Lower Manhattan, New York. Friday, November 16th, 2029.
Oliver’s Model N Tesla pulls into a parking lot and he steps out. He walks into a restaurant, 야끼만두 (Yakimandu) and heads into his office. Along the way, he says “Hi” to co-worker and good friend, Hyun Ryu.
Ryu waves and says, “Just got another couple’a orders. There’s $800 an hour we’re on roll to get.”
“Stuart Bentley, the guy over at ULF’s. He’s sending a droid over to pick it up for us.”
“How are our’s doing?”
“Pretty good. Dawn’s got the updates, so just check in with her when you get the chance.”
Ryu fades away, and Oliver sits in his swivel chair. He taps his desk, which lights up and sends a holographic display to his eyes. It’s not actually there, it’s his own bionic lenses that lets him see this wonderful magic.
He thinks out, “Dawn, what’s the situation with the workforce?”
Dawn replies, “All units are working properly. Your enterprise is ready to open for the day.”
“Alright, hit the lights.”
And with that, the signs on the outside shine bright. The sun is screaming for a good day, and the city is alive. Patrons come and go across the day, and the place fills to peak by the evening.
This is what Oliver loves most about the job: hearing all these voices, all the laughter, all the drama, just the general sense of humanity among the crowd.
Ryu calls back again, reappearing as a hologram. It hasn’t been five years since Oliver got the hologram system installed, and he still can only barely believe it works. What creeps him out the most is how ‘unhologramish’ holograms actually are— when he was growing up, holograms were usually portrayed as staticy, monocolored images suspended in the air. Real holograms never flicker, and are so finely colored that it aches the brain to understand the image isn’t really there.
After Oliver answers the call, he goes back to checking on his workers.
None of them are human.
Yakimandu is a breed of service that’s become increasingly common— automated enterprises, but not ‘too’ automated. Some locations like McDonalds made the transition well enough, acting more as an automat than a robotic restaurant. But it didn’t work everywhere because older people’s Luddite sensibilities were overpowering. Yakimandu and such types found a happy medium, adopting a shokkenki model of business.
Automats and shokkenki technically describe the same thing: a fully/near-fully automated eatery. However, automats have become known as ‘McVending Machines’, as most of their services come from selecting your order from a screen. Shokkenki eateries, however, maintain the traditional roles of servers and waiters, with the exception than said servers and waiters are robots.
It surprised Oliver as it did everyone that shokkenkis became as popular as they did.
When asked about his opinion on it, Oliver said to his wife, “The world isn’t ready for automats. The kids, they’re okay with it, but you have the older generations who still value human interaction, even on such a fleeting and insignificant level.”
Yet Oliver works at Yakimandu knowing that very few of his patrons are workers. Sure, it’s a sort of trendy line of club-esque restaurants, but even those tend to be populated by the middle class.
Whatever happened to the middle class?
Every day, Oliver relearns this truth. Just across the street is another restaurant, Double V’s, and it wears a similar trendster veneer. Though they compete for patrons, Yakimandu and Double V’s seem to be different themes for the same business.
Except Double V’s is more successful, more well known, and has a larger number of restaurants in construction.
Oliver knows why.
Don’t get him wrong, Oliver’s a staunch Democrat. He pays his taxes, and his taxes help fund the state’s guaranteed basic income, something he supported a decade ago. But the Vyrdist movement feels too radical for him, and he fears the potential consequences of being targeted for ‘Vyrdist expropriation.’
A basic income is an amount of money paid out just for being a citizen. When Oliver first heard of the concept in the 2010’s, he asked why no one ever thought to try it before. When he went into business, the world had already changed greatly and he was one of many millions across the globe who successfully petitioned for their respective nations to, at the very least, consider implementing a basic income system. This was because, as he managed to construct a successful shokkenki business, he felt concerned about those that couldn’t adapt to the changes in time.
The argument against this was that people should learn new marketable skills if they want money so badly. Perhaps it was because Oliver’s a Democrat, or perhaps it’s because some small part of him knew, but Oliver thought this counterargument to be insanely short-sighted.
“Pay a basic income so people can actually survive to learn new skills,” he said. “If they can’t find a job to begin with, how on Earth are they gonna afford the education in the first place?” To him, basic income was the best idea in the world. Those displaced by automation should be granted some way to survive, and the government should provide it.
Not everyone agreed. Some time around his senior year in uni, right when he met his sweetheart Samantha, Oliver’s unshakable optimism in a basic income was disturbed when he first heard news of a radical new movement popping up on college campuses and industrial fields across America and China— people who rejected the idea of a basic income on the basis that it created dependency upon the ‘bourgeois-run government.’
According to these people, who called themselves ‘Vyrdists’, after an elusive and potentially mythical man known as John Henry Vyrd, the only true solution to technological unemployment was for the workers to obtain ownership of automation, and that anything less was tantamount to slavery— basic income included.
Though it remained underground throughout the decade, Vyrdism seemed to explode this past year.
Double V’s is a worker cooperative, a sort of enterprise owned and managed by the people who work it. Except it’s not a traditional worker enterprise. Vyrdists use the term ‘technate’ to describe a fully-automated business run in a cooperative fashion. As they do everything, they appropriated the term from the old technocracy movement.
On the surface, it seems radical. Workers owning the means of production? Where have we heard that one before?
But Vyrdists rarely describe themselves as Marxists. If anything, they’re ascribe to the phrase “free market socialism,” saying that they don’t want a fully cooperative-run society, only one where workers have a choice and a chance at ownership. And it makes sense— if workers owned automation directly, they wouldn’t have to worry about a government middleman and would have much more power over their lives.
Maybe Oliver could’ve supported something like this if he weren’t a business owner himself. Vyrdists have not been afforded much power to start their own businesses, so they’ve been forced to expropriate them from other, failed businesses and worked from there. Right as the recession hit was when this Great Expropriation began.
“I can’t hate them,” Oliver said to Ryu. “They’re where I get most of my money from.”
“That’s the whole point of Vyrdism. Basic income relies on wealth redistribution. Vyrdism relies on egalitarian wealth creation. Haven’t you heard the Word of Vyrd?” Ryu laughs.
“Yeah, yeah.” Oliver can’t quite explain what it is about Vyrdism that gets to him. The recession’s over, and the dollar is stronger than it’s ever been. On top of this, millions of Americans have become Vyrdists and have joined the National Worker’s Federation, and have seen their wages rise by extreme amounts because of it. This means they have more money to spend, which should mean people like Oliver benefit.
Yet all it’s caused are tensions between business and labor.
“I can’t say I’m too mad,” Ryu adds. Oliver knows Ryu is a Vyrdist. God, it’s ridiculous how sci-fi Ryu’s life reads. He’s a cyborg— fully cybernetic arms and legs— who’s being beamed into his office space via hologram. Ryu is careful about these things, too. South Korea has surpassed China and Dubai in recent years in terms of notoriety.
“That’s because you come from a corporate hellhole.”
“If they had Vyrdism in Korea, the place would be a thousand times better. At least the States aren’t so bad.” With that, he sounds pained. Both men know what South Korea’s like. Once upon a time, it was seen as being the antithesis of North Korea: a capitalist oasis opposed to a communist dystopia. Nowadays, it seems like four legs are good and two legs are better.
If cyberpunk ever existed anywhere, it exists in Korea. Seoul is a glittering cyberscape filled with mile-high neon-lined skyscrapers, but this shiny glory came with the cost of a near totalitarian corporate dictatorship, one that does not tolerate dissent or complaining. One that thrives on the division of classes. Ryu only escaped because he sold his soul to fight the devil, becoming part of the business class.
To him, it’s shocking how far America has moved in the other direction. Vyrdism is just the latest in an extended trend of greater power in the hands of the People. The idea that a nation as conservative as America, oft seen as 50 years behind the rest of the first world, has such a powerful labor movement seems unbelievable.
To Oliver, maybe he feels unease because of his father.
“You know, my dad is probably why I feel this way. I told you about ‘im, right? That bastard was the most classist asshole around. He tried raising me to believe that, if you can’t work for any reason, you deserve to rot, and if you’re poor, you deserve to be poor.”
Ryu laughs, “Sounds Korean!”
“I know, right? He was just really mean about it, though. Like, if you got rich in a way he didn’t approve, he’d still say you’re poor. So all these co-ops and technates? He’d just call ’em all commies and say they should be forced outta business.”
“But they’re capitalists!”
“Yeah? So? They still ‘share.’ And a lotta them only work the bare minimum and let robots do all the rest. Oh man, if he ever heard of that? Hoo boy.”
“So what I’m hearing is ‘your father is a hypocrite’, is that it?”
“Probably. He’d probably be very happy letting robots work for him, but damn you if you tried it yourself. He’d call you a lazy leech who should actively have your money taken away from you.”
Both of them start laughing. “So wait, wait, wait. He supported wealth redistribution?”
“Don’t call it that, and only if it’s from the poor to the rich. If the government takes from the poor and gives to the rich, that’s just the free market working the way it should. But if it’s the opposite, it’s Stalinism. So I never got him, really. I still liked him as a father, but I’m almost relieved, if that’s the right word, that he passed away before things got to this point. His veins couldn’t take the blood pressure if he read half a page of today’s news.”
Oliver and Ryu walk through the restaurant and interact with the many patrons. No one bats an eye when Ryu passes through them or the robot workers.
The robots are generally humanoid, though some take different and more generalized forms. Each and every one is powered by the Dawn system.
The people are generally chatting, though some do not speak. Instead, these seem to be entranced and detached. Detached, they are not— in fact, they are engaging in telepathic communication.
Oliver wears the same technology to talk to Dawn and his phone contacts. All it takes is a little headband, one that reads brain signals and translates them into words and symbols.
It was the Apple iMind that brought it into the mainstream. When that product was announced in 2023, it was hailed as an invention on par with the discovery of fire and the wheel. This despite psychotronics and cyberkinesis being developed for well over a decade prior.
Actually, for Oliver, that was the moment he realized just how futuristic the world was becoming. He was one of the early adopters, and was amazed by the features. These days, it’s just like texting.
That’s the nature of the game these days, isn’t it? You’re given something unbelievably amazing and futuristic, and yet you’re not given time to take it for granted before something even more amazing comes along.
This past decade has been one big ‘How on Earth did scientists create this’ sort of festival of technology. For a man like Oliver, it’s been a game changer. When he started the decade as an intern, it was still a given that people had to work for a living, that robots were decades away, that telepathy is impossible.
Now here he is, wearing cybernetic contact lenses he controls with his mind, talking to a hologram of his cyborg friend, owner of a business that exclusively employs robots.
What a difference a decade makes.
And he gets to enjoy the fruits of technology because he made the right choices in life. When he was in college, his father was brutally hard on him, telling him that unless he became an electrical engineer, he would never succeed in life. In fact, in the late 2010s and early 2020s, the media kept hyping up how the STEM field was the only place to go if you wanted to make any money. His decision to major in Business seemed to be shortsighted. He watched with great concern as all his friends became STEMgineers and seemed to be set up with 6 figure jobs upon graduation.
And yet guess who makes the most money these days. Somewhere along the line, middle of the decade, the STEM bubble burst. It didn’t burst because it got too big. No.
It burst because something popped it. And that something was the very same thing the STEMgineers were being paid to create— artificial intelligence. No one knows when the ‘spark’ flew, other than that the world hasn’t been the same since. Indeed, the early 2020s seemed to be such a simpler time, but maybe this is just his rosy memory of the days before he had to become so involved with AI.
And it’s this reason why the issue of basic income and Vyrdism are so prominent now. It’s this reason why Oliver has been arguing with Samantha over the future of their 3-year-old daughter, Miranda. AI has become capable of STEM tasks, even the creative ones. The belief that the STEM field would supply humanity with jobs for hundreds of years repairing and maintaining automation collapsed before it started getting entrenched, and the only ones fielding this argument are those most out of touch with the reality on the ground.
Now his STEM-educated friends are desperate for jobs. His degree in Business paid off because he wasn’t being paid to fix automation— he was being paid because he owned it.
It’s tragic, actually, how little prepared the workforce was. But one can’t blame them. In less than a generation, the very nature of labor and business has undergone multiple otherwise century-defining shifts. The children of the 2000s were taught like the children of earlier decades. Then the STEM field became of chief importance in the 2010s, so the children of the 2010s and early 2020s were taught almost exclusively in either the STEM field or the arts. Then artificial intelligence steamrolled employment at a rate faster than anyone could have possibly predicted (or, perhaps, wanted to predict).
This is what Oliver respects about the Vyrdist movement— that they are attacking the problem at its source. But the means at which the Vyrdists are going about it trouble him.
Capitalists support basic income. Without consumers, they become subject to expropriation by masses of former workers. Maybe that’s why… Maybe he’s scared of being expropriated, and it’s in his best interest to see a concession like basic income become the standard.
God Christ, 10 years ago, this wasn’t even a nonissue. How has so much happened to the world in so little time?
It’s that damned quote he keeps on his desk. It’s a curse.
“May you live in interesting times.”