cybercrud = C = cyberspace

cyberpunk /si:'ber-puhnk/ n.,adj.

[orig. by SF writer Bruce Bethke and/or editor Gardner Dozois] A subgenre of SF launched in 1982 by William Gibson's epoch-making novel "Neuromancer" (though its roots go back through Vernor Vinge's "True Names" (see the Bibliography in Appendix C) to John Brunner's 1975 novel "The Shockwave Rider"). Gibson's near-total ignorance of computers and the present-day hacker culture enabled him to speculate about the role of computers and hackers in the future in ways hackers have since found both irritatingly naïve and tremendously stimulating. Gibson's work was widely imitated, in particular by the short-lived but innovative "Max Headroom" TV series. See cyberspace, ice, jack in, go flatline.

Since 1990 or so, popular culture has included a movement or fashion trend that calls itself `cyberpunk', associated especially with the rave/techno subculture. Hackers have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, self-described cyberpunks too often seem to be shallow trendoids in black leather who have substituted enthusiastic blathering about technology for actually learning and doing it. Attitude is no substitute for competence. On the other hand, at least cyberpunks are excited about the right things and properly respectful of hacking talent in those who have it. The general consensus is to tolerate them politely in hopes that they'll attract people who grow into being true hackers.

--The Jargon File version 4.3.1, ed. ESR, autonoded by rescdsk.

The cyberpunk movement in science fiction, like anything worthwhile with punk in its name, had already pretty much run its course by the time it became trendy. In its latest form, it was always less a proper literary movement than a set of stylistic tics and choice of subjects shared by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and a few close collaborators; many of the great writers in what would later be called the cyberpunk ouvre wrote before the term had even been coined.

Alfred Bester originated many of the stylistic choices that would later be considered cyberpunk in the 1950s: the explosive but hard-as-nails prose, the slick, angry antihero, the whole style-over-substance deal. He even wrote a short story, The Fifteen Minute Fugue, which was set in a grim, stratified and megacorporate-dominated East coast-spanning megalopolis.

In the 1970s, Phillip K. Dick and, to a lesser extent, John Brunner laid even more of the foundations. Brunner wrote The Shockwave Rider, a prescient look at the role that computers have in organizing a hypercomplex society like ours, which is probably more relavent now than the day it was written. But, of course, though this was some of the substance of what was to come, we've already established that style over substance is our mantra.

For the immediate genesis of the style of cyberpunk, we don't really need to look much further than one man, Phillip K. Dick. Of course, most roads in recent science fiction (really, of recent fiction in general) lead back to Dick by one way or another, but here the path is most direct. Dick was the master of paranoia, of writing about drugs and craziness and everything just not making sense anymore. He could evoke a world which had just become so fucked that there was no rational way of dealing with it anymore better than anybody. And this is what the cyberpunk authors would all try to do in one way or another.

What changed everything was this guy, William Gibson, writing this book, Neuromancer, which was so damn good that nobody could ignore it. He was already collaborating with the Mirrorshades Group, a smallish group of like-minded young writers, but after Neuromancer broke the big time, everybody wanted in on the action. Some of these writers which followed him were good, both within the little cabal (e.g., Bruce Sterling), and without (e.g., Walter Jon Williams). Many, many more were derivative and terrible. One, Neal Stephenson, deserves credit for picking up the ball and moving with it into a new territory entirely.

But cyberpunk, as a sub-genre, is more or less moribund now, a victim of its own success. The whole movement quickly became stereotyped, and each new trashy paperback or role playing sourcebook with a day-glo picture on the cover of an angry man with sunglasses and coax jack in his forehead was another nail in the coffin. Even Gibson has since moved into new territories, which are only still considered cyberpunk because he's the one who wrote them.

The next New Big Thing still lurks, half visible, just off the horizon.

"If our genetic function is computare ('to think'), then it follows that the ages and stages of human history, so far, have been larval or preparatory. After the insectoid phases of submission to gene pools, the mature stage of the human life is the individual who thinks for him/herself".
- Timothy Leary, Chaos and Cyberculture, 1994

Despite the adoption of the prefix "cyber" by pop culture as a catch-all term for anything involving computer technology, the etymology of the word from which it's taken, κυβηρνετης, a "steersman", is far more suggestive of the pilot of an oceanbound vessel than of computers and electronic gadgetry per se. If we perhaps think of the Navigator, the Explorer of the seemingly limitless seas of information, we approach closer to a more authentic definition of the term.

I. Cyberpunk as Philosophy

Leary in the quote above encapsulates what I would consider to be the philosophical ground for the cyberpunk. In a certain sense, perhaps, the cyberpunk is Nietzsche's ubermensch, much as he is also a Philosopher in the real, Socratic sense of that word. This combination produces what we might well term a cybernaut, an agent functioning within cybernetic reality - an entity which utilizes all information available to it to make a decision, and which, in the case of the cyberpunk is eternally "skeptical" - especially of relying upon authority or even his own preconceptions - of reality, holding its legitimacy forever in doubt. Thus it is essentially the anarchic stance of a philosophical and non-naive Nihilism or Active Nihilism.

A cybernaut's skill at "steering" information technology provides the entity with opportunity to access whatever amount and degree of information it is capable of finding and understanding. The idea of 'freedom of information' is a central part of a cybernaut's value system simply because of the realization that with unlimited disclosure of information, social mobility would become greatly a function of intelligence and ability. A cybernaut, and more specifically a cyberpunk, as an "expert" navigator of that informational reality, would be in a position of natural supremacy, or would be enabled to rise to such a position. In such a world, education is literally the key to reality -- scienta est potentia, as the newly-formed IAO has taken for its motto.

Cybernetics, the primary tool of the cybernaut, is the formalized science exploring the nature of control and communication within biological, social and artificial systems. More importantly, as Wiener coined the term, it is a science concerned with examining the nature of self-regulating systems, and attempting to engineer the same. The interest of the cybernaut in such a "technology" is to attain to a practical understanding of the relationship of information to control - in short, to determine how the communication of information influences behavior and thought.

The fundamental distinguishing characteristic of the cyberpunk is what might be termed a radical desire for total individual freedom. The central characteristic of the cyberspace which the entity inhabits is unlimited freedom - but such freedom requires the giving up of any pretense to objectivity, the realization of the central open-ness and forever subjective nature of its limitless potentiality. By this orientation, all of reality is simply information presented to us by the mind, synthesized from the raw data of experience. This concept is extremely similiar to the transcendental idealism espoused by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason.

II. Power and the Cyberpunk

Cyberspace-in-itself is an economy of surplus, wherein the laws of supply and demand have quite different correspondences than in material reality. Everything is already "out there", in abundant and permanent supply, existing eternally in pure information space, and only our ignorance prevents us from seeing and understanding it. Nothing can be "owned" and there are no secrets, no privilege... only differing levels of capability and understanding. Everything proceeds by intelligible laws, so there can be no force - there is no need for it in an intelligible kosmos. Cyberspace is in a purely ideal and metaphysical sense the self-revealing realm of alethea, of self-existent truth which uncovers itself from its primordial concealment, as Heidegger considered it, the logos implicit within kryptos.

It follows that those who desire ultimately to control, to own, to subject unto their will, are prevented from ever directly accessing cyberspace as it exists, since it is a condition of absolute liberty. Leary advances the thesis that the idea of government as we understand it was reflected in the corruption of the original word cyber into guber when the self-regulating, individualized connotation of the word was forgotten or supressed, and that the Roman ideal of government was a natural consequence of the loss of the ideal original meaning, which eventually became reflected in the language.

III. Reality Check

Lest we become deluded in a swoon of emotional idealism, it should be remembered that this conception of cyberspace is a metaphysical ideal, and has only marginal relation to what is modernly termed "cyberspace". In Platonic terms it is a universe of pure intelligibility, not our material reality. In short, it is an envisioning of a universe without blind force, not a competing description of ours.

Information in the real world is only valuable (in an economic sense) insofar as it can be exploited to gain a competitive advantage over another, by fostering special privilege for the entity who possesses it. Information which can facilitate access to or which identifies a physical good is also valuable, because it can be manipulated or stolen to cause a corresponding effect in material reality.


sources and further reading:
  • Wiener, Norbert, Cybernetics (or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine), M.I.T. Press, Cambridge MA 1965
  • Young, John Frederick, Cybernetics, Illefe Books Ltd, London 1969. pp.12-13,pp.131-133
  • Heidegger, Martin, The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, Indiana University Press, 1984.
  • Dr. Timothy Leary, Chaos and Cyberculture, Ronin Publishing, Berkeley CA 1994.

Part of the reason why Hollywood never got cyberpunk right was its awkward timing: SF of the Heinlein/Bradbury/Sturgeon school was influenced, for good or ill, by the memory of The Parsonage, where Jack Parsons and his crew maintained a place where sex, drugs and various goings-on were simply another day in paradise. Therefore, any future not strictly dysutopian (and not a few that were) had either non-marital sex or people getting stoned as a central feature.

 By the late Seventies/early Eighties, the sexual revolution was not only here, but was marching down the streets of Middle America, while recreational drugs were at their all-time high. Part of the unspoken rulebook of cyberpunk was that since everyone can have sex with anyone and drugs are old hat, where do you go from there?

 Unfortunately, just as cyberpunk was getting popular, Hollywood was on a Lucas/Spielburg kick. While the Seventies were a great era for getting quirky, New Wave-like (and therefore cyberpunky) ideas on film, Eighties media wanted Sure Things: big-budget classic comic books, 'warmedies' for family viewing, dramas with well-defined heroes and villains, teenage angst movies. While the First Reagan administration was fairly mellow about drugs, the second was virulently against not only drugs, but sex and drinking as well. (The AIDS crisis had something to do with this...) Not exactly the time to debut a genre that counted William S. Burroughs as a spiritual godfather.

 By the time things had calmed down enough (the Clinton administration) for cyberpunk to make a mark on the Big Screen, the Neo-Luddite movement was afoot, making anything even vaguely mechanical into a force for evil: I remember having to explain (and explain and explain) that this new "Internet" thing wasn't the same as getting a television in that you only had the content that you had consciously selected....and you could even add your own!

However, the idea of Good Punks (aided by saintly hax0rs) vs. Evil Businessmen (in service to the Machine) was appealing enough to make a few regrettable flicks (Wild Palms, Johnny Mnemonic) in the Nineties.

And after that? Well, the secret was finally out. The Hackers didn't want to pull down the Machine, they wanted to play with it! And they weren't slickly thin and have MTV hair and Italian suits, they wore loose clothing (who wants to wear tight pants *sitting down*) and were determinedly low-maintenance. Cyberspace wasn't a deathtrap, it was a playground. We'd reached the future, and it was nothing like we could have imagined. Long live cyberpunk. Hail, and farewell.

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