Creeping Cyberpunk

David Stark / Zarkonnen
30 Sep 2013, 6 a.m.
Remember cyberpunk, that 80s/90s literary genre about computer hackers and megacorporations and urban sprawl? Black ice and cybernetic implants? It's coming true.

The surface details are all different, of course. When William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, he had not actually encountered the Internet, and later found himself disappointed when it wasn't as exciting and powerful as thought it would be. There are no glowing neon towers of banking data with motes of light shuttling in and out - but that's because that was never a useful representation to work with. We're perfectly able to render the net that way, we just choose not to.

But beyond the surface detail, things are more or less in place. For some reason, this hit home for me when I first saw the London Shard being built - a preposterous jagged monument to wealth and power, built up while people lost their jobs below, created for the benefit of a global super-elite increasingly unbound from people and countries.

Looking beyond the surface detail, here are some cyberpunk tropes and their real-world implementation:

  • Ubiquitous Surveillance - Check. The NSA can read your mail. Your data is stored on some server in the US, one subpoena away from being laid open. Corporations are collecting data at a massive scale, prodding you to please supply them with your exact identity, to better match their records together.
  • Megacorporations with too much power - Check. Google are now lobbying for climate change denialism. Amazon are on the way to becoming the single marketplace for everything. Apple are simply gigantic. And that's the ones you know about. (Samsung, etc.)
  • Corporations that are blatantly evil - Check. G4S, Blackwater Xe Academi, Glencore, Atos Origin, patent trolls (some with nice PR).
  • Urbal sprawl - Check. In some countries, cities have grown together with a solid suburban landscape.
  • Social stratification - Check. The super-wealthy keep on getting wealthier and more divorced from normal life, living physically apart and according to different rules. At the same time, an ever-increasing number of people are simply no longer useful to the economy, and are stuck in limbo. For some, this means unemployment, for others, a series of courses and unpaid internships leading nowhere.
  • Scary Government - Check. Indefinite detention, detention without cause, stripping people of their citizenship, police visits on the basis of google searches, drone strikes, etc.
  • Murderous AIs - Now this is an interesting one. We have made no serious progress on strong AI for decades, but we do have a whole lot of heuristics, pattern-matching, machine learning and trendy "big data". So there's no insane military AI sitting in the pentagon, but it turns out we get much the same effect from a bunch of heuristics, blindly trusted by the people in charge. A group of men meeting in a house in Pakistan? That's the "signature" of terrorism, and enough reason for a drone strike.
  • Cybernetics - Getting there. At least in the lab, we can now build exoskeletons, grow organs, fix eyes and ears with implants, control robots with our thoughts, and even transmit information brain-to-brain.
  • Hacking - Oh yes. There are marketplaces where you can buy security exploits, hacking tools, credit card numbers, whole identities. You can hire large, professional hacker groups like Hidden Lynx.

Returning to Gibson, he famously said that "The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed." This is certainly true of Cyberpunk. If your identity is stolen, or you get investigated, harassed, picked up because you got caught in some heuristic, or you self-censor yourself everywhere because you don't know who is listening - you are on the edge. You might not feel it yet - but I'm pretty sure that Snowden, Assange, the members of Hidden Lynx, and many more I'm not even aware of live entirely within Cyberpunk now. They are the leading edge of a world that may envelop you too, one day soon.

So put on your mirrorshades, start following rekall, and get used to it.