Ghosts of Cyberpunks Past

Note: This hearkens back to the rants I used to write in the dim and dusty past on Usenet newsgroups and in LiveJournal. I'm posting this here as an experiment. The fact that CISPA passed the US House of Representatives last night was purely coincidental as I wrote most of this yesterday.

Would this format work as an introductory piece to a setting or campaign? Would you like to see more of these written to detail the background of a game world? Would you like to see more of these on modern-day Earth? Would you play a Cyberpunk game set in this world? Is Cyberpunk simply past its prime, unrecognized by a world that chose a different path? Please let me know what you think.

We even trust Megacorps
to keep us in the fight.
We’ve failed, chummers. We’ve become professional pooch-screwers shuffled off into a quiet, irrelevant corner where our incompetence hopefully won’t taint the next generation.

We tipped our hand too early. We let the corporations know that we were onto them. We were going to stop the tide of corporate takeover. We would never let the world get bad enough to allow a financial conglomerate to tank an entire country’s economy. We’d prevent the dystopia or die trying. We weren’t important, the Cause was.

In our cyberpunk worlds, technology and humanity melded against the backdrop of corporate nihilism. Wage Slaves turned a blind eye to the chaos on the street. Hackers and Deckers and Riggers and Techs and Netrunners made magic with technology and turned the tide so the Talkers and Rockers and Samurai and Fixers and Solos and Facemen could apply just the right pressure at just the right time. When things went South as they always did, improvisation kept the ‘run on course. The heroes in the shadows adapted in a hurry or died trying.

These images painted the Cyberpunk world. We read these books and played these games and prepared for the inevitable takeover. We waited for that one tipping event and stood ready to rally.

Is this the Cyberpunk
Dystopia we expected?
But it never came.

Corporations learned from our Cyberpunk stories. They adapted faster than we did. They got subtle and seduced us out of our future with promises of comfort and ease and everything that money can buy. Now we’re bent over and tied down. The pain only stops when a mid-level corporate drone removes our ball gag and lets us choose the color of the next dildo to get inserted, giving us the satisfaction of participating in their illusion of choice. They limit our choices, so we usually get choices that are either A) Dookie, B) Crap, or C) Feces.

Corporations own all the outcomes. They know how we think, and they don’t let that shit get taught in school because it’s “junk science”. Crackpot or not, the science of emotional manipulation gets used against us every day. In 30 seconds, a well-crafted ad can twist your emotions and make you dance on the marionette strings in a totally predictable way. And if we want to change something, we’ve become conditioned to buying instead of making.

The disposable culture extended to manpower. We outsourced jobs, and offshored them to the lowest bidder. And now support calls for your credit cards are handled by incarcerated inmates or people who need the money rather than people who respect the job. Mike Rowe is right: We declared war on work and trained ourselves to buy something new because it’s cheaper than hiring someone to fix it when it breaks, or, heavens forbid we should roll up our sleeves and get grease on our manicured nails, learn to fix things ourselves. The quality of goods has dipped so low that the furniture we inherited from our grandparents outlasts anything we buy new through a megacorp, even with a 60 year head start on decay.

Cybereyes. Does replacing the
windows of the soul with metal
somehow make us less human?
We’ve lost our pride and forsaken our sense of responsibility. We’ve convinced ourselves that total failure is OK. We can walk away from tragedy simply by slapping up a “Somebody Else’s Problem” sign with an arrow pointing to whatever we don’t want to deal with. We’ve talked ourselves into accepting modest changes instead of sweeping reforms, which will leave our kids to make decisions in a situation that’s ten times worse. We drive our hybrids that get the exact same mileage as small cars did 30 years ago but cost three times as much because of all the new technology, and we call that a fucking win like we’re helping the solution instead of perpetuating the problem.

We’ve been trained to fear. Boogeymen nowadays take two forms: terrorists and pirates. Never mind that dying from a plane crash is eight times more likely than dying from a terrorist attack. Never mind that sharing music and video gives us common ground for personal connections in this nebulous space we call “culture”. Lesser offenses either get pushed to one of these extremes or get accepted as “the price of doing business”. We’re so afraid of the big bad world that we let corporations dictate what “safe” means. We force our culture into tiny pay-per-view boxes that very few can afford to open in the name of protecting the economy from piracy, and the spin doctors convince us that this New World Order makes our lives better.

I'm still looking for Netrunner cards.
The media won’t help us. The watchdog of liberty has been bought and caged like a stray dog hungry for table scraps. Important stories drop in off the front page in a heartbeat, while asymptotic and hyperbolic soundbytes bombard us until we’re pissed at the person whose idea we ripped from its context instead of the editors who focus on the 1% of the speech guaranteed to shock the audience. And the media claims they’re innocent because they simply report the news. Bullshit. They decide where the cameras and microphones point and which clips get rerun 24 hours later. The media chooses the focus, and so it filters what stories we can focus on.

And now for the news. We’re still running out of oil, and now even faster that in the ‘70s when the energy crisis had people lining up for hours at service stations for gas rations. And all that carbon needs to go somewhere – why not into the air where we don’t see it until it kills us? Global weirding continues with stronger storms, stranger weather, and environmental backlash from places we can’t even conceive of yet.

Cyberpunk characters in the
style of Order of the Stick, from
the Cyberpunk Contest thread.
But we focus on arguments about how slowly to change things so we don’t upset the corporations and their obscenely wealthy owners. Deck chairs? Titanic? Anyone?

Yes, we fucked up. We went to sleep once the specter of Mutually Assured Destruction dropped off the headlines. Once Red Menace fell apart and the Wall came down, we thought we were safe. We never thought to look within the institutions we trusted and thought were above suspicion. Without an overt enemy to fight, the paragons of democratic leadership kept starting quiet wars and twisted the organizations and agencies that were supposed to work for us into what they are today: self-perpetuating institutions of selfishness.

Another news flash: We’re a couple of years away from blood-borne nanites. We’ve been playing God medically for years, but the stakes will really kick in the afterburners with all the innovations coming down the pike. The future is here, people, and we’re too busy pouring our attention and lifeblood into paying Corporations to look around and say, “That’s fucking awesome!”

No, it's not just like the fucking Matrix.
But Green is the color of Cyberpunk.
We’re so connected now, but that’s as much curse as blessing. We retweet messages that we can’t spend the time to fully appreciate and convince ourselves that we’ve done our part to make the world better simply by boosting the signal. And what happens? Very little, and we go back to drinking from the firehose in the deluded quest to keep up with the world. We exhaust ourselves enduring the constant fusillade of information, looking for that one 140-character morsel that will give our lives meaning today. By connecting broadly, we dilute the depth of our connectivity, and we wake up in an electronic bed with hundreds of acquaintances we barely recognize.

We’ve lost focus. We always thought the cyberpunk ideal of fighting The Man would be easy – they’ve got the money and are abusing their power. Like the way “bad guys” pop off the screen – we know about bad guys. In the grey world, everybody looks the same, and people still swallow the argument of, "How can I help you succeed if you take my power and money away?" Even when the bad guy explains the plan to screw us to our faces, a part of us understands the idea as completely reasonable if misguided. There is no black and white, even when we continually ask our media to boil down complexity to overextended conclusions with only two sides. We can only conceive of two political parties, good and evil, those in power and those preparing to take power, us vs. them.

Click for a Rockerboy instrumental.
There is no “Them”. “They” are just a part of “Us” that we separate from our tribe to stay sane because we don’t want to share the term “human” with someone whose ideas we don’t like or can’t comprehend. We’re all complex people with priorities and aspirations, and sometimes we disagree with each other to the point where we stop communicating. Social media lets you sever ties with somebody else in that system by clicking a button. News flash: They still exist even when you don’t see them. Each one of us should have learned the concept of permanence by our second birthday, but sometimes we need reminders.

So yeah, we failed to keep the darkness out of the world. But we ain’t dead yet, chummers.

So now what? How can we take a stand in this post-cyberpunk world? Where do we expend our limited stockpiles of attention and focus our limitless frustration at the way things have become? What games can we make to get the masses thinking in different ways? How can we change our world for the better?


  1. That, my good sir, is the beginning of a manifesto! Articulate, rational, and spot on. Unfortunately the only options that I see are either a selfish manipulation of those insights to better prepare our own "bomb shelters" or to forsake all and go balls deep, take the pill and fight the man. Either way I see what is as unsustainable and tethering on the edge of collapse. Maybe we have a generation, maybe two, to prepare for the social and cultural upheaval but that is it IMHO. First wars, then famines, then plagues... We have to reduce the population to levels that are sustainable in an agrarian world. So say 1-2 Billion tops

  2. We're getting there. I put together a manifesto of sorts a couple of years ago, and I'm getting it out of mothballs to see if it still makes sense.

    The Occupy movements tell me that people are generally frustrated and have no idea how to focus their efforts. With the reach of social media, it's easier than ever to get eyeballs on a problem. Trick is to define the problem and suggested actions directly so it doesn't suffer from the mob mentality.

    Thanks for reading and resharing!

  3. Amen brother...you saved me a lot of typing. I will be passing this one on.

    Discussion has become all but impossible because the signal to noise ratio is so bad that voices get drowned out by anything with the letter I in phront of it.

    We have the solutions all around us ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freenet http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darknet_%28file_sharing%29 ) but can't seem to break away from twitter long enough to pay attention.

    This is the argument I have made, for instance, about modern table top gaming. The talk of who should own the D&D brand has been misguided, because the perfect company is Gerber...now if they would just chew the phood up and spit it in their mouths all would be heaven...incorporated...

    Thank you for this.