Cyberpunk is dead; long live cyberpunk

USC recently hosted a conference on cyberpunk (Cyberpunk: Past and Future), featuring many of the movement’s old titans (such as Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker) and new gods (Alex Rivera, John Jennings and Claire Evans). Hosted by Henry Jenkins, the conference was, among other things, a good reminder of cyberpunk’s origins and influences—and of its rapid slide into obsolescence, a fate that engulfs most literature like any other technology (especially a literature about technology).

A brief historical recap: The sunny, hippy narrative of computer lib and communal empowerment through technology in the 1970s darkei_2015_04_24_Cyberpunk_150x200ned into gothic paranoia, corporate domination, and libertarian-tinged resistance in the science fiction of 1980s and 90s. William Gibson’s Neuromancer didn’t christen the era, but it crystallized it; and while many declare cyberpunk dead by the early 1990s, I see The Matrix as an artistic, thematic, and popular endpoint, a transition into a post-cyberpunk world. When Neo morphs from underground hacker into simulation savior, cyberpunk is no longer cyber or punk.

It’s unclear if cyberpunk will ever recover from its success, so to speak, or find new relevance. Like film noir, it seems both hidebound to an historical era and ubiquitous in its influences. For younger generations, cyberpunk remains hidden in plain sight; whenever I mention William Gibson or Neal Stephenson to my new media students, I get blank stares. Younger generations probably can’t be blamed for this blind spot, for much of what cyberpunk celebrated and feared has become the new normal. The computer cowboys hacking the mega-corporations are just another part of the world—a world of digital toolsets, of applications—of endless technology and gadgetry (new device of the week: Apple Watch). There’s nothing inherently punk about tech anymore (see the bro-ification of Silicon Valley as cultural proof). Techno-culture is, essentially, just plain culture, for better and worse; it seems to have consumed cyberpunk’s subversive edge.

Claire Evans’ brief talk at the conference—and her wonderful article on cyberpunk at Motherboard—underscore the definitive death and endless, if fragmented, afterlife of a sensibility that still informs our ideas about politics, aesthetics, society and individualism, augmented consciousness/embodiment, and yes, technology. Perhaps cyberpunk as a cultural brand—and as a conference topic—is going through the standard cultural spin cycle of obsolescence, rediscovery and reification. But cyberpunk’s interrogations of technology and culture remain fertile for modding and repurposing. As cyberpunk’s leading luminary Bruce Sterling contended in his conference remarks, no one interested in writing sci-fi today should create a cyberpunk novel; they should focus on creating visions for the 22nd century. But one could do worse than crack open the case of an old Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling or Rucker literary machine, look under the hood, and contemplate to what future visions and voices those wires might lead.

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