24 december 2011

Sort-of Primer to the Sixth World

As a freelance writer, I’ve had to put a great deal of thought into the setting as a whole. Here’s what I have come up with as a reminder of the world I’m stepping foot into.

It’s a work in progress, and input would be appreciated.

Part 1: Prologue

The Sixth World began on December 24, 2011, but the Shadowrun World effectively begins in 1986. Without getting too many details as to the how and why, it is the pivot point in time between our reality and the fictional setting. It’s important to emphasize this, however, because events occurring in Shadowrun’s “present” were shaped by and continue to reflect this world; a world without the collapse of the Japanese bubble of the 1980s, without the Internet Revolution of the 1990s, without the relative stability of the immediate post-Cold War decades, and without the socioeconomic signposts and shifts that are now a part of contemporary history in the real world. That isn’t to say that the Sixth World’s history is entirely different from ours, but enough of it is to be noticeable. One might argue that the non-existence of a free and open Internet alone is enough to make Shadowrun’s past and present as alien as the most fantastical setting; a world where social media as we know it was never allowed to develop, where supply drove advancement rather than demand, and instead of the interconnected, mobile world of today, th 2010s had the fastest dialup service one could ever need.

This isn’t some anachronistic, post hoc explanation; this is the world that has been borne out of developments preceding the publication of the original Shadowrun rulebook in 1989. As the real Internet was becoming part of American households, Nigel Findley was painting a world far unlike ours — where the Clipper Chip didn’t die in the womb; where the obscenity provisions of the CDA weren’t held unconstitutional; where governments and corporations smothered the nascent World Wide Web in its crib until it was little more than the wasteland between walled-garden commercial services, bulletin board systems, and proprietary networks; and where the DMCA “Safe Harbor” never existed to protect startups that innocently hosted others’ IP, uploaded by their users/customers (Thusly, social media could never have existed without this part of the DMCA). And that was merely the sideshow to the physical realm where a heavy-handed government cracked down on undesirable elements and even corporate independence while shedding itself of anything but the force of arms necessary to maintain only the state monopoly over use of force. It’s difficult to explain the kind of world and Internet Findley established as the predecessor to the Matrix; where Mark Zuckerberg would’ve been imprisoned for hacking the Harvard houses (assuming he’d have even made it that far), and people who cared more about censoring subversive and deviant ideas than about the potential for innovation and economic growth strangled Silicon Valley startup culture by enacting civil and criminal prohibitions against the most benign uses, alterations, or distribution of intellectual property.

The 1990s saw an escalation of violence across the world, but the corporations weren’t even allowed to protect themselves let alone sell their services to potential customers. The Seretech decision was a watershed moment in liberty, and would have rightfully been recognized as such. The story shadowrunners tell themselves is that Shiawase (I) and Shiawase (II) severed the government’s hand over corporations. It was a necessary evil at the time. Governments had proven themselves utterly incompetent; the Resource Rush was a moment of economic freedom and growth after a decade of economic and political disasters marred by strikes, riots, starvation, and stagnation. The Ordell Court of that decade is recognized as leaning towards pure libertarianism, but its decisions came at the end of a period where the government that seated half those justices was not exactly the best friend corporations had. Its policies speak for itself: restricting content on and access to the Internet, restricting the rights of people and corporations to defend themselves, literally militarizing law enforcement (viz. DEA), sitting on its hands as the Teamsters went on strike and allowed food riots to break out in America’s largest cities, and shuttering entire industries, up to and including national defense. Where it didn’t stand in corporations’ way to protect their assets or control the content broadcast or distributed on its networks, the Lynch Administration certainly didn’t help them any; refusing to break strikes, foster basic or discretionary consumption, or even deregulate access to natural resources or other commodities. That would come later, when the Bester Administration ushered in the Resource Rush. The reins over the corporations were removed, but the economic policies of the state remained that the business of the government was to minimize its power even further.

Meanwhile, Japan never experienced the real estate and investment bubble that would cause the lost decades in our world. That isn’t to say that its continued growth inspired the radical technological or economic advancements that we have seen in the last quarter century. Shadowrun’s consumers didn’t get the iPod; instead, they merely got the best CD player science could muster. In the 1997 film Men In Black, Agent Kay shows off a miniature CD as being the imminent replacement for CDs. That was the expectation at the time, and that was the reality in Shadowrun. As it happens, the hard drive in the first generation iPod — the actual replacement for CDs — released in 2001 was even smaller than fictional alien tech. The technological advances we’ve seen in the last thirty years never happened; instead, Shadowrun’s technology evolved in other areas similarly to how Steampunk aesthetic has emphasized advancements to make better zeppelins and trains than to develop airplanes and automobiles. In Shadowrun, we get space stations by the end of the century. The U.S. had Apollo, Russia had Mir, but Japan … Japan had the stars; it controls a constellation of satellites that collect solar energy and beam it to the surface via microwaves. The wildest dreams of the Strategic Defense Initiative came to pass as commercial developments once the U.S. government sold off its toys and even NASA to megacorporations like Ares Industries. The U.S. didn’t have energy policy. Shiawase had to fight the government for years and all the way to the Supreme Court to build a new nuclear power plant (The last plants to be built in the U.S. began construction in 1973 and 1977). As luck would have it, humanity would master nuclear fusion within the next two decades, a remarkable feat overshadowed by the monumental changes that ensure any similarities between our world and Shadowrun are purely coincidental.

Part 2: And So It Came To Pass

Shadowrun wasn’t entirely created or envisioned as such, but in many ways the game circa 2050 was a post-apocalyptic setting. The lack of world building helped facilitate this thinking, and to be honest, that’s what kind of drew me to the game when I first saw the Street Samurai Guide (coincidentally next to a copy of Twilight 2000). However, it’s also useful to help establish how the world works compared to the real world to acknowledge that there were a series of events that were for all intents and purposes apocalyptic and on top of that the Awakening truly did usher in a new world and clearly TEOTWAKI – The End Of The World As We Know It. Without the context of how long ago the Shadowrun setting diverged from the real world, it’s a bit hard to establish that the world and lore are even deeper and more fascinating than they already are for people who are new to the game.

So far, there are a couple of hard breaks that have allowed us to settle on the schism occurring in 1986, although that also disregards the connections to previous ages and elements of belief shaping magic and magic influencing faith and events in history. It’s also important to emphasize that even the official history of the elven states acknowledges the existence of spike babies born in the Fifth World. There’s also room to emphasize more of the conspiratorial thinking that Nigel Findley especially built into the setting with regards to how the NAN, Tír Tairngire, and Aztlan came into being by the actions of immortals and spike babies who prepared the world for the emergence of those states by weakening existing superpowers to ensure those states didn’t steamroll over the formation of those proto-states. It’s important to note that, especially compared to the post-9/11 world many new players have become accustomed to and probably is the only world they really know, that the setting predicted the 1990s arms reductions and how the superpowers reduced the size and scope of their militaries externally and refocused what was left internally. After Conspiracy Theories, it’s now canon that Reagan and Gorbachev did agree to the dismantling of virtually ALL of our respective nuclear arsenals. Subsequently, the Lynch Administration’s austerity measures gutted 40% of the Reagan-era military and would’ve eliminated SDI, Gorbachev’s sticking point to making the agreement in Reykjavik. Without the larger military (The U.S. has no foreign military presence by the time the Crash of ’29 occurs, but most of it was gone before the Ghost Dance War when units were recalled from abroad) and without the power of nuclear deterrence, it also explains how the U.S. loses a considerable amount of its soft and hard diplomatic power, especially as Japan militarized in response as well as in response to other events, e.g. the Second Korean War, and the ability to refocus resources once it deploys its microwave satellite array to alleviate power concerns. What was never stated, but could have been, is the idea that Japan militarized so rapidly by acquiring all of those mothballed American military materiel and personnel on the cheap and eventually forced them out as more Japanese nationals and the Japanacorps become accustomed to this newly aggressive, imperial mentality.

Anyway, VITAS 1 wiped out a quarter of the world’s population, even in the industrialized world and specifically in the U.S. VITAS 2 took another ten percent, reducing the American population by 1/3 in total. That doesn’t even include collateral casualties, and the near simultaneous occurrences of VITAS 2 and Goblinization really shook up societies, but in different ways depending on how connected those communities were when VITAS 2 hit. In some places, Goblinization was more accepted because at least it wasn’t VITAS. In more developed countries, the two were conflated and led to even more prejudice than what would’ve been normal under the circumstances. It was also within a short enough amount of time for the U.S. and Canada to think it was a bio-chem or magical threat from the NAN, which would’ve increased tensions and made the NAN more focused on its eastern borders (meanwhile Tír Tairngire was preparing secession within southern SSC). However, these pandemics would’ve increased the willingness for people to physically isolate themselves via arcologies and to segregate the poor, the weak, and metahumans into Z-Zones and ghettos. The reduction in the populations would’ve eliminated a serious problem that we see today vis-à-vis automation and the outright lack of importance of individuals as consumers and as employees – something especially important for the megacorporations. So automation increases because it’s a necessity as well as providing an economic benefit to the megacorporations, and justifying the eventual division of people into corporate citizens who are useful consumer-producers of the companies and everyone else who comprise external consumers but also as existential threats to the corporations. However, this all comes to a head with the Crash of ’29.

The Crash of ’29 is in many ways TEOTWAKI. Hyper-automation fails when the Internet and computer systems in general fail, but the failsafes and measures put into place to maintain civilization during the VITAS, ecological, and magical pandemics keep the world limping along for a few years until the Crash Virus can be countered and eventually the Matrix is established. However, the damage is done and those temporary systems break down, resulting into political schisms and balkanization across the world because no one or no region wants to be considered expendable or low priority when the powers that be are trying to keep civilization from collapsing entirely. Subsequent to this and the fears produced by the Crash, the megacorporations and society in general re-evaluated the economy and the distribution of income and resources. The world didn’t need or care about those making money based on ethereal rents and other intangibles. What mattered instead were the physical world and physical commodities and consumables. In a way, the economy reverted to the postwar economy before 1972, which coincidentally explains why the economy in early Shadowrun seemed so similar to that of the 1970s-80s and manufacturing mattered while banking, investing, and rents didn’t. Your hedge fund doesn’t matter to the people who can produce food or provide security because stocks, dividends, and intangibles in general didn’t matter to people who were starving. Post-Crash economics was effectively barter-based without expressly acknowledged as such. As I noted in Seattle Sprawl, the reason why men like Knight and Villiers succeeded in the post-Crash world; or more importantly, Aneki, Yamana, Wu Kwan-Lei, and of course, Lofwyr are because they could manage the megacorps to ensure that their citizens were fed and housed above all and to ensure that when the global economy returned that those megacorps could make money off the backs of the non-affiliated and each other corporations. Post-Crash, automation took a backseat to fears about another Crash, and Matrix development slowed because the entire infrastructure and technology regime was rebuilt with an emphasis on security and survivability instead of openness.

The Night of Rage occurs, and everything nearly goes to Hell again. And for those playing Shadowrun in the 2050s, unless the PC was an Otaku in the latter half of the decade, the Night of Rage was almost certainly personal. It’s one thing to note it in the abstract, but I’ve had to point out just how important it was to a couple of people recently. If you played the first three editions of Shadowrun and your PC was metahuman or related to a metahuman – your PC was victimized that night, and if it’s a Seattle native PC barring some rare corpkid exceptions that victimization is guaranteed. Shadowrunners in the 2070s, especially now (2078) hear about it. Runners in the 2050s were just assumed to have run for their lives from the flames and killers in those warehouses or on the Tacoma docks. Think about it this way – every metahuman in Seattle on the Night of Rage has a shared experience similar to being in the twin towers on 9/11. That’s how universal and serious experience those communities share. And others in communities just like it faced the same or worse. And yet, that shared experience, like IRL, changes everyone in vastly different ways. But that’s a longer discussion for another time.

What made the response different and what CP2020 players could never understand when they would complain about the game’s lack of racism at the time (beyond the fact that too much racism would have made the game sad and not fun, which defeats the point of it being a game) is that the megacorporations and their puppet states and regimes declared from on high that racism would only be tolerated to a certain degree or else they would violently intervene because too much chaos is bad for business, and they didn’t want further escalations like what happened during the previous decades’ catastrophes. Every day the world was just a few steps away from backsliding into chaos and otherwise just tipping over into Armageddon. Sure, the WMDs were supposedly almost all gone, but there will always be cheaters and the operative word is “almost” in that scenario. Additionally, magic is a giant X factor that needed to be contained and controlled. Too much knowledge was a dangerous thing.

Part 3: The Shadowrun Era (2050 - Present)

jAs the 2050s progressed, events spiraled out of control again, but each time the megacorporations contained them until it was no longer necessary or feasible to continue doing so. And then even they lost control with the Corp Wars of 2059-61. Between that and the destabilizing effect of Dunkelzahn’s death and the gifts from his will, upstarts arose and people became overconfident. Younger people grew up thinking of the Crash and VITAS as history; they’ve only known the UCAS, and the U.S. was a chapter in history books given a weird shoutout by Dunk in his will. They wanted to recreate the pre-Crash world and the world that could’ve been had society not purposefully limited progress, and had the words and money of a dead Great Dragon doling out billions of nuyen on their side. But worst of all was that Crash 2.0 was even dubbed a Crash, because it was hardly one. Worse, it justified the acceleration of these upstarts’ plans and ideas because the old system still failed in many regards, but at the same time the system still held firmly in place for the most part. No major governments or corporations fell save for CATCo, and its demise only came through a stroke of luck and good old-fashioned economic warfare by its hated rival (something that may come back to bite Ares in the ass 15 years on as it still hasn’t successfully consumed its enemy without exposing its belly to external and internal enemies).

So one of the ways the Sixth World has managed to begin reflecting this world naturally involves Horizon. Horizon was originally a Pueblo Corporate Council corporation, which means it’s partially owned by the PCC. PCC’s corporate policies are that it has an ownership stake in every domestic corporation, which means that it has an ownership stake in all corporate IP. Since PCC is “owned” by its citizen-shareholders, that means *every citizen* has an ownership stake in all corporate IP. By extension, and arguably what has made PCC the second-largest economy in Shadowrun, the problems of fighting over ownership of IP and derivative works largely disappears compared to the shitshow that would exist in the UCAS and CAS if they maintain the IP regime of the U.S. Horizon continued this process when it became a megacorporation, seemingly becoming the most lenient IP rights holder and spreadings its benevolence globally towards its citizens and customers/clients (Of which there are many given its control over so many content producers). For the first time (but what happened in our world decades ago), people became free to make derivative works and share their and third party IP (presuming its *Horizon’s* IP) on Horizon’s networks and, thanks to Berne, every other network. This would also make Horizon party to eventual conflicts requiring political and legal resolutions at the highest levels required to actually change policy.

To quote Dunkelzahn in a passage from Aztlan, the people of the 2070s are “no longer afraid of the world.” They aren’t afraid of Crashes or terrorism or wars. They have become connected, and that world has threatened to make the post-Crash of ’29 system irrelevant (Exhibit A being the rise of the Horizon Group. Exhibit B being the necessity of the Megacorporate Audit and the ensuing backlash that may render the existing Corporate Court regime irrelevant). Knowledge of magic has progressed in this time and the world isn’t quite coming to an end as a result, but it seems to be more dangerous. However, the Big Ten don’t wield their power in a vacuum, and even while diminished it is still considerable. They have sought to implement Matrix 3.0 to control the flow of information and by necessity need to maintain a world where supply and demand favor their control over capital (Also, because the UMS 2.0 architecture of Matrix 2.0 introduced in SR4 is incredibly stupid in destroying any semblance of control or security, which is the antithesis of the first design principle behind Matrix 1.0.) – mostly tangible, but also magic and the Matrix – and that is why nanotechnology was so dangerous.

If CFD weren’t real, the megacorporations would have to invent it to justify their continued existence. The megacorporations and government in general cannot survive a world where supply outpaces consumption because then it renders them ultimately unnecessary. It’s hard to explain because its ongoing and people don’t always know when it happens that they’re living in a serious moment of change, but CFD could be as pivotal and game-changing as the Crash of ‘29. So far it’s been mostly contained, but there’s still a risk. It’s been covered in numerous supplements for the last few years because it really is a big deal. Additionally, automation renders both producers and consumers irrelevant, and at a certain point the megacorporations can’t justify automation without creating a world of people without means, which is a world that has no reason to continue allowing them to exist. Meanwhile, the world seems further intent on either helping justify their existence or at least upending some players while helping others by reminding the world that there is still a need for a global system of commerce and governance. 

This ultimately returns us to the idea of Cyberpunk itself. It’s not enough to focus on the technology, but also on the “punk,” or else we get an aesthetic without meaning (I’m looking in Steampunk’s general direction). The megacorporations don’t have vision because they’re too busy trying to control the present and prevent recurrences of past catastrophes, but they are better at responding to crises more quickly than they have been, which is for their benefit since they seem to come more quickly than ever before. And this is where the cyberpunks come in, those marginalized or ignored who are exploiting the cyber world just to survive and in some instances to overcome and fight the system in the shadows and cracks of the larger world. However, it’s not enough for them to simply attack the system or exploit it. They can do that if they just want to survive or to carve out a refuge for themselves and their communities, but there has to be a goal or hope for others to continue and even to serve the system in an attempt to circumvent or replace it. However, it’s a difficult task, and something each starry-eyed shadowrunner has to consider for his or herself because a new world will only be accepted by the masses if it can provide what the current world does but better.How much do you want to change the world? 

How much of the world do you want to change? What is a good life, or a good enough life? The megacorporations will remain dinosaurs that can squash smaller threats, but only because the smaller animals have nothing that gives them a survival advantage over the megacorporations and their surrogate states. Yet. Shadowrun’s cyberpunks are constantly torn between searching for a replacement and simply surviving in the shadows. It’s not necessary to focus on the former at all, but the latter is a necessity that justifies the game itself.

So I’m on the adopt-a-plot thread from the 2006 NaNoWriMo forums, and there’s a plot there about sisters who fight supernatural stuff… and whoever posted it, at the end of her post wrote “I know this sounds a lot like the plot of Supernatural, but I promise I came up with these characters before I saw the show.” Now, granted, it’s got a bit of a Winchester brothers feel to it (though the sisters themselves have supernatural abilities in the plot) but it sounds like so much fun to write. So I’m totally putting it in my notebook for later to see if I can get something out of it.