Back to the Cyberculture Archive

By Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Time, February 8, 1993

In the 1950s it was the beatniks, staging a coffeehouse rebellion
against the 'Leave it to Beaver' conformity of the Eisenhower
era. In the 1960s the hippies arrived, combining antiwar activism
with the energy of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Now a new
subculture is bubbling up from the underground, popping out of
computer screens like a piece of futuristic HYPERTEXT (see

     Hypertext - In this article, words printed in color [not here]
     are defined or expanded upon in marginal entries coded to the
     same color. In a computer hypertext article, electronic footnotes
     like these actually pop up on the screen whenever you point your
     cursor at a "hot" word and click the button of your mouse.

They call it cyberpunk, a late-20th century term pieced together
from CYBERNETICS (the science of communication and control
theory) and PUNK (an antisocial rebel or hoodlum). [Well I guess
we can stop the debatre on alt.cyberpunk now =) ] Within this odd
pairing lurks the essence of cyberpunk culture. It's a way of
looking at the world that combines an infatuation with high-teck
tools and a disdain for conventional ways of using them.
Originally applied tooa school of hard-boiled science-fiction
writiers and then to certain semitough computer hackers, the word
cyberpunk now covers a broad range of music, art, psychedelics,
smart drugs and cutting-edge technology. The cult is new enough
that fresh offshoots are sprouting every day, which infutiated
the hardcore cyberpunks, who feel they got there first. 	
Cybernetics -- Norbert Wiener of MIT was designing systems for
World War II antiaircraft guns when he realized that hte critical
component in a control system, whether animal or mechanical, is a
feedback loop that gives a controller information on the results
of its actions. He called the study of these control systems
cybernetics (from Kybernetes, the Greek word for Helmsman
[Anybody want to deconstruct this one]) and helped pave the way
for electronic brains that we call computers.

     Punk -- Cyberculture borrows heavily from the rebellious attitude
     of punk music, sharing with such groups as the Sex Pistols a
     defiance of mainstream culture and an urge to turn modern
     technology against itself.

Stewart Brand, editor of the hippe-era 'Whole Earth Catalog,'
describes cyberpunk as "technology with attitude."
Science-fiction writier Bruce Sterling calls it "an unholy
alliance of the technical world with the underground of pop
culture and street level anarchy." Jude Milhon, a cyberpunk
journalist who writes under the byline of St. Jude, defines it as
"the place where the worlds of science and art overlap, the
intersection of the futureand now." What cyberpunk is about, says
Rudy Rucker, a San Jose State University mathematician who writes
science-fiction books on the side, is nothing less than "the
fusion of humans and machines."

As in any counterculture movement, some denizens would deny that
they are part of a "movement" at all. Certainly they are not as
visible from a passing car as beatniks or hippies once were.
Ponytails (on men) and tattoos (on women) do not a cyberpunk make
-- though dressing all in black and donning mirrored sun- glasses
will go a long way. ANd although the biggest cyberpunk journal
claims a readersh approaching 70,000, there are probably no more
than a few thousand computer hackers, futurists, fringe
scientists, computer savvy artists and musicians, and assorted
science-fiction geeks [hmmm where do I fit in] around the world
who actually call themselves cyberpunk.

Nevertheless, cyberpunk may be the defining counterculture of the
compute age. It embraces, inspirit at least, not just the nearest
thirtysomething hacker hunched over his [sic] terminal but also
nose-ringed twentysomethings [wait - was that an insult???]
gathered at clandestine RAVES, teenagers who feel about the
Macintosh computer the way their parents felt about Apple
Records, and even preadolescent vidkids fused like Krazy Glue to
their Super NIntendo and Sega Genesis games -- they training
wheels of cyberpunk [Look Ma! no hands.]. Obsessed with
technology, especially technology that is just beyond their reach
(like BRAIN IMPLANTS), the cyberpunks are future oriented to a
fault. They already have one foot in the 21st century, and time
is on their side. In the long run, we will all be cyberpunks.
[ugh - Goddess Save Us All ]

     RAVES -- organized on the fly (sometimes by electronic mail) and
     often held in warehouses, raves are huge, nomadic dance parties
     that tend to last all night, or until the police show up.
     Psychedelic mood enhancers and funny accessories (white cotton
     gloves, face masks) are optionals. [what, no ubiquitous
     Cat-in-the-Hat has?]

     BRAIN IMPLANTS -- Slip a microchip into snug contact with your
     gray matter (a.k.a. wetware) and suddenly gain instant fluency in
     a foreign language or arcane subject.

The cyberpunk look -- a kind of SF surrealism tweaked by coputer
graphics -- is already finding its way into galleries, music
videos and Hollywood movies. Cyberpunk magazines, many of which
are "zines," cheaply published by desktop computer and
distributed by electronis mail, are multiplying like cable-TV
channels. The newest, a glossy, big-budget [where'd all the money
go to?] entry called "WIRED," premiered last week with Bruce
Sterling on the cover and ads from the likes of Applie Computer
and AT&T [Boo... Hisss...]. Cyberpunk music, including ACID HOUSE
and INDUSTRIAL, is popular enough to keep several record
companies and scores of bands cranking out CDs.
Cyberpunk-oriented books are snapped up by eager fans as soon as
they hit the stores. (Sterling's latest, "The Hacker Crackdown,"
quickly sold out its first hard-cover printing of 30,000.) A
piece of cyberpunk performance art, Tubes, starring Blue Man
Group, is a hit off-broadway. And cyberpunk films such as "Blade
Runner," Videodromve, Robocop, Total REcall, Terminator 2, and
The Lawnmower Man have moved out of the cult market and into the

     Acid House -- White-hot danced music that falls somewhere between
     disco and hip-hop.

     INDUSTRIAL -- Mixing rhythmic machine clanks, electornic feedback
     and random radio noise, industrial music is "the sounds our
     culture makes as it comes unglued," says cyberpunk writer Gareth

Cyberpunk culture is likely to get a boost from, of all things,
the Clinton-Gore Administration, because of a shared interest in
what the new regime calls America's "data highways" and what the
cyberpunks call CYBERSPACE. Both terms describe the globe-
circling, interconnected telephone network that is the conduit
for billions of voice, fax, and computer-to-computer
commmunications. The incoming Administration is focused on the
wiring, and it has made strenghtening the networks high-speed
data liks a priority. The cyberpunks look at those wires from the
inside; they talk of the network as if it were an actual place --
a VIRTUAL REALITY that can be entered, explored and manipluated.

     CYBERSPACE -- SF writier William Gibson called it "a consensual
     hallucination ... a graphic representation of data abstracted
     from the banks of every cojputer in the human system." You can
     get there simply by picking up the phone.

     VIRTUAL REALITY -- An interactive technology that creates an
     illusion, still crude rather than convincing, of being immersed
     in an artificial world. The user generally dons a computerized
     glove and a head-mounted display equipped with a TV screen for
     each eye. Now available as an arcade game.

Cyberspace plays a central role in the cyberpunk world view. The
literature is filled with "console cowboys" who prove their
mettle by donning virtual reality headgear and performing heroic
feats in the imaginary "matrix of cyberspace. Many of the punks'
real-life heroes are also computer cowboys of one sort or
another. "Cyberpunk", a 1991 book by two New York TIMES
reporters, John Markoff and Katie Hafner, features profiles of
three canonical cyberpunk hackers, including Robert Morris, the
Cornell graduate student whose computer virus brought the huge
network called the internet to a halt. 

Back to the Cyberculture Archive