Cyberpunk distinguished itself in two ways. The first was its view on the interaction between man and machine. Long ago the elder prophets of science fiction had taken technology and placed it upon an alter as an idol to be worshiped, interacted with solely by a scientific priesthood, safely kept away from the ignorant masses. The cyberpunk theorists turned this on its head, predicting a wide spread proliferation of technology (even to the poor and criminally inclined), existing in an intimate relationship with its human operators.
To the cyberpunk the epitome of technology was not a starship cruising through interstellar space or massive orbital habitats (though all those things are still very much cool); instead the apex could be found inside one’s pocket, under one’s skin, and burrowed deep within one’s brain. It was living a life married to your gadgets, exploring virtual worlds, and opting for robotic limbs even if you were not an amputation victim.
Just as the mechanisms of capitalism kept driving down the price of every other consumer good (for better or worse) there really was no reason for the cyberpunk of the 1980s to believe this would cease in the future and not include every possible technological advancement to come. What emerged from that thought process was some of the first depictions of BCI (brain-computer interfacing), the coining of the term cyberspace, and a myriad of gadgets that halfway resemble devices we use today.
A personal favorite was the cyberpunk crisis of radical individualism vs. societal pressures in regards to the man-machine interaction. Cybernetic enhancements could be as variable and unique as a piece of good tattoo art today, or as bland and stereotypical as tribal ink. It seemed that a character’s personality was always competing with prevalent trends to be the determinate factor in how they modified themselves.
This was the honesty that went into cyberpunk that I think so many consumers of its media greatly appreciate. It was a reality check to the utopian, but not so dark as to be apocalyptic. It said that even if the world goes to shit, we can possibly still have fun along the way.
The second defining characteristic of cyberpunk was how it viewed the implications of high level technology on culture, government, and economics, and more importantly a belief that scientific advancement would never produce the alchemy that might turn men into angels. Cyberpunk inserted the human element into the abstract and fanciful theories of the futurist. Excluding any possibility of operator error or societal friction to change, the mind’s eye can conjure an age of tomorrow that is all pristine white plastic, unblemished chrome, and streak free glass. The cyberpunk firmly denounces this as intellectual dishonesty.
The whole genre explored the numerous ways man could use and abuse technology. An idealistic technocrat could very well invent the clarktech replicator tomorrow and feed the poor, but I would bet money that within hours, days, maybe a week max of tech like that going open beta it would be hacked to produce guns, drugs, bombs, and probably synthetic sexual organs. This is more or less the case with the 3D printer now, so why not?
In the cyberpunk landscape there is corporate warfare, oppressive governments, and waves of fundamentalist technophobia. The societal counter to this was black markets, decentralized authority, and an odd mix of nihilistic technophiliacs and underground resistance movements. The ethical environment is just as grey here as it is in the real world, if not greyer, with more extremes of white and black swirling about into a smoggy mess of indistinguishable battle lines.
This chaos firmly rejects the traditional picture painted by space operas of mankind’s moral excellence as achieved through an acceptance of science as the new religion. There is an error in judgment that gives rise to this kind of thinking, believing that morality can ever arise from technological progress. It’s a blind spot to the truth that the biological motivators of a human creature (sex, revenge, greed, and plain vindictiveness) are not likely to be cured anytime soon… if ever. Cyberpunk brings to light what will be the true obstacle to science realizing the transhuman ascension (à la singularity), and that obstacle to mankind is mankind.
We’re now hitting the thirtieth anniversary of Neuromancer’s publication. It has also been over twenty years since Snow Crash first hit shelves and Billy Idol’s mediocre album Cyberpunk released. In truth the whole cyberpunk movement really boomed and busted in the space of a decade or two, with a few shuttering gasps here and there ever since. Back in 1985 Bruce Sterling, a key founder of the literary genre, had gone so far as to pronounce cyberpunk as dead. So where does that leave us? Did cyberpunk mean anything? Is there a pulse? And if so, does the movement hold any relevance to us today?
I’ll be addressing this and wrapping everything up “20 Minutes into the Future,” Part 3 of Mirror Shading.