Cyberpunk as a generational definition – what comes next?

Someone wrote in reply to my abbreviated post about the difference between my generation that grew up in the 60s and 70s, vs there’s of the 80s. The reader responded that the 60’s and 70’s were a time of hope and the 80’s and 90’s more a time of disillusionment and growing realisation that we had screwed up.

I agreed, but was still curious as to why we still had hope. Contrary to another reader’s idea that we thought we could survive a nuclear winter, the 80s gen had no such hope, I replied that I think that even back in my childhood, we did the drills, not with a convincing argument that it would do any good, but that we had to do SOMETHING. Somewhere along that timeline, that idea dropped off the radar, and was replaced with the lack of hope you mention. But I’m still curious (curiouser and curiouser, said Alice) as to WHY that hope left. Since those of us who had grown up weren’t as disillusioned, I don’t think we taught it to our kids. Was it more than nuclear winter? Was it a combination of the rising interest rates, stagnant economy, the growing realization that, as was said, we “buggered” it, by “it” I mean our planet?

Were those “kids” really affected by the world their parents had given them? Our (my gen.) parents gave us Vietnam, nuclear war, and a increasingly bad economy, but we still had hope as I recall – that we could make a difference – hence the start of Earth Day back in the early to mid 70s here. I remember staring recycling projects at the HS. We were the first generation to wear backbacks, ride 10 speed bikes (mine was a 19in English Raleigh, sigh…), own Nikes (they were so soft and form fitting back then, with thin soles that moved as you walked – not like today’s platforms) and negative heeled “Earth” shoes, wear recycled clothing, etc. We believed there was still time to save us.

So when or “how” more importantly, did the next gen lose that hope? The same triggers were there, just a different attitude. How much did more TV, more news, more connectivity (I recall the early computers and the simple games they played), and even video games (albeit early ones – no Quake yet) play into the storm of indifference that affected the youth of that era? Did the writers of cyberpunk help to create this vision, and movies like Blade Runner (1982) to artificially create this lack of motivation to DO something about it?

“The word ‘cyberpunk’ was originally a marketing term applied to Science Fiction writings of William Gibson and Douglas Rushkoff, but was soon taken up by many Internet users as a description of a lifestyle, culture or community to which they imagine they belong. So cyberpunk became the way of thinking and attitude for many people in the Net and in so called Real Life.

This is due to the fact that they correctly noticed the seeds of the fictional world of cyberpunk in Western society today. Our world is evolving into a typical ‘cyberpunk-world’: the rising amount of technology in our everyday lives – we thrive and survive on technology, the developement of the cities into huge ‘sprawls’, drugs and crime. All these aspects of our culture fit nicely into the world of cyberpunk – the future now.

So, the world from the works of Gibson and “Blade Runner” is becoming a stark reality.” (unknown date)

SO! Are SF writers to “blame” for the counterculture that emerged in the 80s? From what I’ve read so far, their impact was huge, esp. as Time picked up the gauntlet and ran with it, making it known to a whole generation who could “find” themselves in it – each generation to me seeks to find itself – I know my 19 yr old is. She keeps saying that the world as she knows it is so bleak for future prospects that THEY have no hope (An Inconvenient Truth, Columbine, 9/11, etc.). Now those threats are real! Compare and contrast that with the perhaps somewhat artificially constructed counterculture of the 80s.

An Inconvenient Truth

See also:

“Cyberpunk was not so much a literary movement as an extension of postmodern experimentation that reaches back to the first cultural memes generated by radical shifts in perception.”
By John Lebkowsky, originally from bOING-bOING #9.

and even better:

“It has long been a truism of American political thought that there is a 30-year cycle of American politics, alternating between conservatism and experimentation. America had just come out of a conservative decade in the 1980s, and everyone was expecting that something like the 1960s would be coming again in the 1990s. To meet this retroexpectation, fashion designers eagerly complied, recycling all kinds of things from earth shoes to Nehru jackets. No one knew what the 90s would bring – people talked about a new fiscal sensibility, a new stay-at-home attitude (cocooning), and maybe a new simplicity. Nothing that really looked like a counterculture; just a cultural retrenchment. And then Time magazine, that great barometer of American life, told us who the counterculture would be: the cyberpunk. A new youth explosion was underway – but this was a Generation Xplosion, which meant taking to the airwaves instead of the streets.

People quickly found out this new counterculture was not quite like the old one. They preferred the rave, with its hyperaccelerated remixed digital music, to simple acoustic folk songs; their drug of choice was Ecstasy, not pot. These were not New Age flower children looking for ‘peace and love;’ instead they were New Edge hiphoppers out for ‘tech and cred.’ Rather than having some kind of ‘back to nature’ romanticism, these folks preferred the urban disorder of the city, and they saw technology as their weapon of choice, not the enemy. Their heroes were not the Hippies of Peoples’ Park – instead they looked to the pioneers of pirate radio as their icons. Not surprisingly, old countercultural types like Timothy Leary, John Perry Barlow, and Robert Anton Wilson quickly joined their ranks, proclaiming cyberpunk was the next wave of struggle against the System and all it stood for.

Their were superficial similarities, of course. The cyberpunks had a curious enthusiasm for neurochemicals, especially ones that they claimed increased energy, intelligence, or memory, although they rejected the idea that drugs might lead to some kind of peace or mystical harmony. They eschewed political activism, civil disobedience, and protest marches. Intead, they preferred a more essential form of the guerilla strike – one that used the phone lines rather than the picket line. There was no point in asking the Man for anything. Simply pick up your keyboard and take what you want from him, ’cause he won’t give it to you.”
“Is Cyberpunk the Counterculture of the 1990’s?” by Steve Mizrach, aka Seeker1 (again, undated, but from the text it seems to be wrtitten late 80s, early 90s).

and the last part of his essay may be striking at what they SHOULD have done, rather than what they didn’t do:

“Instead of just ‘dropping out’ of society, or just parasitically feeding off of its information monopolies, cyberpunks have the potential to change it. But to do so they’ll have to learn those weary lessons of Movement history. You know what they are. Study up. Think globally, act locally. And most importantly, don’t mourn, organize. Just think what cyberpunks could accomplish if they actually learned to cooperate with, talk to, and trust each other. If instead of pulling pranks on the Man, they actually started to try and take away some of his power. If instead of sabotaging grassroots bulletin-board systems, they jammed the signal of propaganda engines like Voice of America. Then we could say that maybe, at long last, the New Counterculture has come of age… ”

Do you think they ended up doing that? Or did they just continue the drop-out path, until a new generation of dot.coms and techs that were commercial took over? And what of today’s disenfranchised youth? Where will they go – Can the 30 year cycle of politicalness continue or has that boat sailed? Where CAN they go? They are too young to make a difference, and will the world (and America or other countries)be strong enough to survive the harsh assaults we are placing on it?

Food for thought?


One response to “Cyberpunk as a generational definition – what comes next?

  1. An interesting posting.

    As Karl Marx said in so many words, technology (the means of production) has always been the catalyst that changes society, for technology changes the way we make our living, which changes the way we are educated, which changes the way we think etc etc etc.

    Thanks to the exponentially changing technology of the internet, we are inundated with new information, and we can find out anything we want on our laptops. This in itself is sowing the seeds of revolutionary change, and perhaps despair, for we can no longer block out unpleasant truths about the human condition.

    The generation growing up in the 1950’s was the first to contemplate the sudden ending of civilization, which sowed the seeds of cynicism, finding expression in the poetry and literature of the Beats.

    The idealism of the 1960’s may be seen as an aberration in the growing wave of existential despair, because it was a reaction to the Vietnam war, to which the protesters were liable to be drafted and sent to fight there.

    But once the draft ended, the mass protests stopped.

    Also, the 1960’s was when the huge demographic of the Boomers came of age, and thus made their overriding presence felt.

    It does seem that each succeeding generation becomes more cynical and nihilistic than the one preceding it. And with good reason, since it’s now clear that civilization-ending catastrophes are just around the corner.

    I found “Blade Runner” very prescient, as well as the quite recent “Children of Men”. The futuristic societies they depict, are what ours is fast becoming.

    And there’s nothing we can do about it.