Cyberpunk Without Punk

The bin lorry passes me and commands in a BBC newsreader’s dulcet tone to ‘stand well clear, vehicle reversing.’ It is 2017 and a bin lorry is telling me what to do. Other citizens have told me they have seen the lorries out-and-about. Other lorries have voice warnings too, so no surprises: talking bin lorries are real. But at the time, the insistent bin lorry struck me as a sure sign that the future had finally arrived. It wasn’t a rubbish idea; a voice warning, well, works. Still, the future looked ugly and sounded incessant and smelt like workaday filth and sci-fi dystopia. These lorries often carry video adverts that reiterate the abundant opportunities to consume lifestyle choices, whilst those lifestyle choices befoul our environment and endanger most other life through laying gratuitous waste onto the earth. Such as the 35bn tonnes of cumulative plastic due for manufacture to meet 2050’s demand.

The bin lorry had wheeled into my peripheral vision and my mind, much as the vocal vehicle in Blade Runner had trundled into shot beside Harrison Ford back in 1982, commanding pedestrians to STAND CLEAR-STAND CLEAR-STAND CLEAR. Concept art-to-setting prop-to-workaday bin collection. What a peculiar encounter; life does imitate art after all. Engineers do glean many ideas from science fiction. The cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (1992) for example first used ‘the metaverse’ to mean augmented reality, wearables, smartphones, and e-currencies comprising a rival reality, an everywhere-internet which Mark Zuckerberg, Meta CEO, proclaimed we all need back in 2021. Jeff Bezos is a big Snow Crash fan as well, as he admires its prescience. Neuromancer (1984) brought The Matrix, a rival cyber-reality, into the colloquial lexicon, fifteen years before the dark glasses, dark coats, and dark attitudes of the movie which bears The Matrix name. Neuromancer’s author, William Gibson, walked out on a Blade Runner screening for fear it would influence his incipient novel too much. Artificial Intelligence (AI) researchers aim to realise an auspicious AI under the influence of Star Trek’s computer. There is, therefore, two-way traffic between ideas and tech, art and engineering.

Real-life Shibuya, Tokyo, or a fake?
Imaginary Los Angeles in Blade Runner (1982)

Inspiration from our ideas informs our tech, and our tech informs our ideas. But what are the ideas and tech saying? It’s questionable what the messages mean. Cyberpunk, a sci-fi subgenre, in particular, seems to bear the same messages, as it conveyed in 1982: the future still looks bleak, 40 years on. Cyberpunk’s varied instantiations show us this. From Altered Carbon to Blade Runner 2049, from Ready Player One to Love, Death, and Robots, and the aptly-named video game Cyberpunk 2077 the same devices manifest like a Netflix producer’s checklist. 

The check-list goes something like this:

  • Boundless cityscapes
  • Neon streets
  • Punk fashion
  • Sexy-lead stars
  • Love
  • Death
  • Robots
  • Low-lifes and high-techs
  • Have-lots and have-nots
  • Devalued bodies
  • AI intimacy
  • Gratuitous violence
  • Indifferent corporate power
  • Paid-for relationships
  • Paid-for sex
  • Sexuality-paired-with-violence
  • Black markets
  • Rich men who rule the world
  • 1940s’ hardboiled noir characters’ stifled feelings
  • Truth seeking detectives’ teleology
  • Sexualised women
  • Ubiquitous absence of real plants and real animals
  • Ubiquitous absence of old-world architecture
  • Consciousness transfer through mind-as-software metaphor
  • Unsustainable dichotomy between natural and artificial
  • Unanswerable questions about ‘what it means to be human’
  • Ambiguity about the world beyond The Big City

. . .

And lest we forget more banal recycled motifs, such as appearances:

Pris Blade Runner (1982)
Misty Cyberpunk 2077 (2021)

And cityscapes too:

Altered Carbon (2017)

Ghost in the Shell (2019)

The Cyberpunk genre, thereby, has had its constituent parts self-replicate like the meglamonical genes Richard Dawkins, the eminent biologist, is enamoured with. Rather than being for the utilitarian sake of their creators, society, or audience, some cyberpunk memes have a life of their own, beyond the designs of their carriers or political ulterior motives. Cyberpunk is an aesthetic bereft of content, a style with diminishing returns on its substance. 

This, in itself, is interesting, because we are typically trained to approach movies and artworks, like detectives, looking for answers to questions such as what is the director trying to say, or what does it mean? Cyberpunk makes a mockery of that neverending re-analysis. Rather than intelligently designed, many memes—contagious ideas or motifs—in cyberpunk belong to their genre and recur for their own sake. Misty looks like Pris because that is what a cyberpunk woman looks like; the genre is ironically self-referential and recombinant in its adaptations. No message or ulterior design warrants her aesthetic; the aesthetic warrants itself. The actress does not own her likeness nor the costume designer her creations—the genre does. The genre has become consumed by what it once criticised.

A neon cityscape, for another aesthetic instance, has no voice or statement-on-the-world; it is a world; some motifs win-out in the survival of the most aesthetic, because they do by happenstance have advantage, rather than because of grand-purposes or moral-messages. The absence of detail in cityscapes is an advantage, because a grand façade invites viewers to graft their own world onto the foreground, and fill in the gaps left open by suggestive absence, rather than exhaustive, world-building detail. A lack of content can be a competitive advantage. 

Blade Runner’s cityscapes began as condemnation of unbridled market power and corporate greed, but has ended in the celebration of corporate vibrancy and novelty—who owned, and owns the land, in either cityscape above never enters the picture because cyberpunk in its aesthetic success has lost its ethical justification, and in its marketist embrace has lost its punk beliefs but retained its symbols (a meaningless choker for example around Pris’s and Misty’s necks). As Paul Walker Emrig writes, cyberpunk has had “subjects such as corporate power and urban destitution become equivalent to neon lights or hair dye”. It’s all just for show.

No one owns the land in the cityscape, because everyone does, which is to say corporations and governments do. Public-goods like access to nature and breathing space have slid away to meet the demand for living quarters and employment which trump all other values—where are the green parks and subsidised clinics in the cyberpunk cityscape? Nowhere, they are history. So naturalised has late-capitalism become that the cyberpunk aesthetic is beyond reproach in assuming hierarchy (a few rule the many) and scarcity (the many compete for scarce resources) to be the quintessential future Silicon Valley and the Chinese Communist Party are concocting for us.

Think of the sci-fi-become-real-sci examples. Low-lifes living on the street whilst mega-rich tycoons look down on them from the penthouse suites (Tyrell in his tower or Bezos in his estate); ultra-rich tycoons plotting adventures off-world with the chosen few (Bancroft or Musk); techno-salvationists saving us from climate collapse and food insecurity (Wallace or Gates?). Think of the automated robot jobs and automated vehicles in glitzy neighbourhoods alongside wastelands populated with child slaves sorting through abundant rubbish: think about the 14.3million labour slaves today, reported by the International Labour Organisation, for the United Nations. And remember the homeless brigands marvelling at the horrendous tech which flies above them: think about shell strikes and autonomous killer drones

Literally in Blade Runner 2049, technology brings death upon the mere masses—through eye-wearables paired with satellite comms—all without the hassle of leaving the home-office. Disquietingly, this is reminiscent of precision missile strikes such as Trump’s in 2020 which killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani from the comfort zone of the Oval Office (more accurately, The Situation Room for such an occasion). Or the precision strikes which, through the miracle of technology, allow soldiers to repeatedly kill to maximise targets and minimise guilt.

A blatant shot showing the difference between aesthetics and ethics. Beautiful Luv is evil and able to commission kills while having her nails re-engineered.

Cyberpunk as a genre deploys motifs for non-political ends, namely entertainment and edification. But that does not follow that it has no political ramifications, which exactly because of their pretence to an ‘apolitical’ or aesthetic stance betrays a certain quiescent politics. As Pierre Bourdieu once asserted, “the most successful ideological effects are those which have no need for words, and ask no more than complicitous silence”. The social silences in Blade Runner, and many cyberpunk creations, include:

  1. Technological determinism
  2. Rentier capitalism
  3. Malthusian selection

This article endeavours to help give voice to those social silences. 


Cyberpunk embraces a disruptive determinist view of technology

Tech upgrades are inevitable and good. Rather than politics or negotiation, the tech world releases inventions into the world, and consumers must accept their products and ramifications lest they become irrelevant or, worse, outdated like a 2010 phone. The techno-genius of a Tyrell creates robots that enable extraction of material across the Milky Way. The techno-genius of Wallace innovates his way out of reliance on the earth’s gifts for sustenance, and women for procreation. Like a genie from a bottle, once out, tech can never go back again: replicants, genetic engineering, and sex robots are as inevitable as urban spraw eating away the vestiges of rural past and small, tender, communities are replaced by atomised individuals able to network virtually across time and space. Despite K’s commander’s wishes to uphold a wall between human and replicant, order and chaos, such a premise rests on the idea that one copy of a replicating replicant, the child, would collapse that wall inevitably and irrevocably, a Promethean spark engulfing the world in flames. 

As Luv asserts whilst she crushes madam’s hand around her whiskey-glass:

You tiny thing. In the face of the fabulous new your only thought is to kill it. For fear of great change. You can’t hold the tide with a broom.


Cyberpunk assumes rentier capitalism

The ultra-rich become rich because the companies they own, in turn, own the intellectual property and technologies which makes a cyber-city, a cyber-city. In this view, labour is disposable and value emanates from devices and the God-like powers vested in the bodies which own them—corp-orations. Doing away with the little-people is part-and-parcel of the project, since only the enfranchised can afford the products; the remainder are left to their own, outdated, devices. There is an eerie marriage between state-power and corporate-power which divides the cyberpunk-world-pie between them, leaving room only for others to have value extracted from them in their repeated use of anodynes, such as Joi, a virtual companion designed to meet (contrived) hetero-user-needs down to the finest details.

The social relations without a market, are replaced by market products which in turn, and in a perverse logic, exacerbates the need for such products and evermore mediated experience. Joi is designable like a game character—customisable—and upgradable—and disposable. Products like Joi are the ultimate pacifier against collective action since family relations are severed entirely for entities like K and Joi who have no family household to rival, let alone question, corp or state. None the less, the value assumed in rentier capitalism still depends on renters, common people—and is its major paradox in devaluing them—despite the view that tech owners create the value that is only insofar as there is demand from users who value their offerings or concessions. As Terry Eagleton writes in his acerbic polemic, Why Marx Was Right: rent lords are to renters what detectives are to criminals. Although they are premised on an adversarial basis, winners-and-losers, they actually depend on each other, in a dialectic, for their very existence. 

What in the economic system is often devalued—like agriculture—actually has the most objective value in sustaining life. (Early economic thinkers get bad press for believing all value derives from the land: all value does however depend on a groundtruth of land’s outputs and affordances: no food, no factories, no Iphones, nothing.) Wallace Corp has monopolised this value substrate in owning and designing the protein farms. As Sapper, the soon-to-be-retired farmer at the film’s outset says, “This is a protein farm. Wallace design.” Life itself is disposable in service of capitalism, rather than, as economics aspires, capitalism being for the welfare of people. This is evident in Wallace’s wearables eyes, enabling him to birth and kill a naked (‘replicant’) woman with disgusting impunity and farewell-kiss perversity. The reproductive value of women and life is treated not as sacred in this, but as a commodity which rich men can create or dispose of at their leisure. As Silvia Federici, a feminist historian, presaged in Beyond the Periphery of The Skin. By these lights, evolution itself is defined in the old-school misunderstood way, as cut-throat conflict rather than its actual, and abundant, instances of mutualism and co-operation. It is not survival of the fittest, but the survival of the fit-enough and the environmentally compatible. (Among other selectors.) This is a reading of evolution in keeping with many women scientists’ more open minded contributions to understanding human relationships as people together, rather than a multitude of economicus-man, men bargaining their way through life.


Cyberpunk assumes Spencerian selection.

Thomas Malthus predicted a world where the hungry compete for sustenance, just as sharks compete for fish: as there come to be too many sharks then there are fewer fish to go around, thus sharks die until the fish and shark level are in equilibrium again. He thought the same for famines: too many people plus too little crop equals famine. Malthus thought humanity was getting too big for its boots: that the number of mouths would outnumber the food available. Malthus inspired Darwin and there is a Darwinian logic behind the survival-of-the-fittest which Herber Spencer, another Victorian luminary, coined. However, the artificial selection of traits within humanity—and beyond—assumes a Spencerian, or eugenic, evolution where superior beings are to inherit the earth. Prettier, faster, stronger, and happier beings—what Nieander Wallce calls angels—are made to inherit the earth and the solar system. K and Madam, however, work to prevent that because the instrumentation of reproducing replicants could lead to either rebellions or permanent Wallacian rule, and the affrontive ousting of humans as the self-elected apex of evolution. 

As Niendar Wallace asserts:

We make Angels. In service of Civilization. There were bad angels once… I make good angels now. Like you, Luv. God saw a bad batch and, rash and cranky, scrapped the whole project. We are not so short sighted. Just because some fell…

These sentiments are insane, yet BladeRunner 2049 boasts a loyal audience, perhaps partially because such insanities are the ricochets of prophetic proclamations from rich titans, be it the Bezos, the Zuckerberg, or the Musk instantiation. The politics are so crass, and the aesthetic so commanding in cyberpunk, however, that any discussion of politics, to most, seems superfluous. Never the less, exactly because of that, its tacit politics is fascinating. Ridley Scott, the director of Blade Runner 1982, scoffed that 2049 was “far too fucking long”, but its capacious run-time allowed room to explore its real-world implications. 

The Spencerian competition between beings and companies is forthright in the 2049 set-design, for example, in a way which builds on its 1982 forebear. Wallace corp headquarters triumphs above Tyrell corp buildings which are now outdated and inadequate, much like the old replicants and the old ways are outdated and inadequate—to be dominated, surpassed, overcome.

At least in Niendar Wallace’s outsizedly influential, and technofascist, vision 

Wallace Corp Overshadows Tyrell Corp, Blade Runner 2049

But how does that techno-fascist bent sit well with the cinema audience? It doesn’t always, both Blade Runners were financial flops, repackaged in more profitable forms like Altered Carbon and Ready Player One. Art, in Blade Runner, takes a particularly extreme example of power to make a point about power in general: technological extremes play-out in the everyday, which is open, and sometimes foreclosed, to negotiation. 

Real-world technologies from the speed bump to the dating-app delegate responsibilities and prescribe action from corp and state onto citizens. The speed bump forces you to slow down or face recoil pain, and its very existence prescribes (and describes) a world where meeting speed goals is non-negotiable, a predetermined (social) fact. The second tech, the date app, classifies you as a metric compatible with other metrics partitioned by characteristics—like radius, gender, orientation, age. Audiences and citizens alike more-or-less realise this. 

They like to see that delegation—the prescriptions written into tech—laid bare in the cinema. Cyberpunk offers up such naked technoism; audiences can recognise incipient dystopias all around them, and they love to see it play nicely on the Big Screen too. As Tyrell condescends to Deckard: “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell”; but commerce is a side-show to more ambitious designs. Commerce is sometimes an ulterior motive, despite being readily accepted as a justification onto-itself, much like new tech so often is. (Every progression has its regressions to thank. . .) Rather than inert, inexorable, or promethean, however, tech and commerce emerge from co-authors—society, corporation, and state. And it is clear who has more say—seldom is it ‘the people’ who are celebrated in national constitutions, but instead the whats—the states, the corps—which dominates the cityscape, and delimits the horizon of future possibilities. As the social theorist Joseph Campbell wrly wrote: “If you want to understand what’s most important to a society, don’t examine its art or literature, simply look at its biggest buildings.” What d’you see?

London’s Financial District, Canary Wharf

We should consider just why cyberpunk looks the way it does today, as we are drawing close to the conclusion, The checklist at the near-start boasts features common to cyberpunk movies, stories, games, and comics—such as high techs and low lifes, have-lots and have-nots, sexualising men and sexualised women. And people love to see those tropes, little genre devices, feature again-and-again for it meets the sweet spot between unfamiliar and alienating on the one hand and overfamiliar and droll on the other. But the genre is awfully static, too inward looking. I am all for homage, and the honouring of great aesthetic feats like Blade Runner (1982) and Ghost In The Shell (1995). Blatant imitation is blatant flattery. 

However, the genre has lost its way, with the punk anti establishment messages falling down to who can turn a tidy profit for Tinseltown; with Hollywood being its own portrait painter, that which appears on canvas—well, the big screen—is bound to flatter, placate, and, too often, recapitulate a fatalist political landscape where winners win and losers win because that is the way of the world. (For a meta example, consider that despite both Blade Runners being cinematic triumphs they are lambasted as failures due to their financial losses.) Blade Runner 2049 at least upholds a grassroots proleterate led by women-replicants whose humanist values amount to more than market prices.

The Noir writer, Raymond Chandler, celebrated the programmatic nature of the-detective-story genre. It has predictable devices, such as murder and investigation. While some checkboxes are necessary (can you think of a detective story without a crime?), simple inversions, refutations, and exploration of techniques is fertiliser enough for detective stories to stand the test of the time and reach grand heights. That pertains to cyberpunk too. Its style can be beautiful, but its content as crude as detective fiction’s can be. A genre should be more than enamoured with its own reflection. Especially when it takes the limelight away from the human, which cyberpunk predicates itself on shedding light upon.

One self-same iteration after another. Photographer: Sandro Katalina

Cyberpunk has an escapist narcissism bound by the overbearing glares of its exquisite neon forebears—shining new light onto society’s darker depths would be more illuminating, entertaining, and edifying than the infinite regress into prismatic colours, high tech and lowlife squalor. Consider a few examples. 

Whereas high techs dominate, have a world where low-lifes dominate instead and technology is demoted in importance; instead of an ineluctable urban sprawl or relentless globalsim, imagine a senate or democratic assembly, enabled through technologies. Where men sexualise women, envision a world where women sexualise men at such ubiquity, or more interestingly to my mind, sexuality is a curiosity in a staid cybernetic, post sex, world. Where corporations dominate the cityscape, imagine cityscapes with citizens or state buildings towering above the others to reveal reverted social priorities. Allow history in where the past is murky. Allow social units beyond the coupled or individual, like Decard and K, Rachael and Deckard, K and Joi, to play a meaningful role. . . Possibilities abound. There is so much more scope to explore, though, such as relationships between mother and daughter and post-body-consciousness as detailed in the short film, Venus, soon to be a motion picture. 

Another neat example is Alita BattleAngel. The movie imbricates old-world buildings amid the new-world, giving a creative spin to the genre: how successive generations may change—and how the local and the eccentric endure and evolve incrementally, despite proclamations to replacement, disruption, displacement, or dissipation.

Alita BattleAngel favela-like, cityscape realised

Despite all the technological advances around us, people find resonance in a story, an aesthetic and a genre which assumes determinist technology, rentierist inequality, and Spencerian market competition—which are taken for granted too often in the real world. In short, audiences resonate with a bleak future where technosim is laid bare in a new, and on occasion, unflattering, light. As in the distinctly rough and lacklustre human megalopsis above situated in a latin-american landscape; compared with its original conception as a sleek, shiny, and perennially Japanese cyber-city. 

Alita Battle Angel Concept Art

Good, it is, to remember the punk dormant in cyberpunk. Historically, punk emerged in antithesis to the theses hippies’ upheld: free love, natural good, community-led rights, and starry-eyed idealism. Punks are hippies’ younger brothers: they have diminished expectations about what the world bequeaths them, and doubts even about the future surpassing the past, and the paths trodden before them by dubious forebears. Where hippies’ ideals cherish equality and freedom and anti-business, punk ideals are an absence, bound up with libertarian, anarchist, and decentralised tenets which have contradictions between individual-freedom the punks’ yearn-for and the collective-action which protects their yearnings’ integrity. Punk notably derives from American prison slang. It meant an inmate who is a sex slave. The fetishist clothes associated with punk therefore have darker connotations in lineage than a naïve stylist might realise.  Cyberpunk style but no punk commitment; models and brand ‘inspired by’ Akira (1988) in the link.

Punk carries many meanings: a worthless person, in shoddy condition, to trick or deceive, aggression, rebellion, and an agglomerated subculture. For the most part, punk lost its anti establishment meaning and its more sinister expose of power-relations around money, sex, exploitative labour, and so on. It is more of an affectation, an aesthetic, an accessory than a political movement or a coherent ideology. The punk ideas endure but its punk adherents are far-between, left in the shadows as the rebellion army in Blade Runner 2049, too,  hides in the shadows. Cyberpunk’s politics lurks underground. 

People find resonance in cyberpunk stories and aesthetics which assumes determinist technology, rentiers’ inequality, and Spencerian market competition—which are taken for granted too often in the real world. Cyberpunk like Blade Runner, Ready Player One, or Altered Carbon, of course, bear politics: they function as anti-adverts for what the rentiers’, automated, future holds. The message is more than the medium, though the medium is partly the message. No better time than the present to revive the punk rebellion, which has been reduced to a symbol-without-a-message in so much of what passes as Cyberpunk. 

For cyberpunk to thrive, it must prevail over its tacit politics of runaway memes, however stylistically seductive those memes may be. Afterall, just as the insistently vocal vehicle first appeared on screen in 1982, and then reappeared in a new form on the pavement before me in 2017, life imitates art in strange ways. What appears impossible, or even silly, on screen once may greet you as everyday fare one day. What might appear a good, progressive, idea like a vocal bin lorry, can lead to regressions—all vehicles embodied with the same power to vocalise would render a cacophony on the streets, a scenario whereby everyone loses. Some new tech is better left old, and some, unmade.

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