Cyberculture, Cyberpunk, Technopoly and Cybercriticism

Cyberculture: cyberspace, technoculture, virtual communities, virtual realities, virtual identities, virtual space, cyborgs, cybernetics, cyberbodies, spectacles, simulations, simulacra and so forth. Cyberculture exists within the globally networked, computer-sustained, computer-accessed and/or computer-generated multidimensional virtual realities. Originally existing in the pages of science fiction, cybernetics – systems of control and communication in animals and machines – made cyberculture `reality’, although it exists only virtually. Cyberculture is a closing down of space and time, compressed by technological advances. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan noted the acceleration of community through the acceleration of technological development.

After three thousand years of specialist intervention and of increasing specialism and alienation in the technological extensions of our bodies, our world has become compressional by dramatic reversal. As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village. Electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree. It is this implosive factor that alters the position of Negro, the teen-ager, and  some other groups. They can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media. (McLuhan, 1964, 5)Although McLuhan was not specifically addressing the computer revolution, his ‘global village’ is a cybercultural one, predicated upon the cultural meaning of technology in the digital information age. This cybercultural village is in an embryonic stage, as is the school of cybercriticism that attempts to understand it. Cybercriticism is concerned with the technology/virtuality and the body, analyses of technology, the cultural readings of technological tools and virtual communities. As cyberculture changes, accelerated by the intensification of technological development, so too will cybercriticism.

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. (Gibson 1991, 51).

As a ‘space behind the computer’, cyberculture cannot be understood without being located within computer history. In 1833, the first technological arrangement that could be termed a computer was designed by Charles Babbage. Although this steam-powered programmable ‘Analytical Engine’ was never built, the promise of a machine that could perform some of the intellectual functions of humans marks the genesis of the computer of the twentieth century. Although computing machines, such as the Hollerith punch card, had been used by the business and military worlds since the late 1890s, the first electronic computer was Colossus. Powered by vacuum tubes and programmed with punched paper tape, Colossus was developed by the British during the Second World War to decode the messages that had been encrypted by the German Enigma machines. Computers from Colossus onwards were not much more than variations of Babbage’s design in that their purpose was to perform huge calculations correctly. The operation of these computers was accomplished through a process of setting up a program through the manipulation of switches and patches. The required expertise to run these machines, as well as their size, meant that there was no economic reason for the development of general software. The size alone ensured that a relationship between an individual and a computer – a crucial prerequisite of cyberculture – was difficult.

In 1964 only large mainframe computers existed, each with its own separate set of users. If you were lucky the computer was time-shared, but even then you could not get far away since the terminals were hardwired to it or connected by local phone line. Moreover, if you wanted data from another computer, you moved it by tape and you could forget wanting software from another computer. (Roberts, 1988, 143)

The invention of the transistor in the 1950s and the use of integrated circuits in the 1960s allowed the size of the computer to decrease substantially, thus solving one problem. The development of general-use software was by large corporate companies. IBM had dominated the field in electromechanical off  ice equipment and moved into computers, controlling 65 per cent of the market by 1965, thus determining the course of computer development. But although the computer had moved from Babbage’s ‘Analytical Machine’ to an essential business tool by the end of the 1960s, it still retained an intellectual identity as a calculating machine.

This has changed dramatically in the last twenty years of the twentieth century. As early as 1960, one of the founders of artificial intelligence was looking to the day `much less than twenty-five years’ in the future when ‘we shall have the technical capability of substituting machines for any and all human functions and organization,’ including `emotions, attitudes, and values’ (Weizenbaum, 1976, 244). Although by the 1970s, the business computer was firmly established and some personal computers – such as the Apple, the Commodore and the TRS-80 – were on the market, the computer was still largely perceived as a calculating machine. Roszak draws attention to Elmer Rice‘s satire The Adding Machine (1923), in which the protagonist Mr Zero is an office clerk lost in a wasteland of filing cabinets. He is offered a hyperadding machine in order to facilitate his work of compiling figures and reducing  people to statistics. This notion of the computer – both in terms of what it could do and what it would do to its user – was common until the computer revolution of the 1980s. Heralded by the launch of the IBM Personal Computer in 1981 and the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the computer revolution was a successful marketing strategy that placed the personal computer in the home and opened up the possibilities of Simon’s vision of the machine substituting for all human functions and organizations. The new computer of the 1980s’ computer revolution was marketed as enabling human existence.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die. (Batty to Deckard, Blade Runner)

Fears of computerized rationalization and computerized intelligence were common in post-Second World War science fiction. George Orwell‘s vision of the computer as an interactive observer in the service of a totalitarian state in Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel has been reworked in a number of narratives, including Brazil (Gilliam, 1984). An alternative form is the central computer that asserts control on its own, such as in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968). The Orwellian Big Brothercould, to some degree, be categorized as cyberpunk. But the sub-genre of science fiction that is cyberpunk is unique to the last twenty years of the twentieth century. The term first appeared in Bruce Bethke‘s short story `Cyberpunk‘, which appeared in Amazing Stories (November 1983), and was a play on cybernetics, the study of communication and control systems, and punk, the musical movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Concerned with computerized rationalization and computerized intelligence, cyberpunk is neither technophiliac or technophobic although there is a tension between the military industrial monster that produces technology and the sensibility of the technically skilled individual trained for the world of high technology. In short, cyberpunk was a signal of new attitudes to new technologies and the fictive textual voice of cyberculture and cyberspace.

Gibson claims not to have invented the cyberpunk genre but his Neuromancer (1984) stands as the canonical cyberpunk novel. Cyberspace, in Neuromancer, is the ‘consensual hallucination’ that there is a `space’ behind the computer screen and connections are made within the matrix of computer networks. It exists in the world which is created when people log their nervous systems directly into the network, increasing the intimacy of mind and matrix. Neuromancer employed the metaphors that embodied the experience of the information technology. When Gibson published his novel, the technology of virtual reality was being developed and ARPANet was expanding the possibilities of internetworking. In 1984, personal computers were beginning to appear on desks, computerized videogames were common and networks and mainframes were becoming accessible to universities and corporations. Computers were also becoming smaller and entering the domestic space in the form of televisions, wrist watches, calculators and so forth. However, there was an absence of vocabulary to describe these new technologies. Gibson‘s novel filled this gap, providing the terminology to describe the rapid technological change of the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, it reached those who had been tantalized by George Lucas’s vision in the Star Wars trilogy of humanity and technology bound together. Gibson‘s cyberspace metaphor allowed a fictive depiction of the electronic environments with which virtual reality programmers were experimenting but which themselves were forms of fiction. Indeed, the borrowing of a great number of terms from science fiction to describe the new auspices of information and technological existence can only underscore the extent to which this new referend is a simulation, no less real because it is fictional. Cyberpunk fictions arranged major techno-corporations and governments in opposition to equally technologically outsider. Cyberpunk terms include:

  • hacker: one who successfully breaks into computer systems/networks and can manipulate them for his/her own use;
  • cracker: one whose attempts to break into computer systems/networks may not succeed but whose attempts will impact upon those systems;
  • phreak: one who attempts to break into telephone systems;
  • cypher-punk: one who attempts to break codes and to foil security systems;
  • transhuman: one who attempts to exploit technology to increase life expectancy and human potential;
  • extropian: transhumanists with an ardent interest in space colonization.

Literary cyberpunk has moved beyond Gibson, who remained highly ambivalent about his identification with the movement. Other cyberpunk novelists include Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, John Shirley and Rudy Rucker. Gradually, however, cyberpunk has come to refer less to a sub-genre of science fiction than to the underside of new digital cultures – computer undergrounds, rave cultures, zine culture among them – that were emerging from the digital worlds of the Internet. In this way, the new cybercultures that cyberpunk had foretold were the demise of cyberpunk as a literary form.

[Technopoly is] the deification of technology, which means that culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology,and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a  new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs. (Postman, 1992, 71)

Such rapid technological change destabilized the perimeters between human and machine, space and time and self and other. The computer revolution of the 1980s presented one challenge to the Enlightenment’s rational centred subject.

Reason, which was supposed to legitimize the neo-pagan and emancipatory activities of Enlightenment, is now itself in need of legitimation. It can no longer assume the capacity for self-legitimation without assuming an exclusivity… It produces an administered society, not a rational society: reason is replaced by efficacy and by the aesthetic and formal vacuities of rationalism… Enlightenment reason is in fact a potent weapon in the production of social normativity, driving people towards a conformity with a dominant and centred ‘norm’ of behaviour. (Docherty, 1993, 13-14)

Baudrillard argues that it is not reason (as the principle of reality) and the subject of reason which require legitimation in the late twentieth century but rather the Other of the real, which legitimizes cultural practices.

So there is something more than that which is peculiar to our modern media images: if they fascinate us so much it is not because they are sites of the production of meaning and representation – this would not be new – it is on the contrary because they are sites of the disappearance of meaning and representation, sites in which we are caught quite apart from any judgement of reality, thus sites of a fatal strategy of denigration of the real and of the reality principle. (Baudrillard, 1987, 28)

The freedoms promised by the Enlightenment were representations of an aesthetic, rather than a political, nature. If the representations of the subject of reason are called into question as a specific historical, cultural, racial, gendered and organic self by cyberculture, then the subject is left both without representation and with infinite representation, protected by the fluidity of cyberspace.

This fluidity of movement is made possible by hypertext. The giant calculating machines emerging from the Second World War and common in industry until the late 1960s had given the impression that, no matter how complicated the computations, what happened inside a computer could be mechanically unpacked and explained. Computer programming was a technical skill that, when performed correctly, followed the linear path of the traditional narrative. Such traditional notions of reading or assimilating information – linear, logical and hierarchical – have, since the computer revolution of the 1980s, been replaced by new methods of storing and retrieving information. The result is `a body of work active not passive, a canon not frozen in perfection but volatile with contending human motive’ (Lanham, 1993, 51). This change has been  largely effected through the cyberconstruct of the World Wide Web and the expanding possibilities of hypertext. Not only has hypertext enabled the functioning of the World Wide Web but open-ended hypertext has subverted traditional notions of linear narratives and definitive readings. Landow and Delaney point out that `so long as the text was married to a physical media, readers and writers took for granted three crucial attributes: that the text was linear, bounded, and fixed’ (1991, 3; emphasis in original). Hypertext transcends these demands because it can be read non-sequentially. Such projects as Landow’s The Dickens Web or the Victorian Women Writers Project( exemplify this. The former, primarily an undergraduate study aid, puts into practice the hypertextual arguments that Landow advanced in Hypertext. Much like electronic footnotes, hyperlinks make connections between items. The latter is a more diffuse project sustained by Indiana University, and a classic example of academic research, which may be difficult to publish finding a home on the Internet. What is crucial about the Victorian Women Writer’s Project is that it is always being updated and its hyperlinks checked, so that it remains at the cutting edge of research, unlike a book which can quickly become critically moribund.

Moreover, hypertext allows arguments and connections to be made that are not possible on paper. `The stepping-up speed from the mechanical to the instant electronic form reverses explosion into implosion. In our present electric age the imploding or contracting energies of our world now clash with the old expansionist and traditional patterns of organization’ (McLuhan, 1964, 47). Certainly, hypertext, with its terminology of blocks, links and frames, resonates with such postmodern aesthetics as intertextuality, fragmentation and the decentred subject. Kristeva outlined a three-dimensional textual space of the intersection of the writing subject, the addressee and exterior texts.

The word’s status is thus defined horizontally (the word in the text belongs to both writing subject and addressee) as well as vertically (the word in the text is oriented towards an anterior or synchronic literary corpus) . . .each word (text) is an intersection of words (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read. (Kristeva, 1986, 37)

Each text is informed by the other texts which the reader has read. On a technologically simplistic level, intertexuality is articulated by the footnotes that provide the sources for material to which the text is referring. Hypertext makes manifest Kristevean intertextuality in that hypertextual intertextuality is a mosaic of multiple texts, with the connections being made by the individual. The digital and archival abilities of hypertextual cyberspace have extended the virtual resources of the text into a unified mega-text, in which comprehension is the result of navigation as well as analysis. This is a far cry from the original ‘Analytical Engine’ that Babbage had designed, with a centralized structure and programmed rules, as a tool. If cybernetics was originally to do with calculation and linear logic, hypertext and new cyberspaces moved it towards simulation, navigation and interaction.

Knowledge is power! Do you suppose that little fragile form of yours – your primitive legs, your ludicrous arms and hands, your tiny, scarcely wrinkled brain – can contain all that power? Certainly not! Already your race is flying to pieces under the impact of your own expertise. The original human form is becoming obsolete. (Sterling, 1990, 25l)

The posthuman marks the end of the dissolution of the autonomous rational subject of humanism: the subject is decentred not only in relation to itself but also in relation to the world. Cyberspace situates the subject as multiple points on a map of virtual reality and cyberculture catches the ‘subjectless’ subject within a web of interactive networks, displacing autonomy. Technology has expanded and perfected the techniques of representing ‘the real’ to the extend that the ontological status of the real has been called into question on a grand scale.

So it is with simulation, insofar as it is opposed to representation. The latter starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent . . . Conversely, simulation starts from the utopia of this principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference. Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum. (Baudrillard, 1983, 11)

Cyberspace undermines the symbolic distance between the metaphoric and the real, abandoning the latter by presenting an increasingly real simulation of a ‘real’ reality. Information loses its body in cyberspace.

The liberal humanist doctrine of possessive individualism – the freedom to dispose of property at will, including the property of the body – is lost in the webs of cyberspace. The movement from the human to the articulated posthuman, of which the cyborg is an example, is, in effect, a transition from order to chaos. Freud’s notion of the uncanny can elaborate upon the relationship between human and machine. He remarks that the uncanny can entail `manifestations of insanity, because these excite in the spectator the impression of automatic, mechanical processes at work behind the ordinary appearance of mental activity’ (1955, 226). Certainly, the liberal humanist consanguinity of ideology and material embodiment is broken apart by the apparent random nature of cyberculture. The human/machine interface becomes a place in which traditional notions of subjectivity and embodiment are potentially abandoned. Despite attempts to sustain the notion of the liberal humanist subject, the late  twentieth century has seen `a new way of looking at human beings. Henceforth, humans were to be seen primarily as information-processing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines’ (Hayles, 1999, 7). In cyberculture, the self is multiple, fluid and constituted only via interaction with technology.

Our dependence on technology leads us to ask whether or not we are all cyborgs, a term first employed, with its present meaning of a transgressive mixture of biology and technology, by Donna Haraway in ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’ (1985) and `The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies‘ (1988) (Haraway, 1991). As the boundaries between technology and nature undergo fundamental restructuring, partly as a result of the computer revolution, the analytical categories are made unreliable or redundant. ‘Formed by technology at the same time that it creates technology, embodiment mediates between technology and discourse by creating new experiential frameworks that serve as boundary markers for the creation of corresponding discursive systems’ (Hayles, 1999, 205). Cosmetic surgery and bodybuilding form part of the discourse of the cyborg, remodelling, removing and regenerating the body. The performance artist Stelarc is incorporated, literally, within a series of prosthetic devices that his body manipulates – or which manipulate him. His third arm is controlled using the muscles of his stomach but the erratic movements of one of his original arms is the result of an electric charge which he cannot control. Similarly, the performance artist Orlan has staged a series of performative cosmetic surgeries in which her likeness is transformed into Renaissance and post-Renaissance representations of female beauty. By breaking up and redeploying these art works – the forehead of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the eyes of Gerome’s Pysche, the mouth of Boucher’s Europa – Orlan’s cyborgic body simulates beauty through a particularized relationship with technology. Films such as Tetsuo (Tsukamoto, 1988), Terminator (Cameron, 1984), Robocop(Verhoeven, 1987) and Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983) combine human and machine in prosthetic extensions of the body as well as new flesh, whereas the simulation of the body in Blade Runner(Scott, 1982) and the Terminator films implies that the original may be a simulation. In cyberspace, the body is always cyborgic.

If the body is always cyborgic in cyberspace, then identity is openly simulated. Computer-cross-dressing is a standard feature of exchange on the Internet, most common in Multi-Use Dungeons or Domains (MUDs – a structured digital social experience, managed by a computer program and usually involving a loosely defined context) or chat rooms. Changing one’s identity in a chat room or aMUD is a matter of simply editing one’s description. Moreover, the user can have multiple identities of racial, cultural, gendered, sexed and economic difference. The decentring power of cyberspace has enabled the subject to disappear into the `hyperreality’ of digital reproductions and representation that `bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum’ (Baudrillard, 1983, 11). Hyperreality, sustained by cyborg envy – a fascination with augmenting or  disembodying technologies – is the new cyberculture. In the cybercultural relationship between the body and technology, identity does not exist.

Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally-designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly alert. (Haraway, 1991, 152)

Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally-designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly alert. (Haraway, 1991, 152) If cyberculture is to be experienced rather than described, and identity does not exist in cyberspace, what, then, is cybercriticism? It could be argued that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is a cybercritical piece, addressing the relationship of the body with technology. Certainly some science fiction from H. G. Wells onwards was concerned with depicting this relationship. But it was not until the artificial intelligence work after the Second World War that cybercriticism – that is, the theorizing of a radically new relationship between the body and technology (now understood primarily as information technology) – slowly emerged. If cybercriticism is based on the universal mediation of writing on a computer, then it can only exist in the latter half of the twentieth century. That said, there have been several identifiable strands of cybercriticism which have only recently begun to recognize one another. Those working in cybernetics did not have the theoretical apparatus with which to frame the practices about which they were writing. These early writings are often replete with cybernetic facts but not located within a larger argument. Those working in the humanities had the theoretical apparatus but were not able, until well after the computer revolution of the 1980s, to gain the hands-on knowledge required. For the most part, early cybercriticism in the humanities was largely constituted of hypertextual teaching aids, similar to Landow’s projects. Those working as journalists or novelists began to bring the two sides of cybercriticism together, as exemplified by cyberpunk fictions or the work of Mark Dery. But it was not until the World Wide Web became a pervasive and tangible presence in the mid- 1990s that the field of ‘cybercriticism’ emerged in the academy, albeit never formally. It gradually crept into course syllabi and reading lists as more and more theorists and academics realized the inescapability of cyberspace. At present, it is concerned with the gendering of technoculture, with fears of the autonomous possibilities of technology, with cybernetic power conspiracies and with the relationship between the organic and the inorganic. In short, the cybercritic is one who is aware of and reads the decentralizing possibilities of this new cyberculture.

Source: Introducing Criticism at the 21st Century by Julian Wolfreys, Edinburgh University Press, 2002.


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