Cyberpunk is a term coined in the 1980s by Bruce Bethke who wrote a short story and novel of the same name. The concept of cyberpunk appeared in the 80s with a bleak and dystopian view of the future. The term comes from the combination of ‘cybernetics’ (the American Mathematician, Norbert Wiener described cybernetics as ‘the science of control and communications in the animal and machine.’) and ‘punk’ a movement among youth that encouraged non-conformity and individualism. Cyberpunk, in cinema and literature, was a sub-genre of science-fiction and it often dismally forecast what the future held.
These envisioned futures typically had a stark and oppressive social caste system, large and tyrannical corporations advertised on electric billboards as far as the eye can see, complete with social and moral decadence. Cyberpunk was born from the anxieties of the future, of what could come of the destructive culture of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and how large corporations would wield their power when unchecked by the governmental institutions who are meant to regulate them. 40 years later, we find that their fears, in many ways are realised: information on consumers is being bought and sold without the consumer’s knowledge or specific consent, companies appear more powerful than governments and trust in public authorities, especially in the past year, has waned.
Cyberpunk’s aesthetic precursors come from art made during the aftershocks of the Industrial Revolutions in America and Europe. Naturally, the cityscape became immensely compelling to artists. Camille Pissarro’s The Boulevard Montmartre at Night has the typical rain-slick blackness of almost all cities in cyberpunk worlds, he captures the blurry anonymity of crowds perfectly; not to mention the peculiar effect that rain, light and concrete make at night. While Pissarro’s piece captures the cityscape typical of cyberpunk, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks speaks more on the situation of the antiheroes in cyberpunk art. The slouched posture of the subjects, the sterile white light of the establishment in contrast to the soft light of the streetlamps outside, and the mysterious figure whose back is turned to the spectator — making him the protagonist of the painting. Hopper captures the ironic loneliness of living in a city and that familiar sense of despair that only seems to come to the surface in the early hours of the morning.
Cyberpunk is at its most potent in cinema where we see a blend of film noir and science fiction aesthetics: dark cityscapes spliced with neon lights, populated by apathetic crowds, scored with synth-heavy electronic music, and narratives told by the lonely and misunderstood. Famous examples include Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, and the Wachowski sisters’ The Matrix. Some more recent iterations include the hit TV series Black Mirror and Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Blade Runner 2049 was particularly stunning, earning five Oscars (including ones for Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects and Best Production Design). This also made it by far the most successful collaboration between Roger Deakins, who was the director of photography, and Denis Villeneuve.
Cyberpunk is so brilliantly done in Blade Runner 2049 whether in deserts of smog or overpopulated streets, the screen is seeping with a sense of desolation and despair. The protagonist, K (played by Ryan Gosling), is always highlighted whether silhouetted in toxic orange haze, or by the streams of artificial light that always seem to cut K’s iconic trench out of the rabble. The visual motif of K’s singularity not only highlight K as an outcast in his dystopian society, they also speak to the themes of identity, individuality and heroism in the film.
In fact, cyberpunk as a genre is very much concerned with identity and individuality. A mainstay of the cyberpunk canon is the antihero who doubles as an Everyman figure. They are usually isolated or set aside by their humanity which the anonymised shadow of the public never seems to show. It’s hard to tell where this feverish need to highlight the individual comes from in cyberpunk’s context. After 40 years it hardly seems possible that the teenage compulsion for rebellion has sustained it, it must be part of its philosophy. When these narratives always take place in dystopian societies, the philosophy of cyberpunk is essentially Existentialist; although the powers that be are oppressive and evil, it is up to the individual to decide whether they will follow the status quo or resist it. The only difference between the hero and the general populous is that they make a choice. They decide that it is not better, nor right to keep one’s head down and try to move through life.
Presentations of the individual inhabiting the urban environment in cyberpunk are not unlike those of the Romantics. The world of cyberpunk always seems to be in a perpetual state of a dark stormy night; it operates as a kind of pathetic fallacy, amplifying the cold, hard city in which the antihero lives. Further, the cold and the rain act as an extra barrier between the antihero and their external environment. Unpleasant weather conditions cause us to hunch over in our coats and bear it, making us so much less receptive to human warmth as we hasten towards the warmth of shelter instead. The urban environment was equally reviled by the Romantics. John Keats’ first ever poem starts: ‘O solitude! if I must with thee dwell, / Let it not be among the jumbled heap /Of murky buildings’ in William Blake’s ‘London’ he walks through the city and hears the ‘mind-forged manacles’ in each passerby’s voice. Both cyberpunk and Romanticism cry out for the feeling and fleshy human that lives among callous, unmoved, concrete buildings. Both yearn for what is natural and innate; a place where the passions of human life aren’t suffocated by the demands of urban life.
In the end, despite its strong visual culture, cyberpunk is about little else but the individual. It is suffused with the fear of what humanity is and what it could be in the future. Our increasing proximity to computers, robots and androids blurs the parameters of what being a person is. Technology’s ability to realise what we formerly believed to be impossible troubles our place in our own cosmos; technology has the potential to eradicate the majority of ailments, allow us to travel through time, even immortalise us. Cyberpunk’s search for the individual, its insistence on what the human spirit can achieve independent of technology, is actually a plea. A plea that when technology takes us forward, we don’t forget where we came from.