Electric Dreams

Electric Dreams

It seems unlikely that anyone in America could feel like they don’t have enough distraction for their own comfort. But that’s how I’ve felt as of late in lockdown, and while I am no stranger to being entirely off-base about things, I think I am not the only one. I see talk in the press about “reentering lockdown,” as pandemic conditions reach the worst the country has yet experienced. Which prompts my own question: haven’t we all been in lockdown? The same one we’ve been in since March?

Well, no. Here in California, as businesses struggle to survive, they’ve ping-ponged between being shut down entirely, or operating under costly, pandemic-ready conditions — think sneeze guards everywhere, plastic masks, constant sanitizing. There seems to be little notice given any time businesses are shut down again, nor  much uniformity with regard to the application of the rules. Covid infection rates spike to dizzying heights, scaring people into resuming more stringent mask-wearing and social distancing, before we lapse again when school starts up or Thanksgiving approaches. The result is a cycle of mass death and social dislocation, all the more disturbing because it was all avoidable.

Perhaps we can’t expect much more in America. But the stop-and-start nature of this nightmare continues to raise false expectations, only to dash them even more cruelly upon each fresh encounter with the reality of the disease. The words of CDC Director Robert Redfield, that we could really halt this atrocity in its tracks if we only all followed the guidelines for a matter of weeks, have fallen on deaf ears. In a country where the elected leaders of major cities seem most concerned with killing teachers and students, where corporations sacrifice their workers in order to reap record profits, and where our burgeoning national fascist movement continues to refuse to wear masks, the die has been cast.

So it would seem a little odd that many Americans, amidst all this chaos and darkness, are fucking bored. The operative moods are either terror or stultification, with not much in between. Amidst all of the bleak drama going on these days — the mounting medical crisis, the looming evictions, the epidemic of layoffs, the food insecurity, the total refusal of our political class to lift a finger to help anyone — there is also little in the way of mental reprieve. There’s no break from all this, as there might be in a time which didn’t demand of conscientious people that they retreat from normal society. Simple pleasures like eating at a restaurant or going to the movies are off-limits. Traveling to see family members for the holidays is out, as is any sort of vacation for those who can afford it. If you have a family, you have no respite from them ever, and must look after the kids while perhaps working full-time yourself. If you live alone, the odds are good that daily, face-to-face human interaction — the type pack animals like us need to survive — has been reduced to a weekly hello with the supermarket check-out cashier.

Monotony is hardly the worst thing people are facing right now. But I mention it because as a factor in the spread of this pandemic, boredom is a surprisingly important one. A summer study at UNC found 53% of Americans to feel more bored than before the pandemic; for at least some proportion of this majority, the answer has been to break quarantine. After month upon month cooped up inside, under terrible stress with little relief, many people let down their guard, seeking out some form of stimulation without adhering as strictly to the guidelines as they had been.

With these kinds of nightmares around us, boredom seems a small price to pay for our health. For me, personally, with a good job, a roof over my head, and food, I am more fortunate than many Americans, likely able to live to more or less live safely through this dark chapter in American history, provided I follow a few simple rules. What’s more perverse then, is what I, along with millions of other people, looked to for mindless distraction this past week: a promised experience of a dystopian hellscape, a future gone terribly awry, in which technological advances have only widened the gap between rich and poor, strengthened the repressive might of corporations, and left most Americans impoverished, prey to the violence of the police state designed to keep them from revolting. I’m talking of course about the hotly-anticipated video game Cyberpunk 2077.

When I put it like that, it sounds awfully odd that anyone would want to play such a game right now. Slapstick comedy was what was popular during the Great Depression; it took victory in World War II for the studios to get around to making all those bleak film noir flicks whose source material had been sitting around since the darkest days of the ‘30s. In Cyberpunk 2077, you play as a gun for hire — a gang member, a desert marauder, or a corporate fixer, whichever iteration you like. Operating in the not too finely-named metropolis of Night City, with the requisite neon and brutalist architecture and hologram ads, you’ll claw your way up the ranks of the underworld in classic Horatio Alger fashion. It doesn’t sound all that cheery, but judging by the receipts, techno-noir of the sort Cyberpunk offers is big business in Covid America.

So after all that anticipation, after all the ceaseless boredom, I got my hands on my copy of Cyberpunk 2077 — only to find, playing it, it looked like mud. Riddled with glitches, current generation console versions of the game were nearly unplayable for many of the consumers who bought a copy. The developer, CDPR, clearly knew this to be the case, and ran a fraud of their own, allowing advance reviewers to play the PC version of the game, and only on high-end, kitted-out gaming rigs. Following numerous delays, and revelations that the engineers working on Cyberpunk had been subjected to grueling work crunches, it was more important they ship a product in time for the Christmas season than that it be all that good.

They’ve offered refunds, and said how sorry they are, but presumably, CDPR made their nut. I could only laugh. What was meant to be a mindless diversion for me seemed like the best illustration imaginable of what 2020 actually is like: even the cutting-edge vision of future-tripped escapism couldn’t escape this year’s orbit, and resist being a mediocre, poorly-managed, exploitative mess.

It all raises an interesting question: what is it about this cyberpunk vision of the future, germinated from the books of William Gibson and the original 1982 Blade Runner, which, rather than repelling people, excites the imagination? Why is it that the vision of a polluted, nightmarish urban California — the setting for both Blade Runner and Cyberpunk 2077 — doesn’t feel like a retread of the existing reality?  How on Earth can an exaggerated version of our present condition present any sort of escapist fantasy?

After a torturous seven-year development of the game, rife with delays, Cyberpunk studio CDPR claims to have already recouped the costs of creating and marketing the game from digital pre-orders alone. If a windfall like that is any indication, there does seem to be something alluring about dystopia, as imagined in this genre of science fiction — despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to verge so radically from the genuine article.

A fundamental question of academic criticism around science fiction is, what marks the genre as distinct? One longstanding response posits that science fiction defines its presence by inspiring a “sense of wonder” in the reader or viewer, a variation on Wordsworth’s notion of the sublime. It makes sense to me, as much as in its absence as in its presence. Just as even a nightmarish sci-fi setting inspires awe, merely by dint of how divergent its spaceships or rain-streaked robots are from our present reality, so too do the most dystopian aspects of modern life never inspire wonder. They are at once banal and terrible. We take it for granted that things are as they are, that that even the worst aspects of our imagined future, when encountered in present day, seem merely familiar.

Look at Los Angeles today, and a few key indicators of where we’re at. The other day, after Cyberpunk had come out, I went for a rare drive to pick up lunch from Langer’s Deli, a classic LA restaurant. Across the street is MacArthur Park, and in it, and around it, the human cost of the trillions made by our 1%. A staggering 25% of the country’s unhoused people live in California. Public parks like MacArthur serve as an all-too inadequate home base for thousands of homeless Angelenos in the Westlake area, a place where in pre-pandemic times, they might be served a free lunch.

Covid has ended even that bit of munificence, with lunches on hold after two volunteers tragically contracted Covid. Among the remaining acts of generosity is a weekly visit from a truck offering free laundry services. I was particularly struck by the revelation that, until recently, many of the unhoused in MacArthur Park had been working, living in their own homes:

“Laundry Truck LA has been operating for almost two years. But thanks to a recent donation from SoCalGas, the organization was able to buy a second trailer, just as the demand began to spike due to Covid-19…[Driver Andre[ Ribeiro does anywhere from 20 to 50 loads a day, treating every person as though they were a paying customer. “People just need an opportunity to be heard,” he said. His favorite client is Jean Marie-Loulendo, an immigrant from Congo, who until recently, was working as a security guard in a building. When the pandemic began, he lost his job, then his apartment. Soon, he found himself living on a bench in MacArthur Park.

He still hasn’t found the courage to tell his family back home he’s been homeless.

‘Nobody knows, they’re going to be crying, it’s going to be a disaster,’ he said, ‘the whole family would be crying.’”

We need no fantasies, no sci-fi trappings, to construct nightmares like this in this city in America. Police forces in Los Angeles house covert gangs, partying when one of their own kills someone in the line of duty, or forcing inmates to fight each other in our enormous county jails. Oil derricks spew toxic gas into the air, improbably sited within residential neighborhoods. Wildfires rage through overdeveloped hillsides, scorching celebrity mansions built in the path of ancient natural phenomena. Enormous entertainment conglomerates accrete all intellectual property toward their vaults, like metal shavings scattered under a junkyard magnet. A failed casino mogul shivers in his bunker, amidst the last gasp of an attempt to seize control of the presidency. And so on, and so on.

And yet, other worlds are possible — a longing to which science fiction does, at its best, speak. But in this world, and this life, most dreams are cover for much older Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has wondrous dreams for the city’s 2028 Olympics, of flying cars streaking through the skies. It is a fuckaround and a waste of time, and it won’t come to pass. There’s a much simpler explanation: Garcetti is a con artist, just as his entire Olympics is a spectacle meant to enrich corporations and further sideline working and poor Angelenos. The promises offered by such high-flying rhetoric are hollow.

Which leads back to despair, once such great expectations don’t pan out. Amidst rising rates of alcohol consumption, poor mental health, and domestic abuse, breaking quarantine out of sheer boredom seems hardly the worst response one can have. And with the mixed messaging being sent from our elected officials — the botched May reopening of California warped a Covid success story into one of a continuing global hotspot — such behavior has often been permitted under the law. We’re a long way from flying cars dotting our skies; as a society, we can’t even figure out how to live with ourselves.

The philosopher Blaise Pascal famously wrote, "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Normally, it doesn’t seem like that should be a life or death scenario, but it is now. Read LA Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke describe surviving a positive diagnosis, and in particular, how he thinks he caught Covid:

“In my social circles, I was considered among the least likely person to contract the disease because, basically, I abandoned the circles. For four months I avoided all crowded driveway happy hours and cul-de-sac cocktail parties. I didn’t set foot inside my church even during the brief time it was open…I wore a mask everywhere. I followed all the rules, but a couple of weeks ago I didn’t follow my instincts. I briefly let my guard down. The coronavirus came out swinging. The weekend before my symptoms appeared, for the first time in four months, I met friends for two dinners at two socially distanced patio tables. Nobody is required to wear masks at the tables, so I removed my mask when I sat…I didn’t do anything that was prohibited, right? I was just following the rules, right?”

Plaschke, despite some terrifying symptoms, was one of the lucky ones. I think of this story from Lake Elsinore, California, of a man who made a similar decision around the same time, but whose outcome was horribly different:

“After months of diligently isolating, truck driver Tommy Macias, 51, made one error that cost him his life. He went to a barbecue party with some friends. He didn’t know that someone who had tested positive for COVID-19, but showed no symptoms, also was there…According to Macias’ family members, the Lake Elsinore man had practiced social distancing, limited his outside interactions and wore a mask whenever he went out. But as restrictions slowly lifted, the proud big rig driver who ‘could never sit still in his life’ felt safe going out again…A day before his death on June 21, Macias posted a warning on Facebook, urging people to wear a mask and practice social distancing. His final message was one of regret.

‘Because of my stupidity I put my mom and sisters and my family’s health in jeopardy,’ the post reads. ‘Don’t be a ... idiot like me.’

Here in Los Angeles, at the end of the North American plateau, there is nowhere left to which Americans can run. Here is where it is most clear how the dreams this country are limned with illusions. This is no fresh theme; I’m not breaking any new ground stating as much. All of this is avoidable, and it wasn’t avoided.

With this expensive video game now patched, and my holidays empty, I imagine I’ll be playing Cyberpunk, regardless. I’ll still need some diversion from the winter in which Covid will make its power most felt. But as I do, I’ll think of a frightening lesson from the annals of sci-fi lore — one that looks not to the unknown, fantastical future, but one firmly rooted in the lessons of the past.

While the movie Blade Runner powerfully posited the question of whether artificial people could have the same humanity as any of us, author Philip K. Dick had a very different concern when he wrote the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He recounted the genesis of the book in an interview:

“It stems from an interest…in finding criteria which would be applicable to actual human life as we know it now…For me, the word ‘android’ is a metaphor for people who are physiologically human but psychologically [behave] in a non-human way. I got interested in this when I was doing research for Man in the High Castle and I was studying the Nazi mentality. And I discovered that though these people were highly intelligent, they were definitely deficient in some manner in appropriate affect, in appropriate emotions, that would accompany the intellectual process. And as I studied the Nazi mentality, especially the Castle system and the SS that were deliberately being created as cadres, I became conscious of the possibility of a very highly intelligent human being who was emotionally so defective that the word ‘human’ could not properly be applied to him. And I used this in my writing in such terms as ‘android’ and ‘robot,’ but I’m really referring to an actually psychologically defective or malfunctioning, pathological human being.”

Maybe the conditions of the future — unprecedented and novel — aren’t all that we need to be concerned about. Maybe we can find some fresh insights looking hard at the inhumanity around us every day — and take action to halt such ersatz humans, now.

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