“…if they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness.” William Gibson (1981) – ‘Johnny Mnemonic’.
Cyberpunk is the first of the science fiction ‘punk’ genres (biopunk, steampunk, electropunk, and so on). Cyberpunk mixes utopian themes of high technology (artificial intelligence, cybernetics and bio-tech) and dystopian tropes of social decay (gang warfare, urban decay and drug culture).
The origin of the sub-genre is most commonly associated with the publication of the Mirrorshades anthology in 1981. Edited by Bruce Stirling, the Mirrorshades included the short story “The Gernsback Continuum” by William Gibson, “Snake-Eyes” by Tom Maddox, “Rock On” by Pat Cadigan, “Tales of Houdini” by Rudy Rucker “and “Petra” by Greg Bear.
The term (cyberpunk) captures something crucial to the work of these writers, something crucial to the decade as a whole: a new kind of integration. The overlapping worlds that were formerly separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop underground…Cyberpunk comes from the realm where the computer hacker and the rocker overlap, a cultural Petri dish where writhing gene lines splice. Some find the results bizarre, even monstrous; for others this integration is a powerful source of hope.
– Bruce Sterling, preface to Mirrorshades.
The cyberpunk literary genre is heavily influenced by Science Fiction writers, Phillip K. Dick, William Burroughs, J.G Ballard and movies like Blade Runner (1982), which showcase the integration of sophisticated technologies in a future populated by cyborgs, computer networks, designer drugs, mega-corporations, artificial intelligence, and genetic manipulation, all within a hybrid Asian-American setting, often with a sense of dystopian retrofuturism.
Many of the cyberpunk themes inform the general impression of cyberculture and can be considered as a direct response to the bland monotony of corporate work and the experience of the cubicle-bound information processing: as we see in the first Matrix movie with Neo emerging as the rejection of his Thomas Anderson identity and the corporate ideology defining his reality. The machines of the Matrix are representations of a core cyberpunk anxiety, that of being replaced by automation.
Cyberpunk is a vision of a post-industrial techno-wonderland, in which all that is left of the planet and human existence is decay and dematerialisation. Cyberpunk worlds are embedded in a contextual substratum of industrial automation and the destabilisation of established order by the development of artificial intelligence, the technical prowess of elite hackers, and the expansion of the human physical form by cybernetic technologies and gene manipulation.
The message of the Cyberpunk image of the future is one so bright that everyone has to wear sunglasses.
Cyberpunk hackers are the previously unrecognised class of information worker, and a group of radical computer users attempting to find new meaning following major social, environmental and technological change. Cyberpunk is the cultural expression resulting from the changes in paid work culture, including the demise of ‘blue’ collar industries because of automation, the rise of ‘white’ collar management (bureaucracy culture) and the massive increase in corporate power. Cyberpunk stories often signal the simultaneous decline of national, state and sovereign power in the 1970s and 80s.
Philip K. Dick
The stories and essays of Philip K. Dick prophesied the coming of the age of cyberculture and predates the cyberpunks, and yet all the elements of both are wrestled with in his works. PKD was an American science fiction writer whose work was deeply philosophical and political, his stories often features mind-altering states of consciousness, anti-authoritarianism and alternative universes.
His novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) was the basis for Blade Runner (1982), We Can Remember it for You Whole (1966) was the inspiration for the 1990 and 2012 remake, Total Recall. Adjustment Team (1954) was made as The Adjustment Bureau in 2011 and Paycheck (1953) was adapted to film in 2003. Minority Report (1956) was filmed featuring Tom Cruise and directed by Steven Speilberg in 2002. Many other novels and short stories were also adapted to the screen.
The notion of a ‘cyberspace’ is a key component of Cyberpunk fiction.
The classic image from the 1995 movie Hackers is a fairly standard view of cyberculture as a computational array of information arranged as patterns and constellations of light. We associate this visual representation of the non-physical environment of digital networks with cinema and the televisual contributions to the genre in the 1990s, perhaps most iconically in the Matrix, which borrowed the visual aesthetic from Ghost in the Shell (1995) directed by Mamoru Oshii.
The notion of cyberspace as a disembodied informational space, is a space not without, but not limited to, cartesian coordinates. Cyberspace is often rendered as a macrocosm of information and energy, which informs our conceptual thinking about the cyberspace as the experience of access to information, and forces us to rethink the connections between data, energy, knowledge, machines and the body.
But another, and less romantic, version of cyberspace looks more like a bunch of cables. This is the physical reality of cyberspace – or rather the Internet – meaning the massive number of networked connections that exist between humans and machines around the globe.
Cyberspace is quite literally realised by Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented (AR) technologies. AR and VR represent an important innovation in human-machine interfaces that are the product of multiple layers of cybernetic systems. We will look at some of the histories of VR next week.
One of the reasons information networks represented by virtual reality technologies are called ‘cyberspace’, is because of the work of writer Williams Gibson and his use of the term in the 1982 short story “Burning Chrome” and later in the 1984 novel Neuromancer.
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by millions of legitimate operators. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from the 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. (Gibson 1984: 67)”
William Gibson, is an American-born, Canadian writer whose particular blend of detective noir and speculative science fiction has made and remade the cyberpunk genre since the story of “Johnny Mnemonic”, was published in Omni magazine in 1981.
Gibson wrote key contributions to the Cyberpunk genre, including the eponymous Sprawl trilogy: Neuromancer (1984) Count Zero (1986) Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). Gibson’s work, like that of Philip K. Dick, is a collection of profoundly interesting, complex and challenging visions of a potentially close future, while simultaneously representing the tensions and anxiety of computation and automation of their time.
Gibson coined the term “Cyberspace” in the short story Burning Chrome in 1982 but it was the popularity of the Sprawl Trilogy, and the publication of Neuromancer in 1984, that led to the public imaginarium of cyberspace which began to infiltrate popular culture. With Gibson, the mainstream was emboldened to imagine the future potential of cybernetic technologies and computer networks.
Gibson presented a world of action, suspense, gritty realism, and hybrid cultures, very much in the sense of Blade Runner. He is still very active author and recently published The Peripheral in 2014.
Not unlike Vannevar Bush, Gibson assembled his cyberpunk world and his ideas about cyberspace from the already available set of resources in popular culture, technology, envrionmentalism, and mythology.
Gibson’s writing and stories skim across deeper questions that invite investigation and enfolding concepts and endless layers of details to assemble the contemporary idea of cyberspace, which continues to dominate the public view of virtual reality.
For many science fiction fans in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the cyberpunk genre offered cyberspace up as a new virtual realm of emancipation and opportunity to move beyond the physical limitations of the body and physical space:
[“The physical conception of space disconnects it from sense perception. Since it is perpetually present, it is absolute, not dependent on the perceptions of a human subject. From a psychological perspective, space does not have such an absolute status; because it is tied to sense perception, psychological space can change. The use of drugs, for instance, can change one’s experience of space in such a way that someone may jump off a building by losing his or her sense of distance.” Andrew Nusselder 2009 Interface Fantasy A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology, MIT Press Cambridge]
Cyberspace, for Gibson, was a metaphor, and his books provide a means for conceptualising the transition from Marshal McLuhan’s electronic age to the information age and beyond into the virtual age.
With Gibson, cyberspace became a metaphor for the imaginary vista of electronic networks and the experiences of Internet communication technologies (ICTs) made possible by ‘computer devices’ (Turkle, 1996).
Cyberspace, especially the ‘cyber’ component carries with it an important nostalgia with its imagining derived from the worlds of fiction and the stories we tell about its relationship to our actual experiences (Bell 2001),
“Cyberspace: it sounds like the future was supposed to be.” (Bell 2007, 2).
Gibson prognosticated reality TV, online games and virtual worlds and his writing is steeped in the influence of 1960s American counterculture.
Gibson’s most important contribution is Neuromancer (1984), which presented the concept of the matrix, a product of the corporate enclosure of a post-military-industrial-entertainment complex, where the user ‘plugs’ their brains directly into the network and navigates the simulated virtual reality interface via a graphical paradigm that is transmitted directly into the nervous system, via the eyes and draws on the human as a computational processing unit.
Gibson’s idea of cyberculture as “consensual hallucination” does not only mean the virtual world of military simulations, corporate networks and online multiplayer games, it also means the iconography of your smartphones and the links on the menu bar, the windows and folders graphical represented on screens.
Neuromancer is heavily inspired by The Big Sleep, a film noir, post WW2 feature film with the classic ‘empowered woman’ who is the dangerous femme fatale, similar to the character of Molly Millions, the female protagonist in Neuromancer; a book which is a dark, hard-boiled, work of neon and chrome set in a world that is decaying and falling over and being built on top of.
The other protagonist is Case, a hacker cowboy, which points to the genre mixing in Cyberpunk between film noir, the Hollywood western and science fiction. Case is a digital thief, working for the highest bidder and the biggest haul, living on the edge of the new frontier of networks of information, drug culture and the intangible value of intellectual property, where the law is yet to catch up and the individual is able to take power onto themselves.
Cyberpunk takes on the rugged individualism of the western genres, the dark tones and anti-heroes of film noir and blends the anti-authoritarian and apolitical and libertarian ideologies of science fiction. Cyberpunk critiques the heavily masculine and consumerist world and plays on US fears of an Asian economic aand political power arising from Japan and China, but at the same time fetishises and embellishes hacking of machines and the body with augmented technologies, plastic surgery, body enhancement, pharmaceuticals, network interfaces and other cybernetic devices.
Further Recommended reading:
Hack The Planet
Popular views of cyberspace and its inhabitants in the 1980s and 1990s were dominated by the idea of Hackers.
Today, we are perhaps more familiar with the concept of the hack, but for the most part, the history of the hacker is the idea of a computer criminal, which denies the contributions of hacker sub-cultures to computer engineering, software development and network security over the past century.
It was the hackers that imagined the first networks, the first virtual worlds and helped to produce the first network communication technologies, like smartphones, webs browsers and games. These technologies are of course everywhere now, but back in the dark, pre-Internet ages, the technologies we take for granted, like wireless communication and personal computers, found their way into the hands of the few at first, elite programmers, engineers, and technology experts in university, the military and private research facilities.
The earliest adopters of PCs and those with access to the limited networking infrastructures gained a kind of reputation for libertarian ideologies and a keen desire to facilitate open access to these innovations.
How cyberspace was imagined in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s helped to shape the technologies that we use today, and 1995 is a big year in cyberculture with the early Internet users gaining access in the home and workplace.
It is the year of Windows’s 95 and the start of a new era of graphic user interfaces for PCs connected to the internet. It marks the rise of the proprietary operating system that hackers railed against, which included an enclosed architecture used to police which programs and tasks could be operated by users.
1995 was the year that the Internet entered the domestic public consciousness and also the year it was completely privatized, with companies like America Online selling access to the World Wide Web and public distributing software, including web browsers to the general public to assist in connecting.
One of the legendary hackers, Kevin Mitnick is arrested by the FBI on February 15, 1995, and charged for breaking into secure US government networks. It’s also the year of the Sandra Bullock thriller, The Net, which popularised fears of identity theft enabled by the Web and the Internet.
The history Internet culture in the nineties was closely related to cyberpunk in its libertarian and anti-corporatist foundations that was drive by 60s-70s counterculture influenced by Timothy Leary and John Perry Barlow.
Barlow is the founder of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) and lyricist and drummer of the band The Grateful Dead, and a prominent activist for electronic civil liberties. Take notice of the frontier mythology and the cowboy ethos in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, that is reflected in William Gibson’s works, which celebrates the very real online communities of the 1990s that were known for their idealistic, and frequently utopian approach to regulation and governance.
In the late eighties and early nineties you get a range of books that put this cultures on display, including Bruce Sterling’s Hacker Crackdown (1992) (See also Clifford Stoll, Cuckoo’s Egg (1989) and Steven Levy’s book Hackers) and other ethnographic accounts revealing detailed sub-cultures include the cypherpunks and the phreakers.
Phreakers, like John Draper employed the ethos of individual empowerment and personal agency over government and corporate control and they followed their own codes of behaviour that rejected the state and the establishment. News reports and media coverage in the 1990s help to romanticise the ‘hacker’ outlaw and anti-social misfit, perpetuating the myths of lawlessness and disorder on the electronic frontier, re-imagining the post-colonial frontier of the 19th century.
As hackers gained access to prominent government and military networks at Stanford and Los Alamos, threatening access to details of nuclear weaponry, anti-hacker laws, task forces and entire new divisions of security agencies were created, including the FBI, CIA and the U.S Department of defence.
This is the same kind of division that Gibson offers us in his cyberpunk worlds, in which hackers are not just criminals, they are beyond the mundane, almost mythological figures, representing real people who are sometimes demonised and sometimes attributed legendary qualities.
One example, one that would be an excellent example of a topic suitable for the subject’s independent research project, is Julian Assange. Assange was a hacker in the mid-1990s, and he worked on a book by Suelette Dreyfus in 1997 called Underground. This was at a time when the ‘geek’ was becoming a more popular and less threatening figure and a new version of the hacker began to emerge, someone less like a ‘criminal’ or ‘terrorist’ and more like the ‘wizard’, a bit like Merlin figure from Arthurian legend, or even a Gandalf for the digital age.
EXTRA: William Gibson wrote 2 episodes for the X-files (shown in Australia in 1998 and 2000), where Scully and Mulder are investigating hacker activity. If you get a chance to view, note the feature of ‘cutting edge’ 90s technology, especially the CD-ROM and its relationship to the cyberpunk visions of Gibson in the 1980s (all topics that would equally make suitable areas of research for the individual student project).
Read: Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
Further recommend sources: Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Strange Days (1995), Hackers (1995), The Net (1995)