14 minute read
Philip Elmer-Dewitt

In the 1950s it was the beatniks, staging a coffeehouse rebellion against the Leave It to Beaver conformity of the Eisenhower era. In the 1960s the hippies arrived, combining antiwar activism with the energy of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Now a new subculture is bubbling up from the underground, popping out of computer screens like a piece of futuristic HYPERTEXT (see margin).

They call it cyberpunk, a late-20th century term pieced together from CYBERNETICS (the science of communication and control theory) and PUNK (an antisocial rebel or hoodlum). Within this odd pairing lurks the essence of cyberpunk culture. It’s a way of looking at the world that combines an infatuation with high-tech tools and a disdain for conventional ways of using them. Originally applied to a school of hard-boiled science-fiction writers and then to certain semi-tough computer hackers, the word cyberpunk now covers a broad range of music, art, psychedelics, smart drugs and cutting-edge technology. The cult is new enough that fresh offshoots are sprouting every day, which infuriates the hard-core cyberpunks, who feel they got there first.

Stewart Brand, editor of the hippie-era Whole Earth Catalog, describes cyberpunk as “technology with attitude.” Science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling calls it “an unholy alliance of the technical world with the underground of pop culture and street-level anarchy.” Jude Milhon, a cyberpunk journalist who writes under the byline St. Jude, defines it as “the place where the worlds of science and art overlap, the intersection of the future and now.” What cyberpunk is about, says Rudy Rucker, a San Jose State University mathematician who writes science-fiction books on the side, is nothing less than “the fusion of humans and machines.”

As in any counterculture movement, some denizens would deny that they are part of a “movement” at all. Certainly they are not as visible from a passing car as beatniks or hippies once were. Ponytails (on men) and tattoos (on women) do not a cyberpunk make — though dressing all in black and donning mirrored sunglasses will go a long way. And although the biggest cyberpunk journal claims a readership approaching 70,000, there are probably no more than a few thousand computer hackers, futurists, fringe scientists, computer-savvy artists and musicians, and assorted science-fiction geeks around the world who actually call themselves cyberpunks.

% Nevertheless, cyberpunk may be the defining counterculture of the computer age. It embraces, in spirit at least, not just the nearest thirtysomething hacker hunched over his terminal but also nose-ringed twentysomethings gathered at clandestine RAVES, teenagers who feel about the Macintosh computer the way their parents felt about Apple Records, and even preadolescent vidkids fused like Krazy Glue to their Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games — the training wheels of cyberpunk. Obsessed with technology, especially technology that is just beyond their reach (like BRAIN IMPLANTS), the cyberpunks are future oriented to a fault. They already have one foot in the 21st century, and time is on their side. In the long run, we will all be cyberpunks.

The cyberpunk look — a kind of SF (science-fiction) surrealism tweaked by computer graphics — is already finding its way into art galleries, music videos and Hollywood movies. Cyberpunk magazines, many of which are ” ‘zines” cheaply published by desktop computer and distributed by electronic mail, are multiplying like cable-TV channels. The newest, a glossy, big-budget entry called Wired, premiered last week with Bruce Sterling on the cover and ads from the likes of Apple Computer and AT&T. Cyberpunk music, including ACID HOUSE and INDUSTRIAL, is popular enough to keep several record companies and scores of bands cranking out CDs. Cyberpunk-oriented books are snapped up by eager fans as soon as they hit the stores. (Sterling’s latest, The Hacker Crackdown, quickly sold out its first hard-cover printing of 30,000.) A piece of cyberpunk performance art, Tubes, starring Blue Man Group, is a hit off-Broadway. And cyberpunk films such as Blade Runner, Videodrome, Robocop, Total Recall, Terminator 2 and The Lawnmower Man have moved out of the cult market and into the mall.

Cyberpunk culture is likely to get a boost from, of all things, the Clinton- Gore Administration, because of a shared interest in what the new regime calls America’s “data highways” and what the cyberpunks call CYBERSPACE. Both terms describe the globe-circling, interconnected telephone network that is the conduit for billions of voice, fax and computer-to-computer communications. The incoming Administration is focused on the wiring, and it has made strengthening the network’s high-speed data links a priority. The cyberpunks look at those wires from the inside; they talk of the network as if it were an actual place — a VIRTUAL REALITY that can be entered, explored and manipulated.

Cyberspace plays a central role in the cyberpunk world view. The literature is filled with “console cowboys” who prove their mettle by donning virtual- reality headgear and performing heroic feats in the imaginary “matrix” of cyberspace. Many of the punks’ real-life heroes are also computer cowboys of one sort or another. Cyberpunk, a 1991 book by two New York Times reporters, John Markoff and Katie Hafner, features profiles of three canonical cyberpunk hackers, including Robert Morris, the Cornell graduate student whose COMPUTER VIRUS brought the huge network called the INTERNET to a halt.

BUT CYBERSPACE IS MORE THAN A PLAYGROUND for hacker high jinks. What cyberpunks have known for some time — and what 17.5 million modem-equipped computer users around the world have discovered — is that cyberspace is also a new medium. Every night on Prodigy, CompuServe, GEnie and thousands of smaller computer bulletin boards, people by the hundreds of thousands are logging on to a great computer-mediated gabfest, an interactive debate that allows them to leap over barriers of time, place, sex and social status. Computer networks make it easy to reach out and touch strangers who share a particular obsession or concern. “We’re replacing the old drugstore soda fountain and town square, where community used to happen in the physical world,” says Howard Rheingold, a California-based author and editor who is writing a book on what he calls VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES.

Most computer users are content to visit cyberspace now and then, to read their electronic mail, check the bulletin boards and do a bit of electronic shopping. But cyberpunks go there to live and play — and even die. The WELL, one of the hippest virtual communities on the Internet, was shaken 2 1/2 years ago when one of its most active participants ran a computer program that erased every message he had ever left — thousands of postings, some running for many pages. It was an act that amounted to virtual suicide. A few weeks later, he committed suicide for real.

The WELL is a magnet for cyberpunk thinkers, and it is there, appropriately enough, that much of the debate over the scope and significance of cyberpunk has occurred. The question “Is there a cyberpunk movement?” launched a freewheeling on-line FLAME-fest that ran for months. The debate yielded, among other things, a fairly concise list of “attitudes” that, by general agreement, seem to be central to the idea of cyberpunk. Among them:

— Information wants to be free. A good piece of information-age technology will eventually get into the hands of those who can make the best use of it, despite the best efforts of the censors, copyright lawyers and DATACOPS.

— Always yield to the hands-on imperative. Cyberpunks believe they can run the world for the better, if they can only get their hands on the control box.

— Promote decentralization. Society is splintering into hundreds of subcultures and designer cults, each with its own language, code and life- style.

— Surf the edges. When the world is changing by the nanosecond, the best way to keep your head above water is to stay at the front end of the Zeitgeist.

The roots of cyberpunk, curiously, are as much literary as they are technological. The term was coined in the late 1980s to describe a group of science-fiction writers — and in particular WILLIAM GIBSON, a 44-year-old American now living in Vancouver. Gibson’s NEUROMANCER, the first novel to win SF’s triple crown — the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards — quickly became a cyberpunk classic, attracting an audience beyond the world of SF. Critics were intrigued by a dense, technopoetic prose style that invites comparisons to Hammett, Burroughs and Pynchon. Computer-literate readers were drawn by Gibson’s nightmarish depictions of an imaginary world disturbingly similar to the one they inhabit.

In fact, the key to cyberpunk science fiction is that it is not so much a projection into the future as a metaphorical evocation of today’s technological flux. The hero of Neuromancer, a burned-out, drug-addicted street hustler named Case, inhabits a sleazy INTERZONE on the fringes of a megacorporate global village where all transactions are carried out in New Yen. There he encounters Molly, a sharp-edged beauty with reflective lenses grafted to her eye sockets and retractable razor blades implanted in her fingers. They are hired by a mysterious employer who offers to fix Case’s damaged nerves so he can once again enter cyberspace — a term Gibson invented. Soon Case discovers that he is actually working for an AI (artificial intelligence) named Wintermute, who is trying to get around the restrictions placed on AIs by the TURING POLICE to keep the computers under control. “What’s important to me,” says Gibson, “is that Neuromancer is about the present.”

THE THEMES AND MOTIFS OF CYBERPUNK HAVE been percolating through the culture < for nearly a decade. But they have coalesced in the past few years, thanks in large part to an upstart magazine called MONDO 2000. Since 1988, Mondo’s editors have covered cyberpunk as Rolling Stone magazine chronicles rock music, with celebrity interviews of such cyberheroes as NEGATIVLAND and TIMOTHY LEARY, alongside features detailing what’s hot and what’s on the horizon. Mondo’s editors have packaged their quirky view of the world into a glossy book titled Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge (HarperCollins; $20). Its cover touts alphabetic entries on everything from virtual reality and wetware to designer aphrodisiacs and TECHNO-EROTIC PAGANISM, promising to make cyberpunk’s rarefied perspective immediately accessible. Inside, in an innovative hypertext format (which is echoed in this article), relatively straightforward updates on computer graphics, multimedia and fiber optics accompany wild screeds on such recondite subjects as SYNESTHESIA and TEMPORARY AUTONOMOUS ZONES.

The book and the magazine that inspired it are the product of a group of brainy (if eccentric) visionaries holed up in a rambling Victorian mansion perched on a hillside in Berkeley, California. The MTV-style graphics are supplied by designer Bart Nagel, the overcaffeinated prose by Ken Goffman (writing under the pen name R.U. Sirius) and Alison Kennedy (listed on the masthead as Queen Mu, “domineditrix”), with help from Rudy Rucker and a small staff of free-lancers and contributions from an international cast of cyberpunk enthusiasts. The goal is to inspire and instruct but not to lead. “We don’t want to tell people what to think,” says assistant art director Heide Foley. “We want to tell them what the possibilities are.”

Largely patched together from back issues of Mondo 2000 magazine (and its precursor, a short-lived ‘zine called Reality Hackers), the Guide is filled with articles on all the traditional cyberpunk obsessions, from ARTIFICIAL LIFE to VIRTUAL SEX. But some of the best entries are those that report on the activities of real people trying to live the cyberpunk life. For example, Mark Pauline, a San Francisco performance artist, specializes in giant machines and vast public spectacles: sonic booms that pin audiences to their chairs or the huge, stinking vat of rotting cheese with which he perfumed the air of Denmark to remind the citizenry of its Viking roots. When an explosion blew the thumb and three fingers off his right hand, Pauline simply had his big toe grafted where his thumb had been. He can pick things up again, but now he’s waiting for medical science and grafting technology to advance to the point where he can replace his jerry-built hand with one taken from a cadaver.

MUCH OF MONDO 2000 STRAINS CREDIBILITY. Does physicist Nick Herbert really believe there might be a way to build TIME MACHINES? Did the CRYONICS experts at TransTime Laboratory really chill a family pet named Miles and then, after its near death experience, turn it back into what its owner describes as a “fully functional dog”? Are we expected to accept on faith that a SMART DRUG called centrophenoxine is an “intelligence booster” that provides “effective anti-aging therapy,” or that another compound called hydergine increases mental abilities and prevents damage to brain cells? “All of this has some basis in today’s technologies,” says Paul Saffo, a research fellow at the Institute for the Future. “But it has a very anticipatory quality. These are people who assume that they will shape the future and the rest of us will live it.”

Parents who thumb through Mondo 2000 will find much here to upset them. An article on house music makes popping MDMA (ECSTASY) and thrashing all night to music that clocks 120 beats per minute sound like an experience no red-blooded teenager would want to miss. After describing in detail the erotic effects of massive doses of L-dopa, MDA and deprenyl, the entry on aphrodisiacs adds as an afterthought that in some combinations these drugs can be fatal. Essays praising the beneficial effects of psychedelics and smart drugs on the “information processing” power of the brain sit alongside RANTS that declare, among other things, that “safe sex is boring sex” and that “cheap thrills are fun.”

Much of this, of course, is a cyberpunk pose. As Rucker confesses in his preface, he enjoys reading and thinking about psychedelic drugs but doesn’t really like to take them. “To me the political point of being pro- psychedelic,” he writes, “is that this means being against consensus reality, which I very strongly am.” To some extent, says author Rheingold, cyberpunk is driven by young people trying to come up with a movement they can call their own. As he puts it, “They’re tired of all these old geezers talking about how great the ’60s were.”

That sentiment was echoed by a recent posting on the WELL. “I didn’t get to pop some ‘shrooms and dance naked in a park with several hundred of my peers,” wrote a cyberpunk wannabe who calls himself Alien. “To me, and to a lot of other generally disenfranchised members of my generation, surfing the edges is all we’ve got.”

More troubling, from a philosophic standpoint, is the theme of DYSTOPIA that runs like a bad trip through the cyberpunk world view. Gibson’s fictional world is filled with glassy-eyed girls strung out on their Walkman-like SIMSTIM DECKS and young men who get their kicks from MICROSOFTS plugged into sockets behind their ears. His brooding, dehumanized vision conveys a strong sense that technology is changing civilization and the course of history in frightening ways. But many of his readers don’t seem to care. “History is a funny thing for cyberpunks,” says Christopher Meyer, a music-synthesizer designer from Calabasas, California, writing on the WELL. “It’s all data. It all takes up the same amount of space on disk, and a lot of it is just plain noise.”

For cyberpunks, pondering history is not as important as coming to terms with the future. For all their flaws, they have found ways to live with technology, to make it theirs — something the back-to-the-land hippies never accomplished. Cyberpunks use technology to bridge the gulf between art and science, between the world of literature and the world of industry. Most of all, they realize that if you don’t control technology, it will control you. It is a lesson that will serve them — and all of us — well in the next century.

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