Notes on the Cyberpunk Moment

The following is an elaboration of the remarks I made to open the USC Cyberpunk: Past and Future conference. I was speaking from notes, but I have developed those notes a bit more, by popular demand.

For the past twenty plus years, I have been lucky enough to be able to teach courses on science fiction, first at MIT (where science fiction is the literature of choice for faculty and students alike) and now at USC (where geeks are hunted for sport.) I called the most recent version of this course, “Science Fiction AS Media Theory,” which suggests something of the way that I approach the genre.

Too often, the mainstream media treat science fiction as a kind of prophecy, reminding us of those limited number of examples where ideas described in science fiction novels — from the credit card in Looking Backward to the communication satellite in Arthur C. Clarke “came true.” But, I’ve always felt this was the wrong way to think about the kinds of cultural work that science fiction does. Science fiction is less prophecy than intervention: I think of it as kind of popular theory — a way of authors inciting thought in their readers about changes they are observing in their technological and cultural environment, a means of encouraging reflection and if possible, inspiring us to make a different kind of future as we think things through together.

From the start, science fiction’s visions of the future have been bound up with ideas about changes in the media and communication landscape, going back to Hugo Gernsback, often cited as the father of the American science fiction genre, who was a major advocate for amateur radio. In that sense, I want to focus on the ways that the Cyberpunk Moment (basically, the 1980s and early 1990s) can be seen as contributing to some of the core conversations people of that era were having in regard to media and cultural changes brought about by the introduction of new media technologies. Speaking about the Cyberpunk moment ignores the reality that ideas from these writers were not simply of their moment but their influence has now stretched decades beyond their introduction and still matter in terms of how we make sense of the world around us.

The time spans of science fiction shortened across the 20th century, so that the present moment has finally caught up with science fiction. We might go from early science fiction novels which spanned thousands, millions (or to mimic Carl Sagan, “billions and billions”) of years in the future to Max Headroom‘s “20 Minutes in the Future” or William Gibson’s famous claim that “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Given how much Cyberpunks’ near future imagination has shaped our understanding to the present, I titled my blog post announcing this event, “the future started ten minutes ago and you are already late to the party.” Indeed, for anyone who has not engaged with key cyberpunk works, such as the Mirrorshades anthology, Neuromancer, The Shaper/Mechanist books, the Ware series,  Max Headroom, and so much more, you are now some 30 years late and counting.

One of the many reasons why the introduction of Cyberpunk sparked such shock waves through science fiction fandom was a shifted relationship to technology — from the monumental engineering accomplishments which inspired the “sense of wonder” in early generations of writers to the focus on the everyday forms of technology that might have seemed futuristic to past generations but were already starting to be taken for granted by people living in the last decades of the 20th century. Bruce Sterling explains in the Preface to Mirrorshades, in what has been described as the key manifesto of the cyberpunk movement:

“[For early generations of science fiction writers and readers} Science was safely enshrined — and confined — in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control. For the cyberpunks, by stark contrast, technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins: it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds. Technology itself has changed. Not for us the giant steam-snorting wonders of the past: the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the nuclear Power plant. Eighties tech sticks to the skin, responds to the touch: the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens.”


Sterling identifies some of the central themes of the early cyberpunk moment — “body invasion, prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, genetic alternation. The even more powerful theme of mind invasion: brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, neurochemistry — techniques radically redefining the nature of humanity, the nature of the self.” Add to this notions of gender swapping or designer drugs, also part of how cyberpunk writers imagined a world where we hacked biology, hacked chemistry, hacked psychology, and fundamentally changed who we are or what we thought we thought we were as human beings.

Frederic Jameson read cyberpunk through the lens of postmodernism, arguing that science fiction writers had lost the capacity to imagine a future radically different from the present.  He saw Bladerunner, often cited as a key influence on Cyberpunk, as the exemplar of a new kind of science fiction which was a pastiche of the past, and the cyberpunks often messed around with the past: Rudy Rucker’s contribution to Mirrorshades offered further adventures of Harry Houdini and Sterling and Shiner gave us “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” No wonder that Sterling and Gibson helped to inform Steampunk through their novel, The Difference Engine, or Neil Stephenson gave us neo-victorianism in The Diamond Age.

But I’ve always thought that Jameson was wrong, that cyberpunk’s focus on the near future had nothing to do with an inability to imagine radical difference in the future, but we did not have to go very far into the future to experience radical difference.  The technological changes which were hitting American society were so transformative that we needed our best writers and thinkers to help us make sense of what was happening right then and now. We were in the midst of one of the few great revolutions in human communication capacity. We might point to the shift from orality to literacy, the rise of the printing press, the explosion of modern mass media, and the digital revolution as each in their own way representing major moments of transformation and transition in the media landscape.

And Cyberpunk provided us with the best set of metaphors through which to make sense of the  digital revolution. It is no accident that Gibson’s term, “Cyberspace,” or for that matter, Neil Stephenson’s “Metaverse,” were among the terms to emerge during the 1980s that stuck, that helped us to understand what we were entering into as more and more of us gained access to personal networked computing as a mundane, yes, “intimate” aspect of our everyday lives.

We might see Cyberpunk as involved in a second core transition in the nature of science fiction — from a focus on science and engineering at its technocratic origins to a focus on social sciences and political philosophy in the 1960s and beyond to a focus on popular culture, subcultures, and digital media, in the 1980s. In his Mirrorshades manifesto, Sterling talks about carrying the tools of extrapolation into the realm of everyday life, but everyday life  — the nature of human interactions — was only rarely part of the focus of earlier forms of Science fiction, which was far better at anticipating and debating technological shifts than their impact on our  lives.

At the same time, we might trace science fiction’s movement from a kind of realist (or at least rationalist) speculation in its origins to modernist experimentation in the Dangerous Vision era to this new focus on sensual immersion in the 1980s Cyberpunk movement. Sterling and others compared the descriptive qualities of Cyberpunk to the wall of sound in rock music — something that engulfs and overwhelms us.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, The Birmingham School of cultural studies had described the process of subcultural appropriation and identity formation as driving many forms of contemporary culture and the Cyberpunks took this idea further speculating on future subcultures with various forms of body modifications — Stephenson’s “Gargoyles,” Cadigan’s “Synners,” Shirley’s “glo-worms”, Tom Maddox’s “Snake-Eyes,”  among many others, each seeking to set themselves off from others through the ways they constructed and performed their identities.

The cyberpunks told us to pay attention to the interzones, the liminal spaces where different cultures crossed paths, struggled with each other, and sometimes formed uneasy alliances. Mary Louise Pratt, writing at the same moment, in anthropology, spoke about the arts of the “contact zone,” and describes the arts of the Contact Zone as “autoethnography, transculturation, critique, collaboration, bilingualism, mediation, parody, denuciation, imaginary dialogue, vernacular expression.”  The hybrid texts of cyberpunk illustrated many of these genres in practice.

William Gibson warned us of the semiotic ghosts we might encounter at the place’s where yesterday’s tomorrows meet today’s tomorrows, where pop culture traces across our landscape leave us janus-faced, looking backwards and forwards at the same time, and thus tripping over our shoes. And Gibson reminded us that “The street has its own uses for things”, focusing attention  on bottom-up process of appropriation, remixing, hacking, making, and making do. The old SF hero was the inventor, the scientist, the astronaut, each of which had become by the 1950s, establishment figures bound up with Ike’s Military Industrial complex and Don Draper’s “Mad Men,” both the focus of science fiction parodies in the 1950s by Henry Kutner or Pohl and Kornbluth. The Cyberpunk protagonist was the hacker, the rocker, the cowboy, figures of resistance, rebellion, and independence, each acting on behalf of and from a location of the streets. The Cyberpunk imagination was unambiguously urban and this is one reason why its iconography has been taken up around the world by a range of different minority groups who wanted to speak about their own experiences living within and struggling to survive on the mean streets of the global urban landscape.

What made cyberpunk “punk” was the process of stripping encrusted genre conventions away, going back to the roots, tapping into the raw energy of the genre in its purest forms, and then trying in the process to create new kinds of emotional experiences — the kind of body horror, say, we associate with cyberpunk’s darkest currents. Sterling compared this emerging style of science fiction with punk rock, which makes sense, given the aesthetic and affective shock it was creating at that same cultural moment. Punk and New Wave were what gave the 1980s their particular “structure of feeling.”  And we can think about how groups like Devo, the Police, the Talking Heads or the B-52s might be read as contributing to the cyberpunk movement.

But, today, we might also see cyberpunk as working in parallel with the musical experimentation at the street level which would give rise to hip hop culture. Hip Hop is the other cultural movement of the 1980s which has had the most lasting impact on contemporary culture.And Sterling makes a passing reference to “scratch” music (and the technological manipulation of turntables) in the Mirrorshades manifesto.

Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture has described the ways that the “whole earth movement” and other counter-culture movements of the 1960s informed the early development of digital culture, and we can see these influences via Cyberpunk’s reliance on Rock’N’roll metaphors of the open acknowledgement by writers such as Rudy Rucker on the ways they were informed and influenced by the underground comics and Gonzo journalism of the 1960s. We can see these influences come full circle in something like the Transmetropolitan comic book series, where Spider Jerusalem represents a Hunter S. Thompson figure trying to survive in a cyberpunk realm.

This exploration of popular culture carries over to the language with which the cyberpunks wrote, which often included  extensive use of slang — both real and invented, arcane argots and terms borrowed from Russian or Japanese.  Such writing posed challenges to readers. Cyberpunk dropped the kind of framing devices — the man from our times who awakens in the future, the astronaut who finds himself on an alien world — which helped to bridge between our reality and the imagined alternative. Instead, we are plunged into the heart of a dense fictional world and expected to find our own way. We spend the first few pages lost, overwhelmed by details, unable to sort through the pieces, and then, we start to swim in a more fully realized future than science fiction writers had ever offered us before.

Cyberpunk also relied heavily on a conception of society which was multicultural and at least transnational, if not global. We started to see signs that the American Century was ending, that other cultural forces were starting to reassert themselves and would be more of a presence in the near-term future. We see different cultures bumping up against each other. We see Asian cultures, especially the Japanese, asserting a controlling influence on the world — thus the persistence of the Yakuza and the Triad in cyberpunk. Gibson talks about the Rastafarians; Sterling paid more and more attention to Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of communism.  And Pat Cadigan pushed us even deeper into Japanese culture.  There are surprisingly few aliens in Cyberpunk given the history of science fiction as a genre — with difference created through ethnic and subcultural difference, people living beside each other yet coming from different worlds, rather than close encounters of the first, second or third kind.

Alongside the Yakuza, the other destructive force at play in these stories was the multinational conglomerate — the company so large that it can no longer be contained within national borders, which exerts a power  beyond the capacities of governments, that shapes our desires through media manipulations so profoundly that we lose the capacity for democratic self-governance. In Wild Palms, for example, we see the merger of alternative religious movements, such as the Church of Scientology; alternative media practices, such as virtual reality; alternative economic structures, such as horizontally integrated conglomerates; and alternative political structures, including both a world where corporate funding dictates political power and one where libertarian activists challenge centralization.

We might see these conflicts as struggles between the Networks (that is, mass media networks) and the network (that is, the digital networks, where the hacker has the upper hand, where the rebel can plug in, tap information, spread alternative messages, connect with alternative communities, and otherwise, disrupt the flow, block the signal, jam the culture.)  Here, cyberpunk existed alongside real world cultural politics movements, anticipating culture jammers and adjusters, inspiring the anti-globalization movement, and now more recently, the Occupy and Arab Spring movements around the world. Again, the cyberpunks did not simply predict these developments — they helped to create them through their inventions in cultural politics, by providing us with the conceptual tools by which we might theorize the changes taking place around us.

Sterling described Cyberpunk as embodying “the overlapping of worlds that were formally separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop underground.”  and Cyberpunk as a cultural influence has been able to surf the waves which surface where-ever those worlds meet.

Despite the best efforts of its core writers to keep creative experimentation alive, the cyberpunk moment became codified into a narrative formula, which has shaped a much broader range of cultural works. Cyberpunk became a set of themes, which have been explored through a range of different means, but which still shape in many ways important strands of contemporary science fiction across all media. And it has been a stylistic influence, a kind of sensibility, which spread rapidly to film, television, comics, music, fashion, and computer games.

To take a simple and familiar example, the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, represented the insertion of a cyberpunk body-machine hybrid into the middle of our culture’s longest running technological utopian fiction, just to see how they would react to each other. In many ways, it is like a reversal of the confrontation Gibson described in “The Gernsback Continuum” where people from the present watch the fading of the inhabitants of the World of Tomorrow we recognize from Amazing Stories, Things to Come, and the 1939 World’s Fair.

And these ideas and images have traveled through inter zones and along contact zones, so cyberpunk’s influence on, say, Japanese manga and anime has been profound and the same could be said on the ways cyberpunk is informing the imaginations of people in Brazil or Eastern Europe,  South Africa or India, who are undergoing rapid technological, cultural, and political changes that resembles in many ways the contrasts and inequalities that Cyberpunk writers foregrounded in their work. And beyond its influence on other artists, writers and readers, cyberpunk, like other science fiction before it,  shaped the imagination of the next generation of designers, entrepreneurs, researchers, artists, and programmers. I can’t tell you how many people at MIT told me they were trying to design and program something that first captured their imagination via a cyberpunk narrative. But, what gets lost in the process is the sense of ambivalence and critique which gave Cyberpunk its edge. It is as if a generation of biologists were inspired by Mary Shelley to go out and reanimate corpses, not because it was a good idea, but because they think it would be cool to enact something from their favorite book.

Our focus today is in understanding the legacies of Cyberpunk not simply as a literary movement but as a movement across media. Our schedule progresses from a panel with some founding figures, already working in a range of different contexts, who helped to define the cyberpunk moment; then we will hear from the next generation — contemporary artists from a range of different media and entertainment fields, who are engaging with, pushing against, working within cyberpunk influences. Then you have a choice between immersing yourself in a series of screenings designed to explore media representations of cyberpunk themes, especially those having to do with the minding between machine and body, or participating in brainstorming sessions, where you can work alongside other creators and storytellers  in thinking about how the cyberpunk genre conventions might be updated to reflect today’s digital media and popular culture. At the end of the day, we will come back together to share what we created and to hear a final rant from Bruce Sterling, who is perhaps the grand master of this distinctive form of spoken word performance.