Why the Cyberpunk Aesthetic and Its Predictions Didn't Get Anything Wrong
Present day has finally caught up with cyberpunk. According to Blade Runner, Harrison Ford should be spending 2019 running through the streets of Los Angeles hunting replicants and accidentally unpacking what it means to be human. We should also start playing Atari game systems, drive flying cars, and whatever else the media finds amusing as it mistakes Ridley Scott's film adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for a corporate Christmas catalog.
I knew it was coming; after all, the media had the same jollies with Back to the Future's inaccurate portrayal of an over-the-top future which is now our mundane present. Unlike Back to the Future, however, Blade Runner and cyberpunk in general is about more than just selling popcorn and guessing what will be chic attire for schoolyard bullies.
Also: Blade Runner depicts Harrison Ford as being 40, but in the real year 2019 he is 76.
The reason this is interesting, however, is that since cyberpunk is a whole sub-genre of science fiction that kicked off around roughly the same time, we find ourselves calling into question the relevance and accuracy of cyberpunk as a whole. Blade Runner the first of many films and novels which will find their year soon approaching, and it's coinciding with a reawakening.
Cyberpunk is enjoying a renaissance that, at the current rate, may well surpass its origins in scope. The decades-late sequel to Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, divided critics but reaffirmed the genre’s art film capabilities, if there were any doubts. The Netflix original series Altered Carbon, itself based on a 2002 novel of the same title, has also split opinions (including mine) but further thrust cyberpunk into the mainstream.
Perhaps the most successful entry will be one that hasn’t even been released yet: the upcoming open-world CD Projekt RED video game, Cyberpunk 2077. It is likely to be experienced by millions, immersing players in a nihilistic world of chimeric, post-government corporations propagating an unknowable reality and a vending machine-dispensed unreality. Though we don’t even have a Cyberpunk 2077 release date as of this writing, it’s likely to be the most influential contribution to contemporary cyberpunk yet, actively engaging and evolving for the foreseeable next half-decade with countless in-game narratives. And in case you were wondering, yes: Cyberpunk 2077 has catapulted to grandeur from its own existing source, a tabletop game. The demand for cyberpunk is outpacing production.
While these entries feature a decidedly cyberpunk ethos, the cyberpunk aesthetic has gained even greater traction. It seems no matter where you turn, the neon lightshow, as saccharine as it is gothic, has been wallpapered onto everything. There is something about the cyberpunk aesthetic that speaks to the soul. Like a Jackson Pollock painting, its beauty resides somewhere between complete accident and serious, market-researched intent. After all, the beauty of cyberpunk is in the chaos of cyberpunk; the chaos of cyberpunk emerges when every inch of space is commercialized, vying desperately for the eye's focus.
Can you find the ramen bar in this picture?
This brazen overload of capitalistic marketing should be visually repulsive, but it's not in practice. Why would it? Every fragment is designed to appeal. The cityscape is a zero-sum game. Nothing stands out but the brilliance, the pure substance of appeal.
The easily accessible aesthetic of cyberpunk is not enough to satiate the masses. Second cousins of cyberpunk, such as vaporwave and outrun, grew from separate tendencies, but find space in the same public consciousness.
For the uninitiated, vaporwave is a nebulous concept best described as a half-satirical, half-mesmerized recycling of 90s capitalism and pop culture. Vaporwave blends such disparate elements as audio loops of smooth jazz and UI elements of Windows 95, a sort of Dadaist recycling of corporate junk. Pitchfork aptly explains it as residing in “the uncanny genre valley.” In other words, it utilizes disposable, has-been memories of this corporate culture to create a sort-of culture of its own. Is it a real genre? Neither being too serious or too cheeky is the point. It’s an exercise in putting a ghost in the machine of corporate scrapheaps.
The line between art, satire, and just screwing around is intentionally ambiguous in vaporwave, as typified by Windows 93, an interactive alternate-reality version of Windows.
Meanwhile, outrun, named after the 1986 Sega arcade game Out Run, is a more aesthetically-driven and less philosophically ambitious, but self-aware, trek into retro iconography and sound. Outrun is a deeply nostalgic indulgence of 80s and 90s darkly-themed but brightly-lit media. Whereas vaporewave’s fascination with its roots feels like a cathartic embrace of corporate Stockholm syndrome, outrun is more gentle. It’s like hosting a synthwave dance party with a bring-your-own-pogs mandate.
Vaporwave and outrun have formed a sort of synergistic relationship with cyberpunk, strengthening the popularity of each other. To the uninformed, they may even be indistinguishable. The kaleidoscopic development of sub-sub-subgenres flickering in and out of reality like moths around a neon storefront is a feature of the modern age, and it only compounds this phenomenon. (Seapunk? Nerdcore?)
This design by Reddit user u/Kammorne perfectly sums up outrun; as of yet, gorgeous design and no requisite depth per se is standard in outrun
The consequence is that, despite heavy tropes and on-the-nose philosophical musings, cyberpunk has been receiving substantial criticism of late for being shallow and refusing to grow up. The undead rainbow of cyberpunk cities never manifested, let alone cybernetic enhancements, so is it time to re-envision the future?
The media seems to think so. The Guardian recently wrote that cyberpunk refuses to move on from its vision of neon and corporate dystopias. Gizmodo agrees, declaring that “classic cyberpunk tropes have outlived their welcome.” Meanwhile, older movies, books, and shows have been reexamined through the lens of cyberpunk for their themes and attitudes, reinforcing the idea that the classic cyberpunk aesthetic is outdated and cliché. Christopher Nolan’s Inception, for example, is now being considered by some as a great work of cyberpunk fiction despite no such whispers at the time, and a decidedly apolitical plot.
I think this is dangerous territory for fans of, and contributors to, the cyberpunk genre. Arguing in favor of Inception being “the second-greatest cyberpunk film ever made,” Charles Mudede has written that “cyberpunk … has been weakly political,” because “corporations, not states, are its key players,” making Inception a natural fit, as in Nolan’s films it is not revealed “how the hero … might vote.” In short, Nolan does not indulge politics and instead focuses on characters with whom conservatives “can easily fit the Platonic forms of their one-dimensional political imaginary into the motives and decisions and flaws of his generic humans.”
Oh, is that why this is a thing?
To be fair, Mudede may well be aware that the absence of politics in cyberpunk is often intended to be a criticism of the capitalist scaffolding that has re-purposed and ultimately aims to displace government institutions. I also won’t argue that Inception and many other works of fiction utilize cyberpunk tropes. That is the mark of cyberpunk’s unsung influence, which unfortunately blew up with the not-very-representative Matrix trilogy and thereafter began a long hibernation alongside other overly-abused descendants of punk, such as goth culture.
In part, this is because the post-9/11 world attempted to return to a literal and immediately tangible reality. Who could forget Time Magazine declaring September 11, 2001 as the end of the age of irony? Obviously, that did not pan out, and the struggle to make sense of our absurd and increasingly complex world has prompted far more ironic and surrealist media than ever. But fantastical visions of the future were quickly branded as irrelevant, and Hollywood's ineptitude with portraying even contemporary technology certainly didn't help.
But that's a whole other topic ...
So we exist at an odd time, where we find ourselves relating to cyberpunk and wanting a renaissance, yet reexamining the past and redefining it to, in theory, build a better and more accurate platform for the sub-genre going forward. That's not a bad thing, necessarily.
But before we go off the deep end declaring anything that has impersonal urban landscapes, dehumanizing/augmenting technology, or questionable protagonists cyberpunk, much less the-x-best cyberpunk anything, I think it’s useful to take a step back. Are the cyberpunk tropes and aesthetics really so troublesome and tired that they warrant retirement? Should cyberpunk, as a concept, be sufficiently broadened to ensure its longevity?
I think it’s wrong to suggest that cyberpunk somehow didn’t accurately predict a future of neon landscapes. First, as William Gibson famously explained when asked why his early work was set in Japan, “Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk.” It’s easy to forget that there is a world beyond The Sprawl, because cyberpunk’s corporate espionage and pulpy narratives would make little sense in a manicured suburb of Washington, D.C. Many areas of the world have existed for decades in a Blade Runner reality, such that an Instagram account by that very name documents sightings more cyberpunk than cyberpunk itself.
Though this trippy reflection shot looks like it's a scene from the original Ghost In The Shell, it's a photo from Hong Kong
The problem here isn’t that the cyberpunk aesthetic was wrong, but that its setting is a place much of the world cannot relate to. But not experiencing something does not make it unreal. The greater criticism in my eyes isn’t that the neon sea hasn’t manifested everywhere, but that everywhere else has been insufficiently represented in cyberpunk worlds.
No, there aren’t spinners—the floating cars in Blade Runner. But whether it’s realized or not, we exist in the dawning age of autonomous vehicles that will soon displace 3.5 million truck drivers alone, nevermind the armies of cab drivers, bus drivers, and delivery vehicle drivers. Focusing on the aesthetic of cyberpunk misses the spirit of it.
Parts of Toronto are so flashy they look more like Tron than Blade Runner
Advancements in artificial intelligence may seem sluggish, but that’s only because we’ve become accustomed to its fast pace of progress. In reality, we’ve already seen brick-and-mortar retailers be displaced by Amazon, which is not a case of just one company dominating an industry, but literally Amazon’s transformative technology outpacing its competition. Naturally, this has resulted in jobs lost, but that’s just the beginning as the remaining retailers gear up to fight back, threatening the loss of 10% of the available jobs (that is, all retail jobs) to machines. Retail automation is likely to become a $20 billion industry in under half a decade.
Retail is just the beginning. Greg Creed, CEO of Yum Brands (owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, and others) claims that by “probably by the mid ‘20s … [we’ll] see a dramatic change in … how machines run the world.” Investors have taken notice of the fact that CEOs are investing huge amounts of cash in replacing humans with machines in everything from making tacos to providing healthcare—hell, they’ve been using robo advisers to make trades for years—and are themselves infusing billions into the race, which will only bring the future here faster. But a transition won’t take long: the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development asserted in March 2018 that 14% of white color jobs across the spectrum of industries are already “highly automatable.”
"I prefer real people. I would miss the human interaction." Pictured: two minutes later.
All of these things could and should be a reason for celebration. The point of technology is to alleviate work. As we automate more and more things, we have the ability to transform the concept of work into something completely different, to liberate humans from manual and mental labor and into a new age of creativity and discovery. But without control over industry, rather than liberation, we find ourselves competing more fiercely for the remaining scraps of work while the rich hoard ever larger sums of money.
Why is all of this important? I suggest that, rather than focus on what cyberpunk may have gotten wrong—which is an aesthetic that exists in many metropolitan areas but not the suburbs and not-yet-gentrified urban hellscapes in which many find themselves—the focus should instead be on what cyberpunk got right and how to expand and modernize that message to address contemporary issues faced by a wider audience.
The issues cyberpunk responded to in its early years, and extrapolated into the future, have not changed. It has always been clear in cyberpunk fiction that the masses are poor, are largely uneducated, survive through a self-education in rudimentary skills and street business, and are addicted to an array of easily-available vices. They have no genuine autonomy, because they cannot afford to stray from their holding patterns to explore the wrecked environment beyond, much less the often-deployed trope of off-world colonies for the rich. The populace is perpetually floating between highs, remembering nothing but the present as they rifle through trash and fight and fuck and dance and play video games.
While an unskilled, opiate-addicted workforce struggles to find jobs in today’s economy, the political jingoism of the Trump era offers the same tired “solutions” in the form of jobs that won’t come (or last long when they do), and moral wars against drugs that cannot be won because drug abuse is not a moral issue. As Americans and global citizens allow corporations into their homes to listen in on their conversations and control every device in their home, and drown themselves in the saturation of cheap entertainment culture, drugs, and other forms of ineffective escapism—set against a backdrop of an increasingly polluted, melting, and wildlife-absent world—cyberpunk has been more accurate than ever in its predictions.
Our political landscape is no better. Cyberpunk is criticized for its lack of political focus, yet it's difficult to discern any such focus in present day. While our times are polarized, and there are gasps for air in the form of renewed interest in socialism, the political theater is just that.
A decade after the last recession, Goldman Sachs alums masquerade as government officials, writing financial policy and stripping the protections enacted to prevent history repeating, to an extent that we are worse off than we were before. A majority of federal contractors—companies like General Motors, Boeing, Siemens, and others in the military-industrial complex and telecommunications—have received billions from the government and redirected it to outsourced workers for the enrichment of their corporate blood. Nowhere is the dichotomy between purpose and practice more stark than at the EPA, which has taken a wrecking ball to common sense protections, poisoning our air and water.
Human lives are nothing compared to these savings.
If you think I’m blaming Republicans, think again. In my view, there is no distinguishing between a Democratic Party full of neoliberals and a Republican Party full of neoliberals. For every Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, there are fifty so-called liberals who consider serious reform a mistake. Media outlets, naturally, are more than eager to share their enthusiastic rebuttal of any economic overhauls that would even brush against their profitability.
My point is that, for all the hand-wringing and passionate appeals, politics is non-existent in our world, insofar as it has been reduced to an assembly line for corporate profit and sustainability. Yes, there are social gains whenever Democrats are in control, but they are incidental freedoms, the thinnest ice of a platform for politicians to spread across a corporate stage. A sober look at the practical influence politics has in our daily lives reveals that the checks-and-balances which government is supposed to exert over corporations is as soft as a cold vaporwave synth pad. In a sense, this reality is almost more cyberpunk—instead of an inconspicuous absence of politics, we have the long-dead hologram of it.
Pictured: a financial, software, data, and media company. Oh, and a human candidate for president.
It took a while to get there, sure, and times are still changing. But the election of Trump opened the floodgates. Whether we're talking about Oprah or The Rock in the media-sphere or Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg in the business-sphere, the new expectation is that having accumulated vast amounts of wealth and celebrity means that you are fit to be the most powerful person on Earth. That the position may require human qualities outside of successful attention-seeking and financial savvy and/or luck is irrelevant.
Cyberpunk got nothing wrong, unless you’re the type of reader who believes 1984 was wrong because you’re busy overlooking routine data breaches, XKeyscore, and drone strikes in a search for an agency formally titled “Thought Police.”
The NSA's typography is shockingly close to the Hackers poster. Just saying.
It's not that the aesthetic or future predictions of cyberpunk were wrong. It's that cyberpunk has largely focused on city life and the exploits of future-capitalist madmen. It's also largely focused on men and white people, and people who deeply understand technology and are able to re-purpose it into something else to scrap out a living. Rarely do we see what has become of rural areas, suburbs, or regions beyond hyper-capitalist American cities and Tokyo.
In part, this is the publishing industry's fault, which has emphasized white male authors not just in science fiction but also areas of fiction. It's also due to the climate of science fiction at the dawn of cyberpunk, which was only beginning to shift from a more utopian and hard-science narrative structure.
We live in a time now where not only are we able to weaken some demographic barriers, but plenty of examples, such as Netflix's Black Mirror, illustrate that there's an audience for human-centric science fiction. Cyberpunk has plenty of room to grow and flourish, providing answers to modern problems and alternatives to our rigged economic systems. The future of cyberpunk, however, should be less crowded with homogeneous voices.
It's time to listen to how capitalist abuse of transformative technologies is affecting the entire world. Along the way, we can still revel in the gorgeous cityscapes when they do appear. There's nothing wrong with the traditional aesthetic, but it's only representative of a portion of the world where many of the decisions are made, and not where all of the effects are felt. Focusing on cyberpunk's supposed miscalculations shifts the real issue away from representation.
With a plurality of voices, we can not only better understand how to navigate the future, but perhaps find a better way forward that allows us to bathe in the same fetishized futuristic bliss without all the negative consequences.
After all, there's nothing wrong with having a neon city. It's the fact that those cities are built on a destroyed planet and the broken backs of the poor. That fact has been invisible for too long both in our reality and cyberpunk fiction.
To quote William Gibson: The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed.
With that in mind, I will also be doing my part and hope to share in the coming months a number of new voices in fiction from around the world.