"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
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.