Monday, February 02, 2009

What is cyberpunk?

I have heard the term "cyberpunk" many times, but never really understand exactly what it meant, but the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day defines it for me:

science fiction dealing with future urban societies dominated by computer technology

Okay, fine, but that is a rather confusing term for a seemingly simple concept. I understand the "cyber" part, but what is the "punk" all about? I am familiar with the concept of "punk" that the dictionary (M-W) defines as "a usually petty gangster, hoodlum, or ruffian."

As usual, a quick consultation with the Wikipedia provides a little enlightenment, telling us that "It features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order." That "degree of breakdown ... in the social order" tells it all, and actually is at least roughly compatible with the "ruffian" dictionary meaning, or individuals who act outside of "the social order."

So, the dictionary meaning is somewhat lacking in that it does not convey the sense of individuals who engage in activities not considered "proper" by the established "authorities" and presumed institutional "social values."

The Wikipedia further characterizes cyberpunk as an effort to "describe the often nihilistic underground side of an electronic society" and "a troubled future" and "the antithesis of the generally utopian visions of the future popular in the 1940s and 1950s."

Ah, so that is what it is really all about, a reaction against the common "visions of the future" that may have excessively extrapolated a supposedly benevolent U.S. government superpower and supposedly benevolent U.S. megacorporations supposedly doing only "good" in the world. With a good amount of Orwellian 1984 in the mix. Orwell succeeds at describing the oppressiveness of a presumed future, but not the sense of individuals overcoming that oppressiveness that cyberpunk provides.

Maybe it was also representative of a rejection of the superficial images of domestic serenity as commonly shown in American sitcoms in the early 1960's and the futuristic cartoon series The Jetsons, which simply extrapolated technology, government, and big business as "goodness" far out into the indefinite future.

It does seem to me that the focus is on retention of the rights of free choice -- and the ability to subvert "the rules" -- regardless of the advances in capabilities of technology, government, and business.

In one sense cyberpunk is quite gloomy, but maybe its appeal is that it projects a world in which the individual can transcend that gloom, sort of. Or something like that.

-- Jack Krupansky

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