Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mere Cyberocracy Is Loosed Upon the World

Let's take it as a given that we are currently living in, or very fast approaching, a "cyberpunk present"—a state of social and technological affairs predicted more or less accurately by the cyberpunk genre. (If you need evidence, consider such facts of our lives as the might of multinational tech companies in comparison to the traditional nation-state; reduced relevance of the electorate in historically democratic societies; surveillance that's effectively invisible and potentially ubiquitous; the world's leaders being basically unopposed in, and having no qualms about, using that surveillance in ways they alone determine to be appropriate; and the ragtag alliance of secretive, tech-expert rebels who hide on the 'Net and occasionally score massive coups against "the Machine" that give hope to the like-minded but fail to gain much attention from the general public.)

As far as I can tell, the only criterion for a "cyberpunk present" that we haven't yet met is widespread (or even niche) fusion of tech and the human body. It's coming, though—whether in the form of Google Goggles or elective surgical brain/body enhancement. And that's assuming pharmaceuticals and performance-enhancing substances don't already qualify.

So let's call the present the Early to Middle Cyber Age. To some degree, its cyberpunkish traits are owed to the cyberpunk authors themselves—they developed concepts and terms that inspired development of groups and technology that are parts of our lives now, even if the affectations, like black leather and mirrorshades, are dated. (To say nothing of the tech specifics. If you want a good laugh, watch the movie Hackers sometime.)

Yet we can't give the authors all the credit. Which leads me to wonder how much of the "cyber present" is historical accident—or inevitability. I suspect it's mostly the latter.

To use a pretty current example: the development of Star Trek-like tablet computers was long foreseen, of course, but for my part I always expected their adoption to be much slower or more limited—that average Joes would choose to ignore them, feeling no particular need for such an extreme level of portability in their computing devices. Instead, these and similar gadgets wind up in the hands of not just average Joe, but even his grandparents, within months of their release—a sign of effectively aggressive marketing if ever there was one. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that we of the West are an ever-more gadget-obsessed civilization, too eager for our next fix to consider negative consequences like e-waste or the emerging panopticon, which fits the cyberpunk vision much more closely than I would have expected.

But maybe if I'd sat and thought about the phenomenon about 10-15 years ago, I'd have seen it as inevitable, considering its origins. The scientific method bred industrial surpluses, which bred marketing, which bred the consumerist mindset, which bred the decline of the informed electorate, which bred unfettered and monopolistic industrial methods, which bred the Googlamazopples and their scarily effective marketing structures, which bred ever more myopia in the already well-established consumerist mindset. I don't see a lot of historical accidents in that chain; we're looking at human nature responding to scientific development…which may explain why the cyberpunk writers saw so much of it coming. Individual benefit in the near term will trump vague speculation about long-term, long-distance consequences every time.

Maybe the cyberpunk present is a phase; maybe one day we can become enlightened, disembodied energy beings; maybe we MUST first be cyberpunks (or cyberthralls). But it feels like a recipe for societal stasis to an extent not seen since the church was the glue that held together what remained of civilization. That's definitely debatable—and even more so, the question of whether that's such a bad thing, considering plausible alternatives. In any case, if the Cyber Age wasn't fully predestined, I'm certain at least that the Internet, or something like it, is so likely for advanced societies that it's right up there with the theory of evolution and FTL travel on the list of "things that make an inhabited planet possibly not worth sterilizing" to any advanced alien visitors we might someday get.

I'm so sure of that, in fact, that while the Cyber Age may not have been completely inevitable, I think the only other possibilities were "no scientific revolution in the first place" and "global nuclear armageddon." I'd love to interview those two parallel-universe mes about this, but I doubt I'll be able to get in touch with them…er, us.

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