The Paradox of Cyberpunk and Retro-Futurism

We are living in a paradoxical time . . . we have entered the era of Cyberpunk, yet the sub-genre has also entered the ranks of retro-futurism as much as Steampunk, Dieselpunk, and all the other the punks! The term Cyberpunk was coined in 1983 and the 1980’s saw a wealth of seminal Cyberpunk books, artwork, films, and TV shows. Just as Steampunk can be overly simplified as “the Victorian vision of the future,” Cyberpunk is essentially an amplified version of 1980’s commercialism and greed; the 1980’s “vision of the future” . . . a vision that is over three decades old!

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While the surface appearance may have changed, there are many thematic elements of Cyberpunk predictions that have come to be true in our contemporary age. The biggest might be the rise of corporate power compared to governments, and the decline of the middle class. No longer are specific companies associated with specific countries, unless the company is using a sense of nostalgia and nationalism to sell a product. For many years now the titans of commerce have stood astride the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, making their own trade agreements and treaties that have outgrown governments and the people whom they supposedly represent.

Cyberpunk predicted the dark future of a neo-feudalism in which a new aristocracy of inherited wealth would rule the world; historically feudalism and the middle class are diametrically opposed and one can not rise without the decline of the other. The emergence of the Occupy Movement in 2011 and the rhetoric of the One Percent echoes this trope of Cyberpunk in a haunting manner as tax payer funded police forces are called in to quell criticism of the billionaire ruling class.

Portland Police In Riot Gear N17 Protest

The now familiar sight of militarized police.

Cyberpunk’s primary trope is technology and its impact on the lives of people. Over the last three decades technology has become more and more intrusive into personal lives, for both good and bad. The concept of cybernetic implants gave us a vision of the future when people would be in constant contact with technology; while we may not yet have our smart phones surgically attached to us, from a psychological perspective we might as well. Citizens of the developed world in the 21st century live their lives constantly in front of screens; typically about two by three inches in size and held in our hands. Much as George Orwell predicted in 1984, the screen comes with a camera that is watching us back while signals monitor our movements and electronic choices. The latest wave of technological development is wearable tech; with our devices now in contact with our skin, is the next logical step that they move under our skin?

Wearable Tech

The latest science fiction movie? Nope, just the latest Kickstarter project.

The other social trope of Cyberpunk is the increased alienation from reality and actual face to face social interaction. William Gibson recently admitted that he could never have predicted social media, but he also was once under the fantasy that computers ran on dramatic crystals as he wrote Neuromancer on a manual typewriter, but virtual connectivity has surpassed the need to see people in person and to see them as a person. The plus side of social media and global connectivity is increased opportunity to share and understand cultures from many different countries, but the downside is our increased reliance on quick and simplistic interpretations of complex events via soundbites, videoclips, and memes. The “us vs. them” mentality that can so easily spawn from behind the shield of a keyboard has led to a “modern tribalism” that has grown beyond gang warfare.

Hacker 680

The age of the keyboard warriors and online trolls.

In many ways the predictions of 1980’s Cyberpunk has become a reality that goes even further than the dystopic imaginations of Gibson and others, but yet at the same time the Cyberpunk aesthetic has found its way into the Halls of Retro . . . there is now a certain nostalgia for when Cyberpunk was just a playful vision of the future rather than the actual future itself. As cool as the streets of Blade Runner may have looked, very few audience members actually wanted to live in a world of toxic air and poisoned land. As exciting as waging urban and cyber warfare against totalitarian corporations may have seemed in the 80’s and 90’s, the modern reality is police in riot gear spraying unarmed citizens with canisters of pepper spray and using box cutters to destroy protesters’ tents in public parks. The paradox of Cyberpunk is its ability to be both fiction and reality at the same time . . . but what happens next?

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