I watched the Matrix the other night for the umpteenth time and got a little wave of nostalgia. Nostalgia about a future that never will be and in some ways already is. The Matrix is just one of many movies, books and songs that I think of as “cyberpunk.”
Life imitates art
Somewhere in a box I never bothered to unpack is an issue of Time from Feb. 8, 1993 with the cover story, Cyberpunk!. I had already read William Gibson’s Neuromancer and I wanted to read everything I could about cyberpunk, which it seemed was more than just a kind of science fiction. It was a movement. Technology it seemed, could be an outlet for rebellion. Computers and humanity were merging and that might be a good thing. Hackers, programmers and other non-conformists were going to remake society and take control away from governments and corporations. The world would be messy, free and exciting.
I’ve always loved science fiction in general, but cyberpunk was the main type of SF I read during the ’90s, back when the Internet was new and I still had a dial-up connection.
The cyberpunk writers were among the first to foresee the way computers and communication technology would change the world. The main characters tended to be street types, outcasts with little or no respect for authority. Lowlifes. But lowlifes with a knack for using technology in novel ways. Hackers of various types. Outcasts. “Pirates.” The futures described in cyberpunk fiction are often ugly dystopias, but these guys are the heroes of the story. There’s a sense that they’re on the verge of conquering Goliath, at least on a personal scale. It got my attention. Why should the people at the top get to decide everything?
Self-styled cyberpunks were all over the topic in the ’90s, writing manifestos, trying to boil it down. It seemed dangerous and very exciting. Some of the concepts of cyberpunk that fascinated me the most: The street finds its own uses for things. Information wants to be free. Always yield to the hands-on imperative. Surf the edges.
It was people with that mindset who first looked at a compact disk and said, “Guess what? This isn’t an album. It’s a folder/directory full of files. Maybe we can take those files off and copy and transmit them just like any other files?” That realization and countless others like it have changed out world forever. Sometimes in good ways, sometimes not.
People like Napster inventor Sean Parker often found there were no laws to stop them from doing what they wanted. If there were, they tended to scoff at those laws. Before long, they had created the new reality and the bigwigs simply had to accept what they couldn’t change. Apple was among the first to accept the new reality and cash in on it with iTunes and the iPod.
Where are we today? I’m not exactly sure. We’re in a chaotic world when it comes to technology. The hot shot hackers of the ’90s aren’t quite as big as they expected to be. Governments and businesses got pretty savvy about computer tech since then, the Internet more restricted in many ways. Corporations got their hooks into the Internet. Rebels turned into shills for those corporations. Governments (including the “free” ones like ours) are getting better all the time at censoring what we can see on the Internet.
There are still hackers out there that the U.S. government can’t seem to touch — research “botnets” sometime and see if it doesn’t blow your mind — but I suspect they are either backed by other governments like China, or organized crime, or both.
There are free agents who can still shake things up from time to time. I get a kick out of “hacktivists” like Anonymous and Lulzsec and the organized “leak” phenomenon epitomized by Wikileaks. But I can’t help but wonder where their activities will lead. Do they open the door for seriously bad actors of the world like Al Qaeda to hurt us? Are they just giving our government an excuse to become more restrictive? Do they make us more free, or put us more at risk of a fascist future?
There are trends that make me feel hopeful about the high-tech world:
Rebellion against authoritarian governments, using technology as a way to spread dissent. It has helped topple several governments in the Middle East and given serious heartburn to others.
Circuit-bending. A way of making musical instruments out of toys and other electronics. Some of them sound very good and have been incorporated into the music of professionals like the Legendary Pink Dots. Definitely in the spirit of cyberpunk.
Other forms of hacking. People have taken apart and repurposed all kinds of devices. One of the most interesting hacks was that of Microsoft’s Kinect, a game system controlled by motion sensors. Who knows what the techies will do with that. It could have huge potential. Microsoft even agreed and started letting people do it.
All in all, I think the public attitudes cyberpunk culture helped define have been a great force for creativity and against inertia. I am still curious about what toys and tools the “big boys” will give us, and curious to see how the clever little guys among us will break and twist them to their own purposes — and ours. I still find myself saying, “bring it on.”
I think of cyberpunk as primarily a literary movement, but it also captured the imagination of musicians. I wouldn’t say cyberpunk is an actual genre of music — it tends to be electronic or industrial music, but not always. Below are some videos with music and/or visuals that fit in with the cyberpunk movement:
The Prodigy – “Firestarter.” The Prodigy always seemed like a quintessential cyberpunk band to me: electronic sounds, subversive themes. Didn’t hurt that their song “Voodoo People” got included in the Hackers soundtrack.
Clock DVA – “The Hacker.” Good song with a primitive but cool music video made on an Amiga computer (Beware if strobe effects give you seizures.) It has a message of rebellion against authority, a common theme in cyberpunk.
KMFDM – “Drug Against War” Industrial group KMFDM is considered by many to be a part of the cyberpunk movement. Lots of rebellious, subversive messages. Their album covers and this video featured really cool Soviet propaganda-style art.
New Order – “True Faith” This video was an early portrayal of virtual reality, a cornerstone of cyberpunk fiction. It came out way back in 1987, so early I didn’t even understand what it represented.
Autechre – “Second Bad Vibel.” I remember seeing this on MTV’s AMP years ago, when they were on a bit of a roll, before sinking into utter irrelevancy. Not exactly sure what this represents, but it definitely has that cyberpunk theme of biology meets machine.
Bjork – “All Is Full of Love.” Robots making out. Seems to capture that cyberpunk spirit, as did much of her Homogenic album, with its new emphasis on electronic music. It shows machines that are alive, capable of warm feelings. Not sure what I think of that after chatting with Cleverbot recently — it can be rather rude.
Warren Zevon – Run Straight Down. Best-known for his hits, “Excitable Boy” and “Werewolves of London,” Zevon made a cyberpunk-themed album in 1989 called Transverse City after reading works by William Gibson. It didn’t do well at the time. Too weird for the masses I guess. But I think it sounds pretty good.
Billy Idol – “Power Junkie.” Billy Idol put out an album called Cyberpunk in 1993. Not exactly sure what I think of the music, but you have to give him credit for spotting a trend early and helping popularize the concept.
Cyberpunk reading list
Although the pioneers of cyberpunk have mostly moved on as the world caught up to the future they were writing about, the classic cyberpunk is still enjoyable and some of those writers continue to crank out impressive writing. Here are some of the writers whose books inspired me and are still great reads:
Neuromancer, a novel about rebellious underworld types (including a woman with switchblades built into her fingers) and artificial intelligence, was probably the book that most influenced the cyberpunk culture. (Gibson actually coined the word cyberspace in Burning Chrome.)
Next to William Gibson, Sterling is the writer I most associate with cyberpunk. One of his books, Islands in the Net, made a huge impression on me. It’s about the power of rogue stateless organizations. While it is a bit outdated, it holds up very well overall. Every time I hear about something like Al Qaeda, Columbian drug cartels or the Somali pirates, I think “Islands in the Net.” He was incredibly prescient.
He edited a collection of genre-defining short stories called Mirror Shades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. In fact, Mirror Shades wouldn’t be a bad place to start if you never read any cyberpunk fiction and want to find out what it’s all about. He also wrote a non-fictional book in 1993 called The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. It examines the phenomenon of computer hacking and the American government’s early efforts to stamp it out.
You really can’t fail with this guy. All of the books in his Ware Tetrology are extremely entertaining tales of rebellious robots, subversive people, and wacky futuristic cultures. He was heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll, and you can tell. Hardware, Software, Freeware, Realware are all great reads. They interconnect, but don’t have to be read in order. Also, while not really cyberpunk, his novel about infinity and the afterlife, White Light, will blow your little mind. Can’t recommend it enough.
Snow Crash is an immensely influential novel in the cyberpunk genre. It contains a well-crafted, entertaining world with really fun characters. It had a big impact on gaming and computer culture. The use of the word avatar to describe a virtual character that represents you started in this book. The Diamond Age is another cyberpunk classic, about a future dominated by nanotechnology. Some of my favorite Stephenson novels are actually not cyberpunk or even science fiction. The Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World; and The Cryptonomicon.
Also a prolific horror writer, John Shirley wrote an excellent series of SF novels about a revolution against a global fascist state. A Song Called Youth is a trilogy that includes Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra and Eclipse Corona.
Below is part one of a documentary about cyberpunk. Very interesting to watch. Kinda feels outdated and spot on at the same time.