Synthesis of Humanity: An exploration into the class divisions in the future of Humanity seen through the genre of “Cyberpunk”
Stories have been told since the beginning of time even before humans learned to read and write. Stories that help us understand ourselves better, inadvertently become the best form of communication. There are parts of our reality which we choose to hide from ourselves, perhaps to feel that we are in control, that there is a God guiding us from above and everything should be left to His benevolence. It is an important function of fiction to tear these things down, to make us come to terms with reality and accept it. In this vein, the genre of Cyberpunk works as a projection of postmodernism, it reflects an outcome of the present information age we are living in. Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that showcases high technology and low life. The term Cyberpunk combines the words “cybernetics” and “punk.” Much of the Cyberpunk genre was borne out of a New Wave movement in Science Fiction that started in the 1960s and 1970s. This genre would emphasize stylistic experimentations and try to overcome the adolescent nature of pulp science fiction literature by bringing in more realism to the genre. The term was first coined by Bruce Bethke in 1980 for his short story Cyberpunk and John Brunner’s 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider is seen as the first cyberpunk novel as it had the characteristics that are usually found as tropes in this genre. Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott is one of the earliest live action films of the subgenre and Akira (1988) by Katsuhiro Otomo popularized the subgenre in animation form. Although Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is a film released much before the conception of this genre, it covers many of the attributes and might be considered as the film which heralded it. Cyberpunk features the interaction of high tech, low life. The usual tropes that we see are; on one side are the mega corporations with their absolute monopoly on every resource of Earth and on the other side, we find a dark and gritty underworld that live in the shadows thriving with illegal trade and other criminal activities. Technology has trickled down to the masses and cities shine like beacons at night due to the omnipresent neon. But this advancement of technology has failed to erode social divisions between the classes and a constant fear of revolution steer these worlds of future. The possibility of a longer life and disease-free body is present with the amalgamation of man and machine, but the social structure remains a stark contrast, dividing the society into two distinctive parts. There are producers of technology, portrayed mostly as rich white men in films such as Blade Runner (1982) or Ready Player One (2018) and the rest are consumers. The consumers live in the dark and gritty part of the city, are bombarded with advertisements of different products and under a constant surveillance of a police force who mostly work for the rich producers. To the producers, the mass is a non living entity, existing only to consume the products they make, be it the pleasure robots or other technology designed to keep them distracted from the horrifying reality. The neon streetlights and the enormous geisha holograms seen in Blade Runner serve only as a front to the dark underbelly of the city. The corners and alleys reveal the true crime ridden nature of these cyberpunk cities.
“Classic Cyberpunk characters were marginalized. alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, a ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body” This makes 1 Cyberpunk more realistic as many of these things are already prevalent, like the internet, the social media, artificial organs, artificial intelligence, robots, augmented reality and virtual reality.
In general, science fiction writers take technology that exists at the time they are writing the book and attempt to project it into the future. The cyberpunk extension of current technology into future society is hardly new in the field of science fiction with writers Jules Verne and H. G. Wells at the forefront. However, it is the way that cyberpunk authors morph their future technological projections that sets their genre apart.
In general, science fiction writers take technology that exists at the time they are writing the book and attempt to project it into the future. The cyberpunk extension of current technology into future society is hardly new in the field of science fiction with writers Jules Verne and H. G. Wells at the forefront. However, it is the way that cyberpunk authors morph their future technological projections that sets their genre apart.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer, written in 1984, shows us the drug and techno-laden, night life of Chiba City, Japan. It begins with the line: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel ”. We are led 2 into a dark, hopeless world in which humankind and machine have amalgamated and we see the 21st century unfolding before us. There are projections of economic systems where cash is illegal and coders hacking “the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data” . He speaks about 3 the bright lights and sounds of a video game arcade and people who bask in these artificial lights, enticed by the opportunities of illusion. He describes Night City as a “deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself”. The residents of this city modify themselves, altering their genes and reconfiguring their bodies to suit the needs of this dystopic future.
Similarly, Bruce Sterling’s novel Distraction (1998) shows us that both environmental and economic failure has left America twisted by its own collapse in 2044. The USA government is almost bankrupt, and the masses have become nomads (referred to as Proles) who wander around in unemployment and are considered “off the grid”. China has destroyed America’s software industry; the Congress has transformed into an emergency committee and the entire country is in ruins.
The commonality in both works is a question whether advanced technology might change the way people function and fit into a future society. The ugly effects of technology on humans and the future society is laid bare. The technology might be very advanced, but the society has not advanced enough in its scope to keep up with the tech. Delved into a combination of super advanced cosmetic body and archaic human conditions, the society is harsh, materialistic and selfish. As an example if we consider the character of Joi, an artificially intelligent companion robot, in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017), it works as a sort of advertisement as essentially, she tells the customer exactly what they want to hear in a similar way that advertising is targeted based on our viewing and searching history, giving us products the program thinks we want. Society lets itself be totally controlled by the new technology as a result. Jack Monahan, Developer of Brigador, says, “I think the dystopic elements of cyberpunk point to a certain cynicism that things aren’t going to get any better. Human nature might be augmented and highly channeled by technology, but human nature stays the same. And that tech might actually amplify all the worst things about us too.”4 Science Fiction shows us things that mankind might see in a thousand years. Cyberpunk shows us things we might very well see with our own eyes before the end of the decade.
Films are a better form of depicting the world of cyberpunk because of its advantages in having both visual and auditory aspects. A film like Blade Runner (1982) shows us the moving neon lights, the gloom of the incessant rain, the longing music immerse us into the world of cyberpunk like no other art form can. This film, made by Ridley Scott and adapted from Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) was so groundbreaking in nature, that it sent shockwaves across the entire film fraternity. No one had seen anything like it before and it was not received well at the box office due to its portrayal of an extremely dark future. During this time, films like Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. painted a more colorful and optimistic vision of the future. Blade Runner gained its cult position in film history much later as viewers started to understand the connotations underneath the neon lit Los Angeles of future. It is the story of a police officer (the blade runner) who is trying to hunt down robots, identified here as “replicants”, who are illegally present on Earth. These replicants, lost in this dystopia, once built by the society for fighting its wars and other work and now abandoned as scrap metal, try to find their identities in an impersonal world. The city is clearly divided into two distinct parts of rich and poor, where the poor voiceless mass is much like the replicants themselves, shunned from having a proper identity in this cosmopolis, trying to huddle together as a heavy cloud of disappointment and helplessness hang heavy in the air.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) gives us a glimpse of what is possible when the interests of a corrupt and impotent government, religious fanatics and some rebels play out in a cosmopolis such as Neo-Tokyo. Everyone wants to gain the upper hand and in a world that has been ravaged by the Third World War, no one wants to be on the end of the short stick. There are mutants in this city, created by some covert organization for their scientific experiments and two of them, Tetsuo and Akira are faced by many challenges by the groups who want to control their powers to rule the city. Tetsuo was one of the rebels in a biker gang, trying to find his identity in this broken society and gains psychic powers as he almost runs down a mutant child on his bike. We see the city breaking down, piece by piece as these forces collide and issues of technological addiction, economic disparity, loss of families come to the fore with Tetsuo and Akira trying to resist the status quo.
The power of this genre is brought out effectively as we see the breakdown in the social order, overload of information, the sheer size and incomprehensibility of this dystopia and it appeals to us to give in, to succumb. It tells us that although this structure is something, we have created but it beyond our control now. It tells us to surrender to the apparent meaninglessness of our lives. In real life, everyone does realize life is meaningless but choose to see beyond the obvious to live in happiness and meaning. Cyberpunk emphasizes this meaninglessness with its portrayal of impossibly hierarchical social structures, making people helpless, lonely and confused about their purpose in life. Cyberpunk is a kind of nihilism as it shows us hopelessness. It depicts a world wherein corporations’ rule and there’s no way to get ahead. It is rooted in existentialism and this is appealing to people who are anxious about growing up and meeting their big goals and ambition because if it’s all dystopia, if there are all these barriers to get ahead then there might not be any point to embarking on the journey in the first place.
Games writer Austin Walker says, “A key to traditional cyberpunk again and again is that there is economic inequality. We are positioning ourselves somewhere on that scale of how we feel about this stuff. Cyberpunk stories do that too. Usually they position the hero at the bottom of that; they’re usually in or near poverty. In a time of extreme real-world inequality, cyberpunk stories locate players in a fantasy of rising to subvert the system and taking down greedy corporations. Economic status becomes the key point of survival in this future”.5
György Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary historian and Frederic Jameson, literary critic and Marxist political theorist had argued that traditional historical novels illuminated the present by providing critical evaluations of the past. Cyberpunk does the exact opposite by giving us a critical vision of the future to illuminate the present. In addition to examining technology, virtual reality, economic disparity, the social and political phenomena in a future world, Cyberpunk can be characterized having a general theme, which is the breaking down of boundaries. The genre combines so many different themes that Frederic Jameson called Cyberpunk “The supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself ”. Jean Baudrillard, French 6 sociologist and cultural theorist argued that the rapidly changing societal conditions needed to be studied through science fiction. Baudrillard says, “Science Fiction’s fundamental patterns and scenarios are those of mechanics, of metallurgy, and so forth. Projective hypostasis of the robot. It is totally reduced in the implosive era of models. Models no longer constitute an imaginary domain with reference to the real; they are, themselves, an apprehension of the real, and thus leave no room for any fictional extrapolation—they are immanent, and therefore leave no room for any kind of transcendentalism. The stage is now set for simulation, in the cybernetic sense of the word—that is to say, for all kinds of manipulation of these models.”7
When Baudrillard’s theoretical texts were becoming inclined towards science fiction, actual science fiction was starting to play the role of cultural theory. So, Cyberpunk was not only combining different themes, it was also breaking down the boundaries between cultural theory and science fiction. So, philosophers like Nick Land and the Late Mark Fisher derived their cultural theories from Cyberpunk.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer is characterized by Mike Davis, an American writer and urban theorist as how “an extrapolative science fiction can operate as prefigurative social theory, as well as an anticipatory opposition politics to the cyber-fascism lurking over the next horizon ”.
Director Mamoru Oshii gives us a radiant, gleaming futuristic city with an underlying bleak reality in his film Ghost in the Shell (1995). He tries to expand and draw the attention of the audience’s perception of space in the film through this city. It’s a space of a chaotic, multicultural, future city dominated by the intersections of the old and new structures, connected by roads, canals and technology. Humans move about like cogs in the wheel along these avenues, plugged into the body of the metropolis. The relationship between body and mind, shell and ghost are a central theme to the film which tells the story of a female cyborg police officer who with her team hunts down a notorious hacker (an incorporeal AI) that wants to merge with Major and create a new, higher life form. Since most bodies in this future are highly artificial, people locate their identities in their ghosts or their minds. But with the troubling knowledge that these also can be hacked; memory, identity and humanity come into question, much in a similar fashion as we see in Blade Runner (1982) as well with the replicants extremely unsure about themselves about being different from a normal human being Spaces and identities are constructed and not always by us. In this context, Hong Kong was the perfect city to model for Ghost in the Shell. It is a city layered with histories and cultural memory. When the film came out, Hong Kong was still under colonial rule of the United Kingdom. It had two years left on a ninety-nine-year lease signed in 1898 which was interrupted in the second world war by a four-year occupation by Japan. It was now about to be handed over to communist China with which it had very little relation to politics and economy. So, the people of Hong Kong were being integrated into a new culture, without their say and had to start identifying themselves with the ideologies of China. And how to define identities is a vital question in the post-colonial world as the old empires faded but left behind their centuries of subjugation and influence on the very streets and minds of multicultural cities like Hong Kong and its inhabitants. The natives did not want to maintain the often-racist identities left to them by the colonizers, but they couldn’t really go back to what they were before either.
“Maybe someday your “maker” will come … haul you away, take you apart, and announce the recall of a defective product. What if all that’s left of the “real you” is just a couple of lonely brain cells, huh?”- Major Kusanagi rants in Ghost in the 9 Shell.
If we see the city of Ghost in the Shell, we can find these dilemmas being played out in the space and in the dialogues between the Major and her enemy. The enemy who wants to grow into a new form of being with the changing landscape but Major refuses and wants to hold on to her previous self. A sense of idealism working in Major, who holds on to her past as the only confirmation of her humanity and who feels that the cruel present where she has almost become a cybernetic individual will make her lose this human side of hers entirely. The enemy asks to evolve, to learn, to change with the dynamism of the changing city and asks Major Kusanagi how she is going to survive if she does not adapt. “There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries .”- 10 Major Kusanagi’s monologue in the film reflects her paranoia about holding on to her origin.
Films like Akira and Blade Runner have always showcased cities which are so impersonal in nature, that the mass who reside in it, have almost no singular identity and sense of understanding in where they come from and where they are headed. Like small parts of a machine, their day to day lives are spent in the purpose of keeping the huge city running. Like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), they have lost their consciousness and survive to repeat the same actions and procedures every day through their active years. And since the amalgamation of humanity and cybernetics (Elysium, 2013), it has become easier to lose the mortal body entirely, a body which ages, into a robotic suit that will keep on working as long as required with no signs of fatigue.
Spaces are constructed. Although spaces seem neutral or given, like it is giving us the option of moving everywhere within it, space is designed and our movements and activities in life are always limited by the way space is produced. Especially in big cities, that production is controlled not by the people but by moneyed interests or state governments or both. In Ghost in the Shell or any other cyberpunk city, the cities have been designed in keeping with the overlord producers in mind. They design the products, sell them and make them visible to the millions of consumers on the streets through the omnipresent neon signs. The signs sell you products ranging from a watch to sex robots (Blade Runner 2049, 2017) and are positioned in the city in a way that it completely blocks the pedestrians view from almost every direction, compelling them to give in to their desires as they move through the strategically designed roads. Neon has a very important significance for cyberpunk films as it is made to represent a colorful, radiant future and reflect an over the top consumerist modern culture. In real life, cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong have been synonymous with the use of neon since the Totsuka Company in 1957 unveiled their giant neon billboard in the Ginza district of Tokyo to advertise their new company name, “Sony”. After that, the signs spread everywhere, displaying the products of major corporations, becoming a signature element of these cities. They have become a tourist attraction and William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer and Ridley Scott in his film Blade Runner (1982) have used this signature neon look of the Asian cities as the idealistic representation of the consumerist, tech laden future. The residents of the fictional cities in Cyberpunk are vivid in this neon, but not glowing in glory as much as overcome by the huge conspiratorial web of moneyed interests and capital.
In Akira, the protagonist and as well as the antagonist, Tetsuo gains immense psychic prowess. The youth as shown in the film have no identity in Neo-Tokyo, an impersonal city where they are rebels, their childhood ruined by society and a deep loss of self from the wars fought by their previous generation. They are in a biker gang, spreading mayhem and reflecting their inner confusion with an outrage against the system. Tetsuo’s psychic powers might be the only stand against an all-powerful capitalist society. When the government tries to kill Tetsuo with a laser beam from a satellite, their most powerful weapon, he comes out unscathed. Tetsuo is the survivor of this dystopia and the voiceless mass who has suffered servitude, recognize Tetsuo as their only chance at redemption. In the end, the redemption does come from him in the form of an all devouring catastrophe, as Neo-Tokyo is decimated entirely with his psychic powers, so that it can be born again.
Cyberpunk has always featured cities with uneasy composites of multiple cultures. They are almost like a “Heterotopia” as described by Michel Foucault, spaces which lie in a dynamic state of layered and changing meanings. Heterotopia can be a single real place that juxtaposes several spaces. A garden can be a heterotopia, if it is a real space meant to be a microcosm of different environments, with plants from around the world. Heterotopias don’t succumb to those forces that try to bring uniformity into a space and making them similar, it gives marginal spaces to the voiceless to construct their identities for themselves. It is a place of juxtaposition and unity in difference.
But the loss of space and identity of an individual alienates them from a purpose in life. Spaces, identity and the most personal of them all, a body that stays with you since birth till death is also done away with, to ensure efficiency in the cyberpunk spaces. Life of a human being, in itself is constituted of structures and ideologies that one has to abide by for survival. But the sense of being an individual, which comes with the freedom of thinking and an idea of belonging somewhere, even in the direst situations, provides people with confidence. If the identity (derived from their origin) is taken away from a person, then the apparent meaninglessness of life amplifies in magnitude. An individual living in a cyberpunk city has an impossible hierarchical structure imposed on them. Their memories are most likely constructed and their body parts are mostly mechanical. A person with no identity and no scope of ever finding it, is forever lost and does not know how to go on about their lives. There is no scope of personal responsibility in such a situation and one delves into either self-destruction or surrender themselves to being a cog in the wheel.
Donna Haraway, American Professor and post-modern philosopher, writes in her essay The Cyborg Manifesto “The cyborg would not recognize the garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust ”.
Cyberpunk makes us doubtful about whether we would ever be able to return to our innate human nature. It does this through the concept of “cyborg” or “android” which is half human and half machine. The amalgamation of human and machine problematized the concept of a complete human being when mechanic parts replaced the organic parts, genetic design and hacking of memory destroyed any concrete idea of what a human purely constitutes. Donna Haraway, in her essay The Cyborg Manifesto writes about the boundaries being broken by cyborgs between man and machine. She invoked the concept of human nature as being a combination of parts which are natural and unnatural, both. Motoko Kusanagi, the protagonist cyborg police officer in Ghost in the Shell is presented in nude, as she is born out of machines during the beginning scenes of the film and she has a perfect female body designed by her creators. But the idea of a nude female body is estranged from its sexuality despite its presentation in such an evocative way. The filmmaker’s treatment of the fractured body here minimizes sexuality. Kusanagi is a cyborg and her attachment to her body is in a constant turmoil as her existential angst of losing her human side because she is 90% inorganic puts her in a difficult situation and she fears her fading human consciousness.
The issue of gender is done away with, as her fractured skin exposes her mechanical interior made of wires and electronics. More emphasis is put on this machine self rather than sexuality and throughout the film, as Wong Kim Yuen points out, “from the opening ritual of birth (or manufacture) in a feast of visuals dominated by images of numerals and water or fluid, to the later horror of the mutilated torso and limbs registering the monstrosity of cybernetic organisms, corporeality is closely linked first to the sea of information and then to the human-machine interface, both of which are firmly grounded in and contrasted with the background of a future Hong Kong cityscape. Instead of dwelling on the gender politics of the body, the poetic rendering of the birth scene, which highlights both the hardness of the mechanical and the softness of cybernetics, gears itself towards a process of merging the born and the made in becoming one soft machine .”
Cyberpunk’s greatest hope is that blending of man and machine would have the same effect on personal identity, that multicultural cities like the fictional Neo-Tokyo and the real Hong Kong would have one collected identity. Cyborgs would gladly accept the transgressions of boundaries between man and machine and recreate themselves through technology. Donna Haraway mentions in her essay The Cyborg Manifesto that the archaic belief of co-existing happening only on the basis of some similarity in their underlying nature would be forgotten and the new way of thinking would unite people based on their difference.
The protagonists of cyberpunk are mostly outcasts and the marginalized victims of society, who do not have any identity in the system and might even be seen as a threat. These marginalized people organize together and they constitute people from many different cultures, diverse skillsets and they do this based on their differences. This maximizes their productivity and helps them in standing a chance against the powerful overlords.
“Blade Runner 2049 explores a world where the most basic aspects of humanity have been commodified. The central relationship of the film is a romance between an android and a hologram. It’s an uncomfortable simulation of domesticity in which both parties are only doing what they’ve been programmed to do. The film presents us a world where the things that make us human and that serve to individualize us are reduced to consumer products removed from any horizon of meaning. There is actual humanity present in Blade Runner — or at least, whatever passes for humanity among androids — but it happens only once the characters embrace authenticity in the face of conformity” says Cole Chretien of 13 The Sheaf.
It breaks down the constructs of gender and race and caste that had defined us for so long without our say.
For science fiction illustrator Barclay Shaw, the combination of cyberspace with a dark and dirty, neon-lit city in William Gibson’s book Neuromancer represents a chaotic Hong Kong street. It has Chinese characters (presumably taken from Hong Kong shop signs) for the foreground, which reminds us of a cultural and racial mixture and hybridity, a confusion of diversity existing together. This is characteristic of modern-day cities and certainly in line with the cyberpunk convention of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
So, in light of the fact that gender, race and caste are sidelined in these depicted worlds of future, it can be conclusive that the divisions among people defined by predetermined factors are mostly removed. But instead of a unified human race, that is perceived to be the end goal of removal of divisions, the cities of cyberpunk are more divided than ever. The cities might be bright because of the neon lights but they mostly serve as fronts to the dark underbelly of the city. These dark alleys constitute the habitation for majority of the population in the city. Hidden underneath the towering skyscrapers and beyond the dazzling neon, lies dirt, crime, poverty and a chaotic survival mechanism of the poor people. The economic system of cyberpunk cities is a stark contrast generally, putting light on only the two extreme facets of society, the ultra-rich producers and the very poor consumers.
“Lifestyle is the standard at which one lives: what they eat, where they live, their entertainment, what services are available, etc.
The catastrophe that brought the economy to its knees and gave corporations absolute control killed off the middle class and turned suburban communities into ghost towns. Most people live in cities, and in deplorable conditions. For those who work for a mega-corporation, life is good, but strictly limited. The company keeps their employees safe in a gated community (this also cuts down on commute), but their communications are tracked, even in their own homes, and the company monitors their comings and goings. Those who did not want to be limited to living on the streets have become Nomads on the open road. They are homeless motorists who drive from place to place, finding work wherever they can find it ” reads the entry on the website of the soon to be released video game Cyberpunk 2077 which gives us the background for the gameplay. This underlines the basic condition of society and how it is functioning after a major economic collapse.
The rapid advancement of technology in the real world since the second World War, shifted the industries towards high technology. The effects of globalization have taken power away from nationalistic and local sources of economy and pushed them towards multinational ones. The resulting “post-industrial” economy has led to the rise of giant corporations which do not belong to any nation and who thrive on the commoditization of a deconstructed humanity by subjecting the gathered information derived from people and selling it on the market. This post-industrial age can also be called as the “information age” because of high-tech advancements of super computers, surveillance tools, smartphones and social media.
According to Greil Marcus, an American author, music journalist and cultural critic, these industries have “turned upon individual men and women, seized their subjective emotions and experiences, changed those once evanescent phenomena into objective, replicable commodities, placed them on the market, set their prices, and sold them back to those who had, once, brought emotions and experiences out of themselves – to people who, as prisoners of the spectacle, could now find such things only on the market. ”
Knowledge or information is the primary resource for these corporations and production of goods takes the secondary position to the sectors of research, law, sales, advertising, banking et cetera. New markets and new consumers are produced as a result of this economy and information, services and high technology are used for the purpose of social control and bringing about innovation and change. So, the post-industrial world is brought about by the expansion of capitalist operations and the traditional boundaries have been crossed with the advancement of high-tech products which form the central point to the society and its economy depicted in cyberpunk society.
“Television determines the quality and nature of life. The whole purpose of the Cathode Ray mission is to patch derelicts back into American consumer culture ” 16 says the fictional Professor Brian O’Blivion in the 1983 horror/science fiction film Videodrome by David Cronenberg.
“Society, race, religion and economic barriers have been lumped together. Mass confusion and paranoia abound when the traditional forms of society are broken down and the information age abounds ” as pointed out by The Cyberpunk 17 Project on their article Cyberpunk and the Post-Industrial World.
For a cyberpunk society, we need a weak state, massive multinational corporations, thriving inequality and rampant criminal activities. The government basically becomes more or less broke and basic services cannot be met. The taxes are higher which increases poverty for the majority of people and black markets are formed and they grow, to repress the tax producing activities. The big corporations which have a monopoly on regulation, thrive amidst this incompetent government by not letting new businesses come up. The start-ups have to go through entire legislation processes which require a lot of compliance departments to take care of like hiring HR professionals, lawyers and other specialists before it can start to actually get in the market. This helps for the big corporations to avoid paying taxes and continue to monopolize the entire market. Since these big corporations have robots and other advanced technology to ensure an efficient production process, unemployment will be at an all time high. Most of the population goes unemployed and the state has to increase its welfare spending which also leads to the state slowly going broke because of the large amount of people it is covering. The corporations can now have relatively skilled labor at their beck and call with no contractual obligations and cheap prices. These people can again be replaced at any time by turning to automation and only the people at top of these offices are paid well. When there is no surety of survival when living in a legitimate manner, people turn to black and grey markets for jobs and creating new businesses. These desperate people, eager to survive amidst this heavy taxation, impossible structures and lack of opportunity will look for alternative forms of lifestyle. Small businesses, second hand technology work under the radars of the government and the major corporations and people employ tax evasive methods to get by. Federal agencies, which now work mostly for the major corporations rather than the state (which is also under pressure from the corporations) become more violent and random in its enforcement practices and might do a lot more damage which they were previously unable to because of jurisdiction. Since, most of the information and the law is under their helm, the corporations can basically know everything about everyone living in these cities and under threat of non-compliance from any individual would lead to severe repercussions. These surveillance methods do not work for the benefit of the people but instead to manipulate and oppress them. Hence, security, education and justice are in the hands of the corporations.
The ultra-rich thus become a completely new species, unseen and out of reach by most people. The aforementioned black markets which now thrive under the radar will be full of second hand technology like powerful guns, surveillance tech, prosthetic body parts and more in cheaper rates with no taxes. Food items which are very expensive in a legitimate market are also available and doctors who can heal gunshots and other wounds suffered from violence on the streets and cannot get treated in a regular hospital make a lot of money here. Cash or barter system works in these markets and weapons dealers, underground doctors, mercenaries, hackers make their living in the shadows of the big moneyed interests and state. Financial inequality is a good way to frame the implementation of prosthetic parts.
This free-market which allows for big corporations to interact and trade with each other without any state intervention leads to the high valuation placed on private property and works as a tool for furthering the interests of the capitalist state. In a projection of the apparent future, it seems well when the forces of supply and demand are free from any state regulation and can work according to the natural flow of things. A government will set tariffs, restrict trade to profit the areas which fall under its local supervision. But, in removing the state from the power to placing these laws, corporations rise which slowly funnel most of state-owned money into their own banks by tax evasive methods, monopolize the regulation of its products in the society and slowly take over the law which would result in incredible economic disparity.
“Cyberpunk offers a vision of a post-national, globalized society where those who know how to manipulate information will come out on top, a vision of the world very recognizable to us today ,” says Dr Anna McFarlane, a cyberpunk scholar at 18 the University of Glasgow.
The people who actually get jobs in the cyberpunk fictional organizations toil away for their entire lives working on some small aspect of production, never knowing what their exact purpose in the bigger picture is. The real-life picture to such a future is already happening with companies like Amazon, Uber and Google taking over most of its counterparts and becoming the only companies in their respective fields to capture the entire market.
Leo Mirani, a journalist writes in her article- “Another distinction, just as telling, lies in the opportunities the local economy affords to the army of on-demand delivery people it supports. In Mumbai, the man who delivers a bottle of rum to my doorstep can learn the ins and outs of the booze business from spending his days in a liquor store. If he scrapes together enough capital, he may one day be able to open his own shop and hire his own delivery boys. His counterpart in San Francisco has no such access. The person who cleans your home in SoMa has little interaction with the mysterious forces behind the app that sends him or her to your door. The Uber driver who wants an audience with management can’t go to Uber headquarters; he or she must visit a separate “driver center.”
There is no denying the seductive nature of convenience—or the cold logic of businesses that create new jobs, whatever quality they may be. But the notion that brilliant young programmers are forging a newfangled “instant gratification” economy is a falsehood. Instead, it is a rerun of the oldest sort of business: middlemen insinuating themselves between buyers and sellers. All that modern technology has done is make it easier, through omnipresent smartphones, to amass a fleet of increasingly desperate jobseekers eager to take whatever work they can get.”19
As state governments are trying their best to make Amazon set up their next office on their soil and Facebook harnesses the capability to spread misinformation about elections and other events, the power of major corporations is already turning out to be incredibly threatening as they horde billions of dollars by mining data from the uninvolved mass for surveillance and customized business.
“The growing inequality that fed those cyberpunk visions is no better. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has repeatedly warned of record levels of inequality, while billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos compete to fill the symbolic role of corporate overlords like Count Zero’s Josef Virek or Altered Carbon’s Laurens Bancroft. Bezos has perhaps been most successful avatar of an economic system that has funneled half the world’s wealth into the hands of its richest 1%. He has amassed a $150bn fortune while his workers toil in Amazon warehouses under the surveillance of security cameras, airport-style checks and scanners, urinating in bottles to avoid punishment from the efficiency-obsessed computer systems that monitor them ” writes Paul 20 Walker-Emig on his article for The Guardian.
The cyberpunk genre has always been concerned with the difference between the haves and the have-nots, especially given its often bleak outlook on the future. In a situation such as this, the oppressed would look beyond their race, caste or culture and huddle together in fear and under the fundamental belief that their vulnerability in face of danger decreases when they have more in strength of numbers.
When the corporations are making the decisions of societal structure, it will impose new cultures, traditions and ways of living which is intricately beneficial to its own profit. A state-run city can also become an autocracy but it will still be needing help from the corporations to further its interests. The corporation thus, will harness more power in any given situation and once it is more powerful than the state, it will act to improve its self-interests. If the corporation sees that marketing to one particular religion would be more beneficiary than the others it’ll lead a propaganda which will make their valued religion as the most important. However, if another corporation sees otherwise, it’ll go to war with the former corporation. In every situation, the financial standing determines the authority of one interest or the other. It forms the base for other distinctions and ways of thinking to come into being and persist. The manufacture of information, of memories and of a promised future renders an individualistic thought immobile in its scope.
And cyberpunk stories show us rebels who rise above this despair and take an active part in understanding where it all went wrong. These people are either consumers of the underground black markets or the working class in corporations who are under the strict eyes of the overlords. And if we refer to the aforementioned examples and the real world is becoming likewise, it must mean that the genre of cyberpunk is more relevant than ever.
Cyberpunk is extremely critical of the dominant system while also harboring the possibility that the tools used to oppress us can be used against the system itself. It brings into focus the injustice of our system and warns us to take stand in face of the dystopia we are suffering in or it will expand through time. It offers us hope. It tells us that even one defiance can start a revolution which might ultimately lead to the toppling of the existent dominating system. But in this day and age, cyberpunk has lost its political standpoint.
Frederic Jameson, states that, “cyberpunk, for all its energies and qualities, can historically be interpreted as science fiction’s doomed attempt at a counteroffensive, and a final effort to reconquer a readership alienated by the difficulties of contemporary science ”.
Cyberpunk, as a style is still around to this day as films like Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Netflix’s Altered Carbon (2018) and upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077 are very popular and continue to garner a lot of attention. But these films and games are only the façade of what cyberpunk used to be. They use cyberpunk as a cultural artifact, as another one of many phenomena which strive only based on retro nostalgia. Cyberpunk today is not so much alive as it is undead. Virtual reality and many other forms of technology that were proposed by cyberpunk have become reality. But they are not as exciting in principle as they are practically designed to be functional so the corporations can benefit from the ease of use and aesthetically bland.
Mark Fisher states, “The actual near future wasn’t about capital stripping off its latex mask and revealing the machinic death’s head beneath; it was just the opposite: new sincerity, Apple computers advertised by kitschy-cutesy pop .”
So, the corporations of the real world were not creating something that the mass would alienate from itself. It was mostly about making the mass feel that these existed from a long time and had been a part of their lives since time immemorial. To tap into their psyche and create advertisements and names for products that were easily identifiable and not something grotesque or new in nature that would cause an estrangement effect for the mass. And that’s the world we live in, all the social problems shown in cyberpunk literature have now accelerated and become more fearsome than ever. The rule of multinational corporations has strengthened and our social ills are worsening. And we do not have the badass aesthetics which we usually find in the clothes, architecture and gadgets of cyberpunk media. Our dystopia of the real world is personified by the boring and functional blue and white interface of Facebook which is a mega corporation trying to gather data from individuals, much in the same vein of corporations seen in cyberpunk.
“Cyberpunk is a genre that said new technologies will colonize our bodies and interpenetrate our lives, like Molly in Neuromancer with her sunglasses literally inset into her face ,” says Adam Roberts, science fiction writer and professor at 23 Royal Holloway. “The reality is that technology has colonized not so much our bodies as our social interactions, with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on – with far-reaching consequences.”
Cyberspace, in the nineties with new and fresh internet for the people provided a good platform to criticize the system. But today, it has completely changed with state and corporations both taking total control over the surface level of internet and their capitalist agendas being used to the fullest extent. If something positive can be found from this, it is that despite being dominated mostly by capital, the internet is a huge platform. So, there are still rebels and movements and ways of thinking that are propagated through the internet, people are made aware of injustice and many hidden crimes come to light. Everyone gets a say on this platform in true democratic style and there is an option for feedback which was not present in earlier devices of television or newspaper, at least not to this extent.
It has led to piracy of media, which has also hurt the economy of corporations. The artists get their due in form of recognition and concert ticket sales, but the album sales are dwindling. It has negative sides as well, which on the surface level is people taking their power of expression on the internet and using it to further malevolent ideals and the spread of misinformation which is a case of ignorance and accelerated ease of sharing amounting to lack of responsibility. A more harmful condition of this is that all facets and levels of it becomes impossible to be overseen by everyone. In true cyberpunk style, there are alleys and dark, underground places on the internet which is completely rampant with illegal activities, illicit transactions, production and consumption of drugs, weapons, electronic products, favors from illegitimate doctors and more. The dark web or the deep web has become synonymous with anyone who wants to go under the radar of surveillance and stay hidden. Unlawful harvesting of organs, buying military hardware, use of exotic drugs, hiring a mercenary becomes possible in this part of the internet The advertisements in neon, the digital signboards, the holographic images were a ubiquitous symbol of cyberpunk cities in films and originally meant to be something pervasive, in our way, not letting us go where we want and making us trapped in consumerism. But in the recent times, since we have had so much cyberpunk aesthetics since the 1980s, the concept of advertisements has changed for people and instead of seeming controlling and pervasive, they look very beautiful and is an iconic aesthetic. The cities of cyberpunk look like a wonderland, waiting to be explored and its secrets unlocked. Compared to those advertisements, the ones we get in real life, the clickbaits which are created especially for us, depending on our browser history, the videos that we have watched on YouTube are more harmful and pervasive, thereby inducing in us a sense of the paranoia that someone is always secretly watching our every move. This ever-penetrating nature of real-life advertisements on the internet make the neon advertisements in cyberpunk cities seem like utopia.
Cyberpunk in film was born in the eighties when it seemed that the future would amount to a Ridley Scott visualization. In the recent years, with the advent of climate change, mass migration, religion induced terrorism, nationalism, fascism; civilization can be on the verge of collapse because of a myriad of other reasons. There are potentially many different factors leading to world ending crisis right now.
A show like Netflix’s Altered Carbon (2018) shows us economic inequality through its science fiction premise. But the quintessential tropes of cyberpunk that it uses as its aesthetic of choice to put forward its viewpoint makes it feel backdated. This aesthetics were the representation of future as it seemed to be foreseeable in the eighties and are certainly not true now.
On the other hand, another show which is Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot (2015) characterizes the new era very well. But it is cyberpunk. Although it has no neon sign ridden cityscape, no flying cars and no prosthetic body parts, the show has the basic theme of economic inequality, an amalgamation of rebels from different cultures coming together to stand up against the system and do justice, with loss of identity and fear of isolation and lunacy and a major evil corporation as its only antagonist. The show delves into the present-day scenario and shows us how the cyberpunk age is already upon us and we live in it completely unaware of its consequences.
The metaphors cyberpunk employed to explore our increasingly intimate relationship with technology, meanwhile, are as apt as ever. Our smartphones function as pseudo-cybernetic attachments, as artificial memory, GPS system, and dopamine deliverer.
This realization of the once-fictional realm of cyberspace has been both a blessing and a curse, just as cyberpunk predicted. It has provided an architecture for liberation, supporting grassroots movements and campaigns that include the #metoo movement and providing a voice of dissent against the ruling political party at any given time. It has also proved to be a tool of domination, a means to harvest our data and manipulate, surveil and profit from us. Nobody has yet imagined a way out of the typical cyberpunk dystopia, however, which is surely a symptom of a creative block. It is no coincidence that cyberpunk came of age in the era where capitalism was moving towards global dominance, culminating in its symbolic triumph at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan spread the idea of neo liberalism, thus delegitimizing any competing concepts and it became the one and only ideal to be followed. The idealistic sci-fi that was the staple till that time was likewise toppled subsequently. The world condition at that point, changed the beliefs of a space-faring human species to a world owned by moneyed interests. This political theme was likewise a demise for idealistic science fiction. We disguised that the framework we live in is the only possible outcome and with that, our creative abilities slowed down, and now we are unfit to think about a future that moves past it.
As a result, cyberpunk is being stripped of any political power it once had. In its formation, the genre was at least intended to portray rampant corporate power and social inequality as vulgar and dangerous. It would be unfair to judge Cyberpunk 2077 before the game is out, but its trailer exemplifies this loss. Hacking: check. Cybernetic enhancements: check. Street crime: check. Punk fashion: check. Urban sprawl: check. These are all just cool cyberpunk symbols, rather than allegorical systems that need to be challenged. This is additionally how the highlights of cyberpunk show in Altered Carbon. Commonplace subjects are there, yet they don’t parse as significant. The possibility of the rich having the option to purchase accepted eternality by reinserting their awareness into new bodies is a helpful reason for a bolted room investigator puzzle, as opposed to a switch for contemplating disparity. Subjects, for example, corporate power and urban desperation become comparable to neon lights or hair color.
“Ironically, the fate of cyberpunk in our current media culture shows us the ways in which the genre’s original pessimistic predictions have come true,” says Christopher Bolton, professor of comparative and Japanese literature at Williams College, on “the copycat cyberpunk” we see today. “We are living in a future where the original, the physical, and the political are increasingly eclipsed, replaced by virtual, mediated realities in which things are copied and re-copied in an endless distorting chain .”
Cyberpunk needs to reconnect with Sci-Fi’s idealistic custom. It has the devices to do as such. Its counterfeit bodies and transferred awareness can work to challenge originations around race, sexuality and sex. The modern-day inspirations from developing grassroots association developments driven by cleaners and sustenance conveyance laborers could become an inspiration. It is disturbing that we are beginning to acknowledge the tragic highlights of cyberpunk as an inescapable piece of our future. The neoliberal milieu, the pot where cyberpunk was shaped, is disintegrating. Cyberpunk’s stasis leaves little space to delineate developing patriotisms, extremisms, political populisms and revived radical developments trying to challenge political and financial conventionality. New potential fates are at last rising. It might be the ideal opportunity for cyberpunk to develop or pass on.