Cyberpunk is a concept that became popular due to anxieties individuals had about the future due to the expansion and infiltration of technology in our daily lives.
When originally thinking of what word exactly comes to mind when thinking about the word ‘cyberpunk’ itself, it is:
- Neon lights
- Crowded cities
- Corporation vs everyday man
So, I wanted to delve deeper into the concept of cyberpunk and where these associations come from.
The common narrative
The image of ‘cyberpunk’ has been pretty static throughout the decades, and what that means is, that the vision of the future from cyberpunk media from the 80s to the present has not really changed.
But why hasn’t it?
My thoughts on this are that it is because elements of a cyberpunk world are not far off from our current one. Technology is already a huge part of our life, the world is already overpopulated, and cybercrime is ever-present.
A large part of the cyberpunk narrative stems from the concept of “high tech, low life”.
And this is where we get the idea of the “corporation vs everyday man” that we see present in cyberpunk movies such as Bladerunner and Ghost in the Shell. Where the corporation that owns the tech, controls society and where information is currency.
Cyberpunk also gives rise to the concept of ‘human’ and ‘body’ (Yu, 2011), and has us questioning what actually makes us human.
Are we still human if we have cybernetic implants?
What amount of cybernetic implants make us a cyborg?
When do we define ourselves as ‘machine’?
At what point does this separate us from AI?
Cyberpunk: The infusion of techno-orientalism
The term ‘cyberpunk’ was derived from a 1982 story of the same name written by Bruce Bethke and has since become an entire genre itself that depicts a high-tech future where machines and humans collide. However, one thing to note about the cyberpunk genre is that it almost always involves a corporation superpower and that the default setting of the future is almost always “Asia”.
This gave rise to the branch of Orientalism, known as ‘techno-orientalism’. Techno-orientalism (yes, that’s a bit of a mouthful), is in essence the structure behind the Western fear of Asian technological advancement (Siu & Chun, 2020), and the cause of the anxieties about the future.
While the East was previously seen as a part of the world that was far behind in science and used natural remedies, it is now a section of the world that we rely on for the development and innovation of new technologies.
Again, the future is always “Asian”.
This is heavily prominent in Hollywood cinema (Kianfar, 2011), and we see examples of this in Altered Carbon, and the videogame Cyberpunk 2077 where its cityscapes are made to look like a dystopian take on places such as Tokyo or Shanghai. They feature signs in Asian languages and billboards with Asian women.
The Cyberpunk Aesthetic
- Neon colours (e.g. pinks, blues, green, purple)
- Technological elements
- Contrast between light and dark
- Minimalism in architecture
Noting the influence of Eastern culture on the cyberpunk genre, there is a distinct connection between the cyberpunk colour palettes and those of Asian media such as anime that are not necessarily part of the cyberpunk genre.
The environmental aesthetic of cyberpunk is, I feel, the most important. It forms our entire perception of a futuristic city, and how we easily depict high-tech, low-life. Such that the common elements feature:
- Skyscrapers and megastructures
- Bright neon lights
- Projections and holograms
- Industrial and slum areas
- Advertisements featuring sexually-explicit content
- Minimal natural light
These elements can be seen to once again link to the “techno-orientalist” perception of the future, where current Asian cities have many of these features.
And to put the ‘cyber’ in ‘cyberpunk’ we can see a significant focus on cybernetic implants or clothing with user interfaces (i.e. wearable tech). This isn’t far from our current world where individuals can pay for items at a store straight from their smartwatch.
The fashion in a cyberpunk world is seen to differ based on where you sit in the social hierarchy:
We can already see this aesthetic presenting itself in real life today, with the androgynous style and genderless clothing becoming much more popular. This relates to the ‘low-life’ cyberpunk aesthetic, in which many of the outfits worn are the same style between men and women, and built for practicality due to the nature of their wearable tech.
Living in a cyberpunk world
The world today can see itself slowly edging towards a cyberpunk-esque future. Wearable technology is no longer a fantasy of the original sci-fi authors, large multi-story complexes are being built to house a growing and ageing population, and the gap in the social hierarchy is widening.
I feel that cyberpunk has been an avenue for individuals to imagine the possibilities of the future; the creation of new technologies (that may not be so ‘new’ in 5-10 years), and the culture of society in years to come.
- Goh, R., 2013. Engaging future Asia: Techno-orientalisms, ethnography, speculative fiction. Creative Industries Journal, 6(1), pp.43-56.
- Kianfar, N., 2011. A Review of “Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 28:5, 452-455, DOI: 10.1080/10509208.2011.562123
- Ong, A., 2020. Fear of a Yellow Planet: Why We Need to Actually Understand Cyberpunk, Fanbyte. Available at: <https://www.fanbyte.com/games/features/fear-of-a-yellow-planet-why-we-need-to-actually-understand-cyberpunk/>
- Siu, L. and Chun, C., 2020. Yellow Peril and Techno-orientalism in the Time of Covid-19: Racialized Contagion, Scientific Espionage, and Techno-Economic Warfare. Journal of Asian American Studies, 23(3), pp.421-440.
- Yu, Z., 2011. The Culture of Cyberpunk Science Fiction: A Study from the Perspective of Body, Comparative Literature: East & West, 14:1, 127-134, DOI: 10.1080/25723618.2011.12015561