Neon and corporate dystopias: why does cyberpunk refuse to move on?


The future has looked the same for almost four decades. A skyline of densely packed skyscrapers, corporate logos lighting the night sky, proclaiming ownership over the city below. At street level, a haze of neon shines down from the cluster of signs above and shimmers at your feet in the rain that runs down the filthy streets. Here, the have-nots, excluded from the safe, luxurious enclaves enjoyed by the super-rich, are preyed upon by hustlers dealing in illegal tech and street gangs composed of green-haired, leather-clad technopunks, decked out with cyborg enhancements and high on synthetic drugs.

You know this city. You’ve seen it a million times since it was first constructed in the 80s by the pioneers of cyberpunk, most notably William Gibson in Neuromancer and Ridley Scott in Blade Runner. Hollywood recently returned to it with Blade Runner 2049. In the first episode of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, an adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel, protagonist Takeshi Kovacs gazes upon it from his window; fire flickers from the top of a tall tower, just as it did in opening scene of Blade Runner, prompting a double-take where you wonder whether the window is actually a screen replaying Scott’s movie.

Cyberpunk 2077, an upcoming video game based on the tabletop game Cyberpunk 2020, revisits it in its trailer, where dilapidated high-rise tower blocks are juxtaposed with flying cars orbiting the decadent securitised spaces of the ultra-rich. And, of course, the neon.

These examples not only serve as evidence of the genre’s endurance, but of how remarkably static its vision of the future has remained. Why is it that cyberpunk still looks like it did in the 80s? Perhaps there has been no need for it to change: it continues to resonate with us because the world it depicts is the one we live in. The genre was formed as a response to a world where corporate power was proliferating and expanding across the globe, inequality was growing, and AI, computers, and other new forms of technology offered both the promise of liberation and the potential for new and dangerous forms of domination.

“Cyberpunk offers a vision of a post-national, globalised society where those who know how to manipulate information will come out on top, a vision of the world very recognisable to us today,” says Dr Anna McFarlane, a cyberpunk scholar at the University of Glasgow. In 2018, state governments grovel at the feet of Amazon for the privilege of hosting their second headquarters, an echo of a world sketched out by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash. Facebook has the power to spread election-turning fake news, realising anxieties expressed in the likes of Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners, where dreams shared on the net have lethal consequences in reality. Google creates AI technology for the Pentagon, just as the fictional Neutron Corporation created the AI dubbed “The Puppet Master” for its government client in 1995’s Ghost in the Shell. And all three exploit their status as trans-national global entities to horde billions through tax loopholes, like Neuromancer’s Tessier-Ashpool corporation, so powerful that it literally looks down upon the earth from its orbiting space station.

The growing inequality that fed those cyberpunk visions is no better. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has repeatedly warned of record levels of inequality, while billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos compete to fill the symbolic role of corporate overlords like Count Zero’s Josef Virek or Altered Carbon’s Laurens Bancroft. Bezos has perhaps been most successful avatar of an economic system that has funnelled half the world’s wealth into the hands of its richest 1%. He has amassed a $150bn fortune while his workers toil in Amazon warehouses under the surveillance of security cameras, airport-style checks and scanners, urinating in bottles to avoid punishment from the efficiency-obsessed computer systems that monitor them.

The metaphors cyberpunk employed to explore our increasingly intimate relationship with technology, meanwhile, are as apt as ever. Our smartphones function as pseudo-cybernetic attachments, as artificial memory, GPS system, and dopamine deliverer. “Cyberpunk is a genre that said new technologies will colonise our bodies and interpenetrate our lives, like Molly in Neuromancer with her sunglasses literally inset into her face,” says Adam Roberts, science fiction writer and professor at Royal Holloway. “The reality is that technology has colonised not so much our bodies as our social interactions, with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on – with far-reaching consequences.”

This realisation of the once-fictional realm of cyberspace has been both a blessing and a curse, just as cyberpunk predicted. It has provided an architecture for liberation, supporting grassroots movements and campaigns that include the Arab Spring, the #metoo movement and the election of the status-quo challenging Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It has also proved to be a tool of domination, a means to harvest our data and manipulate, surveil and profit from us.

Cyberpunk brings into focus the injustice of our system, and reminds us that the dystopia we’ve been facing for decades will become ever more concrete if we do not direct our anger to confront it. More than that, it can offer us hope. Even in these worlds of corporate domination, defiance rises out of destitution to twist the tools of power in unexpected ways. (“The street finds its own uses for things,” as Gibson wrote in Burning Chrome.) In cyberpunk fiction, individual acts of rebellion from the disenfranchised rarely coalesce into organised resistance; Case gets rich in Neuromancer, and Major Kusanagi reclaims ownership of herself from the military-industrial complex in Ghost in the Shell. But at least they start to pry open the cracks.

Nobody has yet imagined a way out of the typical cyberpunk dystopia, however, which is surely a symptom of a creative block. It is no coincidence that cyberpunk came of age in the era where capitalism was moving towards global dominance, culminating in its symbolic triumph at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Competing concepts were delegitimised by the Thatcher-Reagan axis, and neoliberalism became a consensus that successfully foreclosed the imagining of alternatives. This political event horizon was also a death for utopian sci-fi. We internalised the idea that the system we live in is an inevitability and with that, our imaginations stalled, unable to conceive of a future that moves beyond it – like we’re stuck on a loop in one of those computer simulations the genre loves so much.

As a result, cyberpunk is being stripped of any political power it once had. In its formation, the genre was at least intended to portray rampant corporate power and social inequality as vulgar and dangerous (though, admittedly, there was also a countervailing tendency to romanticise it). It would be unfair to judge Cyberpunk 2077 before the game is out, but its trailer exemplifies this loss. Hacking: check. Cybernetic enhancements: check. Street crime: check. Punk fashion: check. Urban sprawl: check. These are all just cool cyberpunk symbols, rather than allegorical systems that need to be challenged

This is also how the features of cyberpunk manifest in Altered Carbon. Familiar themes are there, but they don’t parse as important. The idea of the rich being able to buy de facto immortality by reinserting their consciousness into new bodies is a useful premise for a locked-room detective mystery, rather than a lever for thinking about inequality. Subjects such ascorporate power and urban destitution become equivalent to neon lights or hair dye.

“Ironically, the fate of cyberpunk in our current media culture shows us the ways in which the genre’s original pessimistic predictions have come true,” says Christopher Bolton, professor of comparative and Japanese literature at Williams College, on “the copycat cyberpunk” we see today. “We are living in a future where the original, the physical, and the political are increasingly eclipsed, replaced by virtual, mediated realities in which things are copied and re-copied in an endless distorting chain.”

To combat this stasis, cyberpunk has to reconnect with sci-fi’s utopian tradition. It has the tools to do so. Its artificial bodies and uploaded consciousness can work to challenge conceptions around race, sexuality and gender; Samuel Delany’s proto-cyberpunk novel Babel-17 features polyamorous bisexual relationships and extreme body modification. The rebellious underdog punk is a compelling figure, but these characters have tended towards nihilism, kicking back against corporate power to get revenge or get rich, mirroring the individualist ideology of the system they supposedly reject. Why not take inspiration from emergent grassroots union movements led by cleaners and food delivery workers instead? Ursula Le Guin offered us a provocative vision of the anarchist planet of Annares in The Dispossessed; we need underdogs with a collective goal, provoking us to think about how we might build new networks of power that oppose corporate totality.

It is alarming that we are starting to accept the dystopian features of cyberpunk as an inevitable part of our future. The neoliberal milieu, the crucible in which cyberpunk was formed, is crumbling. Cyberpunk’s stasis leaves little room to map the emerging nationalisms, fascisms, political populisms and revitalised leftist movements seeking to challenge political and economic orthodoxy. New potential futures are finally emerging. It may be time for cyberpunk to evolve or die.