The majority of dystopian cyberpunk worlds are built on several features typical to the genre. Most of all, they depict the unchecked hegemony of future corporations and media, and the massive rise in technological advancement as a result of corporate centralization. These features are manifest across a landscape of corporate seats of power, each built upon the continued degeneration of public society.
Cyberpunk corporations secure their governorship in a variety of different ways. Sometimes they rule openly and with no effort to conceal their intent. Their monopolization of markets gives them the power to control every aspect of their consumers’ lives, from the work they do, to the worldview they have, right down to the toothpaste they use. In other cases, and more dangerously, corporations also rule from the shadows, exerting their influence through political lobbying, blackmailing, bribes and the marginalization of laws.
When it comes to the virtual world of information – cyberspace – the media becomes the perfect tool for public control. Journalistic values have fallen away to political and financial incentives. The media has the power to determine social norms, present the truth in their own light and overload the senses of their viewers with a deluge of meaningless content. We can see an extreme example of this cyberpunk vision of the media in Fifteen Million Merits, the second episode of the British miniseries, Black Mirror (2011). This episode paints a world where people are constantly encouraged to watch TV series that are intercut with obscene commercials, which can’t be skipped without payment. The story shows how media, when devoutly serving consumerism, turns the beauty of entertainment into something vicious. Through the power of pathos, the media is able to program its audience into a manipulable herd.
If pathos is their strategy, technology is their toolkit. In the hands of corporation-run media, advanced technologies serve as an instrument of power over the crowd. In cyberpunk future, technologies have reached such extraordinary heights that media’s manipulation of society is both extremely swift and utterly irresistible.
Except to those few who see the media for what it really is…
Power and centralization
If people are bound together, it is much easier to control them. A cyberspace which virtually connects all of its users is one thing, but centralization in cyberpunk stories also plays out in the physical landscape of the offline world. Narratives are invariably set in a large, crowded metropolis, where millions of people live out their lives. These inhabitants are simply part of the crowd. With the absence of any strong personal, cultural or social distinctions between them, their only option is to follow the herd. This is exactly what we see in Gibson’s The Sprawl Trilogy, in which a single urban area covers the majority of America’s east coast.
The fight for freedom
In any such dystopian world, forms of resistance naturally emerge. They may take the form of criminal gangs unwilling to submit to official authorities, of solitary hackers or hacktivist cells fighting to be liberated from corporate domination. These groups and individuals, usually represented as the dregs of society, alone represent the human desire for freedom and resistance to higher authorities.
It is indeed the desire for freedom which typically drives cyberpunk heroes forward through their journey. Often the desire is born out of their background as hackers, a vocation which, of course, doesn’t exactly attract conservatists loyal to the power system. Others seek freedom through membership to active resistance groups, while yet others seek liberation through the increased personal power they gain from implants and augmentations.
Whether any of these heroes realize it or not, the thumping heart of the rebel beats in their chest. Cyberpunk society is as much about yearning for freedom as it is about control or technological advancement. Regardless of how desperate the situation is – or how dark the world – those who stand up against authority do not give up. There is always someone somewhere in the seething hive of the undercity who, with enough dogged devotion to their cause, can make ripples into waves and challenge the powers that be…