personal health commitment to Xingyi, a local gym, or more dance lessons for my daughter.

The point is that although Azeem's newsletter might have value, is my attention in the right place (e.g, family, health).

As a paying member of Azeem's newsletter, I've been privy to his online community (and by community, I mean Slack channel), but with what little I've been able to contribute, I slowly ghosted until I signed out of the workspace entirely. I'm not investing in anyone's company, and I'm not looking for an investment in mine. With those two things off the table, all that's left is a link farm of "look at me" self-promotions and article dumps.

I could get that on Twitter… or in the free version of the newsletter.

This isn't to harp on Azeem. This is just me at 43 coming to terms with the things I will not be able to do before I'm 50. The result?

On the positive side?

I'm getting older. Life is changing. I want to concentrate on the last great thing I think I can do with my life, while staying healthy, mindful, and doing things with my family.

What does this have to do with the Sprawl?

I revisited William Gibson's Neuromancer recently (as well as Burning Chrome and I'm halfway through Count Zero). The sidebar of my old Codepunk project had a quote from Neuromancer. I've put the full quote below:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding….

Diving into Gibson's work is like revisiting an old friend for somebody who grew up in the 80's—Runaway corporatism meets console cowboy surfing the last frontier of freedom of expression.

People often mistake cyberpunk for purely dystopian. I'd argue that point, but cyberpunk is more than a black-and-white reduction of morals.

Gibson has always been amazingly prescient in many aspects of technology, culture, and geopolitics, and he doesn't use the satirical tone you'd find in a Neal Stephenson book. His vision of hacking, cyberspace, and Methuselah-like families have permeated not just science fiction, but the emergent cyberculture that he's often credited with inspiring.

In many ways, it could be argued that Gibson's work inspired the future of cyberspace, lending to its prescience.

Between Neuromancer and Blade Runner there likely aren't two pieces of media that so vastly shaped the underground of computer culture, nor most represented the struggle of fringe individuals against the larger corporate machines. The 80's was a time of Reaganomics, corporatism, and government overreach as the Internet gave us a glimmer of freedom. Cyberpunk explored the themes of the 80's and 90's through a near future setting, and although we haven't plugged our brains into computers, we're cybernetic in many other ways.

Neuromancer provided us with many themes—and a great look at advancing artificial general intelligence—but I want to take a look at a much more human (or less than human) theme.

In Altered Carbon Richard Morgan introduces us to the meths—short for Methuselahs: People so wealthy that they can afford to live for hundreds of years and have outpaced modern society.

In Neuromancer, we're introduced to the Tessier-Ashpool clan: A family/company that controls the artificial intelligences of the main story. A family filled with clones, madness, longevity, and whose wealth have moved them past the average human.

Gibson revisits this theme throughout the Sprawl trilogy, and has a fine quote in Count Zero:

the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.

Today, I'm reminded of the many longevity initiatives in venture capital backed healthcare. Particularly, I'm reminded of VC and financial industry darling Peter Diamandis.

Diamandis is best known for his XPrize initiative, which is a fine work of capitalist competition and investment (no, really—I commend him for this one), but Diamandis is also the purveyor of fine sciencism, pushing technology and science in an "exponential" age as the savior of all modern suffering, if all we do is invest enough.

Never mind that Diamandis runs a university with great marketing, but entry level information—selling the hype of a thing instead of the thing itself. And never mind that he wrote a passage in a Tim Ferriss book. And never mind that MIT (his own alma mater) ran an article in the MIT Technology Review detailing how Diamandis tried to sell fake COVID cures after he held a $30,000 super-spreader event during the pandemic. Although, honestly, no matter how smart or how successful someone is, behavior such as this reminds me of the No Humans Allowed lyrics:

if real recognized real, you wouldn't have a career but fake recognize fake, though: sheep suits, plainclothes secret handshakes, loopholes and grey zones passwords over payphones, fake bank notes

Diamandis, meanwhile, is heavily invested in life extension programs, publicly committing to a long-term belief in living well beyond 100 years. He is the co-founder of both Human Longevity, Inc. and Celularity. The former—founded with Craig Venters, who once stirred up controversy by attempting to patent the discovery of others—seeks to extend human life, but current offerings are mostly a data acquisition grift. they want to use machine learning against sequenced genomes in order to find anti-aging cures, and offer their services to map your own genome under the auspices of early disease detection. Venters later left the company, and was subsequently sued for stealing trade secrets. The case was dismissed.

Again, see the lyric quote above.

Rest assured Diamandis (and bear in mind that longevity research and spending in the very wealthy is a lucrative business—many wealthy people are all-in on living forever) will almost certainly price out most poor, middle class, and upper middle class individuals from most/all services—other than what they will offer for better data collection. The rich are a different species.

This is not far off from the Tessier-Ashpools or Veriks of the world. The fictional version of the Diamandis' just happen to be a few steps ahead in cloning, nutrient vats, and longevity.