The Cyberpunk Future That Wasn't

Friday A/V Club: The cyber-hype of the early '90s


Back in 1990, the World Wide Web existed in only embryonic form. The internet was becoming more accessible, but most people did not use it. An online world was emerging, but it was far from clear just what it would look like once it became a mass phenomenon.

In that environment, certain segments of the culture—and certain segments of the counterculture—were intensely interested in how digital technologies could change the world. Some of the forecasts that emerged were close to the mark. Some seemed plausible but turned out to be wrong. And some were gushing geysers of ridiculous hype. You can see all three, but especially the third, in Cyberpunk, a 1990 documentary directed by one Marianne Trench. There are marquee names here—the interviewees include William Gibson, Timothy Leary, and Vernon Reid—but the real star is the idea that cyberpunk had ceased to be a mere science-fiction subgenre and had become, in the narrator's words, a "way of life."

The movie is terrible, but it's terrible in engrossing ways. The script careens haphazardly from one loosely related topic to another (hackers! smart drugs! dresses made of computer chips!), all of them described in purplest possible terms. Everything we see is dressed up with what seemed at the time to be "futuristic" visual effects. (Think of them as the early-'90s counterpart to the "psychedelic" effects of a hippie-era exploitation flick.) And then there's the you-gotta-be-kidding-me interview with a fellow who called himself Michael Synergy. He goes on at great length about his hacker powers and outlaw cred without giving us any reasons to take his vague claims seriously. The narrator informs us that he is a "legitimate cyber-hero."

Speaking as someone who was 20 years old when this came out, I can attest that much of the movie's ridiculousness would have been obvious even at the time. (I didn't see the picture when it was released, but I remember rolling my eyes at similar attempts to make cyberpunk the Next Big Countercultural Trend. Everyone I knew who actually identified with any of these cultural currents emitted a big groan when, say, Time did a cyberpunk cover story.) But one thing that wasn't clear back then was how accurate the video's forecasts for the future would be. Some of it does feel prescient now—you can catch flashes of future phenomena ranging from transhumanism to WikiLeaks—but it's the stuff that's wrong that's most fascinating.

Consider the section about music. The filmmakers want to highlight the ways digital technologies will democratize the culture, yet we get no glimpses of the revolutions that would soon turn both the production and distribution of music upside-down; instead the movie focuses on industrial bands with "cyberpunk-themed songs." Or consider Leary's discussion of the ways cyberspace will transform the way we work. Some of his portrait isn't so far from the lives of modern telecommuters using Skype. But he seems to think that this future will require everyone to wear a "computer suit" and enter virtual reality.

Speaking of virtual reality: If you watch just one part of Cyberpunk, make it the section that starts about 46 minutes in, when the narrator starts to go on about "a social time bomb called 'cyberspace.'" This was back before cyberspace was widely used as a word for the entire online universe; this movie still associates it with the virtual-reality vision described in Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer. And so we get a breathless description of the coming virtual world, which in this video looks like a combination of Second Life and Tron. I probably shouldn't hold the early-'90s hype about virtual reality against the current prognostications that VR is about to change everything, but it's worthwhile to look back at these old predictions before you accept the new ones too readily.

Here's the movie:

One person who liked this documentary, incidentally, was the libertarian activist Karl Hess, who urged Liberty magazine to review it around the time I worked there in the '90s. I'm not surprised that it tickled his fancy: It espouses anti-authoritarian politics and embraces decentralized technology, a combination that was dear to Hess's heart. I just wish it was as good as he said it was.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. The movie Hackers was a documentary, and it was filmed in real time.

    1. H A C K T H E P L A N E T

  2. So except for industrial music dying unmourned, how are we not living in a cyberpunk future? Is it because the Grid is still only represented in two dimensions? Is it because the state has yet to be wholly purchased in a leveraged buyout by the MegaCorps? is it because China rather than Japan is the ascendant foreign economic power? Is it because our technomancers wear trillbys, neckbeards, and backward attitudes about women rather than leather trenchcoats?

    1. We may well live in a cyberpunk future, but it isn’t the cyberpunk future displayed here.

    2. Unmourned? Speak for yourself! I’m listening to KMFDM as we speak!

      1. Yeah, lolwut

      2. Maybe it’s just people who listen to industrial music who die unmourned.

        1. Probably true

      3. What does reason require? The answer is clear. hundreds and thousands of our trolls.

      4. Karl Marx Found Dead Masturbating?

        1. Kill Mother Fucking Depeche Mode was the first explanation of their name I heard. But I think it’s really something in German.

          1. KMFDM is an initialism for the nonsensical and grammatically incorrect German phrase Kein Mehrheit F?r Die Mitleid, which, keeping the same word order, literally translates as “no majority for the pity”, but is typically given the loose translation of “no pity for the majority”.

      5. YEAH! I just recently “discovered” them via Pandora. They have made a most excellent addition to my music collection.

    3. No, it’s because I can’t get my datajack, Smartlink, and Wired Reflexes installed yet

      1. A skullgun would be nice too.

        1. You don’t have enough yuks to afford one.

      2. That seems to be the standard cyber outfit. I’m not sure I’ve heard of a single Shadowrunner who didn’t have them.

        1. I would never squander my Essence on chrome toys like that.

          1. Just as long as you never tell us what you do squander your essence on

        2. I’ve played them just to prove to other guys that it could be done.

          Last time I played Shadowrun as opposed to GM’ing it I took the million nuyen build option and dropped 850,000 of it on contacts and extra identities (prepaying for more than one lifestyle) and the only cyber I had was skillwires and a smartlink.

          The GM friggin hated me

    4. We live in the reality that Wintermute allows us to live in.

    5. Fucking hipsters. The trilby is a perfectly good piece of headgear for the woods or a cold day. See Ian Richardson in the first House of Cards.

      As for the neck beards, the douchenozzle are now trimming them to match their short haircuts. Totally pissing me off. For the first time since I got out (and I did the Hitler stache before that) and I can’t stand hippy hair, I’m thinking about shaving everything off. Goddam fuckers.

      1. Yes…YES…I will incorporate your tears into my next artisan mocktail!

      2. If you care what hipsters are doing, and change your style because of it, you are a hipster.

        Another good rule of thumb when it comes to judging things as “hipster stuff” is that if you have heard of it, it’s not hipster-ey anymore and has entered mainstream fashion.

        1. I’d tell you about what’s really cool but you’ve probably never even heard of it.

          1. And now it’s no longer cool.

    6. “Is it because the state has yet to be wholly purchased in a leveraged buyout by the MegaCorps?”

      The “MegaCorps” haven’t even partially purchased the state. Their relationship is rather one of fawning courtiers to an overweening Royal and Imperial Government. Of course various big businesses manage to wheedle significant favors from the Benevolent Hand of Big Government from time to time, but this isn’t remotely the same thing as being the ones in charge.

      In fact, my theory is that “cyberpunk,” and in particular the vision of cyberpunk MegaCorps, is a response to the fall of the USSR and the authors’ despair at the failure of the Glorious Shiny Future of Benevolent Big Government Planning. It was their dystopian vision of what a post-USSR, small-government future would look like.

      1. Does it really matter if the Mega corps buy the government, or if the government buys the mega corps? In either case you end up with unaccountable assholes who can push you around.

  3. Man, there were some absolutely hilarious technology related plots in some ’90s movies. My favorite was Disclosure, where the simple act of searching for files required rifling through virtual filing cabinets while wearing VR goggles.

    1. The Net was also hilarious. Don’t use the internet, your whole life can be erased and nobody will know you existed because if you use the internet you probably never go outside or have any friends or family!

      1. You say that like it’s a bad thing

      2. I thought the net was when Sandra bullock gives you AIDs.

        1. That was Hope Floats

      3. Mission Impossible’s email was pretty funny too, with the little animated envelopes and mailboxes.

    2. Navigating a 3d virtual environment on a half-a-million-dollar deskside rendering workstation to restart the park’s security systems instead of taking 30secs to do a “man -k security” on the terminal program at the Mac one seat over.

      1. It only looked like a (classic) Mac Quadra – it was actually a UNIX system! Which was kind of an inadvertent prediction about the future of Macs, but still…

        1. So, no UNIX terminal on the Mac Quadra that was a UNIX system. See how that works?

        2. It was both a floor polish and a dessert topping.

          Quandra running A/UX.

        3. I was going to comeback with “oh yeah, explain the Finder, smart guy”, even GIS’ing the scene, but thankfully thought to wiki A/UX first to see if it had Finder too.

          More importantly, I think I skipped the plot point about Nedry’s computer being bricked. The movie never addressed whether the power-cycling fixed that machine or not, so maybe the Crimson was the only/best/most-ridiculously-over-procured option in the room.

          1. I had a SE/30 running A/UX at one time. I think I’m going to need a drink after thinking about when that was.

    3. Who can forget Lawnmower Man? No, really, try to unsee that travesty.

      1. Try watching that garbage on LSD. I unfriended the dipshit that thought that was a great movie to watch while hallucinating. (unfriended in real life, not cyber, where it counts)

        1. When I hear ‘cyber’ I think of that movie, specifically watching the laserdisc version on an MCA DiscoVision via hacked Hafler stereo setup for Dolby Surround on the cheap. The Future!

    4. My favorite was Disclosure, where the simple act of searching for files required rifling through virtual filing cabinets while wearing VR goggles.

      I liked Strange Days purely for the unabashed “OMG, a politician killed a hooker!” plotline.

      1. That is a good guilty-pleasure movie.

        1. Somewhat OT: I recently watched Kill Command and was pleasantly surprised.

          First, it was as good or better than the majority blockbusters I’ve seen this year. And, despite walking nearly the precise plot line of dozens of other movies in the genre, there were still some internal plot exceptions and some aspects that really shined.

          Definitely towards the top list of the ‘How To Survive the Robot Apocalypse’ videos I’m saving for the boys.

      2. I think you’re thinking of Rising Sun, which was also Crichton. Strange Days was the one with the illegal brain-playback thing, with Ralph Fiennes and Tom Sizemore. In Strange Days, the hooker was killed by a lowlife ex-cop PI (played by Sizemore, because of course). Rising Sun was the one that had a senator as the killer.

    5. Virtuosity

      The Russell Crowe Simulator goes wonky attacks Denzel with a phone?

      Or something like that.

      I drank a lot in the 90’s.

      1. Johnny Mnemonic!

  4. The problem with a lot of cyberpunk futures is that it hews to the “high tech, low life” formula. The works focus on the fringes of the cyberfied culture, the thieves and societal outcasts, not the day to day of how the quotidian worker deals with these technologies.

    In general terms, the world was never going to look like Neuromancer in the same way the world was never going to look like Red Harvest or The Getaway.

    1. Please don’t include cyberpunk in your next Hillary/Trump fiasco, for the love of Yakub.


        I am still trying to heal my almost slain soul.

        1. The only way to quit the Sugarfree addiction is to overdose on it. *tapes eyelids in preparation for the P.M. links(Soave, if you value your hair and you are the linker, don’t be late and at least try for some decent links)

        2. Your soul never heals, it only becomes scarred and callused. A knotted mass of what once was beautiful, now twisted by eldritch horror into… *shudders* …a vessel of abject sorrow.

    2. I took up The Difference Engine this week. Liking it quite a bit.

    3. The Getaway

      Have you ever tried to get out of Texas?

      1. Tarantino does a very subtle reference to The Getaway in Dusk ‘Til Dawn, making the ending even darker if you have read the book. (Neither film version goes into it.)

    4. Probably the most realistic “cyberpunk” novel in terms of how thing would actually work was published 3 years before Gibson’s Neuromancer and is not generally considered part of the cyberpunk genre because in it the corporations officers are actually the good guys trying to protect an arcology from an assortment of marxist luddites and eco terrorists who are secretly supported by the government.

      The book was written by Niven and Pournelle and titled “Oath of Fealty

      1. A frighteningly accurate vision of what our overculture is actually like is The Girl Who Was Plugged In, also considered one of the cyberpunk precursors: Product placement, celebrities who are famous just for being famous, the vast potential of a globally interconnected world mostly wasted on Instagram and cat videos…

      2. ^ ^ ^

        Great SF novel.

      3. I had no idea what you were talking about until “arcology” and then I was like, “Oh, OoF”.

        have ODed on Niven and my life, and I regret none of it.

        Well, the later Ringworld books are an exception.

    5. Goddamn, SF, you’re on fire this morning. Someone stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

    6. The quotidian worker regrooves squib tires.

        1. CoaCA; easily PKD’s best “mainstream” novel.

        2. I was hopin to find the Frogs had filmed Our Friends From Frolix 8

          1. You must be a Dickhead.

            Yeah it would be cool to see that one turned into a movie, maybe also Ubik. I have a copy of the Ubik screenplay that was comissioned but the project never came to fruition.

  5. It’s important to remember the state of technology circa 1990.

    The internet didn’t become a consumer phenomenon until AOL and Netscape’s browser came along–and probably after Windows 95.

    Circa 1995, most Americans who knew about the internet still believed that the entire internet consisted of AOL’s website. There were serious questions at the time about whether AOL could ever be forced from its position of dominance since it was so hard to find your way out of their website and onto the rest of the internet. People thought Netscape might take over the internet because opening it sent you to their homepage by default.

    People heard a lot about Netscape going public, found out that there was more to the internet than AOL’s website, and never looked back. As funny as the cyberpunk hype sounds, the first time you played Quake III Arena against other live opponents, all that virtual reality and cyberspace hype seemed to live up to the billing.

    I should say some of that early paranoia about a cyberpunk world lives on. One example is the term “identity theft”. “Credit fraud” sounds much less scary, but “identity theft” means cyberpunk hackers are going around pretending to be you–and you don’t even know about it, oh my!

    1. The whole vocabulary around this stuff is so ridiculous and contrived – “I’ve got a virus!” – but that ship sailed long ago.

      1. Get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids….oh, wait….you meant computer virus!

    2. The first person I knew to have internet and an email address was my grandfather around 1993. He had AOL, and it seemed amazing to me at the time. He’s now 92 years old and STILL has the same AOL email address from 1993.

      1. Hah, my grandfather too! Except not AOL. The first thing I read on the internet was some gibberish about monkey typing Shakespeare. Black text on a plain grey background, in 1993. The second thing was some information about roller coasters.

    3. Remember when people actually believed that the company with the best browser would “control the internet”?


      1. Now google controls it and by google I of course means the Jews.

        1. Jews… News…

          It all makes sense now!

        2. (((google)))

          1. Damn, I forgot the parentheses thing. It’s about being gay and out, so google is gay jews deep in the closet. The conspiracy is like an onion of gayness and jewery.

    4. The internet didn’t become a consumer phenomenon until AOL and Netscape’s browser came along–and probably after Windows 95.

      It was well into the 2000s before you could generally assume internet access and generally as recent as 2007 before you just assumed everyone had it on their hip. Meaning, up until 2007ish, the whole cat and mouse race to the upload point got play. Hell, until 2004ish it wasn’t outlandish for current fiction to contain pacing and scapegoats centered around people going off in search of a landline telephone.

  6. It’s just a passing fad. Buncha kids getting hopped up on a silly gimmick. We’ll be back to reading newspapers and visiting libraries in a couple years.

    1. You joke, but when anthropogenic climate obliteration forces us to abandon electricity, those newspapers and libraries will be a lot more useful than a 4G smartphone.

      1. What are you talking about, you can start a fire a lot easier with the 4g smartphone than you can with the newspaper

        1. I meant for conveying information, smart guy.

      2. Paul Krugman’s (Nobel Prize-winning) crystal ball saw the internet as having no more longterm economic impact than the fax machine if I remember.

    2. Newspapers in the 1990s thought their publishing future was CD-ROMs instead of newsprint.

      1. Sometimes they did jump the gun. I remember the “CueCat” system in the Dallas Morning News… you could scan barcodes in the paper with the free scanner they sent you in the mail, and it would take you to more in-depth coverage of the stories on their website or whatnot. It never caught on and died a quiet death… then several years later, we’re all doing pretty much the same thing, only with smartphones and QR codes.

        1. then several years later, we’re all doing pretty much the same thing, only with smartphones and QR codes.

          You mean not using our phones to scan the codes and allowing them to die a quiet death, right?

        2. I’ve never figured out how to scan a QR code, and I’ve tried to figure it out.

  7. I recall cyberspace described as “where you are when you’re talking on the telephone”.

    1. Me too. Did Bruce Sterling coin that, or did he just popularize it?

      1. Not sure. I recall him saying, writing it but not claiming it.

    2. Yes, exactly this. It was initially described as that ‘place where you meet in the middle’.

  8. I wonder if the NSA cyberpunked the Democrats?

  9. Can you jam with the console cowboys in cyberspace?

    1. I always wanted to form a Southern Rock/electronica cyberpunk band called “The Dixie Flatlines” but I thought bettter of it.

  10. The real tragedy is that cyber has returned as an adjective. Witness cyber security. Had hoped that died with a stake twenty years ago. Should have used gold instead.

  11. He goes on at great length about his hacker powers and outlaw cred without giving us any reasons to take his vague claims seriously.

    You know it’s funny, even Neal Stephenson cringes a bit at Snowcrash.

  12. Michael Synergy

    But what about Jem and the rest of the Holograms?

      1. Truly, truly outrageous!

    1. You are aware they made a movie?

      Only 20 to 30 people have actually seen it.

      1. No, they didn’t.

        Next you’ll claim that they made a sequel to Highlander.

  13. Despite being the first triple-crown winner (Hugo, Nebula, PKD award) Neuromancer is not a particularly good SF novel.

    1. It does get more credit than it deserves. Mostly because of Gibson is my guess, though it’s the only one of his books I’ve read.

      1. Gibson catches shit from all sides. The 70s social reformists hate him because he wrote a novel with a plot and no “diversity.” Many of the existing SF writers didn’t want a prose stylist in the middle of what had always been a genre of either flat journalist prose or–at times–barely comprehensible experimental writing–and worse, he was being read by people outside of the often incestous genre community. He gets both blamed and credited for cyberpunk, which was always a marketing label. And then the often grotesque spectacle of “cyberculture” is lain at his feet.

    2. I tried reading Gibson hated it so much it is one of the very small handful of books I started but didn’t finish.

      About the only good thing I had to say about it was that I got further in that I managed to get into the Thomas Covenant books

      1. I had trouble finishing it, I just thought it was poorly written. Kim Stanley Robinson, one of Gibson’s contemporaries, is a far better writer.

        Wish Pournelle would write more SF.

        1. Apparently since his stroke he can’t anymore

        2. Also what I want to see from Pournelle is for Footfall and Lucifers Hammer to be made into Television Series the way Game of Thrones was.

          There is plenty in either book to carry a 3 to 4 season 10 to 12 episode ~45 minute per episode series

          1. I’d sure go for that.

            Oath of Fealty would/could make a good movie.

          2. I want a Ringworld miniseries.

            And a Mote miniseries.

            Lucifer’s Hammer is obviously a tv series, you can get years out of that.

            1. Anyone read Pournelle’s Starswarm? An excellent SF novel in the tradition of Heinlein’s juvenile series of SF novels from the period before Heinlein became all but unreadable.

              1. Yes I’ve read Starswarm, I think I’ve read all of Pournelle’s work as he is generally my favorite SF author.

                Pournelle and Niven’s Inferno is also an excellent modern take on Dante’s classic and Fallen Angels is a fun celebration of SF/F fandom and the culture around it (at least before the SJW’s took it over) and excoriation of the eco-luddite movement.

                My my favorite Pournelle novels outside of his Niven Collaborations are the Prince of Sparta novels within the Falkenbergs legion series (Go Tell the Spartans and Prince of Sparta) which also establish the Founding of the First Empire of Man in the Mote in the Gods Eye’s past.

            2. A well done Mote miniseries would be awesome but I am not really certain that the tech exists to do it right yet

    3. PKD is third?

      Not Prometheus or Campbell?

  14. I like it when you geeks talk about science fiction. I always find something fun to read.

    1. Almost all the Niven/Pournelle novels are excellent. Better than either does on their own. And I am a huge Niven fan, but he needs Pournelle to reel him in. And Pournelle needed Niven to be creative.

      1. Interesting, I really enjoyed the Pournelle/Niven collaborations but much prefer Pournelle’s solo work over Niven’s.

        Pournelle’s edited some great anthologies as well.

      2. Huh. I’ve only read – and loved – solo Niven stuff, and nothing by the other guy. Will have to find time to look into these.

        1. If you love solo Niven (and I do to), then the Niven/Pournelle stuff will be right up your alley.

          Niven is great at short story but has trouble, IMO, expanding to novel length. Pournelle solves the problem.

    2. I am currently reading Pimp: the Story of My Life, by Iceberg Slim.

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