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Cyberpunk Needs a Reboot

Cyberpunk once stood out as a vital genre of anti-capitalist fiction. Today, it’s been reduced to a cool retro aesthetic easily appropriated by the world’s second-richest man to market ugly Blade Runner–inspired trucks to nostalgia-driven Gen Xers.

Still from Cyberpunk 2077, recently out from CD Projekt Red.

If you think irony is dead, you’d only have to observe Elon Musk’s recent tweet about Cyberpunk 2077.

“I picked Nomad, so [the] start was a little slow, but picks up fast,” he replied when asked if he’d had a chance to play Polish studio CD Projekt Red’s long-awaited video game in December.

According to the game’s lore, Nomads are former wage slaves who’ve been blackballed from their jobs and forced to wander the world’s wastelands like the dispossessed desert dwellers of Mad Max. My own Nomad, a gravelly voiced ruffian named “V,” is a man on the margins attempting to climb the ranks of the shadow economy of Night City — the unofficial capital of Cyberpunk’s neon-hued hellscape.

That Musk can seamlessly inhabit the role of a scrappy striver in a virtual dystopia while in real life firing workers for organizing a union to level up his wealth is further proof that cyberpunk needs a reboot. What once stood out as a vital genre of anti-capitalist fiction has mainly been reduced to a cool retro aesthetic easily appropriated by the world’s second-richest man to market ugly Blade Runner–inspired trucks to nostalgia-drenched Gen Xers.

Less Cyber, More Punk

“Cyberpunk” is in the title of the new video game starring Keanu Reeves, but it’s also a catchall term for a gritty breed of sci-fi that emerged in the late ’70s and ’80s.

Influential novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Hollywood films like Blade Runner and RoboCop foretold a bleak future in which the state was corrupt and impotent and had handed over political power to a small cartel of megacorporations. The Pandora’s box of unshackled capitalism results in the wholesale destruction of nature, the collapse of the social safety net, and massive inequality.

Why “punk”? The movement shared some DNA with the punk subculture that had developed a few years prior. Early punk art and fashion reflected the angst and despair of the downtrodden young working class during a period of growing austerity and inequality under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In the UK especially, punk bands like The Clash embraced a kind of rough-and-tumble radical politics as an alternative; the previous generation’s “dirtbag left.”

Likewise, the first wave of cyberpunk had more on its mind than nihilistic noir for the Atari age; it felt like a middle finger aimed at Reaganism and tech overlords.

“Classic cyberpunk is anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, and not tech-fetishistic but rather skeptical of how technology is used by systems of power to further oppression,” wrote comic book author and art director Rob Sheridan.

“High tech meets low life” is how many summed up the genre’s aims.

Cyberpunk’s auteurs and authors were particularly skeptical of the techno-utopianism of the early Silicon Valley era, a strain of New Left counterculture thinking that sociologists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have coined “the Californian Ideology.” They described the Californian philosophy as “a bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism beefed up with lots of technological determinism.”

They believed that scientific progress and technological breakthroughs could lead to a world of abundance and equality, one emancipated from borders, disease — even death.

Still from Blade Runner 2049, 2017. (Warner Bros)

Cyberpunk fiction predicted the opposite: that science and technological innovation under postindustrial capitalism would supercharge humanity’s worst instincts. Men could transcend the human body’s biological limits and live like gods, but only the sparing few who could afford it. For the underclasses, advanced technology represented another tool of surveillance and social control wielded by elites that provided only fleeting escapism in the form of manufactured street drugs or imaginary virtual worlds.

A techno-utopian show like Star Trek, for instance, viewed space exploration as liberatory, a blank space where the lack of archaic earthly power structures would naturally lead to a kind of laissez-faire egalitarianism. In Blade Runner, space was a bold new frontier for an advanced form of chattel slavery.

“The world you expected to be the future didn’t happen,” Mike Pondsmith, the creator of the Cyberpunk tabletop game, told Wired. “We were supposed to get The Jetsons and instead we’re not sure if we’re gonna get fed.”

That’s not to say that cyberpunk had socialism in its mind, necessarily.

Its vision has often been constrained by the ironclad law of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, the ideology that frames capitalism as the natural system of governance for humanity, making it impossible to imagine a way out. Fisher saw exhausted resignation in tech-noir Hollywood movies set in the future. Indeed, cyberpunk’s antiheroes — often hackers or street kids — never seemed intent on saving the world, just themselves or their ragged communities. Hyperindividualism and free expression trumped solidarity and collective action.

And just as punk music and the counterculture were eventually defanged and commodified by the machine they once raged against — the “conquest of cool,” as journalist Thomas Frank famously described it — much of the class consciousness and political commentary of cyberpunk fiction has been lost over the last two decades.

For all of its thrills and clever Jean Baudrillard references, the Matrix trilogy is a superhero movie disguised as cyberpunk. Love conquers all in Pixar’s cutesy dystopia WALL-E. Ready Player One, an empty-headed YA cyberpunk novel for aging Gen Xers, takes place in an inhospitable future but manages to reify the techno-utopian ideals of Silicon Valley. All a broken world needs is a highly competent CEO, an Elon Musk type, the book essentially concludes.

Ready Player One can’t even do that quite right. Its hero — teen Wade Watts — is no visionary, just an obsessive gamer with an encyclopedic knowledge of ’80s pop culture who conquers a VR version of the internet called OASIS. Its newly released sequel, Ready Player Two, doubles as an accidental indictment of the liberal social justice warrior movement. What if our authoritarian white male ruler got woke and — you know — centered marginalized voices and stuff?

It’s cyberpunk as window dressing, another nostalgic reference to Stuff Nerds Like in a book full of them.

Dystopia Now

The year is now 2020, and reality has regretfully caught up with the somber warnings of the ghosts of cyberpunk past.

Our elites have thoroughly exploited the COVID-19 pandemic — a virus that’s killed more than 1.7 million — to wage a nationwide class war against the working class and accelerate almost every looming crisis of the last several decades of neoliberal hegemony. Our democratic institutions — unions, public schools, and representative government — have receded into the twilight while Wall Street and Silicon Valley continue to fill up the power vacuum. Amazon and the Big Five tech companies’ profits are skyrocketing this year and already resemble too-big-to-fail borderless nation-states.

Meanwhile, we’re witnessing a horrifying spike in unemployment, hunger, and homelessness — even for so-called essential workers — while the rich invest in boutique health care, private security forces, and luxury COVID compounds on remote islands. Certainly, the sight of bloodred skies from climate change–fueled disasters, streets filled with masked protestors clashing with heavily armored police and military, and haggard tent cities evokes scenes from cyberpunk flicks.

Still from Cyberpunk 2077. (Projekt Red)

But CD Projekt Red’s expensively built role-playing video game based on Pondsmith’s 1988 Cyberpunk tabletop RPG is too backward-looking and self-referential to say anything interesting about the present. The visuals; the grimy, neon-lit city streets; and the chilly retrowave soundtrack are borrowed from Blade Runner. The story, featuring Keanu Reeves as an old rocker turned domestic terrorist turned implanted consciousness (or is he?!), slaps together pieces of Fight Club and Mr. Robot. And the thing plays almost identically to other modern first-person shooters.

“Cyberpunk 2077 strikes me as [Grand Theft Auto] skinned-over with a generic 80s retro-future, but hey, that’s just me,” tweeted writer William Gibson.

If only Baudrillard were still around to play. In Simulacra and Simulation, the cyberpunk-friendly French postmodern theorist called the original Disneyland theme park

a space of the regeneration of the imaginary as waste-treatment plants are elsewhere, and even here. Everywhere today one must recycle waste, and the dreams, the phantasms, the historical, fairylike, legendary imaginary of children and adults is a waste product, the first great toxic excrement of a hyperreal civilization.

In short, Cyberpunk 2077 is a sci-fi Disneyland, a shitty copy of a copy of a copy that qualifies as old-school cyberpunk only in a meta sense.

By the time it was released in early December after years of hype, the game had promised to be more than a video game, but an OASIS of sorts built for Xboxes and PlayStations, one stitched together from the corpses of cyberpunk past. Night City offers a similar kind of virtual distraction called “braindances.” According to the game’s wiki, the “ability to ‘become’ a celeb and experience a life of luxury” that their neural technology offers “gives many a chance to escape their own miserable reality.” Sound familiar?

But as many reviews have noted, Cyberpunk 2077 hasn’t worked out that way. It was built on the backs of exploited workers forced to complete extended shifts of mandatory overtime while its studio heads managed to become billionaires before the game ever saw the light of day. To make matters worse, the game in its current state is a buggy, barely playable mess for the vast majority of players. Only those who have enough capital to own high-end gaming PCs or in-demand PlayStation 5s and Xbox Series Xs — which are going for thousands of dollars on the black market right now — are capable of running it well.

Yesterday’s cyberpunk fans, as it turns out, have become today’s final bosses — offering broken promises of escape from COVID-induced lockdown and our real and present dystopia.

As Keanu Reeves’s alter ego Ted Logan might say, “Woah!”