How Cyberpunk Predictions Came True

Cyberpunk Meets RealityMy introduction to cyberpunk was through the writings of William Gibson. I devoured Neuromancer, and partially enjoyed Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. (The pseudo-mystical elements left me a bit cold.) I loved Burning Chrome, however. From there I explored the writings of Neal Stephenson (I still adore Snow Crash and The Diamond Age — and cyberpunk games like Shadowrun and Cyberpunk:2020 (and, to a lesser extent,  Mage: The Ascension.) Although each of these sources emphasizes different things, they all share a set of core concepts that mark them as cyberpunk.

The Core Successful Predictions of Cyberpunk

For me, there are almost half a dozen core predictions cyberpunk makes that have come to pass. First, the rise of corporate power compared to governments. In the past corporate entities were mostly national. Drivers in the US drove cars built-in the US, drivers in Europe drove cars built-in Europe, and so on. Food was consumed within the country it was grown. Over the past century, however, technological advances have allowed products, services, and ideas to flow freely around the world in amazing ways. However, this has allowed the development of commercial social structures on a scale that has never been seen before. Companies now wield money, influence, and power on a scale that was once held solely by governments.(Apple, Boeing, BP, Coca-Cola,  Google, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Samsung)

Second, technology has become more and more intrusive into personal lives, for both good and ill. This started with the development of the telephone, but really took off with the invention of the world-wide web, email, and social media. Always on smartphones plus instant communications means you can’t escape the demands of a domineering spouse or an overbearing boss. This stuff could have given us the freedom to engage with the world at our pace, but instead it ended up forcing us to speed up to its pace. As external demands on us increase we can’t help but lose sight of that which isn’t directly in front of us (like the past or the future). Google Glass is only the most recent phase of this trend. Folks have tried to get them banned, mostly due to privacy concerns. I’ll get back to that in a second; however, those attempts at bans are missing the point. At this point it is only a matter of time before Glass, or something like it, becomes commonplace. What will come along with it is augmented reality (or AR), which is a much scarier concept. If you’re not familiar with augmented reality, the basic concept is that you get real-time feedback on your surroundings all the time, regardless of your location. In other words, your glasses (or Glass) tosses up information about the stuff in your field of view as you’re moving around, all the time. At first blush that doesn’t sound so bad. Arrow directions could be overlaid on the road as you’re driving, directing you to your destination without requiring you to look away. Ratings on shops and stores would pop up as you walk past the store front, and current specials would flash and turn in front of you, enticing you into the store. Someone, somewhere, would figure out how to cover your vision with advertisements — virtual world billboards blocking your real world view. The technology is now available; Google Glass is just the first step.

Speaking of privacy, we no longer have any. Once upon a time it was possible to move to another part of the country and start over. It was possible to put your mistakes behind you, and to try to be someone different. Now, however, anyone with the money or technological know-how (in other words, a cracker) can put together an amazing dossier on you. Partially that’s because of open government records — information on births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and property transfers tends to be publicly available, even if obscure. However, companies have a vested interest in understanding you — yes, you, sitting in the chair — to better entice you to buy stuff. Online companies pour over data of what sites you visited, how long you spent on each page, and which links you clicked before leaving. With tracking cookies they can even tell where you went next and how long you stayed there. But this data collection on your habits doesn’t stop there. By following your credit card number, email address, or “Customer Reward Card”, they can begin to discern subtle and disturbing information about you — even stuff you haven’t explicitly chosen to share:

… we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”

What’s more discouraging, however, is how social media encourages everyone to give up their privacy voluntarily. That’s the point of sharing sites like Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. You connect with your friends through these sites and share information to keep in touch. However, this takes place through a medium that allows for rapid deconstruction and analysis of your personality for the efficient delivery of targeted ads. Foursquare and Facebook Places let you check-in to locations for badges and shiny icons; as you do so, however, the companies keep tabs through your GPS and wireless signal of what kinds of places you frequent. As the consumer models have more data about each person, the models become more like dossiers of your habits. Eventually, you only think that you own you; in reality, the ad agencies do. They’ll know more about you that you know about yourself. (If you’re still skeptical, check out LinkedIn’s “People You May Know” feature.)

Fourth, individuality and substance have taken a real hit. We now connect via LinkedIn and Facebook with soundbites and lolcats instead of sitting down in person. Both reality TV and the news encourage quick and simplistic interpretations of complex events, and encourage an “us vs. them” mentality. This “modern tribalism” has grown beyond gang warfare. Now it infects social issues (“pro-life” vs “pro-choice”), sports (“my team” vs “your team”), politics (“red states” vs “blue states”),  music (“east coast” vs “west coast”), and patriotism (where is the “Real” America?). Even corporations suffer this same kind of tunnel vision (“Apple vs Samsung” or “Apple vs Microsoft” or “Apple vs Google et al” or …) Being an individual is more about choosing from a series of dichotomous group labels than self exploration and identity formation. The labels offer quick reference and even quicker judgement. “Oh, you’re one of those? I can’t be friends with you.” This leads to societal fragmentation and local homogeneity, both of which were predicted by cyberpunk and have been observed in the US. People move to be near people who are like them — however superficially the similarities may be. Even the educational system has gotten in on the act. I’ve written before about the triumph of appearance over real mastery.

The last prediction that cyberpunk got right was the decline of the middle class. As corporations rise in power their increased profits tend to be at the expense of their employees. Loyalty is rewarded with placement, and increases in costs are always passed on to the consumer. These tendencies tend to move society from a continuum of wealth towards yet another dichotomy: “haves” vs “have-nots” or, if you prefer, the “99%” vs the “1%”. Invariably these  divisions lead to further conflict as each side attributes the difference to the support or violation of basic moral imperatives. Although most cyberpunk explores the world of the “have-nots”, it would not be surprising to find “haves” who identify with the themes. After all, compared to the bulk of the Earth’s population everyone in the US is in the 1%. We don’t choose our group labels based upon reality, unfortunately. We almost always choose them based upon what we consider defensible — what makes us the “victim” in the interaction.

The failures in both cyberpunk literature and in the real world really hinge upon the large-scale acceptance of things as they are. Powerful corporations and the 1% may build the hamster wheel trap of modern life, but we the 99% cooperate and get on. We’re the ones who share excessively and give them data. We’re the ones who buy the newest shiny gadgets using their financing on their terms. We give them our time, energy, and money voluntarily. Why? Because we’re afraid that we’re not good enough, and we’re afraid that we’re going to fail. We are not willing to take the step off of the cliff. It’s easier to simply keep running on the wheel we’re on, even though it spins at an ever dizzying pace. What would it look like if we did take that step? What if, as a group, we simply stopped running and stepped off of the wheel? Said “Thanks, but no thanks” to the corporate offerings, and began rebuilding relationships locally? Could each of us individually choosing a portfolio life revolutionize modern society as much as the American Revolutionary War shook up Europe?

Of course, we’d have to overcome the conspiracies to prevent that from happening, but that’s a post for another time.

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