Cyberpunk Week on Tor.com

Optimism and Access: The Line Between Cyberpunk and Post-Cyberpunk

Calling Infomocracy a post-cyberpunk novel wasn’t my idea.

I’m happy with the “cyberpunk” part. Infomocracy owes a huge debt to cyberpunk novels (not the least being compared to Snowcrash on its front-cover blurb). When I started writing it I was thinking very consciously about the cyberpunk aesthetic: smooth, capable characters who can pull off some fairly glamorous intrigue but then turn around and show you their gritty, imperfect underbelly as well; a combination of virtual and physical action; a tone with an element of darkness but also a tendency to wink at self-awareness. Also katanas. (In retrospect I don’t really understand how katanas fit into cyberpunk, but they do seem common there, and since I spent two years studying iaido in Japan, I was quite happy to use them.) The characters and the story quickly took over the writing process and went their own way, but I’m grateful for that initial glossy impetus.

I’m less thrilled with the “post,” mostly because I hate to admit that cyberpunk could be over.

Nevertheless, the world has changed. Cyber is now an intrinsic part of our lives in ways that build off of, parallel, and contradict what was imagined in the early days of the genre. Looking up the etymology of the word cyberpunk I found this gem: “Cyber is such a perfect prefix. Because nobody has any idea what it means, it can be grafted onto any old word to make it seem new, cool — and therefore strange, spooky. [New York magazine, Dec. 23, 1996]” We do seem to be past that point. Snapchat (or whatever else I’m missing) may be the realm of the cool kids (emphasis on kids) but “cyber” is no longer new, cool, or spooky any more than television is.

On the other hand cyber is not over, and certainly not fixed into a static form. Technology, including virtual technology, is still evolving, and with it our social structures. We design new interfaces to meet our interactional needs, and the way we interact changes to adapt to those interfaces. The unforeseen rise and fall of various internet-based behemoths has shown us that the future of cyberspace is almost as uncertain as it was before cyberspace existed. If anything, shifts and quirks—mutations, if you will—in that evolution are happening ever faster, as the underlying infrastructure—both technical and in terms of early adopters—expands. We still have room and license to imagine wondrous, disastrous, fascinating future forms of the cyberworld.

So if we are not post-cyber but no longer pre-cyber, what do we do about the punk part? It’s even harder to give that up, because to be honest that’s what appealed to me in the aesthetic I was talking about earlier. It’s not a coincidence that ___punk has caught on, attaching itself to numerous subgenres. “Punk” suggests (because it has drifted far from its original meaning) characters with an edge, both in the sense of being hard and in the sense of being a little ahead of the game. Punk is both rebellion and cool knowingness, anger and action. There’s an intimation of young outsiders using their combination of grit and technical skills to battle against the overwhelming balance of a society ranged against them.

While that society is often depicted as dark and corrupted by technology or corporatism, it is not an irredeemable, unrelieved dystopia. As William Gibson says “Dystopia is as much an absolute as Utopia—neither can exist.” Another way of putting it is to point out that all the dripping awnings and flickering fluorescent lights and overpopulated cities and over-advertised spaces and corporate malfeasance and queasy human-technological melding do exist, most of them already in real life and the rest in proposed projects awaiting funding or technical breakthroughs. (Gibson hints at this in the same interview when he says “The Sprawl was a vision of a big, bad metropolis, but when I wrote Neuromancer in the early Eighties I took it for granted that there were people all over the world who would have migrated to it at a moment’s notice and would have been much better off for it.”) It is the punk protagonists and the power they wield—not the cyber (or steam, or diesel, or silk) backgrounds—that let us happily challenge our suspension of disbelief.

So while some draw the line between cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk as a shift from dystopia to, if not utopia, at least a more positive approach, I can’t agree with the first part of the premise. To me, the difference lies more in the degree to which the given technology has mainstreamed, the difficulty of our hero punks maintaining their edge. Yes, we still have hackers in today’s world, and they perform derring-do for good and evil and at various stages in between. But more and more we see the wild frontier of the hacker, the virtual world, being tamed and landscaped in ways that let corporations exploit the power of the technology: data gathering on users for targeted ads; search algorithms that privilege certain results and render others invisible; control over certain kinds of speech and an unwillingness to tackle others. As the paradigm shift fades and the new status quo becomes more entrenched it may look less dark and more normal, but it’s getting harder for a cyberninja to overturn.

There are hints of this already in, for example, Snowcrash, where the hackers are taking jobs with big companies and its getting harder and harder to find jobs that don’t require selling out; one of the key resolutions (I hope this is a reminder for everyone and not a spoiler; it’s a fairly minor plot point, but if you haven’t read the book go read it now and then come back to this) is Hiro figuring out a way to turn his skills into a decent living he can earn working for himself.

From this perspective I would call Infomocracy meso-cyberpunk, or maybe late-meso-cyberpunk (snappy, no? we can stick with post-cyberpunk for the blurbs). The main characters struggle for their independence and fight for a better world, from within giant bureaucracies and scrappy up-and-coming governments and protest movements. The world order they struggle with has been in place for a couple of decades already, and its institutions have found ways to turn its attempts at democracy, participation, and accountability to their advantage:

In the first election, Information leadership was naïve and idealistic. They thought that providing data about each candidate government would be enough for people to make informed, more-or-less-sensible choices.

Our heroes are young but not that young, and they have skills and dreams but also cynicism and supervisors. Technology has made the world better in some ways and worse in others, and there’s an uneasy sense of fighting desperately for tiny changes that may be mere band-aids that reinforce existing, unequal power structures. One of the key tensions is whether to pursue these incremental improvements or to burn it all down, as the heroes of cyberpunk past often did or tried to do. But in this later world, that path seems both more difficult to accomplish and fraught with its own dangers. Fears of destroying a fragile peace compete with concern over corruption and resurgent nationalism, and there’s no guarantee what would come next. Our protagonists wrestle with the compromises of the current system and the violent unknowns of outright revolution.

And yet, these spies and anarchists and political strategists have hope.

And katanas.

infomocracy-thumbnailMalka Older is a writer, humanitarian worker, and Ph.D. candidate at the Centre de Sociologie des Organisations studying governance and disasters. Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more than eight years of experience in humanitarian aid and development, and has responded to complex emergencies and natural disasters in Uganda, Darfur, Indonesia, Japan, and Mali. Infomocracy is her first novel.

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