This article first appeared in the Autumn 2021 Issue of 2600 The Hacker Quarterly
What was old is new again. Cyberpunk was a literary genre that gained steam in the mid-80s, especially with the 1984 publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. By the time the 90s came around it had morphed into a subculture that attracted your typical nihilistic technofetishist. There were hackers in the Cyberpunk subculture (I was one of them) but many saw it as just an aesthetic of the obligatory black leather jacket and mirrorshades. (At the time I would say that the Cyberpunk subculture was for hackers with bitchin’ fashion sense.) There was even a Cyberpunk ethic – a slight change from part of the Hacker Ethic. Where the Hacker Ethic says Information should be free, the Cyberpunk Ethic anthropomorphizes it by saying “Information wants to be free.” At the time I wrote a shrill essay about the distinction, where the Cyberpunk ethic would allow inaction, and those like me who subscribed to the Hacker Ethic would get off our ass and do something about it. Information was not going to free itself, and it was up to the Hackers to liberate it.
With the recent release of CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 and associated media to the same, the Cyberpunk Genre is having a bit of a resurgence. And in a fit of nostalgia, I have been revisiting the media of my misspent youth when I was consuming this stuff and participating in both the Cyberpunk and Hacker subcultures. I understand that once upon a time (and maybe today) there was a bit of animosity between the two groups, and I understood this, but I was always poly in many respects. Polyamorous, polysexual, polytheist, and so on. I never let artificial barriers or gatekeeping, or tribal
loyalty prevents me from enjoying whatever I wanted. But even so, the two subcultures were always linked. Let’s not forget the days of Operation Sundevil, where in 1990 there was a massive crackdown on Hackers by the United States Secret Service, and around that time, Steve Jackson Games had their offices raided illegally and equipment seized because it was believed by the Feds that GURPS Cyberpunk a tabletop Roleplaying Game was a manual for computer crime. Never mind that the technology in the game didn’t even exist in the real world, the Feds were scared of it and they seized all the work in progress for the product. Ironically, Steve Jackson Games later came out with a card-based game called Hacker that actually did simulate computer crime after winning their court case against the Secret Service where their first amendment rights as a publisher were upheld.
In the late 80s through the 90s I was a competent hacker but never did anything that made the news or caught the attention of an enterprising journalist trying to make a name for themselves with sensationalist reporting. I did the usual things. I cracked games, I wardialed and gained illicit access to systems I found in my explorations. I checked my email at the public library from terminals that had a large sign over them saying that they were not capable of checking email. I built a redbox from plans in this magazine (though finding a payphone it would work on was another challenge as the phone company had gotten pretty savvy about such things back then) I dumpster-dived at the phone company and computer stores. And I had been coding since writing my first program in 1978 when I was six years old.
It was my explorations as a hacker that led me to the Cyberpunk genre. It started when rtm released his internet worm in 1988 and it was reported that he was inspired by John Brunner’s novel, The Shockwave Rider, having found a very worn copy of the book in his belongings. After reading this I was hooked and soon I started consuming other Cyberpunk literature and enjoyed it immensely. These books painted a world where if someone had the technical acumen, they could do pretty much anything they want. And as someone who had technical skills and no qualms about breaking what I saw as unjust laws, I thought the future predicted would be a Hacker Paradise and I would do very well in that world indeed. I saw the worlds portrayed in Cyberpunk literature as something aspirational. Where if I had enough “edge” I could get away with daring exploits, help the oppressed and make my own justice where the legal system just dealt with oppression.
Like any misguided youth, when reading these stories and playing these games I saw myself as the hero. A console cowboy using their elite skills to right wrongs and stick it to the man. I thought that in a connected digital future that was right around the corner, I would be prepared to be free, living as a digital outlaw and outsmarting those that chose to do me ill. I mean I was already living that life, but I thought by the second or third decade of the 21st century the toys would be so much better.
Looking back, I see now that I was pretty much a digital version of a doomsday prepper. Those nuts that stockpile food and weapons in preparation for when society goes to shit, and they would be prepared and able to survive and live like kings (relatively) in a post-apocalyptic hellscape because they have assault rifles and anything they don’t have they can take. They think that when disaster hits, they will be the ones in charge. If the real 2020 (as opposed to the Cyberpunk 2020) taught us anything when a real disaster hit, and the way through it was to be compassionate and think of others, they found themselves woefully unprepared. Believing the lie of rugged individualism, they found themselves incapable of thinking about others and over half a million people died in the United States alone because you cannot fight the coronavirus with a gun and canned food. I thought the Cyberpunk dystopia would be a place where I and people like me (and the readers of 2600) would thrive. But now that we are living in the predicted Cyberpunk dystopia where tech is everywhere, multinational corporations have undue influence over governments and the surveillance state goes hand in hand with tech companies that treat us (or at least the data we generate) as a commodity and our privacy is bought and sold to make the richest people in the world richer, and all we get for it is intrusion into our lives, targeted advertisements and walled digital gardens as the main way of connecting with our social circles and navigating our online lives. Sure, we can opt out of many of these things, but at what cost? Those that do opt out of these things often live as second-class citizens in our increasingly digital world.
Our world today does resemble in many ways the 2021 predicted by Cyberpunk authors and what the readers of Mondo 2000 and posters to alt.cyberpunk on USENET were anxiously awaiting (and me with them)in the 90s. But things are far from a Hacker Paradise. The closest thing I have to a cybernetic implant is a port in my chest where I receive life-saving medication every four weeks. Instead of a cyberdeck, we have smartphones that connect us to the store of all human knowledge and nearly anyone on the planet, it just cost us intrusive spyware just to get the functionality to make it worth it, and we still have people thinking the Earth is flat and vaccines cause autism or are a means to track you via 5G signals (ironically these people post this shit to Facebook using their smartphones and are actually being tracked, but sure the vaccines are the problem.) The net is ubiquitous, and more and more things are being connected to it, but now your personal home network can be pwned because of shitty security in a lightbulb. We can have an entire library on a tablet, but the books are riddled with DRM, and we don’t even own them. Remember when Amazon removed copies of Orwell’s 1984 from all their Kindle devices? Irony is far from dead.
Capitalism drives everything. The reason why this digital oppression is so widespread is because it is profitable. I remember the days when the internet was non-commercial. I remember the first advertisement on USENET and the uproar it caused. But the genie was out of the bottle. Instead of a internet for the free exchange of information and ideas, it became a tool to make money. The digital pioneers on this electronic frontier wanted a free network. It was this environment that Open-Source Software and Hardware was born. Lest we forget, software WAS free originally. But as soon as Bill Gates started charging money for Altair BASIC and writing nastygrams to the Homebrew Computer Club about the evils of copying software the writing was on the wall. People fail to understand that altruism is actually in our own best self-interest, and the need for free software, open design hardware, and the free flow of information is needed today more than ever. Yes, we live in a Cyberpunk dystopia, the power is centered on the rich and powerful, but time is ripe for a digital resistance. Big Brother will brand us as criminals, but that is nothing new. What have we got to lose except our chains?