Minutes To Midnight: Cyberpunk and The End of The World


It’s a personal hope of mine that the smartest of us are the best of us. This is an ideal that I know has no place in reality. Irrespective of IQ, social status, or the ability to influence change in the world, too many factors influence human morality for intelligence to be a direct influence on thoughtfulness. But there are times when it seems correct.

The means by which WWII ended was made possible by the brightest minds of world coming together at the request of the Allied Powers. The Manhattan Project included some of the brightest minds the world has ever had to offer in our brief existence as a species. And, by reading the thoughts of these ridiculously intelligent men, it can be concluded that they were overwhelmingly thoughtful about their actions and their place in this new world they’d created.

Now it goes without saying that the nuclear bombings—the most decisive factors in ending WWII—were displays of the most destructive weapons to ever be used in warfare. Those in the Manhattan Project recognized this and formed the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, their humble answer to the destructive power of their collected and misdirected genius. And the seventy years that followed were built upon a foundation of regret of what the best of us had done to affect change in the world. Those worthy enough to enter the fraternity of the BAS have since spent their time monitoring the political instability of the world as well as our rapid approach to a technological future that would make a next Manhattan Project the one to end existence on this planet.

Now it’s nice to have your suppositions of the world reinforced, but this particular confirmation is nothing short of bittersweet. Not to me in particular, but I’ll explain why.


Minutes to Midnight

Pick your choice of cyberpunk fiction. Chances are if you’ve picked one with a literary background like the Sprawl or one that spans decades like Ghost in the Shell, the mention of war is located somewhere in the lore, rarely referenced in the current frame of the story but essential to the shaping of the world in which it exists. Why is that? It’s long been a given that war awaits us in the future. Not a skirmish between border countries during a heated exchange. Certainly more explosive than the incestuous merging of states and corporations muddling the actual cause of conflict. No, the wars in cyberpunk classics are shrouded in some mystery and leave devastation in its wake. Now this could have much to do with proxy and shadow wars of the Cold War when most of this fiction was conceived, which directly influenced the ticking of the Doomsday Clock.

The Doomsday Clock is a metaphorical scale that judges the destabilization of effective politics and development of arms that’ll lead to an armageddon we could not walk back from. It’s generally thought of as a reason for concern.

This is a quote released from the BAS just today:

“World leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.”

Were this a Jerry Bruckheimer film, this would be about the time the responsible American President would rally the best minds of the world, most of which conveniently live somewhere in the US, to fix the problems that’ll save the world after some of the catastrophe has taken a great many lives. From the chaos humanity is reborn—mystic imagery to inspire action in the real world. The power of the human spirit—regurgitated existential garbage. Cyberpunk has a very different approach to staring the end of the world in the face. It’s one that we actually mirror in reality.


The End is Nigh

As of today, we are 3 Minutes to Midnight. The closest we’ve ever been was in 1953 after the first testing of the H-Bomb, when dealings between the US and the Soviet Union were arguably at their most contemptuous. The Soviets had one of their own as well. Then, the BAS said this:

“The hands of the Clock of Doom have moved again. Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization.”

This was more or less the mindset of those paying attention to the geopolitical landscape well into the early ‘90s when the Russian Federation rose from where the Soviet Union fell. And since then not much has cooled between these two military and political giants. People are largely pessimistic about change and therefore expect none, and this begat political leaders that support this world view with leadership that is either adequate or less than, rarely more than is needed.

But cyberpunk is not pessimistic. It is dark, violent, hedonistic—exploitative depending on your perspective—but it is never pessimistic. Cyberpunk is nihilistic. The entire genre gives one shallow shrug at the thought of the world descending into chaos, whether this be by proxy wars waged by warlords and their militias versus private military companies or the dropping of a thermonuclear device the size of a football that could decimate an entire continent.

From Gibson to Shirow, the observation of the world splitting at the corners is an apt one. And that the world continues to turn despite its obvious fissures is also correct. It’s Darwinian in its view of humanity and our adaptation towards technology. But what happens when the world ends and the tech that would allow us to survive hasn’t yet arrived?


You can watch the entire press conference by visiting the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: http://thebulletin.org/

You can learn about the Doomsday Timeline here: http://thebulletin.org/timeline

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Written by Daniel Rodriguez
Daniel Rodriguez is a freelance writer and author from New York City.
  1. Love the article but the closest we’ve come to total annihilation was the 26th of september 1983 the world was saved by one man, lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov (ret). There were no medals and no awards for his actions at the time. I met him a few years ago in Sydney before he received the Dresden Prize, 2013. I also met another man who was a witness to the event as he was under Petrov’s command at an event run by the Hiroshima Day Committee in Sydney before his untimely death the following year. The wiki is pretty acurate given what i heard at the conferences. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Petrov

    • I’m aware of Stanislav and his act of bravery nearing the end of the Cold War. However, I am of the opinion that those people, meaning previous generations, are of a different character. That’s not to say that I think they’re better in terms of morality–I’m confident that sort of thing is more or less static and people fall into categories that apply to the present and the past–but I do believe military culture has changed a great deal from then to now in most Western and Eastern countries. Were we to come so close again, and a single man were expected to pull his finger away from the button, I’m not so confident disaster could be so readily avoided. That’s why the Doomsday Clock exists, so that those who are given this degree of autonomy can have some point of reference to recognize the state we’re in. My two cents.


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