By Chris Cantino
Doc - CYBERPUNK (1990)
Marianne Trench’s 1990 documentary on the world of cyberpunk observes digital outlaws on the forefront of new technologies, fighting for freedom of information. Founded upon the spirit of the first cyberpunk novels by William Gibson, the movement is a networking hub for politically-concerned technophiles who poke around inside protected digital databases and occasionally wreak mayhem by inducing malicious software. Sometimes for fun, and sometimes to extract information, the hackers are concerned with increasing access to knowledge and generally throwing a wrench into the system. Often set in dystopic near-futures in which the lower class is dramatically underrepresented, cyberpunk (and sci-fi literature in general) helped develop the context in which we discuss the arrival of new technologies: with a guarded interest, and sometimes fear that they might eventually wreak similarly undesirable results.
Unfortunately, this cyberpunk prescience is starting to look less and less like fantasy. Gibson once described his fictional futures as “social Darwinism designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button,” where the ones calling the shots cut corners at the expense of the
At the time of Trench’s documentary, computers were still making use of clunky technology like floppy disks, and early online providers Prodigy and CompuServe had yet to break into the mainstream. But technology was (and is) booming. According to Moore’s Law, computing power has since continued to develop exponentially with transistor counts doubling approximately every two years, and concerns generated by the cyberpunk movement regarding privacy and freedom have grown alongside that trend. With the incorporation of technology into our daily lives and concerns of privacy protection being more relevant than ever, it would seem that our country is in need of some well-meaning cyberpunks. But the console cowboys, those neon-haired hackers and phreakers that were once familiar to our screens seem to have disappeared. So where have they gone?
Cyberpunk’s not dead. It’s just changed its face.Those fringe hackers still exist in the corners of the internet, and their presence is becoming more and more mainstream. With the increasing popularity of spoiler tanks like WikiLeaks and hacktivist groups such as Anonymous, cyberpunk ideology is reaching larger audiences than ever before. The net is swarming with cracks, torrents, viruses, and all kinds of illegal software, but the people promoting access to that information are looking increasingly, well, normal. So, as the basic ethos of the movement has survived, its participators have in turn grown more diverse alongside its increase in popularity. Cyberpunk is a movement that’s outgrown its aesthetics, trading in its punky haircuts and studded leather as its principles become adopted by the global community.
With the assistance of technology integrated into our daily lives, computers have begun to control, if not subsume, our physical environments. And as the capacity of those machines extends itself further into our routines, we become increasingly interchangeable and disposable. When we underestimate our ability to face day-to-day life without digital support, and neglect to appreciate our relatively unfettered access to information, we tread a dangerous line that disconnects us from the experiences of our ancestors.
But opting out of a digital society is becoming a less feasible option. For the cyberpunk, the answer is clear that one must embrace technology in order to access tools that increase the individual’s knowledge and ability to fight back against the “powers that be.” It would seem that the motivations behind anti-technology worldviews like Neo-Luddism and primitivism would, admirable as they are, eventually disable citizens’ ability to make large-scale political maneuvers.
Of course, cyberpunks have varying feelings about the overwhelming and increasing presence of technology, but they are regardless united by a common enemy. Cyberpunks are never fighting against technology; rather, they’re fighting against those that would use it to enslave them and restrict their access to information. And they employ that same technology to infiltrate, disorganize, and undermine that unweildy influence by hacking and contributing to a culture in which such restrictions are questioned. Let us look no further than the ultimate tenet adopted by the cyberpunk movement: “Information should be free.” In pursuit of this ideal, cyberpunks are encouraged to mistrust authority and promote decentralization, lest they become so far removed from the source of power that the 1% no longer heeds their voices.
Looking to the outcomes of cyberpunk literature, we find that the hackers almost always win. It was assumed that access to information would always result in victory for the underclass; but in the real world, things are much less decided. And the fight is now more relevant than ever. Earlier this month, the Stop Only Piracy Act was, thankfully, defeated in the senate—the legislation would have essentially banned copyright-infringing websites from the internet, putting “rogue” websites on notice and handicapping/censoring free speech on the web. It’s a move in line with recent threats to net neutrality in which the senate has proposed to overturn the FCC’s ruling that digital service providers would not be allowed to play favorites with the bandwidth they allocate to various hosts. The senate has so far been ruling against such changes—but just barely. And with providers Verizon and Comcast continuing to tighten the vice, it may only be a matter of time until we find ourselves on the losing end of this one.
So, what’s next on the horizon for cyberpunk? You have to wonder, with digital corporations behaving in the same manner as governmental entities, are we that far from the days of digital warfare? Perhaps we have already arrived. It wouldn’t be hard to believe that Google has deployed spies into the Apple workforce to disrupt their operations, delete, or even steal powerful new technologies. Perhaps the real enemy to fear isn’t the government at all, but rather those who create the means by which we access information, the strongest weapon of all. In a world in which information is treated as property, those that hoard it hold the power. If history serves as a lesson here, we can expect that this same warfare will eventually be used to extort the value from citizens like you and me. And you can bet it won’t be long until we come face to face with that reality.
Long live the cyberpunk.
Further reading (and sources):
- Gibson, William. Neuromancer. ACE. July 1984.
- Levy, Stephen. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Garden City: Anchor Press. 1984.
- Shapiro, Eben. "THE MEDIA BUSINESS; New Features Are Planned By Prodigy", The New York Times, September 6, 1990.