Will the Shiny White Aesthetic of Apple and Google Rule the Future, or Will Things Be Gritty and Dirty?
Science fiction tends to predict the future.
It’s no great stretch to imagine that today’s smartphones were inspired by a combination of the communicators from Star Trek plus the ubiquitous vidphones seen in movies like Blade Runner and Demolition Man. Meanwhile, people were making jokes about Google’s self-driving cars resembling Johnny Cab from the 1990 film Total Recall long before the project was renamed to Waymo. Very little technology exists that wasn’t first predicted in fiction.
At the same time, many predictions made by science fiction haven’t exactly panned out. Sometimes we’re too optimistic. For example, we are 18 years overdue for the human-level artificial intelligence showcased by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Cortana and Siri have a long way to go to catch up with the Hal-9000, or with Iron Man’s Jarvis, for example.
On the other hand, $30 in 2019 will get you a generic brand smartphone with apps and capabilities far beyond the audio-only walkie-talkie that Captain Kirk was still stuck with in the 23rd century. Science fiction isn’t always right, but where it falls down is often not from being too optimistic, but rather being not optimistic enough.
Cyberpunk isn’t exclusively about technology, though. It’s also about aesthetics.
Unlike traditional cyberpunk megacorps like Shadowrun’s Renraku or Genom from Bubblegum Crisis, real world corporations these days seem to be completely fixated on a sterile “white and glass” aesthetic. Take a look at the blank white border of a Google search page and compare it to the Apple store pictured above. The “look and feel” that these companies use is very similar. Take a look at Google Waymo’s self-driving car. The car is white and glass, the app to summon the car is white on a glassy smartphone touchscreen, and the in-vehicle display has a white background on glass. Google Glass is a product, they called it glass by name, and sure enough the original version was white.
Not every “real life megacorp” uses the white and glass aesthetic, but among those that don’t, what are the alternatives? Microsoft seems to be fond of the color blue, but they also have official anime mascots for their operating systems going clear back to the 1990s. Are you running Windows 10? Meet Touko Madobe. Isn’t she cute? Sure, she’s adorable. But how did we end up in a world where the international, multi-billion dollar corporations invading our privacy and trying to take over the world are giving us a choice of either insane asylum levels of creepy cleanliness, or bubblegum and gumdrops?
Everywhere we look, there’s a distinct lack of grunge.
Maybe we shouldn’t complain. Life with Google and Microsoft will probably be cleaner and healthier than life under Renraku or Genom. But as time goes on and technology becomes increasingly powerful, it’s fairly likely that powerful corporations will ironically play a diminished role in our lives. Sure, it’s difficult to be a part of modern society without a smartphone produced by a large manufacturer, but any person with the right skills can produce apps for it. A quick visit to the Google play store will confirm that. For that matter, here’s a link to the Android Studio Developer’s Kit. Watch a couple hours-worth of YouTube videos and invest a few weeks teaching yourself to program, and you can do it yourself.
As the amount of technological power in the hands of the average person grows, increasingly it’s not going to be up to large corporations to make decisions for us. It’s going to be up to us.
Which brings us to the the crux of the matter.
The “grunge” of cyberpunk isn’t a deliberate goal. It’s not something that we set out to do on purpose. Rather, it’s a side-effect of hundreds of millions of people doing their own thing in an increasingly technological society where a significant fraction of those people either don’t care, or don’t know what they’re doing. Whether it’s white and glass or bubblegum and gumdrops, corporations will be uniform in their chosen aesthetic. People won’t be. If you want a glimpse of the future, simply hop onto YouTube to see what happens when millions of people are given indiscriminate access to technology. It might be a kitten falling asleep one minute, followed immediately by a crazy guy in boxer shorts screaming “hold my beer!” while jumping on a trampoline in the back of a pickup truck.
YouTube is chaotic and messy by nature. Why? Because the relevant financial and technological hurdles have been lowered to the point that anyone who wants to can produce videos. Even the average homeless person today has a smartphone with video recording capability that was the sole domain of the rich and powerful not that many decades ago. YouTube didn’t intend to create a venue for half-naked redneck trampoline truckers, but by giving people the power to choose, that’s what we ended up with.
So…what happens when a similar sort of “technology for the masses” is applied to genetic engineering technology like CRISPR/CAS9? The biohacking community are already sticking magnets in their fingers to gain Magneto-esque superpowers. You think they won’t jump on genetic engineering? What happens when the tools and wherewithal to produce 3D-printed replacement limbs and brain implants and virtual worlds are all as common and freely available as that Android developer’s kit that anybody can download?
The whole world is about to become a giant cyberpunk incubator. It’s started already. Oh sure, it will still be megacorps building most of the technology. But it’s the millions of transhumanists and basement-dwellers and idealists and hackers and biohackers all collectively shouting “hold my beer!” who’ll be using that technology to create the content of the world that we’ll live in.
Those people won’t feel the need to conform to glassy white bubblegum and gumdrops.