An Elegy for Cyberpunk

The genre isn’t gone, but the silver lining sure is.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer is one of those books that I can’t remember ever not having read. But I do remember that it wasn’t long after I read it that I was introduced to Shadowrun, which quickly supplanted D&D as my go-to RPG. I’m not sure how well I understood what was going on in the plot, and was probably too young to understand a lot of what was going on. (Later on, when I started to understand self-loathing, it made a lot more sense.)

Even then, I loved the world, the technology, and the aesthetic. Gibson is fantastic at showing an entire scene through a couple of hints. He doesn’t lean into a lot of what we’ve come to think of as “cyberpunk” aesthetic, and I prefer his much more understated settings more than a lot of his more over-the-top progeny.

Aside from how it looks, though, a common trope is its focus on people on the fringes of society–the “low life” going along with the “high tech.” It’s not always criminals, although these lines get a tad blurry due to the increasing corporate dominance that is another common trope of the setting. This is even more the case in the Shadowrun RPG, where your characters (“runners”) are mercenaries for hire by all the corporations vying for an edge, where law enforcement has itself been privatized, and where governments’ roles in their citizens’ daily lives are steadily eroding. (Although a dragon is elected president of one of the major North American countries, so there is that.)

Those familiar with this setting and the tropes associated with it may have raised an eyebrow when I said that there was a silver lining associated with cyberpunk. I’d even venture to say there’s an actual optimism in many of these stories.

The Cyber Trickles Downhill

There’s a public intellectual of sorts named Eliezer Yudkowsky who started a cult website called LessWrong, and who talks a lot about technology, science, and what-not. He has various “laws” attributed to him, one of which is that “Every eighteen months, the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point.” The idea is that, over time, increasingly powerful technology will be in the hands of everyday people. It’s kind of like the cliché about how we all walk around with smartphones that are orders of magnitude more powerful and capable than the computers used to send people to the Moon.

Unfortunately, this is not how it generally works out. When better computers and connectivity end up in people’s hands, so does a great deal of capture: DRM, surveillance (both corporate and governmental), monopolization, and more recently the move to software-as-a-service (where you have to pay a subscription to keep using something on your personal devices). You can get around much of these, but only but devoting significant time and effort to doing so, and you may often have to do without some aspects of those services. It’s rarely going to be as convenient as the more intrusive version, and in some cases you may be outright prevented from communicating with people without using it. And this is without getting into situations where your information is turned over to third parties without your even having an option. In my own life, two of our doctors’ offices use third-party portals that include some aspect of record keeping, schools and daycare facilities use them, and I’m of course subject to any of the national things like credit reporting agencies.

Meanwhile, things like artificial limbs and the like have generally made their greatest advances in times of war. Prosthetics in at least some form go back to Ancient Egypt, but a formal industry focused on their production would not come into being until far later. In the United States, it was the Civil War that would drastically increase demand, with thousands of amputees surviving the war and seeking prosthetic limbs: one study estimated that 70,000 men lost limbs during the war. Part of this was the development of the Minié ball, a more modern bullet that caused more irregular wounds to flesh and was heavy enough to shatter bone. Medical science being what it was, doctors generally decided that amputation was a better approach than trying to piece the patient’s body back together. After the war, the federal government created the means for the prosthetic boom by agreeing to provide prosthetics for any veteran who needed them.

One veteran, James Hanger (who had himself lost most of a leg) was dissatisfied with the available options, and so developed an artificial leg that hinged and was shaped more like a human leg. He went on to establish the American Artificial Limb Company after the war (which still exists as Hanger, Inc.). Mass production of artificial limbs wouldn’t come about for another 60 years or so. Nonetheless, this next development was again spawned by the same combination of factors: a massive conflict leaving thousands upon thousands of amputees (World War I in this case) combined with the federal government providing the money. (War is, indeed, a racket.)

Little seems to have changed into the present, when it’s now the perpetual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with military-oriented welfare programs being the only ones not under constant attack by austerity.

So it is that cyberpunk’s dream of widespread limb replacements seems unlikely without coming on the heels of years of additional thousands of traumatic amputees and billions of dollars in subsidies. Under our current system, after all, there is no incentive to continue improvements to artificial limbs without government footing the bill, and the government in turn seems largely unwilling to pay attention to the needs of its citizens that don’t have any connection to the military.

The other technologies that epitomize the cyberpunk genre are equally captured. All the improvements to computer technology in the world don’t help without the infrastructure to connect them to each other, and service providers have made sure that they can maintain their monopolies (the lucky few have two options). So it is that we get things like data caps, which Comcast introduced for its customers just a few days ago as of this writing, during a time of pandemic when more and more people are reliant on broadband internet access to work and go to school.

In a similar vein, computer and communications technology has become only selectively easier to use. The basics are much simpler, to be sure, but the kinds of things depicted in cyberpunk–hacking and maintaining some semblance of privacy to name two prime examples–are harder and harder. Privacy in particular requires a near constant battle against the hydra of corporate interests that are constantly trying to chip away at it. And not just in terms of taking data itself, but even the expectation of privacy.

Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube–they’re all predicated on making us share. And of course we do exactly that. Why wouldn’t we? We have an innate need for community and connection. But just as advertisers long ago figured out that they could turn our own wiring against us, so-called social networks (anti-social networks?) took our desire for connecting with other people and purified it until it became a freebase. It’s difficult to avoid and even harder to quit.

It takes money, knowledge, and work to even slightly escape, and even then it’s not really possible unless you happen to only interact with similar privacy-minded folk or cut yourself off from society entirely. It takes almost nothing to be entirely mapped.

Meanwhile, the task is made that much harder by the fact that it’s not entirely clear why our data is worth anything. The conventional wisdom is that it’s for targeted advertising, but I have to wonder if that’s actually worth anything anymore. Then again, it could be completely ineffective but still something companies want to do, since marketing believes that someone has to see a product multiple times before they’ll actually seek it out. Plus, there’s always the possibility of Facebook et al. cooking the books, as they did in the case of view counts on videos some years back.

Regardless, this lack of knowledge makes it harder for us, because we can’t target our defenses. We don’t have a clear idea of what’s valuable and what isn’t, what data is already out there and what data is still being sought. We can’t, for example, make digital chaff to flood the collectors with junk.

Chains of Chrome

I’m told that essays should have some part of the author in them, and I can’t help but notice that this approach–intertwining personal anecdote with the overall point–is used all over the world. Maybe it’s a matter of not getting outside my own writing, but it seems to me that simply what I’m writing and how says more about me than talking about the smells in the bookstore where I bought my first copy of Neuromancer, or some story about my relationship with the friend who introduced me to Blade Runner. I personally have more faith in readers than that.

Having written what I have already, is it really surprising to know that what draws me to the genre more than anything is freedom? It may seem strange to associate freedom with the extremely powerful corporate entities and material conditions of most cyberpunk. But notice, these stories don’t focus on the corporate bureaucrat trapped in a structure they’ll never escape. Instead, it’s the technologically-enhanced ronin, whether their particular weapons are blades or computer viruses. They ultimately answer to no one but themselves, and can generally find a way to live their own lives within the cracks in the business edifice. Sure, drama demands that this not always be true in some way, even if it’s as simple as the criminal’s reputation.

It’s not difficult, then, to see the appeal. I have no skills to sell even if there were still a market for such things (instead of credentials). Mercenaries are rightly outcast, since chances are they’ll be put to worse use than even a state-sponsored military. There’s a reason that Blackwater has had to change its name two or three times by now.

Cyberpunk allows us all of the freedom of a new frontier by finding that frontier within an existing structure. Its characters aren’t constrained the way we are in our daily lives, and can overcome both human nature and human society through the technology available to them. What is now considered experimental or only the purview of DARPA is to them a child’s toy, with far better ready for purchase on the streetcorner.

In many ways, cyberpunk is a product of its time, when technology seemed to offer at least as much possibility as threat. Now, we don’t really trust technology to be enough. We see the slow-motion apocalypse of climate change and don’t believe that we can invent our way out of it; recognizing that even if the device existed, someone would figure out how to capture its benefits. I’m not sure it’ll be anything so stark as having clean cities and then a burned wasteland surrounding them, but we’ll only be saved to the extent that we’re useful.

Cyberpunk showed us an increasing commodification of our lives, but even those imaginations couldn’t foresee the degree to which this would be true, while they simultaneously underestimated its subtlety. The trackers on every website that form pieces of the economic puzzle that is ourselves feel too small to fight, and so we sell ourselves in a thousand pieces. Even being a corporate spy in a future dystopia is more honest.