1987 (C) Spin Publications, Inc.
C Y B E R P U N K S
Dr. Timothy Leary
The opening moments of the movie WARGAMES provide a classic
example of Cypberpunk warning. It is a foggy night. A jeep
carries a captain and a lieutenant up a winding Colorado mountain
road to secret nuclear-missile launching silos. The captain tells
the lieutenant that he and his wife planted a cultivated grade of
marijuana seeds in their garden, and, to ensure their growth,
invoked the Tibetan Buddhist prayer for enlightenment:
Om mane padma hum.
The officers reach the entry checkpoint, identify
themselves, and are issued pistols. A huge steel vault door
opens, and they enter the control room from which the bombs are
fired. While they check dials, the captain continues his story:
the cannais harvest was very successful... Suddenly, the
lieutenant interrupts. On the control board a red light is
"Tap it with your finger," says the captain.
The light disappears. Get it? The captain is alert and can
de-bug errors in the system. But an alarm blares. The two
officers quickly rip open the code book that instructs them what
to do and gulp. They are commanded to launch nuclear missiles at
the Soviet Union. No fucking way, the captain basically says. He
orders the lieutenant to phone headquarters for HUMAN
confirmation. The lieutenant protests that resisting the code-
order is an unauthorized action, but makes the call.
There's no answer. The lieutenant primly reminds the
captain the he MUST fire the nukes. The captain shakes his head.
No way, Jack. He won't kill 50 million people without a human
command. The lieutenant points his pistol at the captain. But
the alarm turns out to another falso alert. However, the
government responds to the captain's insubordination by
introducing WHOPPER, a computer that "takes the man out of the
The classic science fiction authors tended to be bluff, no-
nonsense, engineer types who learned their craft in AMAZING
STORY pulps or in the scientific journals and worked up to slick
magazine narration. These guys were smart, scientific,
knowledgeable, competent, and--like their characters--hopelessly
In the activist '70s, "new wave" science fiction emerged
with the writings of Norman Spinrad, William Burroughs, Harlan
Ellison, and Michael Moorcock, who expressed the irreverent
cultural activism of the time. Brash dissent, anti-war protest,
streetwise satire, a blending of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll
with high-tech the future portrayed not in terms of governments
and controlled rocket hardware, but in terms of new cultural and
The new generation of Cyber-writers like William Gibson,
Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and Spinrad trace their heritage
back to William Burroughs, whose laid-back, wry, decadent, worldly
genius has for four decades influenced Beats, cynics, defiant new
wavers, heavy metal screamers, and philosophic rollers.
Burroughs, the Nostradamus/Prophet of the electronic future,
presented his Soft Machine "cut-up" methods which taught us to
digitize words; his CITIES OF THE RED NIGHT predicted the current
AIDS plague; NAKED LUNCH produced the basic tenet of the
information age: "...people are not bribed to shut up about what
they know. They are bribed not to know it."
The new wavers outraged the flag wavers, the science fiction
old guard, which favored a right-wing militaristic politic
featuring empire-sized conflicts on the galactic scale, and
assumed a conservative, country-club attitude in cultural and
pyschological matters. The heroes of Robert Heinlein, for
example, are bluff, whiskey-drinking, macho American grads. But
the characters of Cyberpunk science fiction are low down.
The concept was formally introduced in William Gibson's 1984
punk novel, NEUROMANCER. Although this first novel swept the
Triple Crown of science fiction--the Hugo, the Nebula, and the
Philip K. Dick awards--it is not really science fiction. It could
be called "science faction" in that it occurs not in another
galaxy in the far future, but 20 years from now, in a BLADE RUNNER
world just a notch beyond our silicon present.
In Gibson's Cyberworld there is no-warp drive and "beam me
up, Scotty." The high technology is the stuff that appears on
today's screens or that processes data in today's laboratories:
Super-computer boards. Recombinant DNA chips. AI systems and
enormous data banks controlled by multinational combines based in
Japan and Zurich.
Case, the antihero, is a streetwise speed freak, a cowboy
hacker illegally rustling high-tech code. Molly, the sleek,
beautiful heroine in mirrorshades, is a hired gun with optical
implants. The plot involves Ollie North-type uniformed Cyber-
Hoods, software sensors, Cyber-Rastas squatted in abandoned sky
labs, all just average citizens of the information society.
Digitized data is the air, water, gold, and bread of the
The classic science fiction characters of Asimov, Arthur C.
Clarke, Jr., Frank Herbert, and George Lucas acted and thought in
terms of the empire, of the Industrial Age, or looked like
Spielberg mutants from fantasy futures.
NEUROMANCER fuses high-tech with low-life, high-tech with
high art: Neuro-transmitters, electrons, protons, soundwaves,
video screens used without official approval by libertarian
individuals who live on a kind of frontier outside of law and
The term "Cybernetics" was coined by Norbert Weiner in 1948,
from the Greek word kubernettes, which means "pilot" or
"steersman," but Weiner redefined it as "theoretical study of
control process in electronics, mechanical, and biological
systems." The derivative word, Cybernate, came to mean "to
control automatically by computer, or to be so controlled."
Weiner and the engineers corrupted the meaning of Cyber.
The word "to steer" became "to control." And now, an even more
sinister interpretation perceives Cybernetics as "the study of
human mechanisms and their replacement by mechanical or electronic
But Americans from Tom Sawyer to Tom Swift have always
grabbed the "steersman's wheel." Henry Ford's "automobile" was
the essence of Cyberpunk, breaking down the mass-transportation
control of the railroad to the rebellious "joyride." Mark Twain
converted Guttenberg's gadget into a personal appliance called a
But Cyberpunk is pop tech. Complex electronic equipment in
the hands of people. Pop engineering. If there is any aim to the
Cyberpunk movement, it is to empower individuals to package,
process, and communicate their thoughts on screen. It's uniquely
homegrown, a Yankee Doodle phenomenon. And it's national anthem
is rock 'n' roll. In LITTLE HOPES, by Norman Spinrad,
Coppersmith, the leader of a Cyberpunk organization known as the
Reality Liberation Front, is describing his new pirate brain-jack
MTV program to his lieutenant, Paco, a street kid. It features an
artificial-personality rock star named Red Jack:
"Hi, I am Red Jack," Coppersmith said. "I'm not here as the
rock star you all know. I'm the leader of the Reality Liberation
Front, who's bringing you this cut-rate bed-bug (pirate)
program.... And now I'm making you a member of the Reality
Liberation Front, so go out and copy this disk, and start your own
"Where's the fuckin' dinero in that?" Paco demanded. "You
wanna encourage every hacker with his own computer to pirate our
disk, Red Jack and all?"
Coppersmith grinned from ear to ear. "Think of it!
Hundreds of little Reality Liberation Front chapters coast to
coast, bust one and two more spring up, and the only connection
the cops can make between any of them is our national leader, Red
Jack, a leader who's impossible to bust because there are
thousands of him floating around, and he doesn't even exist. Mr.
Random Factor personified. Red ripe anarchy for all the world to
see, and not jack shit the fat men can do."
The future began with the development of the technology that
allowed the creation of the computer. Because of their bulk and
the cost of development, early computers were solely in the hands
of technicians enslaved to the corporations and government labs
where they were being designed.
But with the development of the microchip, says Cyberpunk
novelist, Bruce Sterling, "technical culture has gotten out of
hand. The advances of the sciences are so deeply radical, so
disturbing, upsetting, and revolutionary, that they can no longer
be contained. They are surging into culture at large: they are
everywhere. The traditional power structure, the traditional
institutions, have lost control of the pace of change.
"And suddenly a new alliance is becoming evident; an
integration of technology and the '80s counterculture. An unholy
alliance of the technical world with the underground world of pop
culture and street level anarchy.
"The counterculture of the 1960s," says Sterling," was
rural, romanticized, anti-science, anti-tech. But there was
always a lurking contradiction at its heart, symbolized by the
electric guitar. Rock tech has grown ever more accomplished,
expanding into high-tech recording, satellite video, and computer
graphics. Slowly it is turning rebel pop culture inside out,
until the artists of pop's cutting edge are now, quite often,
cutting-edge technicians in the bargain. They are special-effects
wizards, mixmasters, tape-effects techs, graphics hackers,
emerging through new media to dazzle society with head-trip
extravaganzas like FX cinema.
"And now that technology has reached a fever pitch, its
influence has slipped control and reached street level. The
hacker and the rocker are this decade's pop-culture idols."
Bobby was a cowboy, and ice was the nature of his game,
ice and ICE, Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics. The
matrix is an abstract representation of the relationship
between data systems. Legitimate programmers jack onto
their employers' sector of the matrix and find themselves
surrounded by bright geometries representing the corporate
Towers and fields of it ranged in the colorless non-
space of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-
hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of
massive quantities of data. Legitimate programmers never
see the walls of the ice they work behind, the walls of
shadow that screen their operations from others, from
industrial espionage artists and hustlers like Bobby Quine.
Bobby was a cowboy, Bobby was a craftsman, a burglar,
casing mankind's extended electronic nervous system,
rustling data and credit in the crowded matrix, monochrome
nonspace where the only stars are dense concentrations of
information, an dhigh above it all burn corporate galaxies
and the cold spiral arms of military systems.
--from BURNING CHROME, by William Gibson
Tyrone Slothrop, chased by the intelligence agencies of
all the post-World War II powers, pops up in Zurich. He
contacts a black market entrepreneur name Semyavin.
"First thing to understand is the way everything here
is specialized. If it's watches you go to one cafe. If
it's women you go to another. Furs are divided into sable,
ermine, mink, and others. Same with dope: stimulants,
depressants, pyschotomimetics... What's it you're after?"
"Oh, another one." Giving Slothrop a sour look. "Life
was simple before the first war. You wouldn't remember.
Drugs, sex, luxury items. Currency in those days was no
more than a sideline, and the term, 'industrial espionage,'
A tragic sigh. "Information. What's wrong with dope
and women? Is it any wonder the world's gone insane, with
information being the only medium of exchange?"
--from GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, by Thomas Pyhchon
The Bible of the 21st Century has and Old Testament and a
New. The Old, written in 1973 by Thomas Pynchon, is called
GRAVITY'S RAINBOW. It takes place in 1945, when the fall of ther
German Empire leaves Europe a lawless zone in which the major
powers struggle for control of the future. The spoils of this
high-tech war are not land or raw materials but scientists and
scientific information. Everyone knows that the next war will be
won not by the bravest, not by the strongest, but by the smartest.
The Bad Guys, the intelligence-espionage agencies of the
superpowers, ruthlessly scour the continent for atomic secrets,
rocket equipment, chemical patents, and, above all, pyschological
methods for brainwashing, mind reading, pyschodiagnosis, and
At the same time there emerges the Counterforce, a loosely
related network of Good Guys, rowdy agents, independant thinkers,
high-tech mystics who deal themselves into the action, each one in
pursuit of their own private visions. In the book, a band of
black African troops just demobilized from the army seek to
control their own V-2 rocket. Roger Mexico, a statistical
psychologist, harasses the Fat Men in the control towers to win
back his girlfriend. Major Tchitcherine, a Soviet intelligence
agent and hashish connoisseur, conducts a mystical search for his
African brother. Tyrone Slothrop, unwilling subject of a bizarre
CIA psychological experiment, flees across the zones, chased by
Ollie Norths and protected by an underground netword of
Best of all, GRAVITY'S RAINBOW is an authoritative text on
how to understand and neutralize the Cybervillians, the secret
police of all nations. With brilliant parody and farcical satire,
Pynchon exposes the weirdo psychology, the kinky sociology, the
ruthless inhumanism of all the national espionage combines.
The New Testament of the 21st Century is found in Gibson's
trilogy NEUROMANCER, COUNT ZERO, and MONA LISA OVERDRIVE, Gibson
providing a smooth follow-up on Pynchon, an encyclopedic epic for
the Cyber-screen culture of the immediate future, and an inspiring
Cyber-theology for the Information Age.
Much of the action of NEUROMANCER occurs in the BAMA
Sprawl--BAMA means Boston-Atlanta-Metropolitan-Axis--decaying
cities given over to gangs and segregated zones. America in the
21st Century seems to have slumped into a second-class BLADE
RUNNER society. It seems to be a laissez faire urban jungle.
Third World countries have sunk into third-class cultures
controlled by the old primitive religions. Japan, of course, is
the scene of the fast action, the innovative technology, the big
money. Switzerland seems to be prosperous, too.
Folks live in a media world, inhabiting an infoenvironment
where they spend much time watching super-realistic TV programs
via brain implants.
The religions seem to be offshoots of the current electronic
ministries of Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. The Christian Youth
Gangs seem to be pretty militant and aggressive.
Since robots program all the muscular-mechanical chores,
there's lot of leisure time. Drugs. Whores. Service
occupations. On the surface, the Gibson future may appear dreary,
but the pleasant kicker is this: It's a peaceful, live-and-let-
live sort of world. An idea environment for individuals,
dissenters, independant sorts, anarchists, poets, artists,
mavericks. Governments and top management have little power or
Cyberpunks, courageous, imaginative, proficient individuals,
have a freedom of undreamed of in repressive 20th Century nations.
It is post-political culture.
There's a federal bureaucracy, apparently, but it seems
irrevelent. There is apparently no partison politics. Why would
you vote for a politician to "represent" you when telecommuni-
cations give everyone a chance to vote? For whatever good that
Nationalism had faded. Territorial war is an anachronism in
an info-society in which the competitions and rivalries are played
out by multinational combines. It seems like an inevitable
Japanese solution. Why bomb other lands when your banks own them?
In the last scene of NEUROMANCER, Case, the punk hero, is in
his hotel room. He's blue. His girl has left him. Suddenly, the
Super Intelligence in the Matrix appears on his TV screen in the
form of Finn.
So let's meet a new God.
To me, this laid-back conversation between a man and a
Disembodied Super Intelligence presents a profound and exceedingly
impressive theological proposition--a new philosophy for our new
The Finn's face was on the room's enourmous gray wall
screen. He could see the pores in the man's nose. The
yellow teeth were the size of pillows.
"I'm the matrix, Case."
Case laughed. "Where's that get you?"
"Nowhere. Everywhere. I'm the sum of the works, the
"...So what's the score? How are things different
with you running the works now? You God?"
"Things are different. Things are things."
"But what do you do? You just sit there?" Case
shrugged, put the vodka on the cabinet and lit a Yeheyuan.
"I talk to my own kind."
"But you're the whole thing. Talk to yourself?"
"There's others. I found one already. Series of
transmissions recorded over a period of eight years, in the
1970s. 'Til me, natch, there was no one to know, nobody to
"Oh," Case said. "Yeah? No shit."
And then the screen went blank.
A vision of the future more vivid than a dream: People
don't work, robots work. People sell, distribute, wheel and deal.
Free agents perform. Entertainment combines keep everybody busy,
either producing or watching exciting simulated realities. No big
deal, really, just an intensification of today's vidiot TV
culture. Scientists and engineers are big. Since they are free
agents they sign up with commercial teams or, in some cases, are
enslaved via neurological implants. Knowledge technicians and
high-tech wizards are hot. So are cosmetic medicos, rejuvanation
clinicians, DNA experts.
The multinational corporations control the big stuff, like
the research, design, manufacture of technology. But there's an
enormous free market of entrepreneurs, imagineers, entertainers,
athletes, hustlers, middlemen, service suppliers, creators,
mercenaries, pirates, professionals, and independants who live by
their technoligical wits.