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Tag: cyberpunk (page 1 of 3)

A Shift in the Wind

I think that Exolymph is ready to change. In retrospect, I’ve been getting bored with my “dystopia is real and we’re living it” thesis since writing “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” last October. (Luckily I didn’t call the project A Cyberpunk Newsletter, so the inscrutable name will stay. Besides, it’s more like I want to zoom in on a particular niche topic, not ditch everything.)

“Cyberpunk is now” was an exciting revelation a year ago — at least to me, although I certainly didn’t come up with the idea. Now it feels banal. The mainstream press is covering cyberpunk themes more and more, and other blogs are doing my schtick better than me. I talked around this when I made a list of cyberpunk content sources back in February.

Most of the publications that I mentioned then don’t delve into the sociopolitics of cyberpunk, but anecdotally the topic is more prevalent than it used to be. Today someone posted on Hacker News, “Would you be interested in a ‘cyberpunk’ inspired news site?” In the comments people pointed out that Wired covers a lot of this territory, as do fringe outlets like those I listed months ago, and N O D E.

So anyway. Like I said, the dissatisfaction has been simmering in my head for months. But reading David Auerbach’s latest essay on the Trump regime is what flipped the switch and made me realize that I need to change Exolymph’s editorial mandate. (No, I’m not going to join #TheResistance and write about Trump all the time — let me explain before you roll your eyes.)

In his essay, Auerbach laid out the relationship(s) between the American overculture (his preferred term) and the country’s surging undercultures. “If you went on 4chan in 2016, you were part of the underculture. If you read about 4chan in the news and believed what you read, you were part of the overculture,” Auerbach quipped.

As it happens, I tend to bounce between these realms more than the average person. Subcultures have long fascinated me, since I’m an incorrigible drama voyeur (like any good journalist). That’s what I want to concentrate on now: How subcultures relate to the mainstream in the twenty-first century.

The internet has transformed the way that social information (memes, if you will) travel up and down between subculture and mainstream. Traditionally, the elites of the mainstream directed the grand narrative. The geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths of subcultures provided the components that were used to compile that grand narrative. But now the elite gatekeepers have lost so much of their power — not all of it, but enough for Auerbach’s underculture to shake things up.

These are the questions that I want to explore:

  • Who is able to travel up and down the cultural stack?
  • What do they bring with them?
  • Do the messages that they carry change along the way?
  • How much do they change?
  • Is it on purpose?
  • When are travelers able to make the trip safely, and when are they hijacked?
  • How do the different levels govern themselves?
  • How do they govern each other?
  • Which factions are able to go vertical, encompassing cross-sections of multiple strata?

On a concrete level, the newsletter probably won’t feel very different. For example, here’s an issue that I would have covered before that will be even more relevant given the new focus.

And now, an abrupt ending! I have an early flight tomorrow and honestly that’s all I have to say.


Header artwork by Albert Ramon Puig.

Sensorium Versus Sensibility

Beware — navel-gazing ahead! I calculated Exolymph’s growth rate(s) and it prompted me to reflect on this endeavor.


Exolymph is billed as a cyberpunk newsletter, but it’s not actually very cyberpunk. At least not in the traditional sense. I don’t cover pop culture like Neon Dystopia does, and I don’t report on concrete happenings like Motherboard.

No one would mistake my commentary on current events for Gibsonian fiction — except to the extent to which they mistake the reality of living on the internet for Gibsonian fiction. And yeah, that’s sort of the point.

Still, I worry that people think they’re signing up for one thing and end up getting something else. I’ve never been chastened, so I guess those people just unsubscribe without mentioning their disappointment.

In my essay about cyberpunk as a sensibility, I wrote:

Cyberpunk is a type of “taste in ideas” that weds aesthetics with politics. It is not a framework with a specific hypothesis or clearly defined rules. Rather, cyberpunk is an assemblage of loosely related themes, tropes, and aesthetics. […] Noticing the moments of techno-dystopia in our world can jolt people awake, causing them to realize how computing — especially the internet — is impacting their lives on every scale.

The events or ideas that trigger the mental switch-flip are usually exotic, […] but the deeper level of using the cyberpunk mental model is looking at mundane things like commerce and subculture formation and seeing how computers and the internet change the dynamics that we used to be used to.

From what I can tell, this attitude isn’t widespread. I like sci-fi aesthetics, but I get tired of the superficiality. Prestige TV (think Black Mirror) does a decent job of incorporating cynical futurism into conventional cyberpunk, but it feels scarce online.

/r/Cyberpunk users upvote cityscapes that combine a Jenny Holzer installation with /r/UrbanHell. In the Cyberpunk Science Fiction & Culture group on Facebook, they share memes, “is [thing] cyberpunk?” posts, and unsourced artwork. /r/DarkFuturology gets a little closer to interrogating the present. A splash of Hacker News ties it back to capitalism.

I feel more of an alliance with Glitchet, the meanderings of Adam Elkus or The Grugq, Breaking Smart, and Circuit Breaker back when it was active.

I hope this is a niche that other people care about, and that they’ll keep paying attention to. We probably don’t qualify as an egregore yet — too fragile — but I think the cyberpunk sensibility is worth maintaining.


Image via ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓.

No Escape from the Dreaded Content

When I started Exolymph, I thought about making it a links newsletter instead of a random-reflections newsletter. I decided not to do that for two reasons:

  1. There are also already tons of links newsletters, and far fewer newsletters that offer a five- or ten-minute shot of ideas. (Glitchet is an excellent links newsletter that also features weird net art.)
  2. As a person who subscribes to many links newsletters, I know that they can be stressful. There are more interesting articles than I have time to read.

However. I’ve come across so many incredible stories over the past forty-eight hours that I can’t narrow it down. (I did limit the Trump content.) Not all of these articles were published recently, but they’re all indicative of The State of the World, Cyber Edition.

Don’t click on anything that doesn’t truly grab you, just let the deluge of headlines keep flowing…

“Who is Anna-Senpai, the Mirai Worm Author?”

Brian Krebs, a respected cybersecurity journalist, investigated the botnet that knocked his site down with a massive DDoS attack last September. The result is a bizarre real-life whodunnit that takes place almost entirely online, replete with braggadocious shitposting on blackhat forums and the tumbling of shaky Minecraft empires. SO GOOD. (Also, buy his book!)

“Security Economics”

Spammers and hackers are just in it to get rich, or whatever the Eastern European equivalent is. (That stereotype exists for a reason. Again, buy Krebs’ book!) This is a quick overview of the players’ financial motives from an industry participant.

“Scammers Say They Got Uber to Pay Them With Fake Rides and Drivers”

The headline sums it up pretty well. Bonus: identity-theft slang!

“Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich”

Both hilarious and depressing, my favorite combo. Silicon Valley billionaires and multimillionaires are buying up land in New Zealand, stockpiling weapons, and getting surgery to fix their eyesight. Their paranoia — or is it pragmatism? — is framed as a reaction to Trump’s election. Here’s a more explicitly political companion piece, if you want that.

“This Team Runs Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Page”

As the wise elders have counseled us, “He who leads Brand… must become Brand.” Zuck is taking that ancient adage seriously. The kicker: “There are more than a dozen Facebook employees writing Mark Zuckerberg’s posts or scouring the comments for spammers and trolls.” MORE THAN TWELVE HUMAN BEINGS.

“Advanced Samizdat Techniques: Scalping Millennials”

Warning: authored by a notorious neo-Nazi. Everything weev does is evil. But also brilliant. Here we have an example of both, which is funny if you’re able to momentarily suspend your sense of decency. (I didn’t cloak the link, because it leads to Storify rather than a Nazi-controlled website.)

“World’s main list of science ‘predators’ vanishes with no warning”

Either someone is suing the poor guy who compiled it, or… threatening his family? Let’s hope the situation isn’t that sinister.

“Dictators use the Media Differently than Narcissists and Bullies”

Guess which self-obsessed politician this is about? (Granted, all politicians are more self-obsessed than the average person. But the MAGNITUDE, my friends, the magnitude!)

“RAND’s Christopher Paul Discusses the Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood'”

A counterpoint to the previous link.

“How Casinos Enable Gambling Addicts”

Modern slot machines are expertly engineered to trick players and engender addiction. (The writer strongly implies a regulatory solution, which I don’t endorse, but the gambling industry is definitely diabolical.)

Lastly — most crucially — Ted Cruz totally clobbered Deadspin on Twitter. Aaand that’s it. Enjoy your Wednesday.


Header artwork by Emre Aktuna.

Futuristic Déjà Vu Plz

I bailed on y’all yesterday, so here’s an irregular #aesthetic picdump. Shouts to Glitchet for managing to do this every issue.

Woman with networked wire hair. Artwork by Albert Albaladejo.

Artwork by Albert Albaladejo.

Artwork by Barış Şehri.

Artwork by Barış Şehri.

Artwork by Neeraj Jast.

Artwork by Neeraj Jast.

Artwork by VladislavPANtic.

Artwork by VladislavPANtic.

Artwork by Jake Kemper.

Artwork by Jake Kemper.

Artwork by Ian Sokoliwski.

Artwork by Ian Sokoliwski.

Artwork by mundra-mundra.

Artwork by mundra-mundra.

Artwork by Albert Albaladejo.

Artwork by Albert Albaladejo.

Artwork by Grei.

Artwork by Grei.

Artwork by Gabriel-BS.

Artwork by Gabriel-BS.

There’s a Whole Lotta Everything Happening All the Time

I worry that I’m not comprehensive enough in my self-appointed position as chronicler of contemporary cyberpunkness. Vice’s Motherboard covers my beat more thoroughly than I do, and people are constantly tweeting interesting tidbits that I wish I’d noticed first, or introducing angles that I wish I’d come up with.

For example, here’s something fascinating that I probably won’t end up writing about: “Venezuelans mine Bitcoin with free electricity and then use the profits to order food from Amazon Prime Pantry.” See also, the woes of an Uber driver when the company won’t tell him what he did wrong: “Welcome to the future where you report to an AI robot that mechanically repeats non-sense commands at you.” Customer service hell, but your job depends on it!

There’s just so much. I can’t address it all. So am I really serving you? I never claimed that it was, but Exolymph is not a complete, one-stop shop for techno-dystopia news.

Maybe that’s actually the point. We’ve switched from a world of limited and tightly distributed information to a world where you’re deluged with #content. The chokepoint is choosing what to focus on, rather than accessing interesting material in the first place.

Yes, I talk about this all the time — it never ceases to boggle my mind. Perhaps because I grew up right on the cusp of the change.

The internet isn’t an on-rails shooter like newspapers — it’s an open-world exploration game created in real-time by the players. To belabor that metaphor, what’s important is an open-world environment is figuring out which intriguing places to visit.


Header photo by Masato OHTA.

Wanted: Rigorous Intuition

A significant part of San Francisco’s public transit system was hit by a cyberattack this weekend. It looks like ransomware, but the hackers haven’t actually asked for anything yet. SFMTA is currently just giving everybody free rides. Their email system was also impacted. Employees aren’t sure if payroll will go through properly.

lol who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I saw two different people tweet that this virtual hijacking is a sign: we live in a dystopian sci-fi novel after all! (What else is new…) Immediately, I thought of the essay that I linked in response to the election, “On Trying Not To Be Wrong”:

Like many people, I’ve thought 2016 was a surreal year; the Cubs won the World Series, the Secretary of State went on television to warn people about white-supremacist memes, Elon Musk has landed rockets on ocean platforms and started an organization to develop Friendly AI. Surreal, right?

No.

It’s real, not surreal. If reality looks weird, this means our stories about it are wrong. […] And being totally wrong about how the world works is a threat to survival.

Sarah Constantin is right. Reality marched on without those of us who misjudged it. Ironically, since I was so thoroughly deceived by 2016, “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” feels pretty damn correct right now. All those ’80s authors who pioneered computer-noir were more prescient than they probably realized.

Philip K. Dick reality quote. Image via ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓. Quote purportedly from I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.

Image via ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓. Quote purportedly from I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.

Venkatesh Rao wrote about engaging with uncomfortable realities in a particularly good episode of Breaking Smart:

23/ This means accepting that your mind will need to go into both distressing and flow regimes as required by the situation, and accepting whatever emotions result.

24/ Perhaps the most important emotion to manage is that of feeling powerless. This causes acute distress and strong retreat-to-prowess urges.

25/ But you’re rarely entirely powerless. You can usually cobble together some meaningful, if clumsy, response to a situation with the skills you have.

26/ On the frontier, where there are no experts, and everybody is a beginner, this is often the only possible response. Unexplored nature is the ultimate asymmetrically superior adversary.

[…]

49/ The world is full of people and groups terrified of wandering beyond situations they are confident about handling. Those who make overcoming that terror a habit have an advantage.

50/ When a group of such people, with better-than-the-rest levels of emotional self-regulation, band together, they can form an unstoppable force. That’s what it takes for groups and organizations to break smart.

We can do it. Well, some of us. Which of us remains to be seen. Honestly, I am frightened that I may not be able to manage this.

A Grand Theory of Cyberpunk

Today I’m supposed to disseminate my steadfastly cyberpunk take on empires. Conveniently, today is also the pub date for my Ribbonfarm guest essay, “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” — it lays out the philosophy that I’ve been developing via Exolymph for almost a year. Unsurprisingly, that philosophy has plenty to do with government. A taste:

Protesters’ advantage is their ability to take over the news cycle, simultaneously in every part of a given country, because the internet means information travels instantaneously. Many of us have smartphones that ding us every time something new develops. “Did you see… ?!”

But the police and other fiat institutions have the same advantage they’ve always had — the ability to lock people up, sometimes justified but often not. What’s new to the law enforcement arsenal is being able to sort and target high-impact targets at scale. […]

Cyberpunk highlights the power of vigilante hackers, sure, but it also points to the power of institutions, whether stultified or moving fast and breaking things. The balance between these two types of entities is what’s fascinating and crucial to watch.

So go read that! I’m quite happy about how it turned out, but I’m also very interested in your feedback. (As always!)


Header photo by Spencer.

To Prep or Not to Prep, and Why

Rebecca Onion wrote an interesting essay about immersing herself in survivalist “prepper” fiction. (The gateway drug was apocalyptic fiction, so, uh, I might be at risk.) Here’s an illustrative sample:

In more than one of these books, the prepper encounters people who expect him to share the resources he’s planned ahead to store. […] In Steven Konkoly’s The Jakarta Pandemic, the prepper character lives on a cul-de-sac with many unprepared neighbors who demand that each household reveal the amount of food it holds, to be put into a stockpile and shared. […] The group’s other plan, to put together a shared day care, strikes even more notes of Soviet Russia. This kind of sharing, in the book’s logic, puts everyone in danger; the mothers who don’t want to take care of their own kids will end up sick and, finally, dead.

This strongly reminds me of an essay on Slate Star Codex, in which Scott Alexander writes, “My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, [whereas] leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.”

In a reply to one of the comments, he explains:

If you’re in a stable society without zombies, optimizing your life for zombie defense is a waste of time; working towards not-immediately-survival-related but nice and beautiful and enjoyable things like the environment and equality and knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake may be an excellent choice.

This strikes me as broadly true.

The logic and priorities of preppers are sensible in a kill-or-be-killed world without infrastructure. But those of us in rich countries don’t live in that world, so preppers end up being weirdos on the political margins.

I wonder, where does cyberpunk fall in this scheme? What do our ideals and suspicions optimize for? To be honest, I don’t think cyberpunk is an optimal paradigm at all — blithely working the system is the best strategy for actual success. Cheerful cynicism, I guess? Cyberpunk is uncheerful cynicism in a world of capitalism and computers.


Header photo by Cathy T.

Neon Exploration: A Quick Review of Hypercage

Craig Lea Gordon asked me to review his cyberpunk novella Hypercage. The book reminds me a bit of Black Mirror — reality with a techno-antisocial twist. Here’s a passage from the beginning that shows what I mean:

His wife’s face [formed] a frown of danger across the restaurant table. He was in trouble.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.

Dave paused as a set of notifications slotted up the side of his HUD, glowing vividly against the romantic lighting of their corner booth.

+200 Session XP
+100 XP Mission flare
+1000 XP Enemy craft destroyed
-1500 XP Mission objectives failed
Net score: -100 XP
Daily XP total: 71,265

Minus 100 experience points? And only a hundred XP for mission flare! That was fucking bollocks. He slammed the table with his fist. The two glasses of red wine wobbled uncertainly from the impact.

Hypercage suffers from a little too much emphasis on the futuristic tech at the expense of character development, but the story rollicks along. It won’t bore you. If you need the protagonist to be likable in order to enjoy a story, skip this one. Antihero fans will be fine.

I got sucked in once the main character discovered a VR plugin that was supposed to let his brain multitask, so he could carry on a normal life while maintaining his addiction to the in-universe Eve Online clone.

Artwork by Surian Soosay.

Artwork by Surian Soosay.

Artwork by Surian Soosay.

Artwork by Surian Soosay.

That’s all. Go on home now. Or go download Hypercage.

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