Cyberpunk: Then and Now

Tales From The Dork Web #4

Steve Lord

Cyberpunk is both a genre and a culture. As a genre, cyberpunk was born out of early 20th century noir and fuelled through the drugs, sex and tech of 60s and 70s counterculture movements. As a culture, Cyberpunk represents a tech-savvy identity associated with anti-authoritarianism and anti-consumerism. In this issue I explore how Cyberpunk has changed over the past 50(!) years, and look at what's the new cyberpunk to a world that already feels like a classic Cyberpunk dystopia.

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This issue of The Dork Web is about Cyberpunk past, present and future. If you’d like something to listen to while reading, try LORN’s ANVIL above.

What Do We Think Of When We Think Of Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk means different things to different people but there are common overarching terms. It’s a genre, culture and an aesthetic commonly associated with societal breakdown, technology abuse and conflict with authority.

Most think of Blade Runner and the cyberpunk novels of the 1980s. Some might think of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira Manga series. Brits may reach for 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd. Younger readers might think of Mr Robot, Mirror’s Edge or Altered Carbon.

Classic Cyberpunk draws inspiration from 1930s noir novels, holding them hostage in a futuristic setting. The shift in setting let writers explore the day’s problems without censorship. Even so, they rarely understood the technology of the worlds they crafted.

Much of modern Cyberpunk feels more like Near-Future-noir. Stories live in the future but feel less wildly futuristic. The Cyber element is less science fiction and closer to science fact. Classic cyberpunk rebelled against post-war optimism, while modern cyberpunk can barely nod to today’s world.

Classic Cyberpunk presents a pseudo-digital aesthetic in opposition to the analogue world of the time. Modern Cyberpunk comes from the other side - featuring humanity as a composite layered on digital caricatures of today's world. Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly presents the viewer with an artificial animated world because a world featuring an out of control war on drugs and surveillance state just looks like the modern day. Cyberpunk’s aesthetic is no longer the future. Cyberpunk is now.

The original Blade Runner movie featured a 21st century LA designed by (the sadly departed) Syd Mead heavily influenced by 1970s Kowloon, Hong Kong. Mead worked on Blade Runner, Tron, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Aliens and more. That 80s aesthetic we associate with Cyberpunk - packed cities with neon lights - we owe to Syd Mead. Bright city lights won’t make something Cyberpunk, as Reddit’s /r/cyberpunk will happily tell you. Kowloon is gone but I wonder what Mead would make of today’s Hong Kong (above), or Macau (below).

The Future Is Already Here - It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed

Cyberpunk changed because we changed with it. We never saw Blade Runner’s flying cars but almost everything else exists on some level. Cyberpunk is in many ways established and static. The stories change but the tropes less so. The rebellious Cyberpunk of old is today's corporate establishment. Without the punk, all we have is cyber. So what is tomorrow’s Cyberpunk?

If Cyberpunk rebelled against post-war optimism, Solarpunk rebels against today’s structural pessimism. Only around since 2015, Solarpunk creates bright, beautiful worlds with rich atmospheres. Solarpunk’s aesthetic draws inspiration from Art Nouveau and artists like Imperial Boy (above) and Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki. If Hayao Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan is Solarpunk’s Alphaville, Beasts of The Southern Wild is Solarpunk’s Shockwave Rider.

Solarpunk is more than an aesthetic and culture. It has a manifesto, a fediverse instance, low-tech and no-tech online magazines. It is a movement founded in cautious optimism. The Solar part of the term represents a sustainable existence for all. In a world ravaged by avarice-driven climate change, rebellion in favour of sustainability and egalitariansim may be the most punk movement of all.

Whether Solarpunk the aesthetic and Solarpunk the culture will stay separate from a political alignment is yet to be seen. When it comes to Solarpunk, even I struggle to avoid being cautiously optimistic.

Things You May Have Missed

Josan Gonzalez (above) is one of my favourite Cyberpunk artists. Every piece he makes screams Cyberpunk. Neon Dystopia interviewed him a while ago. Tony Skeor is another brilliant Cyberpunk artist. His 2:00AM animated wallpaper is really cool! Who are your favourite Cyberpunk artists? Show me on Mastodon or Twitter.

Nerdist writes about Alphaville, a French New Wave classic predating Blade Runner by 17 years. Renaissance feels similar in places. Not the same guy, Nerdwriter explores why the live-action Ghost In The Shell movie fell flat despite an excellent storyline. Sometimes the Matrix reveals itself. But from where did it get its ideas?

If you haven’t listened to it, Ed Harrison’s NeoTokyo OST is the cyberpunk album you deserve. Watch out for Beacon and Departure in particular.

80s Cyberpunk pioneered a style of computing device called a deck. In the 2020s the cool kids are building exocortices now. Bryce Lynch has documented his with some interesting observations. There are some tasty looking decks out there. Speaking of augmentation, Bertolt Meyer hacked his prosthetic arm to control a modular synthesizer by thought.

Black Cat somewhat depressingly asks, “Who will buy the future?” Philosophy Tube’s video on digital surveillance as a hammer raises some valid points. An AI Epidemologist called BlueDot knew about the COVID-19 outbreak before we did. Maybe AI will buy the future and rent it back to us for $5 a month.

Cartographers have been sneaking covert illustrations into maps for decades. Meanwhile, someone has been gluing MAGA hats and Trump wigs to Las Vegas pigeons. What a time to be alive.

Is the punk in Solarpunk real? If “What we can learn from the Solarpunk movement”, and “how to be an optimistic radical” get you on a watchlist, it’s definitely real. If Solarpunk seems a lot like an evolution of the excellently named Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism to you, then maybe like the Matrix it’s just taking inspiration from good sources.

I’ll finish this up with Prequell’s The Future Comes Before Part V. The full album is available as a playlist. If you only listen to one other song try Part VII.

A final quote, from Steven Kotler’s Last Tango in Cyberspace:

“THIS REVOLUTION IS FOR DISPLAY PURPOSES ONLY.”

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