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2002-05-30 16:50:49+00 by Dan Lyke 9 comments

I finished Pat Cadigan's Synners[Wiki] on the bus this morning. Remember cyberpunk? Breathless prose delivered through a half-inch fuel line with no restrictor plates, prose so lean we risked melting our brains with the nitrous? Anyway, I got to thinking about the future that Cadigan and Gibson and Sterling et al imagined. Remember...

...when "the net" was going to spontaneously create intelligence that would help us fight off the encroachment of the conspiracy?
Instead we discovered that when our collective unconscious comes alive the resulting being sits on the couch watching TV and drinking PBR, belching, farting and hollering "m3 t00!!!" any time we try to communicate.
...when Wired was a crude rip-off of Mondo 2000 which was a popularization of the drug-addled Reality Hackers, but that was okay because anyone who actually knew read InterTek?
Then Steve Steinberg went off to work for Wired, and Wired became the next Cosmo, and the only magazine left with any technical insight is Forbes, which used to be derided as a lifestyle rag.
...when patents were going to be about who controlled the PetaBaseT jack into your thoughts?
Now they cover ways we could swing on a swing or calling writev() with a pointer list that changes.
...when piracy was about stealing the plans for that jack and building the devices in your parents basement?
Now it's about going to the bathroom during commercial breaks (original article costs $3), or Finding ways to consume the latest consumer crap before anyone else.
...when rebellion meant breaking into the computers of the megalopoly, finding out that all of the friends you could turn to for help have been "disappeared", being pursued through the underground by agents of the conspiracy?
Today it's giving one super-hyped effects movie a bigger opening weekend than another which happens to be a sequel to one of the worst movies ever that still did $400M, as if opening weekend could possibly be about anything but blindly succumbing to hype.

Now that the punk hero has sold out his band-mates I guess it's fitting that cyberpunk has lost its luster, but damn-it I want technology to be fun and edgy and maybe a little bit dangerous again, rather than just another commodity for the half-wit MBAs to pimp. I want heroes that go beyond the BOFH and Sluggy's Bun-Bun, because taking pleasure in slapping around the incompetent when we're bailing their sorry asses out yet again is just a little too close to reality.

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comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment made: 2002-05-30 19:34:17+00 by: canis [edit history]

this is something that's been hitting me on and off quite a lot over the last couple of years... either i'll be reading a scifi anthology from a few years back, and smile wistfully at the naive predictions for the future, and sigh at how short of them we've fallen... or else, every now and then, something will jump out at me as being somehow "futuristic" -- even though as a lifelong geek and someone who typically knows all about what's going on behind the scenes, i take it for granted, and you probably do too.

things like google -- being able to find the answer to 90% of the day to day questions i have just by typing in a couple of keywords. or the (cheap'n'tacky, but actually quite fun) blink digital camera, which is about 2 inches square and takes 100 640x480 pictures and costs barely more than a few packs of film.

i also have a certain craving for cyberpunk and edgy technology but not in any way i can articulate right at the moment; i mean, cyberpunk is pretty bleak about the future, on the whole, and that's not what i'm attracted to. it's more the aspect of small bands of people recombining scrap parts and putting together weird new tech that's completely unexpected. but i don't know what that actually means in the real world.

sorry, i'm not terribly focused this evening...

#Comment made: 2002-05-30 21:59:02+00 by: Shawn [edit history]

either i'll be reading a scifi anthology from a few years back, and smile wistfully at the naive predictions for the future, and sigh at how short of them we've fallen

I found it really eerie while reading David Brin's Earth to find how accurately he pegged people in the future. The technology may not be entirely accurate (although it's very believable, for the most part) but he seems to have an incredible grasp of the social ramifications and effects of that technology. It was published in 1990 and it's amazing how he predicted the effects a global information network (the Internet) have had on human social interaction.

It's tough to describe. You just have to read it. (It's got a great ending too ;-)

#Comment made: 2002-05-31 17:22:38+00 by: other_todd

I guess the problem is that I was one of the people for whom, despite the generally dark and dystopic themes of most of the Big Cyberpunk Novels, the books usually seemed strangely optimistic. "It's not going to be that simple," I remember thinking a lot, "and it's not going to be nearly that fascinating, and not any fun to speak of."

I mean, in the cyberpunk metaphor, there was room for pirates and heroes to move in the interstices - in the spaces between the crap. I think, in the real world, there usually AREN'T any spaces between the crap. And getting rid of the whole crap paradigm in one way or another is a lot more drudgery than trying to pirate and exploit it, so nobody wants to do it and we all sit on our sofas and take it.

Of course, I'm probably just cranky coming of of this afternoon's screed on what's wrong with advertiser-driven content (see Utopia), so don't mind me.

Nice rant, by the by, Dan.

#Comment made: 2002-05-31 20:45:35+00 by: Dan Lyke

I've been trying to coalesce my thoughts on the concept of punk versus the reality of punk. In hanging around with Dylan, and a little less so with Julie, I've realized that I'm a middle class kid with a Waldorf school upbringing: some of the idea of punk is attractive, the aesthetic and the reality of punk aren't.

When Nigel Williamson says punk's importance has been hugely exaggerated, I find myself saying "You don't get it, the Sex Pistols[Wiki] were supposed to suck! Malcolm McLaren was the genius of that group". Yet when I can puzzle out the lyrics of a punk song, and discover that they're saying something cool, I'm usually wishing that some folk/country cross-over act or Grateful Dead[Wiki] tribute band would do a cover so I could actually listen to it.

(Yes, Dylan (if you're still around), I'll go do some pennance for that statement. Don't know what, yet.) (And I think Jackson Pollock was a con-<ahem>artist, and I admire him for that.)

I think that the optimism in cyberpunk, and even in punk, comes from the idea that even in those conditions there is freedom, and perhaps not just freedom but release and joy. Which is why I find the loss of cyberpunk so depressing: nothing binds like self-administered ties, and the masses don't want freedom, don't want to be saved.

Maybe I'll be more coherent when I'm not waiting for mind-numbing perl scripts to run.

#Comment made: 2002-06-01 04:38:03+00 by: TheSHAD0W

Yeah. Instead of falling into a cyberpunk universe, we're falling into a post-cyberpunk universe -- and at a technology level below where most SF writers predicted. I recommend Neal Stephenson's "Diamond Age" as a great post-cyberpunk novel.

Post-cyberpunk, FYI, is an era where technology does wonderful things, but nearly no one understands how the technology works any more.

#Comment made: 2002-06-01 14:38:59+00 by: canis [edit history]

To my mind, post-cyberpunk isn't about who understands what; after all, how many people in c'punk understand the technology? A fairly tiny percentage. Most people sit home watching soaps on TV (a universal constant ;P ). As far as technology is concerned, it has become more pervasive and less visible -- as all technology tends to do over time. So where c'punk tech tends to involve blocks of metal and carbon fibre with jack leads plugged in all over, post-c'punk tech tends to just be a seamless part of normal life, eg "smart paper". So the same number of people actually understand the tech, but more people make everyday use of it in post-c'punk.

Besides, "technology does wonderful things, but nearly no one understands how the technology works" is decidedly pre-Cyberpunk in a classic Clarkian "sufficiently advanced technology" sort of way.

I tend to think the difference is more about morality; c'punk characters (tho not the novels they inhabit) are frequently amoral and driven by a very 80s self-interest. Post c'punk characters seem to be more troubled by conscience, and social issues. Sterling's "Bicycle Repairman" being a very funny example, and of course, TDA too. Both still bring in classic c'punk issues such as media, networking and "intersticial" communities, but rework them in a more human light.

Anyway. Enough pseudo-literary-crit. Bicycle Repairman can bring us back to the subject at hand...

Interstices seem to be one of the key apects of cpunk that appeal to me, but they are fragile by definition. Sterling takes this head-on in BR:

"This is just a kind of social breathing space. The whole urban infrastructure's dreadfully overplanned hre in Chattanooga. There's been too much money here too long. There's been no room for spontaneity. It was choking the life out of the city. That's why everyone was secretly overjoyed when the rioters set fire to these three floors."

Mabel shrugged. "The insurance took care of the damage. First the looters came in. Then there wer a few hideouts for kids and crooks and illegal aliens. Then the permanent squats got set up. Then the artist's studios, and the semilegal workshops and redlight places. Then the quaint little coffeehouses, then the bakeries. Pretty soon the offices of professionals will be filtering in, and they'll restore the water and the wiring. Once that happens, the real-estate prices will kick in big-time, and the whole zone will transmute right back into gentryville. It happens all the time."

[...] "As long as you've got naive young people with plenty of energy who can be suckered into living inside rotten, hazardous dumps for nothing, in exchange for imagining they're free from oversight, then it all works out just great in the long run."

(That last para sounding suspiciously like my student years in a shitty-ass crumbling "house" with about 5 flatmates, that was actually a part of the factory next door that made -- we suspected -- counterfeit designer label clothing)

In a way, part of me suspects that, as Dan is perhaps suggesting, we're just a) beyond the stage of our lives where we're happy living in rotten, hazardous dumps, and having to come to terms with the restrictions this imposes, and b) bemoaning the inevitable gentrification of the spaces we inhabit.

So on to my next question: Are these things inevitable and intertwined? Can we have interstices without shit? Can we keep the vitality in the face of the commercial and (related, but more worrying) legal colonisation of the net?

(and as for myself, maybe I'm reading more into this than is actually there due to the fact that, when I got the job I currently hold, I had to move to the most expensive town in the whole country. That's not a frustrated exaggeration on my part, by the way, it's a quote from news report :P )

I guess in a way this is at the heart of my loathing for the media dinosaurs and their recent attacks; the net still has interstices, and net.pioneers have pointed to its architecture as proof that it always will do. But, widespread international lawmaking could mandate changes in that architecture. Assuming, and I do, that the rediculous CBDTPA will not get passed (can you say "stalking horse"?) it still seems highly likely that some kind of "compromise" legislation will go through with similar restrictions, but "just" applies to, oh, say, routers. Goodnight, and thanks for playing.

At least you 'merkins have a Constitution to fall back on, and some thoroughly outspoken civil liberties groups; over here, such groups seem to be viewed as either lunatic fringes or some kind of inconsequential minority interest group, the RSPCA (our equiv. of the PETA) probably commands more respect, and definately more recognition, from most people, and as a result, we already have ludicrously Orwellian* legislation in place.

Oh well. Maybe some kind of grassroots self-organising wireless network will come along and create a new interstice to save us all. ;-P

Hmm. That ended up being more rant than I intended for a quiet Saturday afternoon...

* I hate referencing Orwell, actually, it's so overused it always feels like some variation on Godwin's Law at work, but never mind: it's true all the same.

#Comment made: 2002-06-02 16:56:06+00 by: Jack William Bell [edit history]

I used to haunt the alt.cyberpunk.* newsgroups a lot. Sometimes the discussions there could actually be interesting, especially about cyberpunk as a literary form. But it seemed like someone would post a 'Cyberpunk is dead' or 'Is Cyberpunk dead' article at least once a week. Finally, back in December of 1998 I posted my own (rather well written, even if I do say so myself) screed on the subject, titled "New, from Disney, Cyberpunks on Ice!", and thanks to the wonder of Google you can read it today.

The main point I tried to make was that Cyberpunk as a 'movement' was no different than any other movement. That it had a definate lifecycle which could be tracked by the incorporation of its memes into society at large. And, that it was probably on the downside of that lifecycle. However I also point out that the Cyberpunk movement did have some of the hallmarks of the kind of movement which tended to resist that cultural absorbtion and become more perennial. However the original post in this thread may well be right: Cyberpunk is useful for selling cars and for movie settings and not much else anymore. Sad in a way...

Jack William Bell

#Comment made: 2002-06-02 23:20:58+00 by: meuon

In doing some reading about the 'Perv/S&M/DOM:sub' movements, they say exactly the the same thing, except they add 'Rock Concerts' - The media can make the extreme seem so blaise.

#Comment made: 2002-06-04 21:53:20+00 by: Dan Lyke

Jack, that's well worth a read. Thanks. And your observations tie in with my stroll down Melrose avenue on Sunday evening; punk has been commodified and turned into a product, subversive is buying your clothes from one of the Wastelandtm brand outlets, where someone dressed in "punk" clothing will be happy to help you, smiling sweetly all the while. The larger society takes the portions of the culture it can merchandise, subverting the message back to its own myth, and the promoters of the original ideal look around, see that the greater society has adopted the trappings, and yet the attitudes have been co-opted, and feel disenchanted with change.

It kinda ties back to my confusion about the symbolism of that Hard Rock Hotel ad.