Thursday, 3 January 2008

Cyber without punk?

It's not often I get really, properly angry about alternative fashion and culture, but lately I've been working in a flagship cyber- store in Camden market, and to cap it all I've just started reading Gibson's Pattern Recognition. All of this has got me thinking again about cyberpunk, cyber-culture, and what the subculture signifies. So shall we cyber-?

Right. Cyber-culture is, at baseline, both ridiculously inoffensive and disarmingly radical - despite the fact that a good swathe of participants manage to miss the point entirely. It's a bizarre neon synthesis of goth-, punk-, emo-, rave- and 'urban' cultures that looks hyperbolically towards some arcane design-political paradigm known as 'the future'. The aesthetic is sleek, different, chrome-tinted with an edge of grunge, and the lifestyle attracts scenesters and wannabe kids from every walk of hip London life. Which is great. Or, rather, which would be great if the lifestyle wasn't founded on a basis of conspicuous consumption, taking stimulants and going to clubs.
Hanging around the back of Cyberdog one dark Wednesday night in January, chatting to its body of staff - of assorted ethnicities, gender-and-sexual orientations, all hard-working scene kids under 24, and all completely bonkers - one comes to realise that 'cyber' culture, rather than the break from the mainstream it claims to be, is in fact a crystallisation of UK youth culture. Here we all are: young, mental, working too hard, over-spending on ridiculous clothes and odd, high-maintenance hairstyles, listening to repetitive music , dicking around with each other's hearts. Here we are, cool, stupid, impulsively jacking off to some half-cocked vision of the future dreamed up by roleplayers and scene-savvy designers in loft apartments. Fucked up on booze and boring drugs. Waiting for our futures to start.

That's my problem with cyberculture: it doesn't have a project anymore. Ever since the abandonment of the suffix '-punk' by the cyber- scene, cyberkids have lost their way. We've been caught up in dancing, shopping and the cutting edge facade of the 'future' obsession, blindly hopeful with only a thin layer of really imagining what the future could be like if we put our minds to it, beyond neon pink and sparkly. Even though neon pink and sparkly isn't a bad place to start.

Cyber is no longer really punk, and it's no longer really political. No, it's not enough to yell 'fuck the system', swallow a handful of pills and watch Velvet Goldmine. Again. No, it's not enough to be gay, or bisexual, or to have interesting hair - being a minority does not make one politically aware by default, even if it should. No, it's not enough to be firmly of the opinion that drugs should be legalised and prepared to expound on the topic at parties: the legal status and criminal knock-on effects of illicit substances are important topics, but not compared to, say, the issue of a living minimum wage, or immigration, or how to stop our society turning into the achingly corrupt surveillance state that Gibson and Sterling themselves were warning us about back in the nineties.
Just because something is fun and sexy doesn't necessarily mean it's important, and it's high time we got it through our buzzed-out little heads that this stuff is sexy too- a different kind of sexy, because it's about power, privilege and state-creation. We should be able to rock with that, and if we can't, and if we're too munted or comedowny or spend so much time on our hair and make up on the next General Election day that we don't have time to vote, it's not the system that's got it wrong - it's us, and our tiny attention spans. It doesn't have to be like this.

Cyber can be punk, and it should.

Ultimately, the strange, shy kids who make pilgrimages to Cyberdog on a Saturday come there because they want a better world. Because they're disappointed with the one they've been born intoand want to re-make it. The problem only arises when, distracted by the flashing lights and thumping chords, so many of them stop there. Too many become distracted by the flashy, fashion-conscious elements of the scene forgetting that future-building is not a product, but a process. There is nothing wrong with imagining a future that's cleaner, faster, deeper, weirder, where people can remake their lives and their bodies at whim, one that's more accepting and more exciting than the proto-fascist US hegemony we're being fobbed off with. But you can't buy it online, and you can't reserve entrance tickets, and you won't find it at the bottom of a baggie.

The Revolution is Just a T-Shirt Away

Training the young to imagine possible futures is vital; it was and remains the most important element of cyberpunk as a literary, musical and fashion movement. But creatively imagining a future and working to build it must not stop when one has achieved the look. It's now perfectly normal for cyber-scene kids trotting around Camden never even to have heard of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling or Rudy Rucker, and that's not forgiveable. By all means save up for those dread falls, by all means try the pink pills, but for god's sake read the literature. The world is now leaning more and more towards the nightmare universes imagined by the godpersons of cyberpunk literature - internet access is near-universal in the western world, resources are becoming scarcer, global corporations are gaining power and influence beyond the dreams of some countries. If we want to survive this new world order, then we've got to be ready - not just look ready. If we want to take down systems, if we want to be hackers and independent tech contractors and urban warriors, it's not enough just to recreate the look and gobble MDMA. We've got to put the punk back into cyberpunk.


And now I've caught myself humming Billy Bragg's Waiting for the Great Leap Forward, so it's time to sign off. More coming later about cyber-culture and gender, which I think deserves a whole separate post.


  1. One might suggest that trading in identity-as-commodity is particularly symptomatic of late 20th Century capitalism, which has at its fundamental assumption that everything can be valued, bought and consumed. After Marx, we are all economic vectors...

    I don't know if cyberculture ever really *had* a project that it could reclaim, like most alternative clutures it's always seemed to have enjoyment as its prime focus while remaining vaguely leftist, possessed of a politics generally seen most clearly through a cloud of cannabis smoke. I don't think that's a bad thing, but I think the claims of wanting to change the world need to be examined somewhat cynically. Yes we'd want to change the world, but can we have some more MDMA first?

    (I'm given to wonder occasionally about the soporific effect of serotonin-spiking drugs on thinkers & interestingly askew people, as there's no other demographic for whom they're as effective or important. After a life spent wrong-footing it, a sudden feeling of joy & acceptance...)

    I've always been sort of sympathetic to the belief that people ought to be reading the philosophy behind the look, but I'm increasingly skeptical of the connection between philosophy & style. Is cyber style really rooted in cyberpunk or simply a desire to look different in unison? (I have respect for a 15 year old cyberkid on his own in Aldershot, somewhat less for a neon pile of rutting hormones in the corner of slimelight...) Is response to an aesthetic predicated on political commitment or can that response be authentic in itself? *Especially* in the case of a kid growing up & already implicated in the digital age at an unconscious level...?

    *Do* we want to change the world? Or do we want to fuck in the ruins? I think that' a legitimate question to be asking.

    You might -- if you don't know her work already -- enjoy Donna Haraway's work, I think it provides a good starting point for rearticulating a cyberpunk free of some of the more common difficulties encountered in Gibson etc...

    xxx J

  2. It's been considered that the current rise of Steampunk is a reaction to this kind of thing.
    Steampunk people, in general, *will* have read Gibson and Heinlein. Rather than looking into a dark future, they're taking a different one and creating it as though this future we live in should't exist. They love their aesthetic, but they want functional things as well. As well as people just making things look pretty (datamancer’s lovely computer mods), there are people genuinely making retro tech, stuff that'll survive if everything goes wrong so that they can still have their morning tea- actual steampowered and clockwork things. They may not be so political as the cyberpunk literature was, and I know that they're a hell of a lot more interested in Zeppelins and creating giant automata than a new world order, but they're so far looking much more dedicated to their revolution than the cyberkids ever did.
    Since the dark glamour of hacking doesn't seem to have fixed things and the world is continuing on its way down, these guys will at least have indoor lighting and hot water after things go completley wrong.

  3. "No political challenge can be met by shopping." -- George Monbiot

    FWIW, real hackers don't shop at Cyberdog: real hackers wear jeans and T-shirts they got free at Linux conventions. If they buy clothes at all, they do so on-line, at ThinkGeek, or at their favourite webcomic's online store. While it's no longer true that all hackers cultivate "a certain relaxed contempt for the meat", as Gibson put it, many of the great hackers display an almost pathological unconcern with the surface appearance of things. This is not a coincidence :-)

  4. Did you read the long, rambling and overemotional post I made a while back about similar issues I have with rave culture? After I made that, I came to think that I was really wrong to blame the culture for 'losing its way' - because ultimately most subcultures are so much a part of the broader culture they pursue much the same goals - gratification and a good time. I think its perhaps wrong to judge people who we might consider to be scenester idiots. There's nothing to say they don't strip the day-glo off and go campaigning. Ultimately, the club nights and so on are just great big parties. Being a raver/cyberpunk/goth/punk/whatever is not the sum of anyone's identity; I'm political, but I'm not a political raver, or a political bisexual, or a political student.

  5. I don't think there is any intrinsic connection between a look/style/scene on the one hand, and a set of political propositions on the other.

    Giving one's approval to something on the basis of its 'look', of its fitting the parameters of a certain scene, rather than its actual content, is a first step down all sorts of bad paths. Its a natural, human thing to do, but one has to work to minimise its effects.

    The important thing is building practical things that are structurally independent of capitalism, and point beyond it. The style and feel of these things, the scene around them, will evolve naturally.

    That's so important.

  6. Maybe intense factionalising is what's really pointless. I'm not a goth, not a punk, not a cyber anythign raver or hacker. Doesn't mean I'm not politically aware and active.
    And in terms of cyberdog, I think you are describing a movement defined by fashion and few habits, not politics.

  7. Hey there!! Itsw stephen ( black spikey hair , black shorts and hatebreed t shirt) who you got talking to in CyberDog TODAY ( 21-1-08 ) i was telling you i work for sky in films etc.

    Loved the blog on cyber punk etc. very good :-) Dont think im smart a#enough to provide an in depth analysis such as the others on here however i would love to discuss more over a drink in camden or wherever you like this week :-)
    07527895221 txt me or something?

  8. I have so many comments to make on this, you raise some interesting issues, but after deliberating how to project myself, i found all trains of thought lead to this:

    Get your self inflated head out of your arsehole, you are looking far to much into this.

    Cyberdog was new to the scene when I started clubbing in 1998, before they appeared, we used to make our own costumes, it became easier to buy cyberdog when they showed up, BUT until that day, we were never called cyber kids, that tag was applied after the brand became staple, just like how you use a hoover, and not a vacuum cleaner. The people that bought it way back when, did so to be part of the scene, not to feel like they are participating - from what I can tell from your ramblings- in some psudo marxist community drive to the future.

    The most annoying thing is you sully the good name of the finest scene writers ever to grace us by suggesting that in some way we are living to their ideals....

    That my friend, is called progression of society, without it we stagnate, it is not special to 'Cyber kids'


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