Countries Trying Hard To Become Sci-Fi Dystopias
With the ongoing crisis, the world can seem like a depressing place. Luckily, we're here to cheer you up with a bleak reminder that the world sucked even prior to coronavirus being beamed to Earth by those evil space wizards. Long before our current 12 Monkeys situation, several countries were trying very hard to become different science fiction-inspired dystopias, all entirely of their own accord.
Saudi Arabia Plans To Spend $500 Billion On A Giant Sci-Fi Nightmare City
Saudi Arabia has long-term problems. It's extremely dependent on oil exports and large parts of the country are unusable desert, which won't help the economy much when the oil runs out and we finally switch to those human battery farms from The Matrix. Meanwhile, segments of the population are getting increasingly pushy about "jobs" and "human rights" and "maybe every prince shouldn't get to buy his falcon a Maserati." So yeah, they hope to fix everything by building the city from Demolition Man combined with Minority Report.
Feel free to enjoy the most sinister PR video we've ever seen.
The plan is to transform the sparse northwest of the country by spending $500 billion building a massive megacity called Neom. Although they appear to have blown about half that budget on cocaine, because everything about Neom sounds completely insane. The city will be lit at night by a giant artificial moon made of drones. Robot maids will clean your house, children will be taught by holograms, and robot cage fights will keep the public entertained. There will also be an artificial island full of life-sized robot dinosaurs. That's right, within a few years it could be totally normal to hear a phrase like "The cyber-raptors have run amok! Quick, Robo-Kickboxer, hold them off while we escape on the Moon Drones!"
The craziness doesn't end there. Cloud seeding will be used to control the weather, while the local beach will glow in the dark, like a watch. The local governor reportedly flew into a rage at plans for road traffic, insisting that we'll have flying cars "by 2030." Plans were hastily revised to feature flying cars and taxis and indicate that road travel will be for pleasure only. There will also be a center for genetic engineering, because we need to throw Gattaca into this too. And of course, a network of cameras, drones, and facial recognition technology will be used to monitor "everyone at all times." That's actually the part they seem to be prioritizing.
It's an open question how much of this gets built, but the Saudis are very serious about it and already spending huge sums. There are some logistical challenges, including 20,000 locals who were somewhat surprised to learn they would be "forcibly relocated" to make way for Dino-Island. There are also questions about the financial sustainability of such a major city, given that planners list the only local resources as sunlight and "access to saltwater." Work has currently paused while the crown prince uses the site to hide from coronavirus, because even supervillain lunacy recognizes the importance of social distancing.
The UAE Bought Its Poorest Residents Citizenship In A Different Country
It's easy to feel like the rich and poor live in entirely different countries. The average person spends two days a week googling "pawnbrokers who accept dental fillings," whereas Jeff Bezos has crashed three separate sex hovercrafts while choking on mermaid caviar. But if you really want to plunge into the world of Elysium, look no further than the Arabian Gulf, where the UAE and Kuwait have been trying to force their most disenfranchised residents to literally become citizens of a different country. Now you can't just create a new country for the poors, but that's okay -- they just found an impoverished country thousands of miles away and bribed the local government into pumping out thousands of passports.
When Kuwait and the UAE became fully independent in the '60s and '70s, they effectively denied citizenship to the descendants of nomadic tribespeople known as the Bidoon ("stateless"). For example, the UAE demanded all citizens prove their ancestors lived in the country before 1925, even though the children of nomads couldn't exactly point to dad's birth certificate and house. Both states continued to refuse citizenship to the Bidoon, creating an underclass cut off from passports, government benefits, good jobs, and even driving licenses, even though their families had lived there for generations.
With criticism mounting, the Gulf states decided that they could stop all the whining if they just made the Bidoon citizens of somewhere. They turned to the Comoros, a tiny island nation north of Madagascar with a troubled political history (it averages a coup attempt every two years). Sadly, the coup industry just isn't what it used to be, and the islands have serious economic problems. So Kuwait and the UAE simply paid the Comoros hundreds of millions in exchange for tens of thousands of passports, then strong-armed many Bidoon into taking them. At a stroke, the Bidoon weren't stateless people living as second-class citizens. They were proud Comorans! Who admittedly had never heard of the Comoros the week before.
This created a ridiculous situation where many of the poorest people in the UAE and Kuwait are actually citizens of an entirely different country, thousands of miles away, where they have never once set foot. As a bonus, Bidoon who spoke out could be threatened with deportation back "home" to the islands. The UAE did make a vague pledge that a Comoros passport would be a stepping stone to full Emirati citizenship, although it's unclear why that would be needed. Passports don't really have a learning curve, there's no need to start with an easy one and work your way up. The real goal was clearly to keep them as second-class citizens, banned from things like buying land available to Emiratis. Although we're now very excited for the Comoros' next coup, which will presumably see a rich guy buy thousands of passports and then simply vote himself into office.
Related: The 5 Most Secretly Badass Countries
China Uses Tech To Publicly Humiliate People In Debt
Back in 2019, residents of Zhejiang packed into the midnight premiere of Avengers: Endgame, the most hotly anticipated movie since Titanic 2: Jack vs The Squid-Women. But among the usual pre-movie ads was a special display containing the names and photos of 60 people with unpaid debts. It seems like a pretty harsh public shaming -- nobody should have to learn about their dad's financial troubles while wearing a homemade Thanos costume -- but it's an increasingly common tactic in China's drive to publicly shame debtors and other "anti-social" people.
The little cartoon is a nice touch.
For owing as little as a couple hundred bucks, you can find your face, name and ID number plastered on giant screens in train stations and public squares, as well as movie theaters. In Hebei province, the high court released a phone app that scans your location and alerts you if you're within 500 yards of someone behind on their debt. It then encourages you to spy on them. Because nothing helps people repay debt like 500 bored teens sneaking around behind them in some kind of dystopian Pokemon Go knockoff. Elsewhere, phone companies assign special ringtones to indicate debtors, which we assume means a catchy little jingle rhyming "broke ass" with "no cash."
Millions of people are on government blacklists prohibiting them from buying high-speed train tickets or other "luxuries". Debtors say this creates a catch-22. They need to work to make money, but it's hard to get or keep a job when your ringtone screams "deadbeat" and your face is being projected onto the side of a bus station. It can even rob people of family support, since relatives often don't want to be associated with a flashing red light and a voice shouting "this guy's a bum" every time a text comes through.
The tech behind all this often doesn't even work that well. In the most bizarre example, a prominent businesswoman was surprised to find her face on a local government billboard accusing people of being jaywalkers, even though she lived in an entirely different city. After ruling out history's worst case of sleepwalking, it was discovered that the city was using facial recognition cameras that mistook an ad on the side of a bus for the actual person. Presumably they were also on the hunt for serial criminals Aquaman and Colonel Sanders. Which all sounds very funny until it's your face on the big screen before Avatar 2, being accused of sprinting through a set of traffic lights at 50 miles an hour.
India's New Biometric Database Controls Everything, So You Can Literally Die If It Glitches
To stamp out welfare fraud, India has turned to the exciting field of biometrics. Which just means measuring body parts, and not even in a fun way. Specifically, India has introduced Aadhaar, an ID number linked to biometric data like iris scans and fingerprints, all tracked by a national database. It's technically voluntary, but required to access almost all government welfare and benefits, open bank accounts, enroll in college, and even sign up for some dating sites. And if you get locked out by any kind of glitch in the system, you are absolutely screwed.
For example, many people in poor areas depend on government-subsidized food rations, which now require a fingerprint scan, thereby weeding out any criminal fatcats trying to steal an extra bag of rice. Of course, it also weeds out anyone with a bad internet connection or incorrect information listed in the database. In one case, a villager named Motka Manji found that his fingerprints hadn't been scanned correctly, leaving him unable to access his food rations. He eventually collapsed and died, apparently of malnutrition. In another case, a poor network connection left an entire village without rice rations for two months. The government only relented and distributed the rice subsidy after someone, again, died.
In other areas, receiving benefits requires trekking to the top of a hill so the scanner can connect to the Internet, which is probably not the slick Minority Report--style tech the creators of the program were envisioning. People have died after the hospital couldn't confirm their Aadhaar and refused to treat them, while many others have been severely affected by system errors or network outages. By some estimates, 25 starvation deaths are linked to some kind of Aadhaar issue. And that's not counting all the people who presumably fell into a ravine while mountaineering for a WiFi connection.
As a final kicker, the whole thing has failed to cut welfare fraud in a major way. The thinking was that people might use a stolen ID number, but probably wouldn't boldly stride up to the ration shop food scanner with some guy's severed thumb. Except it turns out the real welfare fraud wasn't being committed by those nefarious poor people, but by civil servants, businessmen and organized crime. And Aadhaar hasn't fixed that, so the overall fraud estimates haven't dropped much at all.
The Plan To Turn The US Border Into A Full Surveillance Zone Using Drones, Lasers, AI, and Virtual Reality
The US-Mexico border is already veering pretty hard towards very dark parody. Rival militia groups feud over the best spots to livestream illegal border crossings, drawing lucrative donations. Warren Buffet's son spends millions role-playing as a border guard, while guided tours gawk across at random Mexicans, who they are assured are cartel members. That's without getting into the child prisons (although it's actually getting out of them that's tricky).
Luckily, there's a plan to get everything back on track and it involves a partnership between the two most universally beloved groups in America: Silicon Valley tech millionaires and the Trump administration. Palmer Luckey is a perfectly good Victorian pickpocket's name wasted on the inventor of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Luckey became very wealthy when his company was bought by Facebook, only to be fired in controversial circumstances during the 2016 election, allegedly because of his support for Donald Trump. He's currently supporting Donald Trump even more aggressively with a plan to build a "virtual wall" along the border.
After being hurled into a dumpster outside Facebook, Luckey started a company called Anduril, which means "flame of the west" in the fictional Elvish language from Lord Of The Rings and "major warning sign" in English. Anduril is currently developing the virtual wall concept in collaboration with various government agencies. The idea is for cameras and drones to monitor the border at all times. Artificial intelligence will rapidly analyze all movement and identify humans and vehicles, beaming suspicious activity to agents wearing virtual reality headsets, who will flip around between different cameras before deciding on a response. At night, some cameras will fire a laser to get a better shot of suspicious movement, meaning that a whole bunch of suspicious movement will probably just be drunk Pink Floyd fans trying to create a discount light show.
All this will supposedly allow 24-hour monitoring of the border. The self-declared "libertarians" behind Anduril seem quite relaxed about how this tech might expand as AI gets better at analyzing "suspicious movement." Especially considering that the government's generous definition of "the border" includes two-thirds of the American population. On the other hand, we will take all this back if the whole thing turns out to be an elaborate "Emperor's New Clothes" plot that ends with Donald Trump gesturing at a completely empty section of the border and going "there's my beautiful wall, just like I promised."
Top image: Neom.com