Cyberpunk I: Cyberpunk as Retrofuturism

Cyberpunk and its offshoots (biopunk, solarpunk, etc.) are still our significant cultural vision of the future. And yet, it hasn’t aged particularly well.

This is the vid-phone from Blade Runner (1980), which was supposed to take place in Los Angeles this year.

It does what most fictional tech does, which is update a device from the era, something the audience already understands (here, a 1970s pay phone) with a futuristic design — e.g., it’s a cylinder rather than a block.

But look at this beast. It’s got an inch-thick steel plate! That says a couple things. First, as hinted at by the dents and vandalism, it implies a kind of economic and social decay where the device needs to be armored against its users, many of whom will try to steal or destroy it. This device belongs to a fictional dystopia.

More than that, the plating says this device is expensive. Just look at it. It’s heavy, which means it’s a bitch to replace. And yet they’ve also enclosed it such that it’s not going to be easy to repair either, which further implies a slow pace of technological change. This device was built to survive in the field for ten or more years with minimal maintenance.

In truth, no one uses paid video phones because the technology has gotten so small and so cheap to produce that almost anyone can afford one that fits in their pocket. An actual public video phone would look like an interactive mall kiosk — light, plastic, and modular rather than heavy, steel, and monolithic, because if it gets damaged, its cheaper to replace than to repair it.

That doesn’t mean we don’t live in a dystopia. It means the real world isn’t bound by the rules of genre, which specify that objects and people must reveal themselves by appearance. The criminal mastermind has a big head. His dull henchman has ham-fists and a heavy brow. The fat character is always funny.

Part of the reason smart phones are so cheap is that they’re data-gathering devices for surveillance capitalism. I’ve said for years (non-ironically) that Orwell was an optimist. He assumed the government would have to mandate cameras and listening devices in our homes. In truth, we happily pay for and install them ourselves without being asked.

There’s nothing that says a dystopia has to be dark and brooding. In fact, the creators of a genuine dystopia have a vested interest in making everything appear as light and happy as possible. Ironically, there’s a certain naive optimism in Blade Runner, and cyberpunk generally, that it assumes the world and its masters will reveal themselves so readily.

Retrofuturism is a movement in the creative arts showing the influence of depictions of the future produced in an earlier era. If futurism is sometimes called a “science” of anticipating what will come, retrofuturism is the remembering of that anticipation.


So futurism is a vision of the future and retrofuturism is a past vision of the future, like the old Buck Rogers comic strips, where the spaceships have wings and the eponymous hero sometimes flies on his jetpack through space with no helmet.

Or take pneumatic tubes, like at the bank, which use air pressure to propel a canister or other object along a track. I remember reading an article in a magazine from the 1930s that suggested in the future, you wouldn’t have to go out to get the newspaper or wait for it to be delivered. News and information would be piped directly into your home, along with other movable goods, making the picture below a 1930s server room.

In one sense, that’s not wrong. News and information are piped to darn-near every household in the world. But not by shooting a folded newspaper through a metal tube. The author of that past futuristic vision understood the trend but had difficulty imagining the technology.

And it wasn’t the wireless part. Radio was extremely popular in the ’30s, and the telegraph had been around for more than a generation. Rather, it was the screen. Information has to be displayed on something, and in the days before TV, even if you knew or guessed that screens were coming, it would be hard to imagine Apple’s hand-sized retina display coupled with a ubiquitous high-speed data network would ever be cheaper or more widespread than print.

To be fair, suggestions that society would be immanently paperless have repeatedly turned out to be wrong. As any amateur futurist will tell you, it’s not the linear trends that make prediction hard. It’s the intersections.

We don’t like to think of our own visions of the future as “retrofuturistic.” As occupiers of the present, we are subconsciously aware that our vision of the future is the most advanced to date! But of course, it will age, which means even our most advanced conceptions will elicit a chuckle from our grandchildren. We, too, are quaint.

Take the neural jack, that ubiquitous sci-fi man-machine interface. In the future, it will look as ridiculous and barbaric as sending newspapers down pneumatic tubes under the street.

It didn’t start off that way. Sci-fi author William Gibson, who invented the term cyberspace and was the first to seriously imagine it, had his characters access the global digital network via electrodes on their heads. It was the sci-fi film directors, needing a strong visual portrayal of “jacking in,” that once again copied existing technology, something the 1980s audience was already familiar with: the headphone jack.

It’s also symbolic. There’s something mesmerizing and horrific about the insertion of a metal probe into the body, as in that famous scene from The Matrix when Neo wakes up in the reactor and discovers the I/O port in the back of his skull.

It is simply not possible to put a jack anywhere on the body that will act as input/output to the central nervous system. In the case of The Matrix, you could perhaps claim the machines bred humans to be I/O compliant, but the fact that Morpheus and his team surgically remove the devices later suggests otherwise.

Even co-opting the spinal cord and all 12 cranial nerves, which mediate experience between the brain and body, wouldn’t work as advertised. For one, they’re all spread out. The optic and olfactory nerves are behind your face. The pair of vagus nerves run through your central cavity.

You could intercept the cranial nerves of course and run wires to a central port, but that would be incredibly invasive and require numerous surgeries, even in the future, which immediately means it would never be widespread. And even then, it still wouldn’t work. There is no “output wire” from the visual cortex, for example. There is no “input wire” to the brain stem, which mediates heart rate, temperature, the sleep/wake cycle, and a host of other essential functions the machine would need to access.

If you threaded microscopic wires throughout the brain, you would only capture the firing of individual nerves or clusters, and you would need a second, virtual brain on the machine-end to put it all together, which raises the question of which of the two parallel consciousnesses was really in control of anything. (Talk about a nightmare. Who would volunteer for that?)

Then there’s the fact that a lot of our core bodily functions, such as almost anything to do with sex, are not mediated by wires at all but by glandular secretions. The mammalian body is simply not machine-ready.

We can already control basic computer functions with a combination of electrodes and eye movement. I suspect we’ll control computers with our “thoughts” noninvasively in that way, just as I suspect very few doctors will be willing to chop your arm off and replace it with a prosthesis. It’s much more likely that we’ll enhance ourselves with removable devices like sleeves and exoskeletons.

What about cyberspace?

There will be virtual realities of course, but the global digital network is not going to remain a separate world unto itself, which not even Mr. Gibson foresaw (originally).

Again, it’s the intersection of technologies that makes prediction hard. When Neuromancer was written, the world was fundamentally wired. The telecommunications revolution means that the digital world is untethered. We will not invade it as hacker-adventurers. It will invade us, as games like Ingress and Pokemon Go have already shown.

We will increasingly overlay our digital realities — walking or driving directions, advertisements, animations, video calls, web pages, pop-up menus — onto the physical world, separating us further from it, and when the physical world doesn’t comply with our needs, we will alter it through gene editing and micro-fabrication technology.

Ultimately, bits will control atoms and the physical world will become an extension of our minds rather than the other way round, which makes cyberpunk yet another quaint anachronism, like the old Buck Rogers strips.

It also means, paradoxically, that every quaint vision, from Buck Rogers to Battlestar: Galactica, will eventually exist somewhere as the word made flesh.

cover image: “Zygote Market” by Eddie Mendoza