What is Cyberpunk? Definition and history

What is cyberpunk?

The term "Cyberpunk" is made of two components:
  • "cyber" refers to "cybernetics" (the art of governing) and, from there, to the new technologies associated in particular with computers;
  • "punk" refers to the counterculture movement that bears this name.

A literary movement:

The term "cyberpunk" was coined in 1984 by Gardner Dozois, editor of the science fiction magazine Asimov SF Magazine, to refer to a new trend in science fiction that he had first called "punk SF" in 1981 (the same year 1981, a science fiction writer, William Gibson, first used the term "cyberspace").


A counter-culture:

This term, cyberpunk, also designates a counterculture movement of which the writers of science fiction "cyberpunk" are also part, but which takes a more general meaning (this is why the Italian cyberpunk anthology "cyberpunk", after a first part devoted to the literary current that bears this name, devotes a second part to the counterculture of the same name). A large part of the steampunk fashion has been inspired by this movement.

This evolution is similar to the one that occurred during the beatniks' time: the term had first designated a restricted group of writers, American poets among whom Burrows, who had a great audience among cyberpunks - before being the label of a vast juvenile movement of counter-culture. The cyberpunk movement is consider as the same kind of derivative movement as Asian Steampunk and Dieselpunk.

Why this seemingly paradoxical association (hence the success of the label...) between the terms "cyber" (which refers directly and positively, as we shall see, to new technologies) and "punk" (which refers to a movement that seemed rather opposed to these technologies)?
For the punks of the 70's, the new technologies associated with computing are alienating: these punks had no hope in the future of humanity (hence the famous expression: "no future!" and their "communication tool" was their own body used in a provocative way;
for the cyberpunks, on the contrary, these new technologies can be liberating, they carry a hope of transformation of the social life and of liberation.
This reversal - from punk pessimism to "cyberpunk" optimism about technology is already taking place, relatively speaking, in the science fiction works grouped under the "cyberpunk" label - Gibson, Sterling, and others - where they are no longer necessarily the anticipation of a terrifying use of future technology; it is further accentuated in the counter-culture current that extends the message of the new science fiction and broadens it.
An international movement

The cyberpunk writers have given the essential orientations: for them, for example, often, the characters of the SF novels are in the telematic networks (the technological researches, associating computer science and video, on the "virtual realities" and/or "artificial" are a source of these literary innovations ("artificial reality": I am "in" the screen with the virtual ball, I can play against a semi-virtual adversary, even if a physical handicap forbids me this displacement and these performances.
With the techniques allowing to produce a "virtual reality", to manage it ("cyber") and to live in it, we create an active "imaginary" whose production, management (with the help of the device invented by Jerry Lanier) and contents can remind the time of psychedelism (LSD and other hallucinogenic substances allowing travels): hence the expression "psychedelic cyberpunk" (hence the adhesion of Timothy Leary, famous guru of the psychedelism of the 60's, to the cyberpunk)
(See on this subject, in the anthology of Shake, "a manifesto for the recreation of the world" signed Clark Fraser).

Through this neo-psychedelism, the memory of the hippie movement is also present in the cyberpunks, but it is always at the price of a reversal:

the hippies were in "total strike against the society of consumption" (Feltrinelli) ;
the cyberpunk takes the technological world as it is even if it is led - as the hackers do - to divert its functioning.
The first expressions of the movement developed in Austin (Texas) as early as 1975, then in Germany - with the "techno-anarchists" - from 1980 and in Italy - in particular around the underground magazine "Decoder" of Milan - from 1986.
In France, to our knowledge at least, this movement is still practically non-existent, at least in the counter-cultural form that it has taken in our neighboring countries with reviews, regular meetings, etc. This is probably due to the fact that we are less directly involved with this type of movement, which is often born in the United States and takes on a new meaning when it settles in Europe, as we see in Germany and Italy.


Hip Hop and Cyberpunk

Some technological innovations of the 1970s were not entirely absent from the older counterculture worlds: for example, the strobe light was associated, for its visual effects, with the psychedelic music of the 1970s.
However, it is more recently that they have become an integral part of alternative culture: the technology associated with rock music, and more recently the processes of sampling - sound collage - in the production of rap "instrumentals" (or "tempo") are examples. Bruce STERLING, in "Mozart", underlines this close link between cyber-punk, pop music and pop culture.
What do we mean here by "new technologies"? Why are they seen as potentially "liberating"?
a) This label is appropriate, in particular, to designate the video recorder, the video, the personal computers - an Apple advertisement leads Gibbson to speak of "cyberspace" in 1981 - the interactive and alternative uses of videotels/minitels, which take their place among the "instruments" of the "global village" to speak like Mac Luhan, whose thought is very present in the movement).
It designates innovations that should not be limited to the field of communication in the already traditional sense of the term; they participate in the production of the society (mass communications have socialized many people).
b) information can also become an element of liberation and we often give as an example the hackers (computer pirates) whose goal is not to be an "industrial spy" but to liberate information (taking risks that can go as far as imprisonment: Bruce Sterling, in an interview published by Decoder, tells how the making of a video game - videogame - can lead to serious trouble with the police.

The Italian example: cyberpunk, counterculture and politics

In Italy, the new orientations of the international counter-culture - hip hop, cyberpunk - are overdetermined by a specific political-ideological context: namely the existence of a kind of living and active "ultra-left", one of the bases of which is the "occupied and self-managed social centers", whose network is present all over the territory.
The Italians of the underground magazine "Decoder" and the activists (and rockers) of the "self-managed social centers" make the junction between hip hop and cyberpunk. These centers were the meeting point - always variable according to the situation - of politics and counter-culture: in particular of what could be designated, in the Italian ultra-left, in terms of autonomia (workers' autonomy in the 60s, autonomy in short, today, - the term transited through the German autonomen who had first taken this term from the Italians).

In the early 1980s, alternative rock, punk rock and the whole of punk culture often constituted the cultural backdrop of the centers and the mode of expression of a political radicalism. In 1990, a very committed and specific Italian rap took over: contrary to what happens, for example, in France, it is the political commitment, the violent political denunciation that constitute the specificity of this rap and not the search for mass media success and the submission to the norms of the show bis (with the obliged textualization of some themes that have often become clichés). The hip hop graphics are also very present in the same Social Centers of Italy. The university movement of "la Pantera" (1990) had a catalytic and amplifying role in this orientation, in rupture with the first Italian hip hop of the 80's that was more subjected to the "American model" (of the Zulu nation, in particular). The Italian cyberpunk current developed in the same context. Willian Gibson, who took part in the Venice meetings in November 1990, on "virtual reality" was astonished and "amused", he said, by this Italian version of this current of which he is a leading "actor": interviewed by a journalist of the daily newspaper "Il Manifesto" (Nov. 27, 1990) he defined the cyberpunks of Milan as people of "post-marxist-politico-punk-anarcho-philosophers type".