Cyberpunk and the Future of Technology


For people who adore Norman Rockwell art, Reader’s Digest and mayonnaise, John Naisbitt’s best-selling “Megatrends 2000” offers tantalizing insights into the future. People who prefer to shock their neurons with obscure ethnic cuisines and Mapplethorpe photography are better off reading cyberpunk--a genre that completely redefines the ecology of technology and the technology of ecology.

Cyberpunk is science fiction with an attitude; glossily dystopian visions of pop cultures dissolving in the sleaze of their own technologies. Characters “jack on” to global networks of computer-generated artificial realities; technology isn’t a creation of a scientifically trained elite but of disillusioned masses and greedy entrepreneurs groping for new media to get high. “The street finds its own uses for things” is a cyberpunk motto. Crack is a cyberpunk-like phenomena.

“Certain central themes spring up repeatedly in cyberpunk,” notes Bruce Sterling, the Texas-based cyberpunk polemicist who edited the popular “Mirrorshades” anthology. “The theme of body invasion: prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, genetic alteration. The even more powerful theme of mind invasion: brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, neurochemistry--techniques radically redefining the nature of humanity, the nature of self.”


These themes are crammed into densely intricate prose that creates, in Sterling’s metaphor, “the literary equivalent of the hard-rock ‘wall of sound’ ” designed to pummel the reader with imagery that alternately stimulates the imagination and depresses the spirit. Picture a Tom Clancy embittered by the technology about which he now rhapsodizes and amplify the intensity of that prose a few thousand volts and you have a glimmer of what the cyberpunk genre is like.

But scrape through the layers of metaphor and post-Modern posturing by the cyberpunks (they’re called “Techno-Goths” in England) and you find some jaggedly profound insights--the sort of insights that Naisbittesque futurists don’t see and can’t grasp.

In cyberpunk, human beings are analog machines of flesh and neurochemicals that can be engineered, edited and transformed into fleshy nodes on cyberspace networks. People meld into the machinery. By contrast, the machinery--the networks, computers and gloomily engineered urban landscapes--are eerily organic. They are almost living things. They’re the “natural” environment. They recall the line from Buckminster Fuller--who was anything but a cynical cyberpunk--that “ natural is whatever nature allows.”

Cyberpunk takes Fuller’s definition of nature right to the edge and beyond. In cyberpunk worlds, the lines between “natural” and “artificial” become arbitrary to the point of meaningless. Technology isn’t something distinct from the environment or a part of the environment--the technology is the environment; it’s every bit as “natural” as a blade of grass or a drop of (acid) rain.

Is a human being less “natural” because he or she wears eyeglasses or needs to be hooked up to a dialysis machine? Are farms more “natural” than cities--or is the technique of agriculture itself an unnatural act? Psychotropic drugs and infectious diseases are “natural,” aren’t they?

If a city depends on freeways and automobiles to provide for its citizens, are automobiles a natural or unnatural technology? When we talk about “The Environment” and “The Ecology,” do we mean a pre-Industrial Age kind of ecology, or do we mean an environment robust enough to cope with both the benefits and excesses of technology?

Unlike most contemporary fiction, the cyberpunk genre cynically reminds us that our notions of environment and ecology are purely arbitrary and fantastical; the word “natural” has been leeched of any real meaning. We live in a world where we seem to define “natural” as the absence of technology. But, as William Gibson, widely considered the father of the cyberpunk movement, says, “Where can you go today in the world where the environment isn’t affected by human technology? . . . The bill is coming due on that first hundred years of industrialization.”

The irony, of course, is that building things is what we do. Man is often described as homo faber --man the toolmaker. It’s as natural for us to make tools as it is for birds to sing and plankton to recycle oxygen. We can’t help it.

The idea that Nature pristine is what’s ecologically “correct” and that man is the ruthless despoiler of once-vibrant ecosystems is sheer lunacy. Quite frankly, the societies on this earth that lack technology seem to endure life rather than enjoy it. These societies may be more ecologically “correct” than Los Angeles or Des Moines--but so what? Our technologies are a part of the ecosystem. The question is, what kind of part do we want them to play?

The Exxon Valdez “Shucks, folks, it was an accident. Sorry about that--will you take a check?” attitude is disgusting. It displays contempt for the very idea of ecological balance. But does the Valdez disaster mean that society is inherently wrong to consume fossil fuels? Greenpeace and EarthFirst! might say yes. I would say no. The idea that we’re evolving into a post-industrial agrarian economy where we stay home and chew our cuds and telecommute via our personal computers is bonkers.

Events such as Earth Day and all the assorted hoopla beg some very fundamental questions: Is the “environmental movement” dedicated toward a more intelligent, more rational approach to management of waste products? Or is it a lifestyle movement that seeks to radically alter consumption? Or is it an anti-technology movement that wants to eliminate the pace of technical change? Or is it less a question of ecology than geopolitics--a struggle between Northern wealth and Southern poverty?

“Ecology is about to become a political commodity,” says cyberpunker Sterling, who points out that much of the movement is “preservationist and conservationist; there’s a siege mentality. The battle has to be taken to the enemy, which is the urban environments with their slabs of concrete and toxin production.”

In other words, break up the cities. No thank you. My view is as apolitical as possible: We should avoid making a mess and quickly clean up when we do. The irony here, as Gibson and Sterling point out, is that we need technology to measure, track and clean up the messes that other technologies make.

No matter which way we turn--be it greenhouse effect management, solar and geothermal energy generation or a new era of biodegradables/recyclables--we are going to be in a shotgun marriage with technology. The cyberpunks paint worlds where that marriage is as hellishly oppressive as anything a post-Modern Dante could conjure up. But, in the real world, shotgun marriages don’t have to be unhappy or end in divorce.

Environmentalists have to grit their teeth and learn to accept that human technology is as natural as snowfall in the mountains. Technologists have to understand that, unlike a generation ago, they can’t escape the messes that they have helped create--so they better prevent them or do a far better job of cleaning them up. Things will still get worse before they get better. But they will get better.