cyberpunk humanity

Not a full length post, but I’ll take this opportunity to point you back to my weekend post, which was indeed full length, over here. Writing about Halting State got me to thinking about cyberpunk again.

What do you think the appeal of cyberpunk is? There’s an obvious visual answer, I suppose. The visuals, both of on-screen and written cyberpunk, are great. There’s a jarring sensation when we see a person, get very close, and realize their eyes have a brand name stamped into the corneas. It has something to do with the uncanny and the grotesque. A sweet metal arm with chip inserts and LED lights is both familiar and unfamiliar — uncanny. It reminds us of things we’d rather not remember, like how we could lose an arm, need a replacement; it even reminds us of what it is to be human. We think of humanity as something biological. We’re born human, aren’t we? So are people with mechanical, or even biomechanical, limbs less human somehow? We would of course say no about people now, with simple limb replacements that strive to duplicate the original, missing part.

But people perform body modifications now. They get things pierced or tattooed, or even install chrome balls under their forehead to make it rise up, almost as though horns were about to protrude from the skull. That’s an addition, so again we probably think the person is human, just with bits in. But what about cyberpunk visions of arms being replaced with aluminum and wiring because the aluminum’s better, because the user thinks flashing lights are sexier, they have a fetish for buffed chrome and steel.

Whole body replacement? SF has used that for a long time, and cyberpunk ran with it. We can replace everything on the human, the fiction posited, so the brain is just as much an option. The whole body, then. Sometimes it drops the ball, but I quite like the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series, and the main character has an entirely mechanical body. She had to have body replacements every few years as a child so her image of herself would alter as she “grew up.” In fact, at the end of the original, 90s era movie, she ends up in a child body permanently.

We tie up a lot of what we are, both individually and as human, in our bodies. But cyberpunk wonders what that really means. Does our body matter at all? Major Kusanagi has tremors because she appears to have phantom limb syndrome for her whole body, but there’s a whole body there receiving neural input. So the brain certainly expects a flesh body to be there. What about digital projections of AI modeled on human behavior? Human or not? One gets married in Gibson’s Idoru. If she feels in the same way we do, responding to the same emotional stimulus, what does that mean for us?

That, I think, is the real appeal of cyberpunk. And that’s why it’s lasted past its quasi-dystopic imagery and 80s chic. It forces us to consider the most vital questions to humanity: what are we, and what aren’t we?

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