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Sterling on ‘Cyberpunk’ in 2019

  • Some disconnected notes branching from Sterling’s 2019 SXSW talk
  • Contrasting cyberpunk with the mass market New Sincerity aesthetic
  • Changes in the cultural role played by sci-fi, “The New Courtiers”

[2012]

If Land’s cyber-futurism can seem out of date, it is only in the same sense that jungle and techno are out of date – not because they have been superseded by new futurisms, but because the future as such has succumbed to retrospection. The actual near future wasn’t about Capital stripping off its latex mask and revealing the machinic death’s head beneath; it was just the opposite: New Sincerity, Apple Computers advertised by kitschy-cutesy pop. 

Mark Fisher, “Terminator Vs. Avatar: Notes on Accelerationism”

What Cyberpunk Was

CYBERPUNK MANIFESTO [1991]

A) The future has imploded onto the present. There was no nuclear Armageddon. There’s too much Real Estate to lose. The new battlefield is people’s minds. 
B) The megacorps ARE the new governments. 
C) The U.S. is a big bully with lackluster economic power. 
D) The world is splintering into a trillion subcultures and designer cults with their own languages, codes, and lifestyles. 
E) Computer-generated info-domains are the next frontiers. 
F) There IS better living through chemistry. 
G) Small groups or individual “console cowboys” can wield tremendous power over governments, corporations, etc. 
H) The coalescence of a computer “culture” is expressed in self-aware computer music, art, virtual communities, and a hacker/street tech subculture. The computer nerd image is passe, and people are not ashamed anymore about the role the computer has in this subculture. The computer is a cool tool, a friend, important human augmentation. 
I) We’re becoming CYBORGS. Our tech is getting smaller, closer to us, and it will soon merge with us. 
J) Some attitudes that seem to be related:
– Information wants to be free.
– Access to computers and anything which may teach you something about how the world works should be unlimited and total.
– Always yield to the hands-on imperative.
– Mistrust Authority.
– Promote Decentralization.
– Do It Yourself. Fight the Power.
– Feed the noise back into the system.
– Surf the Edges.

Gareth Branwyn, presumably on THE WELL, ~1991

The Youtube channel Cuck Philosophy has done a great couple of videos contrasting 90s cyberpunk with the New Age/Corporate aesthetic. He cites the argument that cyberpunk may have been the last literary rebellion to take root against the developing “New Age” (World Music / Comfy Corporate) framing in the 90s. The aesthetic of the cyberpunk scene has now probably been coopted and zombified, but it did once make a salient contrast. The New Age framing involves some set of the following:

  • An idealized human past
  • An essential and innocent human nature
  • Global unity & token diversity
  • The fetishization of the primitive

By contrast, Cyberpunk is anti-essentialist and cyborg, where humanity is not an essence and solidarity is often found on the basis of difference rather than an underlying sameness. Humanity, nature, and technology may not be ontologically different from one another. A human may be an assemblage of parts of varying artificiality. The special-ness of ‘humanity’ is questionable. Humanity is malleable and contingent- which could be scary or freeing depending on your frame of reference!

[Cyberpunk is] the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself

Fred Jameson, “Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (1991)

Extrapolative science fiction can operate as prefigurative social theory, as well as an anticipatory opposition politics to the cyber-fascism lurking over the next horizon.

Mike Davis

Cyberpunk was at one time an enclave to critique and explore the existing social systems, often with a focus on the the social fringes adapting to technology in a late-capitalist world. As Gibson once put it, “Young people relate themselves more to their consumption than their nationality”.

Ultimately, Comfy Corporate/New Sincerity wins and Cyberpunk dies and is skinned and worn as fashion.

2019: Science Fiction Writers as Modern Courtiers

This has been a longtime declaration of many of the writers around this genre: folks like Sterling have lived to see elements of their speculative fiction from 30 years ago become, arguably atmospherically correct. There now exist in our headlines “a host of modern people among us who would make really great villains in 1980s cyberpunk thriller novels because they are genuine high-tech lowlifes.”

In 2019 we have a crumbling world financial order and tremendous financial corruption, and also omnipresent computer communication, [there’s] a kind of guerrilla war by the rich and the crooked against democratic norms… it’s just a petri dish for sinister cyberpunk bad guys: GRU special operations people with weird classified nerve poisons; American henchmen of crooked Ukrainian dictators; kidnapped princesses from giant Chinese smartphone companies; Canadian Bitcoin moguls who drop dead in India; weird influencers, supermodels on gigantic super yachts; Israeli private investigators selling trafficking software to Saudi millionaires in Cyprus; there’s armies of them. We’re surrounded by these bad actors. There are literal cyberwar battalions.

Even if cyberpunk is reality, science fiction has to be speculative. 

– Bruce Sterling @ SXSW, March 2019 [hastily transcribed by me]

As the culture has changed, science fiction has changed. Morale among scientists is even lower than morale among science fiction writers. Billionaires wrap themselves in the branding glamour of cyberpunk-era science fiction. Futurism is a corporate activity. Valorizing the beatnik and the bohemian have become passé, because people are falling out of the middle-class and becoming “involuntary beatniks” characterized by housing insecurity, income insecurity, and narcotics, and they largely “aren’t being cool about it”.

If you read politically aware modern science fiction today, you’ll see that it’s got a lot of grave concern with excluded classes of people like gender and race and behavioral minorities who are being shut down and shut out; it’s the science fiction of a post-consumer society where daily life has become precarious. That’s what they write because that’s what’s going on.

[…]

Modern, successful science fiction writers are not grimy, grub street, punk, comic-book kindsa street people. There are still a few of them around, like the old-school blue collar pulp writers, but the heavy modern science fiction writers tend to be educated men and women with PhDs and day jobs and non-governmental policy operations. Young science fiction people are super educated and erudite by 20th century standards; I’m kinda old for that intellectual gentrification wave, but even I have been known to lecture on postmodern media philosophy in Switzerland. And [SXSW] this year was just swarming with science fiction writers, packs of them! I went to their panels on AI and it was alarming how well-briefed they were. They didn’t even bother to make stuff up, they actually understood it!

In some ways there’s just too much money and power for science fiction to be street-level now. It’s not an electronic frontier, it really is an electronic aristocracy now. And it likes science fiction writers to become its courtiers now.

– Bruce Sterling @ SXSW, March 2019 [hastily transcribed by me]

Bruce Sterling argues that in 2019, the person who publicly believes they are the most cyberpunk person is probably Elon Musk.

Jeff Bezos is a formidable visionary who reads a whole lot of science fiction, but Elon is a guy who clearly imagines himself to be the charismatic hero of a science fiction adventure novel. Elon really wants to go through his life generating a sense of wonder about himself.

And I don’t mind him doing that. My philosophy is to let Elon be Elon. I don’t care much about his investors, or even his car buyers. But I think people need to be more in touch with what he’s doing. He’s building a shell of brand glamour around himself that’s based in sci-fi tropes such as cyberpunk brainwave readers and martian rocket ships and dystopian threats from AI- and yes that stuff is all sci-fi bullshit, but it’s a lot less bullshit than the truly horrible moldy real-estate bullshit that surrounds Donald Trump.

And that’s why people find it refreshing, and they quite like the look of it on Elon, but it’s still hokum. And downmarket from Elon are a host of modern people among us who would make really great villains in 1980s cyberpunk thriller novels because they are genuine high-tech lowlifes. [More on this shortly.]

– Bruce Sterling @ SXSW, March 2019 [hastily transcribed by me]

Sterling recalls two recently-deceased women who were masters in their sub-cultures and true contenders for “most cyberpunk person:

  • Seiko Mikami, Japanese New Media artist who first connected Sterling to the idea that New Media artists were fellow travelers to be taken seriously
  • Maria Bruno, a Turinese street artist, tag name “Sister Flash”

These are people of “deeds, not words”. Both are [subculture figure]’s [subculture figure], e.g. Maria is described by Bruce as an “activists’ activist”. They are both dead, but are both survived by the evidence of their dedication to their communities and their craft and their authentic, intense commitment to both the “cyber” and the “punk” aesthetic.

“She made me feel like a hobbyist. I felt like a dilettante even. It may be impossible to be more cyberpunk than Maria was. The context of her actions is gone. They’re historic.”

Punk has changed a lot, and cyber has changed even more drastically than punk.

Reference: SXSW 2019 Stream (adjusted to Bruce Sterling at around 06:07:00)

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