Monday, October 7, 2013

The Cyberpunk Question

Cyberpunk has made a resurgence in recent years. Former tabletop games Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 are reincarnated as video games. Both Neuromancer and Snow Crash seem to be getting movies soon. Ghost in the Shell has a new season. The last Deus Ex game was very popular. These hard-boiled cyber-crime works are gaining new relevance in a world not so different than the ones they depict.

The resurgence in Cyberpunk works begs a question. It's not a question about the resurgence, not really a "why now?" Instead, it's a "what now?" Cyberpunk has shown to be so prophetic that it's becoming a mirror for society, and it wants us to think about that.

The subreddit /r/Cyberpunk has about 34,000 subscribers. Since the content is not strictly moderated, submissions range from simple images to game trailers to news articles. These submissions represent a group negotiation of the meaning of cyberpunk. That meaning?

Cyberpunk is an aesthetic. It's cluttered, technological, dirty, omniscient and everywhere. It also carries a deep sense of paranoia and wrongness, from the conspiratorial moves of the AI in Neuromancer to the edge-of-reality busting in The Matrix. It's noir, run through the mill of globalization and corporatism. Secrets fight other secrets in silent technological wars.

A central theme on /r/Cyberpunk is "this is society today." The community treats the works of the older cyberpunk artists (Gibson, Stephenson, Masamune, Scott) as prophetic, pointing to the evidence in today's world. It's not a hard argument to make, as more and more aspects of our world take on those of a cyberpunk dystopia: the government monitors all communication, multinational corporations are incredibly powerful, technology is near-inseparable from everyday life, and the activities of hackers really do matter in the big picture. All the technology that make cyberpunk action sequences cool - HUDs, robots, cyborg augmentation, etc - is well in development, if not already in practical use.

When the comparison between that fiction and everyday life is so obvious, and the gap between the two is so small, one question keeps the gap from closing: what do we do now? I consider this the cyberpunk question.

That is, "what do we do now?" is the question cyberpunk asks us in 2013. We're on the train, pulling up to the station. Our stop is The Sprawl, a technological dystopia where mega-corporations make the rules and the lower classes use what technology they can to scrape up a living. Is this where we get off?

The word "punk" in cyberpunk usually confuses newcomers to the genre. Is it just a synonym for "cool?" Is it rebellious? It sounds like something you might want to be, a cyberpunk. It sounds better than "nerd" anyway. There are cyberpunk manifestos out there on the net, and apparently Timothy Leary started a group that called themselves cyberpunks (and eventually got involved with Billy Idol, who ruined it all). It seems to have always been a shaky thing to base an identity on. Users on /r/Cyberpunk who post about "cyberpunk fashion" tend to get slagged.

We can't easily identify as cyberpunk. But what about the cyberpunk question? What does the idea of "punk" mean to that?

Punk, in the abstract, is about doing things with disregard for any convention. Convention in the original context of punk usually meant rules, and rules usually meant authority. In the context of cyberpunk, authority is usually presented as conspiracy.

Protagonists in cyberpunk works are constantly finding out new truths and betrayals, some that bend reality. The anti-terrorist groups in Deus Ex and Ghost in the Shell are physically near-invincible, so their main antagonists are mysterious and intangible (conspiracy and a baby AI respectively). In other works, like Gibson's novels, protagonists range from everyday hackers to veteran mercenaries. Their main antagonists are also mysterious, and usually not revealed until the end of the book.

Cyberpunk is largely about uncovering and resisting the mysterious forces that deign to use and control the everyday lives of regular people. It's usually a battle fought through different mediums, using technology to uncover and share information.

There are people fighting that fight today. The stories of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are stories of the now, not the future. Those two are being persecuted by the U.S. Government for revealing its secrets. Predictably, their stories as well as other stories about the NSA have made the /r/Cyberpunk page a few times.

The story of reddit itself is pretty cyberpunk. That there even exists a place on the net where people can share information so fluidly and in such large quantities is incredible. The site is a beacon for info junkies. It's also a staging ground for modern political activists, such as the Occupy movement, or the anti-PATRIOT ACT /r/RestoreTheFourth. In these sites, people gather to share and uncover the truth, to find the root of the problem and discuss what can be done about it. Those communities are communities of resistance, and they're framed by an architecture of free information.

The creators of reddit are the most cyberpunk of all. In today's world, hackers are the architects of society. Like in the digital world of Snow Crash, every structure on the net is hand-crafted by somebody slouched back covered in LED light. Reddit is a structure that is helping shape modern democratic dialogue. To endlessly quote McLuhan, "the medium is the message." If reddit is a message, I think that message is part of the answer to the cyberpunk question.

No comments:

Post a Comment