Saturday, 22 September 2012

Is Cyberpunk already here?

Cyberpunk focuses on ‘high-tech’ and ‘low life’ according to Wikipedia, featuring information technology and cybernetics, coupled with radical change in social order. It considers technology used in ways never anticipated by its creators. 

But hang on, that sounds like today, doesn’t it? Let’s see: for example, Facebook underpinning the ‘Arab Spring’; Blackberry mobile phones being used by London and Manchester rioters to stay one step ahead of the police; the current global furore over a certain video posted on YouTube…

Is cyberpunk here already?

William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer is often seen as the founding novel of the ‘cyberpunk’ tradition in science fiction, with other more recent authors following in his footsteps such as Richard Morgan, Neal Asher and Greg Egan. All such authors show a glimpse of where such ‘personal’ technology might take us, and how it could change society.

Authors in cyberpunk science fiction have often assumed there would need to be considerable ‘tech’ to lead to social change, whether via cybernetic implants or hormonal control, but perhaps we don’t need such intimacy with data, the ‘consensual reality’ fed directly into human consciousness by vast computers foreseen by Gibson and most famously in the film Matrix. Perhaps all we need is the latest IPhone or Samsung and a hunger for social contact with people we will never meet.

Last night I re-watched a film called ‘The Queen’, about how the British Royal Family reacted to Princess Diana’s death, and the huge outcry of support, verging on national hysteria. Imagine if Facebook had been around then. But even without that medium and its mate Twitter, the British public, fuelled by the media and television, triggered a radical shift in British society which lingered for years.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the first science fiction books I ever read, featured Hari Seldon, a mathematician who worked out how to predict mass social shifts and patterns using an approach he called Psychohistory. Maybe it is time someone developed such a method. With personal gadgetry affecting people and changing the world we live in so fast in so many unpredictable ways (not all of them bad!), and little means to regulate such devices or their usage, it may be that science fiction writers for once will end up as historical commentators rather than the dreamers of the future.

In my own novels set fifty years in the future, I’ve tried to extrapolate from today’s technology, but also considered some of the psychological implications. For example, there is the ‘node’, basically an input device embedded in the parietal lobe of the brain allowing anything from the web to be downloaded directly into the mind. The node, however, has become illegal, the reason explained by Blake, one of the characters in The Eden Paradox, just after he has watched Kat have a node experience on the planet Eden:

Blake knew the reality of it all was only now catching up with Kat. That was partly why nodes had been banned on Earth three years earlier, and surgically removed from anyone who had one. They allowed direct communication, whether from phones, computers or vids, to the mind. The attraction had been immediate, but very quickly had come the brain damage cases, the psychoses, the addictions, and the associated "detachment" murders, caused by a temporary suppression of emotional connection. A mother who interrupted her son in the middle of a node experience might find herself being calmly strangled by him while he was meanwhile enjoying a node-based vid or sex scene, or even exploring h-mails. The more the node was used, the more the user became detached from emotions and reality. Nodal schizophrenia, the shrinks called it.

Another ‘invention’ is the ‘Optron’. People are better at pattern matching than computers – we ‘chunk’ information and are remarkably flexible about it. So in the future I envisaged people, as well as machines, interrogating the vast data-streams of telemetry from an interstellar space mission. But rather than poring over sheets of print-out, these analysts use a virtual reality landscape that translates the data into recognisable patterns, so that the analyst can see if anything is going wrong. Here’s another scene from The Eden Paradox, where Micah knows something is amiss aboard the space-ship Ulysses, but he can’t find out what. In his own Optron landscape, data are coded into something approaching an archaic English countryside. Finding no clues there, he (illegally) invades another analyst’s landscape, shocked by what he finds:

Micah tensed, completely unprepared for what he saw. He didn’t know if his physical body recoiled or not, but as soon as he arrived, as usual from a medium height above the landscape, he shot back upwards away from the scene. The sky was a swirling mess of fierce blue and purple, streaks of scarlet zipping from one horizon to another. Beneath him was a charred city, bodies strewn amongst the ruins. Mutated human figures staggered amongst the carnage. Micah had difficulty controlling his breathing, and then realised why: a stench of burnt flesh. His own landscape was visual, but some analysts also used taste and smell.
He had never seen anything so apocalyptic – or had he? He remembered in training, once, the professor had briefly shown his students a landscape that had been used to develop a highly resilient and aggressive computer virus. 
He thought about it: a virus, but not a normal one that just destroys. What had been done had been subtle, an "Emperor’s Cloak" virus. It prevented real data getting through and supplanted it with fake data, what you wanted to be seen. But this was also a virus in the more conventional sense, eviscerating a vast data-stream. Micah pulled back and gazed towards the horizon. Flames billowed in the distant sky; voluminous clouds of grey-black smoke drifted across the land. He flew, increasingly fast, to see how far it extended, whether the whole landscape was the same, and whether the virus had affected everything.
He covered a dozen kilometres surveying the devastation below, everything dying or dead. Raven-like creatures tore strips of flesh from corpses; it meant non-recoverable data deletion. Although it was sickening to watch, he was impressed – data streams were highly protected by security protocols – to do this inside the Optron environment must have taken immense skill. 
Micah saw a green figure hiding then running. He chased after it…

Technology in the future may become more ‘invasive’, closer to our minds, and hence more directly influencing our ‘reality’. Advertising agencies and others would be very interested in such a capability, as would government agencies and others. Such direct advertising would work far better than the ads on social media that most of us ignore. As a case in point, later in my first book even the ‘good guys’ use the Optron to convince a politician of their cause – the images are so directly perceived that the politician cannot ignore them, even when he knows they have been planted there.

Alternatively, we may skip the need for cybernetic implants. Smarter and smarter I-Phones, probably with virtual reality sunglasses and head phones would be enough. Imagine people sitting on a train staring vacantly ahead behind dark glasses, smiling or laughing occasionally, looking stressed, murmuring to themselves, as if they are in another world.

Is it that hard to imagine? No. Fifty years? Think ten. What about the social implications? Well, that’s another story…

The Eden Paradox Series charts humanity’s progress fifty years from now. A new habitable planet is found, but the first two missions don’t come return...

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Waterstones and Ampichellis

Eden’s Trial is also available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.

Eden’s Revenge is coming soon…

For cyberpunk enthusiasts, also see Executive Decision – free short story on my website, taking cyberpunk to its limits four hundred years into the future. Read it here.

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