By Eric Mitchell, edited by Johannes Helmold
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In the near, plausible future, the world has been transformed dramatically by the computer age, but not necessarily in the way the world had hoped. Enter the realm of Cyberpunk. Coldly defined by WordNet as “a genre of fast-paced science fiction involving oppressive computerized societies,” Cyberpunk (here capitalized for reverence) is a genre that is part Star Wars and part Sam Spade (Wordnet). It exists in a world that is real, yet unreal—familiar, yet foreign. It is a gritty world, lived-in, unpolished, unashamed of its true nature, and because of that, it is beautiful.
Cyberpunk is nearly universally dystopian. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is an excellent example and is held up by critics and myself as the quintessential Cyberpunk novel (Cumming 2014). With a gritty all‑too-plausible feel full of gangsters and mistrust, it shows just how dark the world can remain even with computers running the show. Data thieves work their magic for the highest bidder and pray they do not get caught. Disenfranchised heroes fight the established order imposed by corrupt governments, greedy corporations, and sleazy crime bosses. Cities rule the landscape. Giant metropolises whose severe industrial beauty and colorful lights beat back the night. Again, it is already happening, and again it is beautiful.
Overall, Cyberpunk does not portray technology itself as evil, though exceptions occur. Rather, it serves to emphasize the point that is not the technology that is evil but the “Human behind the Machine” that harbors evil (What is Cyberpunk? | Neon Dystopia). The point is that machines amplify human potential and that the potential for evil can be amplified just as much as the potential for good. Cyberpunk evokes a spookiness rather than the hopeful optimistic feel of such science-fiction as Star Trek or even Stargate SG-1; a cautionary tone that warns not to put all of society’s eggs in the basket of computer technology. In more than a few Cyberpunk societies, “Big Brother” watches all and human rights are tossed aside. The government and corporations hold much of the power. The scariest part is that this sort of thing can indeed come to pass given today’s paranoia and level of technology. Already it is extremely easy for governments to track a person’s every move. Companies and schools do it all the time in cyberspace, tracking all Internet traffic in and out. Governments can do it quite easily through cars and cell phones and all manner of everyday objects that give away their position—even credit and debit cards.
In some cases, a Cyberpunk society is run entirely by an artificial intelligence, or A.I. Such is the case with The Matrix, where after taking over all of the “hard” things, they began to oppress humans, eventually relegating them to being a source of power, plugged into a digital recreation of Earth at the turn of the 21st century (The Matrix Trilogy). There are heroes and rebels that resist the machines, believing that they are acting on their own accord. This resistance culminates in the finding of the One who is able to see the Matrix for what it really is, and thus “defeat” the machines. However, this is actually how the machines solved a peculiar software bug in the Matrix and so they are aware of it and set the situation up in such a way that the One must make a choice that will either save an individual, or all of humanity. This series artfully blends typical Cyberpunk themes of hacking and large, advanced cybernetic technology with deeper thoughts on predestination and the purpose of choice.
The whole Cyberpunk aesthetic is based around the sleek industrial feel of modern technology—valuing the artificial over the natural. It also is evocative of the early computer. Little mention of graphical computer interfaces is made, preferring instead either fully virtual interfaces that are “plugged” directly into one’s brain, or the traditional command line terminal interfaces of the 1970s through the early 1990s which, to modern readers, can seem as anachronistic. This “bright lights, big city, sleek technology” aesthetic is a cornerstone of the genre. This is easily seen in the film Blade Runner, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. It showcases this competently, as does the anime Ghost In the Shell—both of which have heavy emphasis on transhuman themes of cybernetics, which a group of people today embrace. Transhumanism revolves around melding humans with machines so that humans will be stronger and live longer and healthier than ever before, plugged into the Internet directly through his or her own consciousness.
In reality, Cyberpunk is an entire subculture that embraces technology and all the good it can bring when used properly and openly available—a set of ideals and morals and aesthetic principles that form a way of life for many people. The center of these values is open access to information. There should never be a small group that holds the power lest disaster strikes. It challenges the idea that computers should be limited in access and information available only to those with certain resources. Many of the participants in this community are themselves hackers of one fashion or another who use their knowledge for good. They bring data and information to light that once was hidden and share it with the community so that everyone can know. A simple and recent example is that a group of hackers managed to uncover information about the Chinese Olympic women’s gymnastics team: the gymnasts were underage. It supposedly prompted an investigation into the matter.
The artistic elements behind Cyberpunk are both elusive and undeniable in their obviousness. Such fantastic visions are visually appealing so long as form follows function. Bright lights and colorful signs, the beautiful, fantastic virtual representations of computer networks, are full worlds unto themselves. Authors in the vein of William Gibson, Phillip K. Dick, and Neal Stephenson grasp this quite well. It can already be seen in real world places. It is the plausibility of it all that makes it so stunning. The idea of ubiquitous computing and media. The idea that governments and corporations and industrious individuals can easily compromise one’s privacy. A perfect but little known example is the push for what is called “cloud computing” where an individual’s data is not stored locally on hardware they own (and therefore are covered under legal protections) but stored on a company’s server. They can spy on everything you do, stop you if they find what you are doing or learning to be unsavory. The authorities need only subpoena the company and they would turn over all your data without batting an eye to protect themselves from legal trouble. The whole genre serves as an eloquent reminder to consider what technology is and how can be used to stay away from the evils that lie down the road of improper usage. Care must be taken, because with the great power technology holds comes the greater responsibility to use it to benefit humankind.
- “WordNet.” N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2016.
- Cumming, Ed. “William Gibson and Neuromancer: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2014. Web. 04 July 2016.
- “What is Cyberpunk? | Neon Dystopia.” Neon Dystopia. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2016.
- “The Matrix Troligy.” SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 04 July 2016.
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