The Cyberpunk Future Is Already Here
The cyberpunk genre has had a rekindled popularity in recent times, perhaps because, to some scary extent, our world already resembles the cyberpunk future.
The writers at CyberPunks.com have observed that ‘Cyberpunk is Now’, and there are real-world events that confirm their thinking and even solidify the argument. Just think of Texan’s suffering in a blacked-out urban sprawl, weathering a winter storm of such freaky rarity that only man-aggravated climate change could have brought this about. All this during a raging pandemic caused by a virus tied to discussions of biological weapons and which shows attributes of the common flu, the HIV, and SARS . . . while a few states away, boys play baseball while the horizon is literally on fire, and the postman delivers mail in view of the red dawn.
Getting Beyond The Neon Nightlife . . .
Casual fans of the genre often equate cyberpunk with neon nightlife and pervasive, all-encompassing tech. While those are often necessary features of a cyberpunk story, astute followers will notice deeper common patterns that our world is matching up to at a fast rate. The superficial features are put in service to manifest a particular kind of relationship between humanity and technology, and between the commoners and the powerful. Typically, technology is only the fabric of the story to explore the deeper themes. Where it is front and center, the point is to examine the state of the world and humanity as the tech literally changes things by infiltrating every cell and second of our lives and bodies.
One feature that stands out in all cyberpunk is the absence of the conventional structures of governance and nations and their replacement by a single, disproportionately powerful entity. Typically it’s a corporation or a wealthy persona or dynasty, or rarely, an extremely powerful or scientifically advanced government. This emblem of power and control produces all the technology and basically runs the economy. For instance in Neuromancer, it’s the dynasty of Tessier-Ashpool which has climbed the ladder of ‘control’ by winning the race of technology. They own a space colony above the earth’s orbit and have created the world’s most powerful AIs in the form of Wintermute and his divorced brother the Neuromancer.
In the Blade Runner, it’s the Tyrell Corporation which seems to be calling the shots, releasing synthetic robots then sending agents to deactivate the rogue ones. In The Matrix, it’s The Machines who are running the whole show and can create or kill off Neos – saviors of humanity in successive eras – seemingly at their will. In Akira, it’s a super-secret military program, while in Altered Carbon, it’s the ‘wealthiest man in the world’ who literally lives above the clouds.
There is a stark contrast between the worldview and lived experience of the commoners and the powerful in cyberpunk. If you look into the confines of what the powerful have and what they have created for themselves, it is positively utopian. They are truly ‘risen’ above the rest of us. They have achieved unthinkable technological advancements and their lives depend on those in the same pristine fashion as the one-sided utopias of early science fiction.
But cyberpunk is not concerned with technology per se and situates its anti-heroes in the broken, ravaged or damaged sprawls that the rest of humanity occupies. Bruce Sterling, one of the earliest writers and commentators on cyberpunk, used the term ‘anti-utopia’ for this feature, choosing it over the usual antonym ‘dystopia’. Dystopias in science fiction were somewhat apocalyptic, showing a world post-planet-wide damage. While such planetary damage may well be part of the cyberpunk backstory, the focus is not on that history but on the resultant frictions between the masses and their ‘controllers’. These masses are not too helpless either. Rather, they have availed themselves of what technology they can get their hands on and run with it, whatever their reach or inclinations might be.
Under Corporate Control
I say controllers even though cyberpunk masses are not always literally ‘controlled’ by some freaky nanotech or other means. However, they are ‘controlled’ in all other ways. First and foremost is the economic control. The resources are all in the hands of the powerful who have – quite obviously – manipulated the free-market through unbridled capitalism successfully enough that they have concentrated the world’s wealth in their own hordes and left it to the dust.
Second is the technological control. The powerful invest in technology to serve their purposes, be it capitalist superiority or unending luxury and power. The commoners have to constantly invent and discover ways to break into the cordoned off pixel-corridors of power to ply their own agendas of counteraction and defiance. Third is sociological control. For various reasons, the commoners are kept on the outside in the system, we can only assume, with glass ceilings, unequal wages, uneven taxes and quotas, or plain old-fashion discrimination. Sometimes this control can get quite physical and violent such as when Agent Smith shows up to fight off Neo or when John Preston had to fight off his former colleagues to save a dog.
Now I want you to read the last two paragraphs again, without the label of cyberpunk. Doesn’t all of it apply just as well to our world as we know it?
A Series of Chokeholds
More than a decade ago, in a World Bank publication on global poverty, Charles Tilly called sociological control which effectively keeps the masses stuck in the poverty cycle “The Politics of Exclusion”:
Social exclusion lies at the heart of inequality-generating processes. Exclusion itself promotes poverty, and exits from poverty therefore depend on eliminating or bypassing the usual effects of social exclusion.
It may have been a decade later but America has finally caught up with recognizing these realities and the pandemic has been a real eye-opener. The following charts show the stark differences in wealth distribution in the whole world, in the USA. Compare them to recent developments in these numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These figures effectively show how unbridled capitalism already works as a one single corporate giant squeezing the air out of the masses even in a pandemic. When we see politicians still arguing whether a measly $15/hour is a living wage or not, the Big Business still not required to pay the fairly applicable taxes, and the hedge funds and other companies getting huge bailouts from the government for their losses, then you know that government is not an independent agent in this scenario. It is clearly in the service of the big fat monster of capitalism.
In this context, the continuing discrimination and marginalization of the minority groups harks back to how slavery was used as an economic system in the south. If taken as an independent nation, the Confederacy would have been the fourth richest nation in the world when the Civil War started. Its capitalist engine drove on the free labor provided by the slaves and was one of the main reason why slavery was so hard to give up for them. Today, that system has been replaced at one hand by a prison system overflowing with Blacks and other minorities for petty crimes or unproven accusations. At the other hand lies the bone-crushingly less than $15/hour minimum wage. One way or the other, ordinary citizens still break their backs so the entrepreneurs, businessmen, and investors can go from being rich to filthy rich.
Cyberpunk is not speculative when it speaks of other sly means of controlling the masses. French philosopher Michel Foucault talked about the birth of biopolitics in 1979. His ideas have been interpreted in the concept of neoliberal governmentality.
Foucault not only named state racism as a key means of overall power mongering, but also reflected on how the very freedoms available to its citizens are secretly used in the service of biopolitical power. Today state racism translates into unequal employment opportunities as well as unequal wages and benefits for any category of human beings outside of the dominating majority of the nation. Edward Snowden already told us how all our phones are basically spying devices against us at the will of the government. Recently, Facebook, Google and other social platforms are constantly in the news for colluding with businesses or governments in manipulating the common peoples’ apparent freedoms against them. For instance, Facebook provided essential, but private data to Cambridge Analytica which that company used to help sway the 2016 elections in Trump’s favor.
Western society employed technologies of power that operated on forms of disciplinary order or were based on biopolitical techniques that bypassed the law and its freedoms altogether.
Whether in fiction or in reality, it’s these Politics of Exclusion combined with the ubiquity of tech that creates widespread frictions among the masses but also spurs them to try and take matters into their own hands. It also becomes easy for extremist leaders to sway the masses in the wrong direction and get them to raid the emblems of so-called power. In less extreme cases, commoners can get clever and use the techniques of the controllers to get back at capitalists and make a few buckets of money in the process.
This picture is dissatisfactory and may have a warning for governments unless they are ready to climb down from the lap of capitalism and remedy some of the hurts the masses keep suffering.
Or maybe it’s time to write cyberpunk which shows endings in favor of the defiant gangs of anti-heros. They deserve those endings well enough.