A New Cyberpunk Manifesto: A Rhapsodist Editorial
Posted on June 12, 2012
Author’s Note: I know I’ve reviewed a lot of cyberpunk works on this site, so it was inevitable I’d get into an examination of the genre and its future at some point. I’ll try not to editorialize too much and get back to my usual sometimes sweet, sometimes snarky reviews as soon as possible.
It’s not 1984 anymore.
Corporations exist, but so does the Internet. The Soviet Union gave way to the Russian Mafiya and Vladimir Putin. The Arab World is in revolt and China is rising up alongside the US as a rival (state capitalism with no conscience). Fuel and energy sources are becoming precious. Climate and environmental change has to be addressed. Data access and media scrutiny are more widespread than ever before.
So what kind of literature can we expect in this era? The cyberpunk of Gibson’s time focused on rapid technological change with no positive change in society. The rich got richer, the poor kept getting screwed, and computer hackers were overtaking old-school mobsters as the hot new criminal occupation. Transhumanism became just another fad instead of the answer to all of humanity’s problems. What defined these stories was a sense of alienation, which was understandable if you were an author who’d just lived through the bleak Seventies.
But what about today? Are we still as alienated as the original cyberpunks felt and wrote?
In a way, it could be argued that, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and certainly cyberpunk is a response to that adage. Despite the proliferation of the World Wide Web and greater global exchange, we remain a fragmented and hostile world. Terrorism has overtaken Communism as the new grim specter, with religious extremists and insurgencies rapidly gaining ground through the Web and mobile technology. Scandals are more common occurrences thanks to carelessness with digital technology, along with increased scrutiny by both mainstream and alternative media groups. The news media itself has become more fragmented thanks to the rise of cable news networks and online journalism, as it becomes more profitable to pander to niche audiences than to garner a larger viewership.
We live in an era of fear. An era where everything happens fast. S/he who posts first and frequently gets to determine the course of the conversation. We also live in an era of commentary. There is almost nothing in the common media that can be taken objectively now. Everything deserves a comment from the audience, which may or may not devolve into yet another bitter Internet argument if the subject under discussion is even remotely controversial.
We live in a world that speaks up more than it used to. Protest movements can be organized within an hour in any place across the globe. Backlash against a movie, TV show, book, political campaign, or other product can be far more immediate and devastating. Good PR is critical in business.
On the other hand…
It’s easier to check up on your facts now. It’s easier to talk, make friends, and do business with people in other countries now. It’s easier to make your work known with the right amounts of online views and/or viral marketing. It’s easier to get your message or your product out, no matter how much money you have or how “traditional” your industry is.
The world is becoming more democratic. Corporations may still be insanely powerful and unchecked, yet consumers can band together and make their displeasure known fast. Political leaders may still be tossing out lies and deceiving voters, but there are plenty of sites dedicated to checking their claims and analyzing legislation from the moment of inception. We’re still cynical, but we also get passionate about causes and having a global perspective means we can more easily learn and care about stopping dictators in Sudan or backing protests in China.
The truth is struggling to make itself known, but it still has a chance–and that should be the rallying cry of the New Cyberpunk. Not “the truth shall set you free,” but “You must set the truth free.” Recognize the face behind the online avatar. Examine the lie within the celebrity’s statement. Call out your leaders and neighbors when they bear false witness. Truthful testimony could be the new currency. We can tell a lot about ourselves through Twitter and YouTube. We can learn a lot about each other from online journalism and Wikipedia.
Perhaps the characters of the New Cyberpunk must finally forego all claims of privacy in the World Wide Web. They must walk their own Via Dolorosa, accepting a crown of thorns from Internet trolls and being crucified for every inflammatory comment or false claim they make, however accidental it might be. Because once they learn to handle the emotional rollercoaster, they can conquer the fear and the fragmentation. They can conquer the little death of privacy and begin a new ministry: the work of upholding human interests and rights on the digital frontier. They’re gunslingers who become sheriffs (or rather, admins), helping tame the Wild Web one online forum at a time. They stand up for the right to share the truth of oneself, even if it means censure and shame. They will express themselves as they see fit, even if they have to put up with the idiocy and malice of their neighbors for the same reasons.
The antagonists of New Cyberpunk stories are not just corporations and criminal syndicates. The true antagonist is despair–the inability to comprehend what power we literally have at our fingertips, but spend only for the purposes of keeping ourselves occupied and entertained. It’s despair that drives people to become terrorists and trolls, to subvert rather than create, to become famous by being outrageous rather than inspiring. To counter despair, the new heroes must bring hope. To counter lies and fragmentation, the new heroes must bring truth and fellowship. The only monsters are the ones we create for ourselves. We don’t need swords to cut them down. We just need to plant a seed of truth and give it the chance to grow.
In retrospect, this isn’t really a manifesto or an attempt to speak on behalf of a movement. It’s just one writer’s opinion, trying to speak truth the only way he knows.
Alex Willging's "A New Cyberpunk Manifesto: A Rhapsodist Editorial" outlines the present conditions from which new cyberpunk literature is written. Willging argues that new cyberpunk literature must account for the dissolution of digital privacy altogether, as well as the relation of negative affect to the production of everyday life.
June 12, 2012