“Cyberpunk creeps up on us. Some kind of alchemy transforms its fictions into truths, and draws us towards places we thought unreal.” — @uttunul
Conventionally speaking, cyberpunk is a media genre. It brings to mind William Gibson’s Neuromancer. You fondly remember Blade Runner, and maybe Deus Ex or Ghost in the Shell. The phrase “high tech, low life” floats up from the back of your brain. You picture an exaggerated version of Hong Kong with a heavy dose of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. You’re envisioning the Walled City of Kowloon plus lots of computers. Within tiny apartments, disheveled vigilante hackers stare at their screens, busily infiltrating the databases of megacorps.
But perhaps you’ve also noticed that cyberpunk plot points are turning up in real life. Robot security guards patrol shopping malls. A near-billionaire startup founder sees virtual reality as salvation for the downtrodden global poor. San Francisco’s Tenderloin district is flush with VC money and homeless drug addicts at the same time. And speaking of those vigilante hackers, they’re here in our reality too, pwning companies of all sizes. Some state-sponsored ones like to meddle in foreign politics. It’s all very exciting! Only plutocrats and nouveau mafiosos can avoid feeling uneasy.
Cyberpunk examines the way computing changes power relationships. Asymmetric information warfare has become the norm, as foretold by our pulpy sci-fi prophets. The technological changes that have been snowballing over the past fifty years now mean that anyone can talk to anyone, anywhere, with their identity hidden or not. Edward Snowden can stroll away from his NSA job with a priceless cache of secret documents that detail the crimes of an empire, then escape across continents in a matter of days, to hole up with a rival regime.
So, why bother with any of this if you don’t intend to commit espionage?
A Suspicious Lens
Elements of our reality correspond to elements of fictional ones, sure. But I’m not saying that we live in a cyberpunk world. Rather, we live in a world that can be productively viewed through a cyberpunk lens. The difference is subtle but important — cyberpunk is the map, not the territory. I look at it as a mental model with which to interpret the near-past and near-future.
“[T]aste governs every free — as opposed to rote — human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion — and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. […] Taste has no system and no proofs. But there is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste.”
Cyberpunk is a type of “taste in ideas” that weds aesthetics with politics. It is not a framework with a specific hypothesis or clearly defined rules. Rather, cyberpunk is an assemblage of loosely related themes, tropes, and aesthetics. Viewing the arc(s) of history through this cyberpunk lens helps highlight certain trends as being worth paying attention to. Noticing the moments of techno-dystopia in our world can jolt people awake, causing them to realize how computing — especially the internet — is impacting their lives on every scale.
The events or ideas that trigger the mental switch-flip are usually exotic, like crime-deterring robots, but the deeper level of using the cyberpunk mental model is looking at mundane things like commerce and subculture formation and seeing how computers and the internet change the dynamics that we used to be used to.
Tech-biz analyst Ben Thompson wrote on his blog, in 2013:
“[I]f there is a single phrase that describes the effect of the Internet, it is the elimination of friction. [¶] With the loss of friction, there is necessarily the loss of everything built on friction, including value, privacy, and livelihoods. […] Count me with those who believe the Internet is on par with the industrial revolution, the full impact of which stretched over centuries. And it wasn’t all good. Like today, the industrial revolution included a period of time that saw many lose their jobs and a massive surge in inequality. It also lifted millions of others out of sustenance farming.”
Our new technologies have fractal effects that can be observed on global levels, societal levels, and individual levels. Consider the environmental effect of high-tech manufacturing; consider conflict minerals going into so many laptops; consider the effect the ubiquity of smartphones has on geopolitical discourse; on national discourse. Consider where the American stock market would be without big tech companies. Consider where you would be.
Asymmetric Seismic Upheaval
Let’s say you’ve been observing the United States election. Whether you want to or not, you probably haven’t been able to escape this topic entirely. And let’s say you’re worried about “white genocide”. Next step: start a pseudonymous Twitter account.
“Neil [Turner]’s profile picture was a pouty mirror selfie of a skinny white kid, wearing what was clearly a Photoshopped ‘Make America Great Again’ hat. The self-proclaimed warrior against #PoliticalCorrectness and #WhiteGenocide claimed to be from Mississippi, maintained a healthy 20-something-thousand followers and had been mentioned in publications like Fortune for his hateful, white supremacist commentary on Twitter. But most notably, he was often the first to reply to tweets from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — a historically coveted, high-exposure spot in online social networks and comments sections.”
Spoiler alert: he used a bot to automate responses. This is very cyberpunk. Whoever “Neil Turner” really is, he brilliantly leveraged computing to take advantage of presidential candidates’ publicity. Now instead of being just another Twitter troll, ignored by most, he has thousands and potentially millions of eyes on his thoughts.
Activists in other political conflicts have also used the ubiquity of digital technologies to flip or push back on analog power differentials. Mahmoud Salem, a participant in Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising, wrote in World Policy Journal:
“Blogs become a means for mass protest. Facebook fuelled further organization, and with the advent of Twitter in 2007, protesters could communicate and document their often-tumultuous journeys in 140-characters or less. In short, by January 2011 there was a well-established network of tools for revolutionaries to employ in their struggle to modernize Egypt.”
America’s #BlackLivesMatter movement has flourished on social media. Their grievances have been substantiated as video after video circulates on various platforms, putting extrajudicial police killings on a loop for an audience of all races. Protest organizing takes place via hashtag and DM. Twitter in particular is a hotspot because of its public nature, but Philando Castile’s girlfriend Lavish Reynolds livestreamed him bleeding out on Facebook.
Of course, large institutions have access to the same tools. A company called Geofeedia harvested data from social media sites to help police pinpoint protesters. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter cut off Geofeedia’s API access, but Geofeedia was not the only tool of its kind. Facebook itself took town the video of Castile’s ordeal, then claimed this action was a “glitch” after being widely chastised.
How many videos has Facebook removed that were then forgotten for lack of public outcry?
Protesters’ advantage is their ability to take over the news cycle, simultaneously in every part of a given country, because the internet means information travels instantaneously. Many of us have smartphones that ding us every time something new develops. “Did you see… ?!”
But the police and other fiat institutions have the same advantage they’ve always had — the ability to lock people up, sometimes justified but often not. What’s new to the law enforcement arsenal is being able to sort and target high-impact targets at scale.
A project by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology recently released “Perpetual Line Up”, a report on US law enforcement’s massive facial recognition databases, noting that “at least five major police departments — including agencies in Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles — either claimed to run real-time face recognition off of street cameras, bought technology that can do so, or expressed a written interest in buying it.”
A less political example is the infamous saga of Silk Road, a libertarian “Dark Web” drug marketplace run by a man who called himself Dread Pirate Roberts. Investigative journalist Joshuah Bearman chronicled Silk Road’s rise and fall for Wired, and it’s a remarkable story.
For years, Ross Ulbricht (DPR’s real name) was able to hide his various whereabouts by using the anonymous web browser Tor (which is ironically mainly funded by the US government) and bitcoin; he could run his platform remotely without ever outing his legal identity. Eventually an IRS agent working with the FBI found the clue that unraveled Ulbricht’s anonymity, by combing through old forum postings, cross-referencing usernames. When he first launched Silk Road and wanted to promote the marketplace, Ulbricht made the mistake of using a handle that could be tied back to him.
Again, see the interplay of power: an individual enables anonymous drug smuggling through the legal mail, and the government uses its manpower to comb through the digital detritus this individual was not savvy enough to hide.
Of course, these kinds of power gradients are not unique to a world with computers. Activists and the police using social media to fight each other is not so different from communist pamphlets and leftist magazines, met with McCarthyism and calculated subversion. (Take a look at the CIA’s ties to the Iowa Writers Workshop, or the FBI’s interference with the Black Panthers.) The story of Ross Ulbricht’s capture has parallels to 1920s and ‘30s gangster-hunts, or efforts to round up New York mob families throughout the twentieth century.
However, the world with computers makes it easier. What computers are really good at is brute-force math and copying things perfectly. They do those things very, very quickly. A few simple capabilities have been built up into myriad programs, and ultimately programmers’ work has transformed our everyday lives.
Tradeoffs of the Cognitive Underbelly
The cyberpunk mental model has a lot of predictive power because it heavily weights the influence of computing, but it can be risky because it’s quite cynical and pessimistic. We expect the worst of people. Cyberpunk is not an outright basilisk, but it can drive the mind toward paranoia. I’ve received some perturbing emails.
Fundamentally, the danger is that mental models are the enemy of complexity. They’re useful as sources of decision-making heuristics, shortcuts that guide you in reacting to new developments. This is just a thing that human brains need because contemplating every single occurrence and choice in depth is mentally taxing.
The internet enables more individual opportunity than ever before — how would my words manage to reach you otherwise? And the internet is more meritocratic than the landscape it took over, because anyone can distribute their own work to a potential audience of millions, but of course age-old power dynamics can’t be erased in one fell swoop. It also enables winner-take-all businesses, like Amazon’s dominance in ecommerce and Facebook’s reign over news media.
These companies obviously aren’t pure monopolies with no competitors at all, but they have massive and ever-increasing mindshare (hence wallet-share as well). Their overwhelming advantage comes from the way the internet has upended distribution — any company can reach any person. Like Ben Thompson said, the friction is gone. Hence a given company’s addressable market is limited only by old-world logistics (e.g. getting people online, hence initiatives like Zuckerberg’s much-maligned Internet.org, or Google’s dilemma in being unable to bypass China’s Great Firewall).
When your audience is the whole world, the flip side is that each consumer can choose whoever they want. They choose the highest quality — Google — or the most convenient — Amazon — or the one with network effects — Facebook. And that leads to One Giant Winner who amasses lots of power. On balance, it’s usually a good thing, but that doesn’t mean there are no negative effects.
Globalization in general has incensed a demographic close to home, as Nils Gilman chronicled for The American Interest:
“For the traditional working classes, gone are not only jobs but also the wellsprings of traditional forms of social esteem, replaced with a blighted landscape of deindustrialization, drug addiction, and elite disdain. To be sure, African-Americans have been experiencing this sort of social devastation forever; what is new is whites experiencing the same, while at the same time being denied the traditional consolation prize of elite-sanctioned ethno-racial supremacism.”
Economic upheaval always has profound cultural effects. Cyberpunk highlights the power of vigilante hackers, sure, but it also points to the power of institutions, whether stultified or moving fast and breaking things. The balance between these two types of entities is what’s fascinating and crucial to watch.