We’re on the Brink of Cyberpunk

It’s not just the technology, surveillance, and dystopian vibes—it’s the culmination of decades of deliberate governmental erosion.

While Blade Runner’s once-distant future of November 2019 feels resonant in so many ways—vast corporate power, persistent surveillance, life in a time of constant crisis—it misses the actual 2019’s most salient feature: an inescapable, painful awareness of politics and of the presence or deliberate absence of government in daily life.

Government, as experienced for much of the 20th century, is largely absent from the lives of characters in cyberpunk stories. Police are a durable feature, but government services and functions beyond the security state are absent.

Yet for all the aggressive visibility of politics in our daily lives, we’re not that far off from the powerlessness of a cyberpunk future. Cyberpunk speaks to the present because the conditions that inspired cyberpunk remain largely unchanged.

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the world, it collides with governments in the West that have spent decades deliberately shedding power, capability, and responsibility, reducing themselves to little more than vestigial organs that coordinate public-private partnerships of civic responsibility. This hollowing of the state began in earnest in the 1980s, and the science fiction of that time—the earliest texts of cyberpunk—imagines what happens when that process is complete. Cyberpunk is a genre of vast corporate power and acute personal deprivation. The technologies at the center of it are all means of control, control bought by the wealthy or broken by criminals. Where recourse is available, in whatever small way, it’s through direct action.

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