The Return of Cyberpunk, Part 1: We fight for the users!
I saw TRON recently. I got a little misty-eyed when Tron said “I fight for the users”. I found the whole thing to be a visual treat, with interesting undercurrents of the pro-open source movement and emergent AI. It could have gone deeper, but it’s a Disney movie, and I don’t think most of the world looks for intellectual depth in Disney action movies.
This isn’t a movie review post, though I do recommend seeing it and purchasing the soundtrack. I have long been lamenting the lack of good, new cyberpunk fiction out there, and seeing TRON brought the desire back stronger than ever. Even in gaming, all we’ve had is Shadowrun 4, which hasn’t really seemed to catch on. What happened? The big things now are supernatural modern fantasy (Harry Dresden, True Blood, etc.) and steampunk. There’s nothing wrong with these genres. I enjoy them immensely, and may or may not own several pairs of goggles. But why the shift in focus? Cyberpunk was about envisioning the day after tomorrow and all the directions in which technology could take us. It was about the terror of losing our humanity to the machines, both literally as cyborgs and digital constructs, and as drones to the increasingly-powerful corporations.
Is it possible cyberpunk is no longer fiction?
No, we don’t have street samurai, but we do have a large number of people with implants to pick up the slack for failing organs and missing limbs; the real barrier now is money, not technology. Government hasn’t completely disappeared, but the political climate of the last ten years has certainly proved how much sway large corporations have over the events of the world. We are more and more reliant upon our computers and smart phones to get anything done, and spend much of our time in a digital world. Cyberpunk was the world we’re in now taken just a little bit more to the extreme.
I could go on for a while about how I feel urban fantasy is an outgrowth of a desire to have more of a direct impact on our world, born of a feeling of powerlessness (when’s the last time you felt your opinion really mattered in the grand scheme of things?), or how steampunk is a reaction to the increasingly impersonal and obtuse nature of technology. Maybe I will, some other time. Right now I’m more interested in how cyberpunk can be updated for the modern world. How does our current world change the answers to the questions originally posed by the genre? What new questions can be asked? What new wonders and horrors might the future hold? Will cyberpunks still dress like they’re from the future 80′s?
We can begin by taking a look at the evolution of the digital frontier. Early cyberpunk envisioned a true virtual reality, with the characters immersed entirely in their chosen digital world. Sometimes it was done through a jack in their heads, sometimes through a pair of goggles and a machine that tracked the user’s movements and mapped them to a digital avatar. It is important to note that the vast majority of users never directly controlled their cyberspace of choice by thought, though they may have experienced the result as a 3D sensory environment: Case typed; Hiro swung rebar around in his apartment; even Lain was limited (for awhile) to seeing things through her vast array of monitors. I’m pretty sure the Kinect has just proved the Metaverse a distinct possibility, and augmented reality is taking off, both of which will allow us to experience our digital environments in new ways.
So what’s stopping us? Have you ever read a cyberpunk book where the hero is halted in the middle of his righteous hack to track down a video codec? Or where the hero is just about to hop into cyberspace to stop the villain from unleashing a terrible virus, only to be stalled by a system update? All the best cyberpunk worlds assume one OS, one machine architecture, one mail system, and one interface. The unfortunate truth is that until systems are more open and companies stop relying on proprietary formats, we will never have a truly worldwide cyberspace. This is why the open source movement is so important: it returns power to the users and allows for the interlinking of different systems. The new cyberpunk will be more about the struggle to open up the gates and not so much about the development of new technology.
Fight on, cyberpunks, for the users.
Next time: technolust, technophobia, and the Ood as a metaphor for human technological dependence.Tagged with: cyberpunk • musings • tron