According to Wikipedia “Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction in a near-future setting. Noted for its focus on “high tech and low life,” it features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.” Most would agree it was brought to the public eye in the pages of William Gibson’s 1984 literary masterpiece Neuromancer. Between the covers of that novel Gibson introduced the world at large to the concepts of cyberspace, the rapid expansion of information technology, puppet governments controlled by corporate masters, and a world without a middle class. These ideas exploded beyond Gibson. They found their way into the stories of Phillip K. Dick, popular music (like Billy Idol’s 1993 album Cyberpunk) and even popular role-playing games like Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun. But then, something unimaginable happened and interest in the genre seemed to fade from the popular conciousness.
The science fiction of cyberpunk became science fact. The Dot Com Boom of the last years of the twentith century brought the internet (often itself called “cyberspace”) into the homes of John. Q. Public. The world marvelled at the “birth” of Dolly, a completely cloned sheep. Designer babies, under the guidance of genetic engineering, were born to exacting perfection to wealthy parents. This new digital revolution was changing our lives on a daily basis and the world seemed like it was on the fast track to a digital utopia. Maybe Gibson, Dick, and the others had been nihilists who just didn’t have faith in humanity. Maybe, just maybe, they had gotten it all wrong. Cyberpunk became the silly little subgenre that lost relevance as the prospects of the 21st century brightened.
Now, in the budding decades of the twenty-first century, we see that these prolific authors weren’t so far from the mark as we once thought. The darker themes of the cyberpunk genre have crawled from the pages of fiction and now live and breath in our world. Ceaseless warfare in unstable nations has plagued the globe, fueled by corporate interests in oil and other vital resources. Fought by more than just national armies, private mercenary groups have been hired out to live and die for the glory of the almighty dollar. Great nations of the world stand on the brink of economic collapse while the massess rally in the streets and cry out for simple justice as CEOs pass legislation with more power than elected officials. Modern technology continues to move at breakneck speeds, but instead of bringing enlightnment, it proves that by giving the citizenry of the world a virtual version of “bread and circus,” unjust laws can be passed while people worship at the altar of their American Idol.
Yet technology and society marches on. Virtual reality has become actual reality. We can now 3D print artificial limbs at home. Our phones have more power than computers that once ruled the world. But while these small miracles are brought to us by companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple – the world continues to spiral into a state of chaos.
Here are a few common tropes in the cyberpunk genre and their real-world counterparts.
Fiction: ““Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…” -Neuromancer by William Gibson, 1984
Fact: Sounds a lot like the internet, doesn’t it? And with the coming of the Occulus Rift virtual reality goggles and the voice and motion sensitive gaming systems like Xbox Kinect, soon we’ll be able to control the digital world with more than just our keyboard and mouse. Just take a look at this seminar from the annual hacker convention known as Defcon where a computer programmer uses a real time 3D first person gaming engine combined with a Kinect to physically hack a digital program.
Cybernetic Limbs and Physical Human Augmentation
Fiction: “The standard cyberlimb is an aluminum and steel basket framework, with artificial myomar plastic muscles controlling motion. The joins are stainless steel. The cyberlimb plugs into a special nerve interface jack mounted in the flesh above the limb, while the main unit is coupled to a metal and plastic cuff around the meat part of the limb.” -Cyberpunk 2020, by R. Talsorian Games, 1987
Fiction: “The kickoff came with two Supreme Court rulings, made in 1999 and 2001 respectively, that set the stage for a world in which megacorporate octopi call the shots and use shadowrunners like so many pawns in their games. Megacorporations had begun to evolve in the 1980s and ’90s, when merger fever had everyone from banks to defense contractors glomming together like so much gunk on bathroom tile. But the first real nails in the coffin of the old world were the Seretech and Shiawase decisions. The first one upheld Seretech Corporation’s right to maintain an armed force for the protection of its personnel and property, effectively legitimizing private corp armies. The second had even worse consequences; it established corporate extraterritoriality, giving multinational corporations the same rights and privileges as foreign governments.” -Shadowrun 3rd Edition, Jordan Wiesman (1998)
Fact: “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.” -U.S. Supreme Court Justice Morrison Waite (1886)
In this article from Activist Post we see several Venn Diagrams outlines corporate executives who have direct involvement or seats in high-level positions of the United States Senate and House of Representatives, among other positions.
Other examples include the growing divide of wealth between CEO and average worker, destablization of unified currency, and growing rebellion of the masses against oppressive government. All of these were themes common to the cyberpunk genre that have become a reality across the world.
So, why is it that no one seems to notice that we live in a world that fiction writers were describing thirty years before it came to pass? Can we not see the forest for the trees? Are we too caught up in the moment to remember these prophetic storytellers? More importantly, cyberpunk is a distopian genre of science fiction – there aren’t many happy endings and all of them come at a cost.
Can we look to Gibson, Pondsmith, Dick, and others to see the mistakes we could make before we make them? Can we avert a world where we’re sleeping in coffin hotels and eating soy paste while the rich few herd and use us like cattle while we sit supplicated by digital intoxicants?
Or is it already too late? Cyberpunk is a genre that tells stories featuring heroes who are willing to stand against the monolitih adversaries of the world and subversively use the weapons of the enemy against him. Out smart, out think, and then disappear. Do we remember those lessons? Do we know those truths? Or are we all too busy watching impressive, if pointless, displays of modern technology.
I opened with Gibson, I’ll leave you with Gibson:
“The future us already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”