The first part of this post is here.
Last time I spoke a bit about the shift cyberpunk needs to take in focus to keep up with the times. We also went over the possibility that cyberpunk is no longer mostly fiction. Now, we move on to another major theme of cyberpunk: a question of humanity. How far should our dependance (and obsession) with technology go? At what point do we cease to be human? Is there necessarily a problem with passing that point?
Let’s ask these guys:
These are the Ood, an alien race from the new series of Doctor Who (if you haven’t been watching it, shame on you!). The Ood are a sort of hive mind, used as a workforce in the future. Eventually the titular Doctor discovers the reason they appear so docile and stupid when first met is that (SPOILERS, sweeties) the odd glowing spheres they hold are replacements for their brains. They cannot help but trust, because they are literally holding their brains in their hands. Turns out, when they’ve not gone through a forced lobotomy, they’re pretty powerful, psychically speaking. So what does all this have to do with us?
Put down your phone.
Get it now?
If we extend this concept further, we can see an answer to one of cyberpunk’s recurring questions: how could technology change the way we, as humans, interact with each other? That answer is simply an extension of trust. We trust each other the more we are connected to each other. We hear a lot about not sharing personal information on the internet, but we do it anyway. Our most intimate fears and desires are out there to be seen by the entire world. We may talk a big game about privacy controls, but the truth is more World of Warcraft guildmates have my phone number than RL friends. When we meet someone new, we give them our Facebook name, Twitter account, and e-mail. You can find out a lot by Googling someone’s e-mail, no matter how careful they are. Yes, there are a good number of people who are very careful to only use a specific address for digital accounts, almost never give out even their first name, and refuse to touch things like Facebook. But in the end, don’t they miss out? It’s becoming increasingly more and more difficult to maintain contact with your social group without using at least one of the many networking services out there.
This increased trust and connection might turn into a wonderful thing for we humans; time will tell. Cyberpunk is all about the worst-case scenario, though, so how might new cyberpunk fiction treat the emerging human network? Our protagonist might have spent a book taking down some of the barriers of closed-source software, and now the world is a better place because everyone can access shiny happy cyber funland. Everyone has already been giving out all these connections and moving much of their interaction into the digital realm; there’s not much to do there. How could it be taken advantage of? There’s the old standby of the neural-interface virus, but we can go a step further. You might find a clear divide between those who are on the grid and those off. Literal class warfare might erupt. Our antagonist might pose as an angel trying to help those with no access obtain it, and in the process twist access. Or it could take the form of a more low-tech but also more subtle social engineering – a sophisticated 21st-century conman. Or perhaps the social fallout of having constant acess to anyone, anywhere is enough of a devil on its own. There’s plenty of potential here.
Let’s not forget about the love/hate relationship so many of us have with technology, either, that makes all this possible. We love to reach out to our friends, but we also hate and fear technology for its complexity. Most of the jobs I’ve held have been entirely because computers break, become obsolete quickly, or confuse the user. We can go from praising clever apps to yelling at our word processors in about two seconds. Right now I’m both loving that I can write all this down for the world to see, and cursing the ghost I’m doing of a drive that has apparently frozen at 89% after three hours. Our technolust crashes head-on with technophobia, and it’s a terrible combination. It’s people with a great deal of power at their fingertips, and no clue, or desire to understand, how it all works. It’s a recipe for disaster – and a recipe for cyberpunk!
So, cyberpunk enthusiasts, how far is too far? Will we end up like the Ood, or will we stop before we lose ourselves completely to the network?
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April 1st, 2011 by Cassie