We Are Not Here To Save You [Opinion]

cyberpunk-meme

Did you hear? Cyberpunk has come into its own. I know, you’re excited. Right? Reading this on this site tells me you have some interest in cyberpunk, at least enough to want to consume even more media to just keep the concept even more fresh in your mind than it already was. That’s the benefit of living in this time, the availability of all this content, the existence of the Internet and the forward march towards a post-geographic society makes it all possible. It’s a big reason as to why cyberpunk is being revived–it’s taking form before our very eyes. And it’s with this expansion of the subculture in the public eye that we find ourselves in a bit of miscommunication.

Over the past year or so, I’ve read quite a few manifestos and essays shared online hoping to capsulize what cyberpunk means and what it is expected to do or look like now that there is a world that can truly appreciate it, because, whether consciously or subconsciously, people all over the world have begun augmenting their reality with technology, consuming pharmaceuticals at an alarming rate, and grown accustomed to corporate and political malfeasance ad the norm–classic cyberpunk tropes. What many of these examinations get wrong is the idea that cyberpunk is the answer to these problems.

Allow me to demystify my thesis before we go any further, and unburden you of any delusions you may have had. Cyberpunk is not here to save you.

Hacking is sexy now. I don’t know if you heard, but apparently the neck-beard, disaffected programmers and technicians of the ’90s just missed the boat. From news reports on Anonymous fighting ISIS to Chris Hemsworth starring as a black-hat, super spy who stops Russian terrorists, hacking is once again interesting to the larger zeitgeist, and with an infrastructure to support them, many are coming to cyberpunk with the expectation that the subculture exists to support activism and activists with a romantic flare that’ll allow them to do good and snatch a bit of glory they can use to humbly brag about once their done fixing everything. I hear and read a lot of people talk about cyberpunk in this light, and I can’t help but turn away, because their lack of education becomes glaringly obvious.

“In a cyberpunk world, I realized, was a world where people had the technology but it didn’t  fundamentally change the fact that there was a lot of treacherous, nasty behavior–large weapons, and a lot of sort of serious danger all about.” (Mike Pondsmith)

All subcultures rise to prominence on the backs of a few individuals with the gift of vision that allow them to see things differently from many others. Some are visible and others stick more to the shadows, but they earn degrees of influence for what they were able to contribute, and when we look at the forefathers and the shining examples of the subculture, we can get an idea of what it was they had to say about cyberpunk, our eventual future, and where this segment of the population fits.

Let’s start off with Mike Pondsmith, since he put it best in an interview with Machinima concerning the development of Cyberpunk 2077:

“Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity, it’s about saving yourself.” (Mike Pondsmith)

If you don’t know Mike Pondsmith, then I hope you know his work. If you have images in your mind link up to cyberpunk that include dark, wet streets, gangs with augmented bodies and unholy weapons fankenstiened with ridiculous tech, he’s responsible for bringing that visual medium to life better than perhaps anyone else. Pondsmith is the creator behind Cyberpunk 2020, the ultimate cyberpunk RPG that ran from the late ’80s until ’05. Anyone looking for a comprehensive education on the tropes of cyberpunk and its larger mythologies and philosophies need not look further than this game. But if you’re looking to narrow your focus, read up on the Fourth Corporate War to see just how Pondsmith views our bleak future. There are corporations in place of nations and states, vying for power in a death-match of proxy wars using cyborgs on the frontlines and hackers as support to crumble systems from within. Many of the main characters in the RPG also find their ways to inhabit these same roles in this expansive world with varying personalities. But even with all this examination of the world’s worst-case scenarios, never do any of the heroes or villains make a play to save humanity, because that isn’t part of their world, not part of the vision. The fight is self-centered because that is the reality they exist, the system that made them and makes the most sense.

It’ll come as no surprise that Pondsmith is an admirer of William Gibson. In fact, anyone reading this who doesn’t have a favorable view of Gibson’s work likely came across this in error. Gibson is a figure in cyberpunk so revered that it’d be laborious to find the one person in this subculture that doesn’t find something about him or his work that’s worthy of appreciation. And that to me rings weird when I take a look at what many are claiming cyberpunk is about, since it runs counter to the work of a man who’s unparalleled in his influence in the subculture.

William Gibson

William Gibson

For about thirty-eight years, Gibson has been shaping and molding the world we live in through his fiction, sometimes missing the mark by a smidgen, and a lot of the times meeting the future with a precise prediction. As mirrored in Pondsmith’s work, Gibson saw a future of corporate control, incessant wars waged by corporate interest, and ridiculous technology in the hand of the every man doing what they could to break even. Never was there a character nor a circumstance set up in Gibson’s work where the world was changed, reform of policy instituted, or quality of life bolstered. It just wasn’t that big a deal.

Often thought of as the cyberpunk bible, the book that gets everything right (in feel and concept) about our cyberpunk future. Neuromancer follows Case, a hacker, though in this setting the term is more complex than I’m willing to go into in this essay, who happens to be a junkie, and is willing to work with Molly, a cyborg mercenary, in exchange for new organs that’ll allow him to remain blissfully high for years to come. They go up against corporate and military interests in pursuit of rogue technology through The Sprawl, a place whose social and economic fabric have been torn by World War III and the corporate takeover that stood in place of governmental power, rewriting ethnicity and nationality with employment. Life is shit and tech is insane, still none of the main characters fight for change, none have an appetite for activism in a world that would likely engender it in the real world. They are all focused on the self, their own ambitions.

Another group of self-interested people with access to technology few truly understand are hackers. Despite hacktivism, which is a recent phenomena–very recent and trendy–hackers, when they rose to prominence in the ’80s and ’90s by way of phone phreaks, inspired characters like Case and Alt Cunningham with their skill and counter-culture appeal. At risk of coming off as flippant, but having to due to the lengthy history involved, phreaks and hackers could be summed up as clever to ridiculously intelligent people bored by the world and intrigued by technology. They explored and tampered with new toys that were once the pride of militaries, then turned into consumer electronics, just to see what they could get away with. Some gained infamy and folk-hero status like Captain Crunch, others went on to be captains of industry like Steve Wozniak, and a devious few have become criminal legends by mastering their art of system breaking, all of which have a home in cyberpunk as a fiction, fulfilling a prediction or living up to a reflection made in the work of Gibson, Pondsmith, and others.

cyberpunk - meme 2

If you’re new to cyberpunk, you’re probably wondering why, if these people have the ability to affect so much, don’t they strive to make a better world. Some with a superficial view may see the punk suffix and think that the politics of the music movement is all there is to adopt, ignoring the simpler anti-authoritarian origins of simply wanting to be left alone, on the outside being just as important. But there is another side to punk and genius that is central to cyberpunk that only the initiated will be able to see and comprehend–nihilism.

Nietzsche spent his whole life defining and refining his philosophical view of the world, and since then has been fractured and adapted to apply to several schools of philosophy, but nihilism can be summed up as the expression of a life that is meaningless, an existence is without reason. No right. No wrong. Things simply are, and people merely exist in the framework. Cyberpunk gets this, it comprehends that the degradation of polite society, the transfer of power from elected seats to shareholders, the turning of war into business, making portions of the world perpetual battlefields with privileged pockets of livability, is not only beyond our control, it is the inevitable corner the world will round in time, the progress of technology and science helping it along the way. And since no one can stop it, nor would anyone really know how, the rational response is to manipulate the complicated apparatus they’re already connected to for their personal ends. Look at any of the greats in the genre, whether it’s written fiction, film, or examples of people living the life, and you’ll find men and women cleverer and more ambitious than you taking control of a system for their own ends, never once thinking about activism or the restoration of social order. Not so much because they don’t care, but more so because they can. And in the end there’s no big loss, there wasn’t a world worth saving anyway.


This topic demands further reading (or watching/listening!). These are some resources from scholars of cyberpunk to better make sense of it as a literary genre and subculture, highlighting its cynicism in our tech-fueled world and the bleakness of neo-industrialism for the common man. Essentially these are more insightful talks that reinforce what’s been expressed here.

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Written by Daniel Rodriguez
Daniel Rodriguez is a freelance writer and author from New York City.
7 Comments
  1. Daniel – a very interesting counterpoint to the “What’s Punk About Cyberpunk?” article from earlier in the week.

    It’s difficult to take the two articles separately, as they argue different sides to the question “What is *a* Cyberpunk?” (as opposed to “What is Cyberpunk?” – I’d argue that very few people who love the genre actually *are* “cyberpunks” in any meaningful way).

    My initial thoughts were that cyberpunk leaves aside the “change the world” ethos of some punk, as does most of steampunk, biopunk etc, and just takes the DIY ethos of it and embraces. On further reflection, I’ve changed my mind somewhat.

    I’d argue that Gibon’s work is about small-scale ambitions – Case, Molly and the like just want to get paid – in large scale conflicts; unquestionably, though, their actions in Neuromancer change the world when they unite Neuromancer and Wintermute.

    But then you have books like, say, Hardwired, or the Song Of Youth trilogy, where the characters are very much consciously trying to save others, to change the world for the better. There is nothing about wanting to change the world for the better that goes against the spirit of cyberpunk; the genre is certainly broad enough to encompass both worldviews.

    When I refereed Cyberpunk 2020, I never let my players change the world, and I encouraged them not to try. I kept it very small-scale. Why? Because it was a ongoing game, and I needed the world to stay the same, so I could run the next mission and the one after that without having to adapt to major changes. I needed them not to take down Arasaka (to use an extreme example; they never tried) as it would change the landscape too much.

    But that was just a game. And Neuromancer was just a book.

    This isn’t a game: this is real life.

    Reply
    • Let me unpack a few of your statements here.

      Firstly, to state that Neuromancer if Just a book, and Cyberpunk 2020 is just a game devalues your point on Hardwired supporting an insurrectionist element to cyberpunk. Also, if we look at greater influences of the genre, Walter Jon Williams is quite a few rungs beneath Gibson and Pondsmith. Furthermore, works of fiction or not, both were instrumental in shaping cyberpunk as a concept that was later expanded upon to create a larger subculture that took on a life of its own.

      To look at the world today, I think, is to look at a cyberpunk world taking form. And with that I can clearly see parallels between those fictionalized realities and our own that would support “movements” as a constant within society that could align with political elements of punk from the 70s-80s. But with that said, you have to look at the foundation of a mythology to understand what its creators intended to create, and it matters not just in understanding their works of fiction, but the people they compelled to create a subculture. Even in the work of Philip K Dick, a contemporary philosopher in his own right, plagued with illusions of hunting the police, having a history of anti-establishment sentiment and practices, created heroes and worlds in line with Gibson’s. His characters were usually pawns of a nihilistic society run by corporate interest and government malevolence. Not because these were the things he wanted to bring to the world, but mostly because they were the reflections of the future he’d imagined.

      To reiterate, I don’t think there’s absolutely no room for protests and groups to be a mainstay in cyberpunk, whether that’d be real of fictional. I do think that cyberpunk writers of previous generations who set a foundation for the culture and future works saw the concept and the world much like Pondsmith stated in the interview. And further still, believe literature is essential to real life. Despite how you live, how you believe, writers do shape culture through their works and the people to follow them, so to discount Gibson to prove a point doesn’t prove much. He had a hand in shaping cyberpunk as a genre and a culture, and larger Western and Internet culture as well. It may just be a book, but it also happens to be a way of thinking about the world, how people interact, how they relate to society in a larger context, and in that way it becomes real to life.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the reply – hey, listen, it was a great piece; your first couple of paragraphs feel like you may have taken my comment as argumentative; not my intention at all. Apologies if I wasn’t clear.

        My point about Hardwired and the Song Of Youth trilogy was separate to my later point about the RPG being just a game, and Neuromancer being just a book. What I was trying to get across was that there examples of the genre that aren’t nihilistic. They’re rarer, but still, they exist.

        My second point was slightly confused, maybe. Whilst the fictional universes of Gibson and Pondsmith are, I agree, bleak and nihistic, I’m not following you on how this translates to “cyberpunk is not here to save you” – would you care to discuss further?

        Again – I’m not being argumentative, I’m interested in your views, since mine are slightly different.

        By “cyberpunk”, do you mean the genre, or do you mean “cyberpunks”?

        Reply
        • Not an argument from my end, I just happen to type rather bluntly in conversations. It may come off as too direct, but I’ve found its best for eliminating confusion as to my intent when trying to get a point across.

          Is there a diversity of thought in cyberpunk as a literary genre or subculture? Yes. Absolutely. There are those who would even argue that life extension and transhumanism, along with the subcultures they’ve erected through the Internet, have a place in the larger cyberpunk culture. However, there’s a reason why there’s a consensus as to who the “authorities” are on the subject. PKD was a prolific writer, creating mass volumes of imaginative works that no one could claim were cyberpunk, or at least the same genre in its early stages. Why then does Gibson get more crediting for inspiring its creation? It all comes down to ratios, ratios of prophecy. The basic concept of the Internet (Neuromancer), the worship of the fake (Idoru), the otherworldly nature of the super rich (Count Zero), the perpetual isolation of the self prolonged through the use of technology (Winter Market), better painted a picture of our present and eventual future than anyone else writing in this vein. Look also to other prolific works from Shirely and Sterling and other prolific cyberpunk writers, those remembered beyond the serious fans, and you’ll see a pattern in the work they are attracted to.

          If you look to Cyberpunk, Postmodernism, and Beyond, linked in the essay, Professor Eric S. Rabkin makes a much more erudite explanation of the genre’s nihilistic roots and the dreary fruit it produces.

          As for my general thesis, it is explained in the title. Furthermore, I don’t think you can separate the two. When the fiction inspires the reality, both attain a leveled relevance.

          The current adopters of cyberpunk seem to think of is as synonymous with political action thanks to the punk suffix. Not only is this erroneous to cyberpunk, it’s also wrong to paint all of punk this way. In fact, the anti-authoritarian wave of punk came prior to its political leanings, its pop phase coming in the third wave. The punk ethos that most aligns with cyberpunk is more in line with the statements of the outsider, wanting more to carve out a slice for themselves to have an existence all their own as opposed to changing the system to fix it to their liking.

          So when it is stated that cyberpunk, this time meaning the whole of the subculture from the people to the literary works, are not here to save you, I mean to express that it is its aim to fix all that is wrong with the world, all they could effect. The aim is to exist, utilizing the tools developed by technology to game a system for personal benefit, whether that be selfish or tribal, is immaterial; that it is not expected to fix social and political ills is what should be recognized and can be observed in the celebrated works of the genre, the academically-examined literature that gave it prominence.

          I’d like you to consider two things from Neuromancer that paint a picture of what’s considered the first actualized cyberpunk world.

          1) “The sky above the port is the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

          This famous line uses simple imagery to make a profound statement about the world the reader is entering with simple words. There’s no ambiguity as to possible hope, there is no room for light. The world is void of illumination and color, existence is bleak, and in the very next statement, people move about, joking as though all is well.

          ““It’s not like I’m using,” Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. “It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.” It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke.”

          Even in a world without light, with no hope, people move on with life because the other option is death, and all options are preferable to death, something Nietzsche would likely agree with.

          2) Molly Millions cannot cry. I don’t point this out because she’s a woman, but because when deciding how to redirect her tear ducts, Gibson decided to have her spit out her tears, often described with disgust, as though the prospect of showing weakness would be counter to her character. We know this isn’t the case. Molly has several moments of nakedness where her inner troubles are made known to case, there’s emotion to this mercenary, yet the world in which she exists has placed no value on it and therefore has lost its value. To people whom money is a constant concern, as it is to everyone living in the Sprawl, their attitudes must be adjusted.

          Without the luxury of hope, I ask, where is the room for protest, activism, and social restructure? There isn’t. Not just because these are cyberpunk tropes and therefore nihilistic, but because they are postmodern, where the construct of nature loses its power over us, and man-made constructs of society take the form of new nature. And with that natural order taking form, old organisms adapt as opposed to disrupt.

          I really recommend listening to that two-part lecture. A little dated in it’s information on video games in the second half, but the literary analysis is spot on.

  2. Thanks for the reply, Daniel. There’s a a fair bit in your comment to digest, and life took over for the last couple of days. There’s still some stuff that I’m not following you on.

    So, just so I’m clear: Whilst other cyberpunk writers add to the “diversity” of the genre, you’re saying that Gibson basically owns it? And as Gibson’s characters are arguably nihilistic, and allowing of little in the way of hope, that you’re using this as the uber-text to base your thesis on, since it is the most famous?

    (As an aside: Molly’s tear-ducts being re-routed, incidently, are about turning a stererotypically “feminine” trait into a stereotypically masculine aggressive one. This is the also the case with her nails and her eyes)

    Then, following from this, that the world we live in today is a reflection of Gibson’s work (more so than other writers)

    All of that, I’d largely agree with, certainly enough to understand where the first step of your idea is coming from.

    The second step, the bit where you haven’t yet connected the dots, is to make the jump from the literary analysis to the statement that cyberpunk isn’t here to save “us”.

    It’s an extremely large jump, and one that really bears fleshing out and clarifying.

    See, I believe that it’s entirely likely that a generation of kids/young adults interested in current cyberpunk (and, hey, us older folks who grew up with it in the 80s/90s) are very likely to take inspiration from it, to rail against big corp and big gov, and to use technology in ways not intended by it’s creators to make the world a better place – in big ways or small. I believe that that’s actually happening now; your colleague Karl pointed out several examples in his own opinion piece.

    In the meantime, I’m curious to read some of the manifestoes which inspired this piece – can you post some links?

    Reply
    • Time has been a factor for me as well, which is why it’s taken me this long to reply. Apologies.

      I’ll break my reply down to points as a paragraph format doesn’t make sense here.

      1) If we were to look at any school of philosophy, we turn our attention to its progenitor regardless of the academic contributions to come after the fact. If we’re to study psychoanalysis, our attention turns to Freud first and additions to the science after the fact. In the case of cyberpunk, it makes sense to turn attention towards the man who wrote the book on the genre. However, even if the scope were expanded, the number of nihilistic cyberpunk works dwarf any attempt to use the genre as a corner that promotes reform and change.

      Lets widen the scope further—sci-fi in and around the period of ’60s-’80s. THX 1138, Logan’s Run, The Running Man, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Fahrenheit 451, A Brave New World, We Can Remember it for you Wholesale, Soylent Green, Death Race 2000—the works that influenced cyberpunk writers, mentioned again and again, mirror the tone of nihilism as the natural disposition of society. Aspects of a rebellious people in future worlds, or optimistic opportunities with tech and man, is often the stuff of operas explored in the first thirty to forty years of the twentieth century.

      2) This is a traditional shifting of roles as a literary device to make a larger point of the character, but to see it this way is a bit superficial. As Simone de Beauvoir points out in the Second Sex, postmodernism, which is the home of cyberpunk, provides opportunity for women that that society hadn’t, provided that women understood that the only way to succeed and thrive is for them to be more like men. This is a cynical view of men and society as a whole, however justified, and while the aims of self-advancement at opposition of sexual and social norms can be seen as revolutionary, when it is done by the individual alone it makes a statement of the pointlessness with which they see their immediate surroundings. In short, Molly isn’t masculine to bend gender norms to fit a gender or sexual identity, but rather she’s become a man as that postmodern society required it of her to survive. She accepts this rather than seeing this as a sleight against her as a person or her gender.

      3) If you keep your ear to the Deep Web, you’ll soon realize that Anonymous and hacktivism is an insignificant blip on the wide radar of hacking activity. Criminal activity, self-interested time sinks at the keyboard, is much more active than any magnanimous effort to “fix” the world. In Silicon Valley and Cupertino, the most legitimate hives of tech-inclined people in the world, use Gibson as a point of reference on almost a daily basis. Check out this interview as evidence. These are the people that are actually en masse affecting change, producers of things, however in consequential we may claim them to be. And if we were to indulge in the fantasy that fans of Gen Y are mobilizing to “fight the man,” their points of reference, in so far as cyberpunk, still stems from a collection of nihilistic explorations of man’s interaction with machines.

      4) Manifestos I thought got it close to right:

      http://cyberpunk.asia/pages_html.php?html=manifeste&lng=us

      http://news.slashdot.org/story/99/10/08/2123255/notes-toward-a-postcyberpunk-manifesto

      Manifestos I think got it wrong:

      http://www.sterneck.net/cyber/branwyn-cyberpunk/index.php

      http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~rrojas/ACyberpunkManifesto.html

      Reply
      • No worries, I understand. I appreciate you clarifying your opinions.

        1) I think I understand where your viewpoint comes from, but I believe it to be very narrow in its focus. It’s valid; I just don’t subscribe. My preference is to broaden; if there is support in cyberpunk for positive action (and there is), then it’s valid for some to take that aspect and focus on that – you’ve focused on the nihilistic, others on the positive. Both have validity.

        2) I’m not bothered by the “superficial” nature of my comments on Molly, and yes, she’s masculine to survive. Absolutely agree, although I don’t think I stated it in my original comment. We could probably posit it as a direct reaction to her earlier career in the puppet-houses, but we’d be in serious danger of beard-stroking if we did, something I’m keen to avoid.

        3) No, I don’t think there’s any large-scale movement of Gen Y to fight the man; but what efforts there are (small in some instances, larger in others) have been enabled by technology that simply didn’t exist, used in ways that were not intended. I’m not hugely interested in Deep/Dark Web in this context; or particularly in hackers or romanticised views of what cyberpunk is, it’s too insular. I’m far more interested in the impact that tech/futurism has on the rest of the world, the ones who don’t know what cyberpunk is.

        It may be that we’re looking in different directions, and that’s fine. In many ways, I found Count Zero more interesting and more fertile than Neuromancer, as it gave us a bigger glimpse of how life was for people outside of the “mercenaries” – people like Bobby’s mother, Bobby himself at the beginning, Marly Krushkhova, Big Playground, the market stall owners – “normal” people. It’s there in Neuromancer, but is explored more thoroughly in Count Zero, particularly in Marly’s arc.

        I, personally, find those aspects very interesting, and they’re aspects which tend to get ignored when talking about cyberpunk – people tend to focus in on the hackers and mercs, who in reality would form a very small subgroup of the population (as they do now, which is why I’m not hugely interested in them).

        The manifestos are interesting; I had seen most of them before. I think they’re quite…cute…if I’m honest, even the ones you think got it wrong. Gareth Branwyn’s version isn’t horrific, and arguably isn’t actually a manifesto, more a series of observations made in the early ’90s with a vaguely cyberpunk flavour.

        Christian A. Kirtchev’s manifesto – well, it’s a manifesto, but it’s an overly romanticised vision of a life that I suspect some people want to lead having read only Neuromancer and Snow Crash and gone no further. That’s about as charitable as I can be.

        I’m unsure which of the manifestos on the cyberpunk.asia page you’re pointing to – most of them are in a similar vein (and at least 3 are Kirtchev’s).

        Person’s “Notes towards…” is, indeed, better. It skewers the bad-ass leather trope in it’s first paragraph (I’ve not read Diamond Age; Snow Crash put me off Stephenson for a long while), much in the same way as Count Zero skewered the hacker trope, and deals more with the implication of tech and ” technological extrapolation into the fabric of everyday life”.

        I’m rambling a bit; to summarise – yes, I believe I understand where you’re coming from, and if I look in the same direction as you, I agree. I am, personally, looking in a different direction.

        Your points about hacking, both in the original essay and in your further comments, are well-made and I certainly agree – I don’t think that *hacking* per se will be anything that saves us, nor do I think that there is a movement of hackers dedicated to overthrowing the system that will have anything other a mild effect.

        I think that the cyberpunk aspects that can legitimately have a positive effect (note: “can”, not “will”) will be those that integrate with the more “normal” people and their lives, not some made-up subculture. With that in mind, I have little problem with manifestos that are oriented in a more positive light, using tropes from cyberpunk as back-up.

        Nice one. It’s been a pleasure, Daniel!

        Reply

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