From its inception, works of cyberpunk fiction served as a response to the visions of utopia offered by contemporary mainstream sci-fi. Its proponents include Philip K. Dick, Katsuhiro Otomo, Ridley Scott, William Gibson, and Mike Pondsmith to name a few. While the genre spans all forms of media from literature and movies to tabletop gaming, they can be summarized by a single catchphrase:
High tech and low life.
Cyberpunk features fantastical scientific breakthroughs with horrifying twisted applications. Loneliness driven by the opiate of social clout and at times literal opiates, catastrophic weather phenomena, endless war, chasmic economic inequality, and faceless corporate titans entangling with an ever-encroaching government.
Today, it seems we are rushing to realize these visions of a dark future. Cyberpunk is not a Kaczynski-like manifesto against technology, but just an honest assessment of where over-technologization leads.
Blade Runner, perhaps the most prototypal work of the genre, presents a dystopian prophecy of Los Angeles in an overcrowded dying world. The film prods and asks uncomfortable questions of its viewers. What does it mean to be human? What happens when technology is driven by unfettered greed, making slaves of us all?
Our protagonist Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) prowls the dirty neon streets and alleyways as a “blade runner” tasked with investigating and “retiring” (assassinating) bioengineered androids called replicants. These androids serve as an expendable underclass, programmed through implanted memories to perform duties too dangerous for “real” humans. When a replicant deviates from its programming, demonstrating its humanity by fighting for agency and freedom, a blade runner is sent to dispatch them.
Deckard’s quarry Roy Batty is a combat model replicant, whose sole purpose is to take life. In the film’s climax, despite having the upper-hand on Deckard, Batty disregards his programming and instead chooses to save Deckard’s life. We come to understand that both men are enslaved by a society that sees them as nothing more than tools to be used and discarded, churning through lives like chattel. Their actions may be meaningless in the face of an uncaring bureaucracy, but there is still beauty in the struggle. Despite the nihilistic bent, a sliver of humanity yet prevails.
Emergent and existing technologies like virtual reality, artificial wombs, gene editing, life extension research, and general artificial intelligence—to name a few—may evolve or devolve our understanding of what it is to be human. We are already blurring the lines between man and machine—just try to take a walk without your smartphone in hand. Will humanity survive the unceasing march of progress? Or will we live trapped in the silicon-lined alleyways of the mind?
At least we’ll have flying cars.Recommended Reading and Viewing
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Kevin Xu is Senior Strategist at Beck & Stone. He lives in Queens.