A lot has been written about Donald Trump recently, a lot figuring him as some sort of nightmare dystopian avatar come lighting rod conducter for evil and for all that is wrong with the world, and I don’t really disagree. I do think the situation is more complex and interesting than that. I’m going to talk a little bit about that through the medium of cyberpunk roleplay games.
First off, cyberpunk is not counter culture, not any more. It is absolutely a product and I believe reflective of the society that produces it. There was a brief time where it existed in a niche area of science fiction, but it has become heavily commercialised and has changed to reflect the reality in which it was produced. If you can buy music and computer games themed around something, its not a counter culture product. It is simply a style.
So, as above, I was thinking about Cyberpunk roleplay games recently, Cyberpunk 2020 in style and theme is very eighties and is ultimately about embracing free market capitalism where Player Characters provide services to the market, it is a fundamentally libertarian setting. It matches the predominant culture of the time, it does not offer transgressive ideas.
Shadowrun is very nineties and envisions this weird activist culture where everyone (or at least cybered freelance hackers and mercenaries) has a cause and is struggling against “the man”. It is this odd blend of anarchist theory mixed with middle class politics and a lot of social justice stuff with themes of identity and integrity being compromised by a hostile technology. It is very much about individuals being able to change the world and disrupt the plans of business monoliths and that there is a value and place for the individual. Shadowrun is very effective in discussing attitudes to racism and class and has some legitimately interesting insights whilst simultaneously misunderstanding or misjudging major issues around it.
Shadowrun reminds me of news stories of Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, Swampy the eco warrior and news headlines of hackers (or what people imagined were hackers) compromising credit cards. Unspoken at the heart of everything is an absolute compliance and engagement with the system hand in hand with a contradicting belief that an individual’s actions, the personal as political represented some kind of meaningful rebellion. During this time, recycling passed from a radical activity to a day to day performative function. Again cyberpunk of the time reflects mundane reality.
This time was the start of our engagement with the internet, a tool that should have set us free and made information limitless, but as Thoreau put it, we became tools of our tools.
Contemporary cyberpunk games are bleaker and there is no longer a struggle against “the man”. Technology and business proliferates and dominates, and the PCs sit in a gap within the already conquered world waiting for a chance to react to what the neoliberal order has achieved. There is no question of turning the clock back or progressing to something else, this is what we have now. e.g. Corporation the RPG features the players as the unquestioning servants of a dominating and oppressive corporation carrying out missions to further its agenda rather than to line their own pockets or for an idealistic goal.
The game’s emphasis is on violent action rather than morality or personal motivations because there is no cultural space to discuss these issues within the context of a mission/game session. Surveillance and harsh punishment are assumed in it’s everyday society and everything can be bought, meanwhile punishments can be bypassed by the corporation’s loyal servants. It is a game of the now. Likewise, with the vicious shift of the Overton window, far more conversations have become proscribed than ever before. No longer can certain ideas be discussed because everywhere is watched, by covert infomation gathering or punchy trolling below the line. There is no option to imagine secret transgressions, the question is the extent to which we engage with the system.
We probably do deserve Trump, in that we clearly have the appetite as a culture for what is being offered by him. Those who passionately disagree with him would not dream of raising a fist, a brick or a gun beyond fantasy. The politics of the left and right now deplore violence in terms of direct action and accept the mandate that only the military and police may deploy it. There is no one to truly object and the passivity that our technology demands has rendered us compliant and as a product defined in data points. The passivity that has been created has been through making us comfortable. Everyone is invested in the system now, its just comfortable enough, just diverting enough to be not bothered by other matters. We don’t need to own anymore, but we do need to interact and this now is what we treasure beyond everything else.
The idea that the internet and other technologies would serve reason or truth or be an elevated platform rather than another tool to be misused is firmly over. Internet regulation through partitioning and censorship will likely be the final bullet in the dreamed of body of mass connectivity and bypass of artificial division.
I have always believed that a regime can do whatever it likes unchallenged to it’s population without threat or censure until it starts killing people. Eroding rights is awful but not surprising, its very in vogue right now. I am against it, but like you I am adrift.
Time to hope for a new life in the off world colonies.