I came to cyberpunk late, really. I read Snow Crash in ’98. The Matrix came shortly after, prompting some very obsessive behavior on my part. (I suppose I did watch Max Headroom back in the day, but the previous two mentions were the biggies for me). Etc. Etc.
Traditional cyberpunk, with all its pantone trappings, started a strong tech archetype: going in. The Metaverse is separate from the real world, and as blurred as the lines may get, they’re still lines. It’s a personality in the cable network, a terrorist in a shared dream. You jack in, log on, get inside.
The new cyberpunk doesn’t work this way, nor should it. The Verge posted a great article recently on “Tumblr’s cyberpunk renaissance”, in which the author cleverly points out that
Our Matrix is so much more diffuse, and our enemies so omnipresent — it’s the NSA tapping the iPhone in your pocket, the webcam in your shiny new MacBook Air. There really is no pulling out the jack.
Gone is the mighty edifice and the slick decker slicing his way in. It’s damn everywhere. Take out the main data warehouse? Please. It’s all redundant systems now, chirping to each other like a flock of birds. Kill one bird, the flock still lives.
And if that weren’t enough, we’re willing participants. We live online, knowing full well data on everything we do, everywhere we go, everyone we speak to is up for grabs.
So, what does this mean for cyberpunk now?
From a stylistic standpoint, the Verge article is the place to go. “…a hyper-refined and expensive sense of taste, favoring clean lines, baller outfits, powerful matte-black weapons, and the kind of opulence telegraphed by machines without visible seams.” Cyberpunk is as much about style as it is about tech, and the new stuff will follow suit. Check the Verge article for visual reference.
I’ve come across a two touchpoint characters and works which resonate with where the genre is headed.
Ken Liu’s The Perfect Match gives us Centillion, or ‘Tilly’, the omnipresent Google-like voice which serves as a personal assistant, recommendation engine, and Jiminy Cricket to everyone. This is our world now. It’s not some evil government — it’s a convenient service we all sign up for.
The story even gives us one of these new cyberpunks in Jenny, who wears “a thick winter coat, ski goggles, and a long, dark scarf that covered her hair and the rest of her face” in order to muddle the perpetual identity detection. Forget black jackets and mirrored glasses; it’s all ugly T-shirts and facial asymmetry.
After that, it’s Ubisoft’s upcoming Watch Dogs. Sitting at a screen is so 2000’s, as is hacking some static mainframe. Let’s talk about controlling traffic lights and city electric grids from your phone. Today’s tech rogues are on the move, and they can see everything about you in a little box floating over your head.
This is how the new cyberpunk works. The distinction between on the grid and off the grid is gone. There is no “going in”. And, perhaps more importantly, there is no getting out.