Cyberpunk: The Dystopian Prism/Prison. What can sci-fi novels and video games tell us about the future?

A 2013 panel featuring novelists Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross came to mind a moment ago. Facilitated by Helen Keen, the panel discussed possible parallels and predictions offered by the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction in relation to the present-day world.

Helen Keen: …we’re going to be… talking about cyberpunk as a mirror, I guess, to our society. To see the ways in which our society might develop in future as we lean more and more on technology in our daily lives…

Stross’ comments were darkly amusing, as could be expected. Doctorow sounded somewhat disconcertingly like a smoothly fast-talking futurist pitchman in a Kurzweilian “post-cyberpunk” vein. A more interesting monologue came from game developer (Shadowrun) Jan Wagner, struggling to get a word in edgewise between the two novelists’ lively banter.

Panelists:

Cory Doctorow — Co-editor of Boing Boing and author of novels such as Pirate Cinema and Makers.
Charles Stross — Author of Halting State series and many more.
Kieron Gillen — Comic author on titles such as Uncanny X-Men and more.
Jan Wagner — Cliffhanger Productions, developers of Jagged Alliance and Shadowrun Online
Rafal Praszczalek (Writer) and Antoni Strzalkowski (Producer) on CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077
Dr. Demis Hassabis, former games developer (Syndicate, Republic: The Revolution) and now neuroscientist (and Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow)

Wagner began by offering preliminary thoughts about cyberpunk as a predictive medium.

Shadowrun.Shadowrun

Keen: Picking up on something you (Wagner) said about, this sort of romantic idea… I mean, in light of PRISM, in fact we’ve got this element in our panel discussion. Is that hopelessly romantic? Is that something that is… in the future isn’t going to be possible, is, you know, the cyber, going to lose the ‘punk’ bit?

Wagner: Can I make… I don’t even think it’s about… I mean, it’s about society and state as well but, can we just make an experiment. Who of you likes large corporations?

Doctorow: Which one?

The audience laughs.

Wagner: No… any one.

Doctorow and a few audience members raise their hands.

Wagner: Okay — one, two, three, five.

Stross ‘ahem’s loudly while raising a hand. Wagner turns and looks at Stross.

Wagner: You… you count for five? No… six, then.

Stross throws a bemused glance at Keen and the audience laughs again.

Wagner: Em, how many of you got their food from Starbucks or MacDonald’s today?

Many more hands raise.

Wagner: If we talk about, the, the, the whole thing? The commercialization and whatever we hate about big companies? And we’re still going to MacDonald’s and Starbucks because it’s cheap and it’s close? How can you ever beat that? As any organization or any movement or whatever. Because it’s just a basic… laziness of most people — including me, obviously.

I’m not going out of my way to get my food somewhere else around here, that’s an hour’s walk away because “I’m against large corporations so I don’t use cars”. So, um, “I’m only going to get organic food” or whatever. It’s just silly.

The realities of capitalism, um, match very well with the realities of a lot of the stuff people are going to do. Not necessarily because they prefer it, but because it’s easier.

—-

The discussion panel can be seen in its entirety here: Cyberpunk: The Dystopian Prism/Prison (click here)

In contrast to the murderous police brutality we’ve seen recently, an article about corporate consolidation of the Internet served as impetus for remembering Jan Wagner’s remarks. Mentioned in tweets earlier today:

The plight of Mozilla offers prime examples of how persuasion of the masses can be more damaging than a police state.

Firefox Maker Battles to Save the Internet—and Itself (click here)

Tribal mass-consumer channelization into Apple vs. Google echoes a money-driven two-party system re-branded as “representative democracy”. There is no need to take a population’s freedom by force if they will gladly hand it to you in exchange for convenient goods and services. @alt_scifi

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