Thursday, 31 August 2017

Cyberpunk 1990

Oxford English Dictionary – Cyberpunk: A genre of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology

The heyday of Cyberpunk was captured in a 1990 documentary by Marianne Trench and Peter von Brandenburg, providing an insight into its guiding ideas and featuring leading lights such as William Gibson, Jaron Lanier, Brenda Laurel and Timothy Leary. As a movement, it was primarily concerned with developments in technology, particularly artificial intelligence and virtual reality (the ‘consensual hallucination’ of a computer-generated world); “information wants to be free”, a phrase echoed by several participants in the documentary, symbolized their vision. Cyberpunk drew on influences from, and in turn influenced, art, fashion, film (Blade Runner was a major visual precursor), and literature (Gibson’s Neuromancer is its key text, while Jeff Noon’s Vurt and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash are both highly regarded); it manifested in computer hacking, ‘industrial’ music, rave culture, and video game graphics, all considered in the film. Whilst most commentators see a trend toward liberation, others strike a cautionary note; that the Utopian technology which can empower, may also enslave. Very much a product of its time, the documentary’s imagery and production values illustrate how quickly the cutting-edge can become obsolete. It remains a valuable document of what the future looked like in 1990, at the dawn of the ‘computer age’, though its main protagonists have enjoyed contrasting fortunes over the subsequent 27 years... 

William Gibson – the American novelist is regarded as the Godfather of Cyberpunk, many of its central themes originating in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, the biggest single influence on the sub-genre. Gibson famously created his vision of the future on a manual type-writer, didn’t have an e-mail address until 1996, and has stated that he has “never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don't watch them; I watch how people behave around them.” By the 1990s, as advances in technology brought some of his concepts toward reality, he was in demand as a spokesman, reflected in his extensive contribution to the documentary. Neuromancer (the first book of his ‘Sprawl’ trilogy) portrayed a post-industrial, high-tech society dominated by multi-national corporations – zaibatsus – where national boundaries have been dissolved, and individuals define their identity through consumer products. He coined the term ‘cyberspace’ in his 1982 short story ‘Burning Chrome’, to denote the virtual territory contained within computer networks, before the worldwide phenomenon of the Internet. Another of his early short stories, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, was filmed in 1995, with a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves in the title role, as a cyber-courier who carries information in his brain – the acting, simplified plot and already-dated setting brought widespread derision (a fate shared by the same year’s risible techno-movie Hackers), although most critics recognised its distance from Gibson’s original conception.

William Gibson. Photo: Christopher J. Morris/Corbis via Getty Images
The 2000 documentary by film-maker Mark Neale, No Maps for these Territories, provides an introduction to Gibson’s biography and preoccupations, as he makes observations on the ‘mediated world’ we live in, during a road-trip across America. The author remains closely associated with Cyberpunk; though his later work has taken him in different directions, he continues to examine consumerism, corporate influence and globalisation, the evolution of the Internet and social media, believing that “the digital has become the constant; it’s becoming where we all are, all the time.”



Timothy Leary in his 1960s pomp
Timothy Leary – best known for his notorious role in the sixties counter-culture, associated with the use of mind-expanding drugs (which he not only advocated, but experimented with enthusiastically), and coining the phrase ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’. A clinical psychologist, researcher and Harvard academic until his drug-related dismissal in 1963, Leary became a major media figure, later described by then-President Richard Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America”. After multiple periods of imprisonment, and a relatively low public profile during the 1970s, Leary embraced the coming ‘cybernetic’ era – the concept of technological revolution embodied by Cyberpunk in the mid-to-late 1980s – adapting his former phrase to ‘turn on, boot up, jack in’ and declaring “the PC is the new LSD”. He saw the potential of home computing, virtual reality and the web as forces for personal liberation, able to free individuals from state control, and to subvert governmental and other power structures. His involvement with new technology extended to creating video games (including a project to produce a version of Neuromancer), endorsing the Mattel Power Glove – a gaming device “unique for its time, allowing players to use motion to control their games” – and acting as ‘technical consultant’ on Billy Idol’s somewhat opportunistic 1993 album Cyberpunk. Leary died in 1996.

Timothy Leary at the time of Cyberpunk

Jaron Lanier, then (above) & now (below)
Jaron Lanier – although only featuring briefly in the documentary, Lanier has since established himself as a leading figure in emerging technology, addressing its philosophical implications and the shortcomings of the Internet. His credentials are both practical and theoretical, as a computer science pioneer, early adopter of virtual reality and software developer. He has been involved in the field since the early 1980s, first working for Atari and then forming his own company, VPL Research, concentrating on visual programming language and virtual reality applications. Lanier has retained his status as a credible commentator and an independent authority, becoming a successful author and public speaker, outlining potential future developments and their impact on wider society in books such as You Are Not a Gadget (2010) and Who Owns the Future? (2013).

Michael Synergy – an enigmatic figure, clearly enjoying the attention bestowed on him by the documentary makers as a man with “the power to bring down governments”, Synergy has, for whatever reason, not enjoyed such publicity since its release. In fact, he has all but vanished – even from the cyberspaces of the Internet – personal details are scant, and information on his subsequent career hard to come by. 

Michael Synergy – current whereabouts unknown

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