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Adam Israel
Thoughts on Cyberpunk 
14th-Jul-2007 04:34 pm
I remembered a conversation I had with Charlie Stross at penguicon while I was transporting servers between two data centers.  I asked him what his thoughts were on the future of cyberpunk, to which he replied: "Cyberpunk is dead."  He had a perfectly reasonable explanation, that we are currently living in the cyberpunk era.  To some extent I agree with that, but I think (respectfully) that Charlie is wrong.  I see our current world as pre-cyberpunk.  We are on the cusp of that cyberpunk age but we are not there yet.

For me, it started in late 1990 with the discovery of bulletin board systems (BBS) and Prodigy.  The discovery of that new world where one could communicate with other like-minded people electronically was just the catalyst I needed.  I was in high school at the time, and I was spending an average of four hours a day on Prodigy.  I know this precisely, as my parents received a phone bill totaling close to a thousand dollars for long-distance charges to the nearest access number. That ended my days using Prodigy, but it was too late.  I was changed.

I left home in 1993 for college, as a Computer Science major.  I didn't know what I was going to do exactly, but I still yearned for that connection with other people.  It was there that I discovered the Internet and realized that the world was about to change.  I was sitting in a bank, opening up my first checking account.  I picked up a Wall Street Journal and read an article about the rapid growth of dial-up Internet users.  I don't remember the exact number, but it was at least in the hundreds of thousands per month.  That was the moment I realized that it wasn't just me and the hundreds or thousands I had seen.  It was everywhere. It was growing. It was creating the world I wanted to live in.

Fast-forward to the present.  The Internet is everywhere, via computer, blackberry, iPhone, kiosk, and television.  Our cellular phones, once the size and weight of a brick, fit into our pockets and let us surf the web, check email, send pictures and record our most intimate moments for all to share.  People like me can make a living using nothing but bits pushed across the medium and pixels displayed on a screen.  You can buy food, groceries, entertainment, or just about anything physical without leaving your chair.

We are living in a world few of our parents  ever foresaw.  Is it cyberpunk, though? The signs are there but I don't think we've actually reached that point yet.  We have achieved a new flavor of society where instantaneous communication is not only possible but expected and the power to do so is easily reachable by the masses.  I believe we still have a long way to go.  There are some clearly defined cyberpunk tropes that come to mind that are still in their infant stages: artificial intelligence, transferring consciousness and bio-engineered implants to let us experience vast pools of information more directly.

To me, cyberpunk is very much alive and evolving.  Perhaps it is because I came to the genre after it had gained much of its popularity but as an outsider I see all of the wonderful possibilities it still has to offer. It is nearer to us now than it was in the early days of William Gibson or Bruce Sterling, but it's still far enough away to offer plenty of fodder for storytelling.
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14th-Jul-2007 11:15 pm (UTC)
That's an interesting point. Will we actually recognize a cyberpunk society if we're living in the middle of it?

Some of my issue may be confusion over all of the various sub- and sub-sub-genre's that have sprung up. The three that come to mind are cyberpunk, postcyberpunk, and biopunk. I'm not confident that I understand the difference between them, because there seems to be a fair amount of overlap.

That said, I just ran across "Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto" from 1999: http://slashdot.org/features/99/10/08/2123255.shtml

There is one particular quote that caught my eye: "In cyberpunk, technology facilitates alienation from society. In postcyberpunk, technology is society."

I'll read that in a bit more depth when I can. Perhaps my view of what is cyberpunk is more of a general blend of the *punk sub-genres.
14th-Jul-2007 11:01 pm (UTC) - Missing something?
When looking at cyberpunk you always have to take into account the two factors that make up this literary genre. First there's the technology, which as you say we're getting very close to achieving. Certainly it has already surpassed in some areas what was described by Gibson or even more recently by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash (for example). So we're living in it, or indeed very close to that.

But there's also the all-important second factor: a breakdown in the social order, a dystopia if you will. This is mostly reflected in such things as a shifting of power from the state to mega corporations, the erosion of the individual self and so on.. This, I believe, still hasn't come to pass and we're still quite far from that point. One could find *some* events today that point towards that future such as the MPAA/RIAA extortion spree or the rise of illegal and aggressive DRM implementations from the part of major companies (Sony distributing rootkits anyone?).

This, of course, is the classic cyberpunk genre, which is probably dead these days and has been replaced by... something else. Post-cyberpunk? I hate that name but some people call it that.

In any case the most interesting aspect for me was never the technology itself, but the social aspect, the effect that these technologies have on our society. Cyberpunk authors have always been especially pessimistic about this, and not without reason.
14th-Jul-2007 11:34 pm (UTC) - Re: Missing something?
Thank you. There is certainly confusion on my part about what cyberpunk is versus what we currently see and I now have a better understanding of that now.

I agree with you wholeheartedly that the technology itself, while interesting, is not the most interesting. The real story is in how it changes society and the people who do (or don't) use it, for better or worse.

15th-Jul-2007 12:31 am (UTC) - Re: Missing something?
Well it's not just the effects of the technology that make a situation, a story, or a real-world, "cyberpunk." Cyberpunk emerged simultaneously as a fiction genre and as a political prediction. There was a degree of culture shock, where the intellectual elite would begin to feel beset on all sides by useless Luddites who, only 20-30 years earlier, had been perfectly up-to-date, and that would cause a disenfranchisement. But, the real social predictions of the Cyberpunk social predictions and the fictions that revolved around them, were related more to global economics and particularly the ascent of European states and the descent of the United States.

The typical Cyberpunk predictions required any number of a handful of comings-to-pass:
- The American economy stretched itself out in an imperially-unfeasible way. Our debts were backed by "don't ask for your money or we'll invade." Our creditors responded by uniting to foreclose on our land rights. The nation's wealthiest regions -- the cities -- were sliced up and sold to state interests abroad, and foreign corporations bought the land from the foreign financiers. The result was that all the richest cities in the U.S. were no longer U.S. soil.
- The apathy trend we see in the world today is pretty close to Cyberpunk because, in the Cyberpunk tradition, there is no visible middle class. The upper class grows a tiny bit, while a huge fraction of the population lives in a perpetual state of severe poverty. Sex trades, "wet work" (murder for hire), corporate crimes using impoverished-but-skilled professionals (often working full-time professional jobs but not able to meet ends), and more led to a horrific breakdown of human decency in the face of unending necessity.
- The end of all oversight. The pawn shops of the 1990s did more background checking than the organ banks of the near-future, in Cyberpunk predictions. (You can Google to learn that this has already begun; need some more crack cocaine, but you're out of cash? Kill a healthy white person and drag them in the back door of an organ donation contractor's office - their body parts are worth a fortune.) Import/Export control breaks down completely - removing all limitations on what can be bought and sold... nukes, germ weapons, whole populations...
- Population growth, the rush to a definitive global power grab, and - the truly defining factor that sends humankind beyond the point of no return - the unabridged power of corporations to wage war against each other and against small nations leads to the end of any "live and let live" sensibilities.

These things make up Cyberpunk. And on those notes, I say we are just about on-schedule to be balls-deep in teh sukk by 2020.
15th-Jul-2007 06:11 pm (UTC) - Re: Missing something?
I did notice that all of the cyberpunk I've read dealt with political prediction but I didn't actually realize how much it was a part of the genre. It makes complete sense, though.

If I am understanding cyberpunk correctly now, it's not just a genre in the way that, say, space opera or high fantasy is. Cyberpunk is a child of its times. The world it predicted has arrived, more or less. Under that definition, I understand why it's largely considered to be dead.

The elements that defined cyberpunk, such as politics, economy, technology, and ethics (and the lack thereof), are still relevant and interesting topics to explore and predict. The 'post-cyberpunk' label being used currently is just a way to define those elements and style applied to this generation.

More and more I feel like I should be wary of genre labels. They're useful in identifying target markets for publication but I shouldn't get myself hung up on them. All sorts of possible crossovers exist and it could get pretty maddening to keep track of them all.

Thanks again for all of the information. It has been extremely useful and given me much food for thought. This clarifies some of the issues I'm working through in my short fiction.

15th-Jul-2007 07:13 pm (UTC) - Re: Missing something?
Yeah, consider The Difference Engine and the WW2-era portions of Cryptonomicon to see some of the social strands being used without the early-21st-century trappings that typify the genre.

I myself don't think CP is dead in the least, but, I'm kind of a devotee.
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