Shadowrun: Background Realities

   Well, since Shadowrun is starting up again, it’s time for a few background notes and clarifications:

The Extraterritoriality of Corporations:

   Like most things, this is complicated.

   In practice, a lot of governments are willing to offer special privileges or to turn a blind eye to a wide variety of abuses in exchange for expanding their tax base, there’s plenty of corruption and bribery, “civil rights” aren’t what they used to be, governmental agencies are smaller and less powerful, law enforcement has often been contracted out to mercenary groups, and – with supernatural predators and magic wandering about – armed responses are pretty much expected. A multinational corporation can get away with, cover up, explain away, or simply deny one hell of a lot. In theory local law enforcement could still simply burst in. In practice, doing that without sending in the lawyers days in advance is likely to result in a firefight – and “we thought you were crooks” is pretty much an ironclad defense with enough lawyers behind it. From a street-level prospective, and even a local government one, those corporate enclaves and arcologies might as well be another countries territory.

   In effect, corporations enjoy a great deal of freedom from pesky labor laws, environmental laws, and similar restrictions – even where they still officially exist. For the most part, governments are too small and stressed to bother with that soft of thing much any longer.

   One major thing has made that possible: much of the human race is now redundant. With current energy sources and technology, the work of a relatively small segment of the species suffices to support the rest in industrialized regions. If you’re willing to live on flavored algae-yeast paste and soy, to dress in disposable pressed-fiber clothing, to spend your life passively absorbing mass-broadcast entertainment (and “education”), and settle for the legally-required immunizations (to keep your betters from possibly being infected by some plague you’re carrying) and the occasional free clinic for “health care”, you can get along doing virtually nothing. Of course, you can also expect to seen as a cross between a stray dog and an unwelcome parasite of some sort even if you’re harmless. If you’re a member of a street gang, or otherwise up to something questionable – almost inevitable, if only because most people in this social stratum have no other defenses and a very vague knowledge of the law – you’ve now crossed into “dangerous pack of feral dogs” territory.

   When no one needs you for much of anything, and you don’t control enough armed force to compel them to pay attention to you, you’re effectively powerless – and will soon be politically powerless, since you have no way to keep yourself from being ignored. Hence the tremendous number of people who are SINless – that is to say, without legal citizenship anywhere.

   Legally, a few places* do allow major enclaves of multinationals incorporated elsewhere to apply for extraterritorial status and operate under the laws of the country in which they are incorporated (this is weird, but some places are small or disorganized enough to not care) – or are so chaotic that corporate law is the only local law. It would be a nightmare for most corporations if they were considered “countries” anyway. Customs every time an employee goes in or out. Employees not being recognized as citizens elsewhere. Every time you want to buy a parking lot, it’s a matter for international treaties since it involves altering national borders. People can declare war on you. Your corporate charter, and stock, are meaningless, since they exist under the laws of the country where you’re incorporated. If your corporate security steps over the line you’ve just committed an act of war. You’ll need to be providing your own security, fire, and other emergency services, and supporting your own military – an enormous financial drain. You’ll need to negotiate treaties with every other company and nation you want to recognize your laws – and agree to enforce theirs to get those treaties. Your contracts just became international treaties if they’re with other countries or corporations – so normal enforcement mechanisms no longer work. No one else will recognize your internal contracts once someone’s off your territory. You want to push extraterritoriality on an unwilling host country? That’s called secession, rebellion, and treason – a multinational that attempts this has just declared war on every country it operates in. Governments do not like sharing their authority. That’s why they crack down on rebellions, subversion, cultural enlaves, and anyone else who tries to say “we’re in charge of this piece of your territory now”.

   Corporations exist to make money. To do that, they want to be easily accessible to customers and to deliveries, they want good publicity, they want to be respected, well-known, and reliable, and they want easy and uncomplicated shipping.

   They don’t want unnecessary responsibilities, they don’t want to fool around with treaties, they don’t want to be countries. They certainly don’t want to be able to change the laws they operate and make contracts under, since that means that such agreements are meaningless. Arbitration can’t enforce anything on sovereign states – which is why those corporations which have experimented with simply buying out some tiny country and using it as a basis for making laws to suit themselves have given it up as a bad job.

   *Despite the history provided in the Shadowrun books, the Unites States Supreme Court does NOT have the power to grant either diplomatic immunity or extraterritoriality: those are courtesies granted by the state department in the US or by the appropriate department of the local government elsewhere. Even if the court did have that authority, it’s decisions wouldn’t apply outside it’s jurisdiction or after the country dissolved. There really is no such thing as “International Law”; there are simply some conventions which a fair number of governments have signed onto.

The Governmental Collapse:

   The fragmentation of most of the major world governments reflects the opposite effect. As the bulk of the population lost political, financial, and military power, certain small groups gained it. As technology became more centralized, and the destructive power available to individuals increased, those few with the ability to locate vital social chokepoints, and the technological or magical power to destroy them, became more and more powerful. When it reached the point that a genetic engineer with access to a few million worth of equipment could create a plague that could kill millions, magicians could synthesize nerve gasses by the gallon, automated systems could become engines of vast destruction for any talented hacker, and so on, it had also reached the point where any sizable group which could attract the comparatively rare individuals with such skills and talents – usually due to ideas of social justice – could no longer be safely crushed with military force. Areas where the population was actually loyal, or which were held together by strong bonds of self-interest, endured. Those held together by force, disintegrated. In North America a patchwork of “Indian Nations” appeared in the West and Midwest – but this is primarily a fiction. The vast majority of those living within those “Indian Nations” are not even remotely Indian.

   This is also why the people who hire Shadowrunners rarely try to cheat them or set them up without a REALLY good reason. Shadowrunners are a bunch of people who specialize in covert actions, demolitions, assassination, investigation, general mayhem, espionage, and computer crime. They are skilled enough, determined enough, and well-enough equipped, to get along as freelancers in those fields. They habitually act outside the law, are notorious for being a bit nuts, are willing to take enormous risks – and have very little to lose. Like it or not, corporations lack defensible borders, have to be public to deal with people, have to ensure that their customers aren’t afraid to deal with them, and have many widely-scattered centers to defend. The cost of security comes out of their profit margins, and corporations exist to make money, not to get upset at mercenaries.

   Did you ever hear of the Mafia making a habit of ripping off its hit men? I wonder why not? Corporations generally don’t make it personal with runners.

The Doctrine of Limited Response:

   This isn’t a formal rule – but most corporations pay attention to the fact that they’re usually on the defensive, and are often dealing with people in the midst of masses of expensive gear, and around their best people. They don’t need the bad publicity that comes up when a stray spray of bullets wipes out a couple of kids in a nearby street either.

   It’s in their own interests to limit the destruction. Not all corporations work this way – but in a lot of cases they try to hold down the violence. Dealing with a gang of kids with sprayguns and rude t-shirts for armor? Firehoses if possible. Stunguns, and knockout darts at most. Dealing with a couple of hackers and some guys with knockout darts in light armored clothing? Small arms, maybe a bit of heavier stuff as backup if they prove unexpectedly dangerous.

   Dealing with a bunch of cybertrolls with assault cannons? Your facility is already going to be a loss if it comes to a fight, haul out the armored vehicles, machine guns, and antivehicle weapons.

   The same sort of limitations apply to active countermeasures – a variation on the more common alarms, locks, and barriers. These systems make an active attempt to capture or kill intruders. While this sounds good to the paranoid and security-minded, there are serious difficulties with the idea.

   The first, and simplest, is that things invariably go wrong at times. Malfunctions and mistakes happen. When they involve security systems designed to injure or kill people, then people will probably get injured or killed. Since most of the people around are either your employees or important guests, this is bad. This costs lots of money, reduces employee morale, and makes for lousy publicity. Killing or injuring an important person, or stray kid, may cost millions, whether in a lawsuit, lost productivity, or public revulsion.

   Worse, the more important, or abstractly-inclined, the individual the less likely they are to pay attention to security. The people you can least afford to lose are the ones who’re most likely to get into your booby-traps.

   Secondarily, such systems are obscenely expensive; if you insist on installing “active countermeasures”, you can forget about getting any help from the normal emergency services – the fire department, ambulances, power/water/sewer maintenance people, and so on. Like nuclear plants in the late 20’th century, if you want that sort of thing, you are just going to have to fund your own department. This costs LOTS of money. On the other hand, skipping it’s a disaster in terms of employee morale – and is catastrophic if and when such an emergency occurs.

Artificial Intelligences:

   These exist. They are not, however, all-powerful. The human brain still provides the equivalent of approximately 2,000,000 Megapulses of computing power, supported by 50,000,000 Megapulses of memory. Fortunately, at the larger scale, the human brain is poorly integrated, has a lot of redundant and support circuitry, has to run the various systems of the body, and has to compensate for fatigue and other biochemical factors. You can run a human-level consciousness on a mere ten million megapulses, at a hardware cost of a mere 60 million NY or so.

   Oh wait. You wanted something BETTER than a human. You can hire some of those one hell of a lot cheaper than that.

   AI’s are not inherently “able to manipulate the matrix at the most fundamental level” simply because they’re computer intelligences any more than humans can inherently “manipulate biochemicals at the most fundamental level” because they’re organic ones. They can be made pretty effective. Developing an AI equivalent to a Shellborg costs a mere billion or two if you’re very very lucky. Of course, it’s a complete crapshoot: you never know when some trivial programming error will cause the entire system to crash and burn.

   If you’ve just GOT to have a sentient supercomputer, it’s a lot easier to wire up a human being. There are ongoing experiments of course, and possibly even a few successes (at least according to the rumors) – but AI’s are not godlike unless, perhaps, someone has opted to invest a few hundred billion in development, managed to keep it quiet, and has gotten incredibly lucky.


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