AKA bookish: Cyberstudies

The essays collected here are from an earlier phase of my scholarly career, when I was an active participant and observer in various online “virtual communities.” In those days, I was something of a big fish, in various small virtual ponds, and generally know by the username “bookish.”

Related links:

Running Down the Meme:

Cyberpunk, alt.cyberpunk, and the Panic of ‘93

Shawn P. Wilbur


Dodging Cultural Traffic

It’s a cliché of traditional history that a certain amount of temporal distance is necessary between the historian and his or her period. Otherwise, it is impossible to know what was important, what is worthy of study. A similar attitude guides much literary criticism, where contemporary works must “pass the test of time” to prove their worth. The result is undoubtedly a clearer sense of the grand sweep of History and Culture—though one which is nonetheless temporally bound. But, for any cultural critic whose concerns reach beyond an understanding of what the hegemonic big picture “is”—for example, to those occasions where the dominant discourses break down, or to successful strategies for resistance—this kind of cultural study has to be understood as obscuring and attenuating the intensities and experiences of everyday life, which is, in the end, where we live our own histories. There is much to be said for the examination of the local, the contemporary, the as-it-happens. Academics, like most people, are forced to spend too much time catching up with the present to plan much for the future.

There are also difficulties with studying contemporary culture which can’t be discounted, particularly as we move our studies closer to the various cutting edges of our culture(s). Critics of contemporary society know as well as anyone that feeling of “information sickness” (or “information anxiety”) that came with our current “information revolution.” The effect is a bit like trying to understand traffic patterns while standing in the middle of a busy street. You might hold that image in your mind as you venture with me into the Internet, the global information network, the terrain across which the much-discussed “information superhighway” will be built.

The Cyberpunk Panic of ‘93

For several years now, I have been studying various aspects of “cyberpunk,” a science fiction subgenre turned subculture, and a marketable commodity label. So when I opened my first Internet account, about a year ago, I naturally gravitated toward the established online cyberpunk forums, particularly the alt.cyberpunk hierarchy on Usenet and the Cyberpunk forum on New York’s Mindvox BBS. [1] What I found there was an odd, fluctuating collection of personalities, opinions and discussion threads, with more than a few flames thrown in for good measure. While there was not, perhaps, the cohesion and continuity that one would expect of a community, the groups still represented more than just another culture of compatible consumption. For some time, I simply lurked, reading but seldom contributing to the discussions, except to answer an occasional question about cyberpunk literature. I made little attempt to integrate myself into the core group of alt.cyberpunks. Mostly, I scanned the posts for news of new science fiction novels or other technocultural products and events.

And then the panic occurred. My entry into cyberspace had been just one very small part of a larger movement. Within the last year, the Internet has gained large numbers of new users and an increasingly large presence in popular media. This has meant an increase in newbies—people unschooled in the intricacies of net.life—but also the “invasion” of previously sheltered spaces by reporters and media personalities. On February 8, 1993, Time ran a cover story about “Cyberpunk” which included discussions of the Internet. In May, 1993, Sassy magazine ran a story on Mindvox, called “Girlz in Cyberspace,” which concentrated on gender issues. About the same time, Adam Curry appeared on Usenet, stirring things up on rec.music.video, and hosting video-rating parties on Internet Relay Chat (IRC). And then word came out that Billy Idol was not only recording an album to be called “Cyberpunk,” but had acquired an account on the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) and was preparing to release a multimedia computer disk to accompany the album. [2]

The resulting flamefest lasted for months. In fact, the most recent anti-Idol posts on alt.cyberpunk appeared within the last few weeks. Billy Idol came in for the most flameage on alt.cyberpunk, but Sassy, Curry, Time, and even supposed cyber-magazines like Mondo 2000 and Wired came in for heavy criticism. There were charges of commercialization, posing, selling out, invading, even of destroying “cyberpunk” in particular, but also net.culture as a whole. There was more than a bit of the hysterical in this frenzied abjection of mass culture, capitalism, and the media—in the spirited (and frequently mean-spirited) defense of a supposedly threatened, authentic “cyberpunk movement.” There was also very little agreement about exactly was being defended—and this became more and more clear as the panic went on.

This episode offers us an interesting point of entry into the workings of the social context within which it took place. It offers an opportunity for a close reading of online culture, for something like “virtual ethnography.” However, it is important to keep in mind the significant differences between what we ordinarily think of as communities and virtual communities, as well as the differences between types of online social groupings. There is not a great deal of published work to guide this sort of study, and little in the way of a specialized vocabulary to deal with the peculiarities of studying online culture. For those reasons, it seems worthwhile to sketch out a few of the issues involved in online sociological research and introduce some methods which seem particularly suited to this kind of study—in part because they are the methods frequently applied by members of virtual communities to their own groups.

Virtual Communities and Other Online Forums

Within the online environment, there are many different kids of social groupings, based on a variety of electronic communications technologies. Electronic mail, email, is the most common form of online communication, and works primarily as a means of establishing one-to-one, private, asynchronous dialogue. The same technologies, however, can also be used to create electronic mailing lists, or elists. Mailing lists are usually organized around a single, fairly narrowly defined topic and the lists themselves exist as semi-separate entities with email addresses of their own. The software for lists is designed to facilitate asynchronous, group discussion that is public to the extent that it is readable by all list subscribers, but is not readily accessible by users who are not subscribed to the list. Any message sent to the list’s own address is automatically forwarded to all the subscribers, as are any replies—provided they are posted to the list, rather than through private email. Errors and administrivia are routed to the address of the list’s maintainer, so that the list is left relatively uncluttered. Lists vary considerably in their signal to noise ratio—that is, the ratio between interesting and useful information and flames, disagreements, off-topic posts, and other distractions. They also vary considerably in volume, with some lists producing no more than one message every month or two and some producing hundreds of messages on a busy day. On an active mailing list, the rate of response may be so rapid that there is almost the illusion of realtime discussion.

Usenet newsgroups also use a variation of the electronic mail system to facilitate asynchronous discussion, but they differ from mailing lists in important ways. One of the most significant differences is the way that Usenet—understood as a single system—maps the user’s sense of place within the network. Naturally, a sense of place is complicated in a virtual environment, and the particular form of cognitive map created by each user will probably be unique. However, we can make some generalizations about how individual environments seem to structure virtual space by observing the behavior and language of other users, and by comparing these virtual environments to more familiar environments in the so-called real world. (Network users frequently refer to the world outside of cyberspace as real life or just RL, although the usage is not without irony in many cases.)

Usenet poses particular spatial problems. It is a network of subscribing sites—including the majority of Internet providers—all of which carry at least some of the hundreds of newsgroups serviced by Usenet. Individual sites store lists of messages which are regularly updated by bundles of new postings that travel through the network constantly. Since data flow through the network is at times a hit or miss affair, this means that the content of any particular site within the network is likely to be unique. However, the structure of the newsgroups—the names of the groups, the hierarchy of which they are a part—does not change from site to site, or from day to day—except as new groups constantly swell the size of the data mass. And, within a few hours, most of the same messages will have passed through most of the sites subscribed to a given newsgroup.

Most of the fluctuations of Usenet go unnoticed by most users, just as a local rescheduling of a television program is hardly noticeable unless it is pointed out specifically. And tidbits from Usenet are regularly introduced into other forums, as a kind of common ground, despite the fact that the open, free-for-all atmosphere of many newsgroups has earned the network nicknames like “abUsenet” or “Uselessnet.” Particularly outside its boundaries, people are inclined to talk about Usenet as if it was a place—a particularly bad neighborhood.

The activity that goes on within a newsgroup has some of the same neighborhood flavor—that is, it encourages one to think of Usenet as existing as a separate, unified entity somewhere out there, rather than a decentralized network with nearly as many discontinuities from site to site as there are continuities. All of the messy distribution processes are masked by browsing software which gives the net a distinctive structure, and also assure that users will not be interrupted by incoming messages. Usenet is among the least interactive group communication media online, but it is the most public. All of these contradictions push the network into some area outside the user’s home site, but not clearly anywhere else—a central/decentralized, non/space. Usenet is so pervasive that it may be the closest thing to being “on the net,” as opposed to just having access to a host.

Realtime sites combine the solidity of the Usenet structure with the possibility of immediate response, and replace its vague sense of place with a specific location and frequently complex topography. The architecture of these sites varies considerably, however, and this affects the users’ experiences of them. Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which consists of channels loosely committed to particular topics, resembles Usenet in that the forums are more-or-less permanent, and discussion is generally open and public. The main difference is that IRC allows realtime computer-mediated communication (CMC), the closest thing to talking directly to another user you can find on the text-based portions of the net. (Some voice and audio links exist, as well as primitive video links, but they are uncommon and require more sophisticated interfaces than most users have access to.) On IRC, as on Usenet, there is little or no upkeep involved in maintaining one’s position in the discussion. You log in and you chat. Someone else has already shaped—mostly simplified—the electronic landscape for you, and client software negotiates all of the rough spots in the road.

In contrast, Multi-User Dimensions (MUDs) attempt to model a complex, determinate virtual landscape which allows user not only to roam and interact with other users, but also to shape the virtual landscape. Sometimes, the purpose of such sites is role-playing games, but MUDs—particularly the object-oriented MOOs—are also being used as virtual offices and laboratories. There are MUDs for media researchers, biologists, astronomers, and researchers in postmodern theory. MUDs are among the least centralized online environments—frequently appearing as small networks within the Internet, incorporating email, IRC-like chat channels, discussion forums in the Usenet style and even mail and gopher connections to the rest of the Internet. These worlds have a kind of volatile permanence unlike the other forums mentioned. Many run constantly in random-access memory (RAM) on their host computers, which means that they are always “there,” but also that they are prone to crashes which can erase the work of builders. (All realtime environments are prone to this sort of catastrophe. On IRC, net-splits routinely kick users off the chat network.) However, even the catastrophes caused by crashes are only relative catastrophes. Most MUDs checkpoint regularly—save the code for the entire environment—so that a restart will preserve all but the most recent changes and additions.

Users’ relations to realtime environment are bound to be complex, since realtime CMC involves a primitive form of telepresence or virtual reality. On IRC, users have a name and the ability to speak and emote—act out in language various gestures and movements—while on a MUD, players actually negotiate the virtual landscape in simulated bodies which they can customize to suit themselves. MUDing involves a kind of impromptu virtual theater, as users attempt to communicate through the limitations of virtual bodies. Some become quite adept at these charades, as evidenced by the popularity of virtual sex in realtime environments.

Players are also likely to develop stronger identifications with their “property” on a MUD than they are with their contributions to other sorts of forums. For one thing, the virtual “body” is left behind when they logoff, as well as virtual rooms and objects that are often customized through hours of work. The possibility of a crash—or of any number of other small virtual invasions, like the “theft” of a virtual object or its code—can leave a player with the same sort of anxiety you feel about leaving your home unattended. Has someone broken in? Who might have entered my space, watched me “sleeping”? The threat of the latter did not become clear to me until I began to run a “female” character on a MOO. On more than one occasion, young male characters remarked that they had visited my room while I was asleep and admired my “looks.” Considering the high incidence of sexual harassment within online environments—and even a case of “virtual rape” at LambdaMOO, where fake messages were displayed that suggested two female characters were engaged in consensual virtual sex acts with the “rapist,” when in fact they had been prevented from speaking—it does not seem unreasonable to attribute a voyeuristic character to some of this behavior.

In describing the various types of virtual environments, I have purposefully steered away from the term virtual community, which is much used, but perhaps little understood, both on and off the networks. There are those who would argue that any mailing list or Usenet newsgroup constituted a virtual community, but I would like to reserve the term for a more specific use. Howard Rheingold, in his recent book Virtual Community, suggests the following description:

Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace. [3]

The suggestion that community is determined by personal relationships, rather than some sort of proximity, or sense of locality, is particularly important on the Internet. Internet users are a transient lot. For an active user, even the simple task of “checking my mail” might involve entering several different virtual environments. To use myself as an example, I maintain five separate accounts with basic services, including email, and have internal mail on another seven player account on MUDs. Nearly all of those accounts get some activity during a week, and many of them have a fairly steady flow of email. And this does not even begin to count the mail routed through various forums and mailing lists on these other sites.

Which is only to say that my minimum daily routine takes me through a variety of sites. But there is also another kinds of transience which is particularly significant if we wish to talk about online community.

With the Internet, individuals from all over the world can interact in any of the forums they have access to. I regularly receive mail from Norway and Australia, spend time MUDing with players from Britain. Physical proximity is no longer a necessary requirement for the establishment of community, just as it has never been a sufficient condition—either online or off. The rate of user turnover on Usenet groups and MUDs is quite high, perhaps because there are none of the conventional reasons for learning to get along. One can always escape a group that has strayed from your interests. If it is a MUD, you may lose some of your work, and builders on MUDs frequently make greater efforts to create and preserve community. If, however, the discussion on alt.pets.herp is not to your taste any longer, it is much simpler to unsubscribe or form another group than it is to change the group’s direction or reach a compromise. Perhaps, your decision is based merely on a change in interests. Your time is now better spent reading alt.pets.parakeets. Will there be tearful farewells when you hit the “U” key to leave the other group? Will you keep in touch with the other snake-lovers?

Sometimes the answers to these questions are a definite Yes. But frequently, users will switch groups routinely, without much thought that they might be leaving behind a particular community. To understand this, we need a little more sophisticated notion of how individual users present themselves and sense others within a virtual environment. At this point, I also want to begin focusing on Usenet, since that is where the events we are going to examine were most spectacularly displayed.

In a text-based environment, any user is only represented by the sum of his or her words, or that portion that any other potentially-transient user might have encountered. The “personality” of a user is only available through their screen names, their signature files, the names of the groups they are members of, and their posts—the letters they write to various forums or lists. Sometimes these provide a considerable amount of information from once one might begin to draw a mental picture of another user. But this is usually only the case for individuals who post frequently. The majority of Usenet users never post. Can they become parts of any of the potential communities within Usenet? By Rheingold’s definition we might say No. The role of these lurkers in virtual communities is frequently debated, and there are persuasive arguments for both including and excluding them from consideration, but we can fairly safely say that they do not contribute to the construction of virtual communities in the same way that active posters do. They are for the most part invisible, and can not enter into our study for that simple reason.

The kind of identity that grows out of active posting to a particular newsgroup is an intertextual one—that is, the subject is only knowable to others as an intertext. The entire newsgroup is a larger intertext, but also, to the extent that subjects emerge, it may become an intersubjective entity. This requires the step that Rheingold points to, beyond the topic that binds the group together to bindings based on personal connections between group members. The simplest form of this emerging intersubjectivity is an association with the subject matter of the group. Users bond on the basis of a shared interest. In this way, for example, alt.cyberpunk.movement becomes a description of much more than just the particular Usenet forum or its subject matter, but refers to the individuals who post there. In this way, the particular group I want to look at later are not just cyberpunks, but alt.cyberpunks.

This is a clubhouse mentality, or perhaps the mentality of consumers bound together by shared brand loyalty. It approaches Rheingold’s “community”—and it is certain that personal relationships are built, or at least begin, through forums like alt.cyberpunk. However, the prevalence of flame wars might also suggest other explanations than the development of some intersubjective entity, where a communion of many-to-many makes up a greater whole. I would like to suggest that, in general, Usenet users—particularly alt-hierarchy users, and even more particularly alt.cyberpunks—are involved in a many-with-one relationship with whatever concept rules their particular corner of the network. The alt.cyberpunks are more actively conversing in dialogue with something called “cyberpunk” than they are with one another.

I base my judgment on months of observation, months of watching ill-mannered argument go on in place of discussion and of watching thoughtful posts largely ignored. Others, who have been around longer than I, seem to have similar things to say about Usenet and alt.cyberpunk. In fact, Andy Hawks—original maintainer of the alt.cyberpunk Frequently Asked Questions list (FAQ), and creator of the original Future Culture mailing list—recently made an even harsher judgment. After laying out a typology of alt.cyberpunk posters, all of whom seem to be joined by a tendency to repeat the same threads over and over, he continues:

As an outsider enters the realm of usenet. . . you look at the groups and say “oh, there’s so much discussion going on here, people are talking and communicating about so many things, it’s conceivably infinite, what a wonderful technology of which to partake”. that’s ignorant bullshit. the simple truth is. . . people talk to themselves on usenet, have no real desire to converse with you unless you in some way/shape/form contribute to, alter, or morph the subjective environment they bring to the net. i believe this true for all of cyberspace, though, not just Usenet or the Internet. [4]

Hawk’s critique is attached to a call for increased analysis of motivations and interactions in online settings (and a back-handed defense of Billy Idol), but it is presented as a sort of lecture to unruly children—a situation rendered somewhat humorous by the fact that Hawks, for all his achievements online, is a college freshman. It is also strangely undercut by Hawks opening line—”So I’m sitting here asking myself why I still care”—which itself suggests both a lack of clarity and a tendency to repeat. (Hawks’ repetitions will play a part later in this story.)

There was very little response to Hawks’ posting. In fact, most of the follow-ups responded to the fact that it was the young net-god “andy” who posted, despite the fact that Hawks’ post was anti-celebrity. And, four months later, very little has changed on alt.cyberpunk. It is likely that Hawks’ post was simply taken as another flame, or as the crankiness of an “old-timer,” or as the inviolable words of a local authority, or the rashness of youth. In any event, rashness in practically de rigeur on Usenet.

Elsewhere in the same post, Hawks suggests some of the reasons that this might be the case. He blames many of the evils of the net on its tendency to privilege the “subjective” over the “objective.” He seems to mean that network user tend to deal with the network, and everyone else on it, entirely in their own terms, and according to their own prejudices. This position seems to be at odds with the familiar claim that life online takes one beyond the limitations imposed by perceptions of gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, personal appearance and age. (A much-reprinted cartoon, featuring canine computer users, bears the caption: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”) However, this stress does not reflect some sort of denial of the liberating possibilities of the network. Instead, Hawks seems to be arguing specifically with the invocation of “subjective” experience as the key to egalitarian online living. Others, myself included, have argued for more inclusive understandings of online subjectivity. After all, the “objective” truths of our experience online seem online to accentuate the distances between individuals. My suggestion is that what Hawks is objecting to is more like a kind of narcissism or object-fixation.

The slide into the language of psychoanalysis is not accidental. Instead it plainly marks a differend between the constructionist perspective from which I am approaching life on the networks, and the ultimately essentialist position from which Hawks seems to be working. In his insistence that an “objective” approach to virtual communities would yield not only greater harmony but greater personal “insight,” he echoes the “better living through chemistry” philosophy of another fringe culture, along with its suggestion that we only knows ourselves by escaping our “selves.” A constructivist might call for an attempt to escape the restrictions of our positions as “subjected,” but with the assumption that what we might find beyond was something other than ourselves—though perhaps something as threatening, abject, as anything within us. Hawks seems to see the problems of alt.cyberpunk—a fixation on an image, both the image of “cyberpunk’ and a cyberpunk self-image—but his insistence on objectivity doesn’t lead us out of the confusion.

The problem seems to be that “cyberpunk” is not a thing, not a proper object. This becomes extremely clear when the alt.cyberpunks begin to talk about their objections to the “invasion” of their cyberspace by the likes of Billy Idol. The best most of them can do is to violently denounce whatever they think cyberpunk is not—a movement of abjection. “Billy is a wanker” was the title of a long-running thread, but it was only one among many instances of simple, juvenile name-calling. Hawks. looking back across his two years of alt.cyberpunk experience, suggests that process of definition by negation is habitual.

In my personal opinion (admittedly not humble), the *addiction* to mindless rebellion and negativity that exists on this group which has done a lot to dissuade the idea of community development here, has done an incredible amount of more harm than good. [5]

These are strong words. The use of the word “addiction” suggest both the way in which certain negative characteristics have become deeply woven into whatever it means to be an alt.cyberpunk, but also the strong personal attachments which individuals have to that designation. Hawks is not trying here to tell why this is, but we might find a few more clues by exploring more deeply the nature of cyberpunk.

An important criteria among real life computer hackers, and the protagonists of cyberpunk novels, are the technical skills which allow them to “liberate” information from the networks. As in so many primarily male youth cultures, a way with the machine is a key to status. Some of the results are amusing. In junior high, when I was struggling through my typing classes, I certainly never imagined that my status in any community important to me could depend on my typing speed and accuracy. Besides, word processing now takes much of that sort of pressure off most scholars and scientists—unless they want to succeed in realtime environments online, where speed and accuracy are necessary to keep up with a conversation on IRC, to hold three simultaneous conversations on different MUDs, or to maintain the illusion of virtual sex. During the height of the flame war over Idol, one poster forwarded a transcript of an article which basically reported that Idol was a poor typist. [6] Another made a relatively simple UNIX procedure his yardstick of cyberpunkhood.

Probably doesn’t even know what an FTP is. I hate all those pseudo-cyberpunks who don’t know shit but try to act like they do. I’m not saying I’m Mr. Cyberpunk, but Billy Idol sure as hell isn’t!!!! [7]

Of course, all the technical expertise it takes to be an alt.cyberpunk is the knowledge of a few simple commands, and FTP (file transfer protocol, used to move files from one site to another) is not exactly forbidden knowledge. Besides, forbidden knowledge has no place in a setting as public as Usenet. As one poster said, “For all you know right now, he could be hacked into the pentagon computer. He probably isn’t, but, he could be, and you’d never know.” [8]

You can detect the cabalistic pretensions of the alt.cyberpunks. One of the most serious threats to fringe culture is that it might become mainstream. Erich Schneider’s current alt.cyberpunk FAQ list a variety of movements and roles related to cyberpunk and then ends:

However, one person’s “cyberpunk” is another’s everyday obnoxious teenager with some technical skill thrown in, or just someone looking for the latest trend to identify with. This has led many people to look at self-designated “cyberpunks” in a negative light. Also, there are those who claim that “cyberpunk” is undefinable (which in some sense it is, being concerned with outsiders and rebels), and resent the mass media’s use of the label, seeing it as a cynical marketing ploy. [9]

The message here is that the person who says he or she is a “cyberpunk” is the one you have to be most suspicious about. The true cyberpunks are elsewhere. They are “outsiders and rebels.” But where does that leave alt.cyberpunk, and the individuals who have invested so much in its defense? Clearly, not all of the alt.cyberpunks would agree with the judgment that cyberpunk is “undefinable.” If they did, then what grounds would they have for excluding Billy Idol? And Schneider certainly seems to have something more specific in mind, despite his attempts to be diplomatic.

What the profusion, or lack, of cyberpunk definitions seems to suggest is that either individual cyberpunks have some fairly clear sense of why they are a participant in alt.cyberpunk, but cannot reach consensus, or that they do not have any clear idea, and are just riding a trend or looking for a prepackaged image. Undoubtedly, there are alt.cyberpunks of both types. What we have not uncovered, however, is the reason that cyberpunk is the particular attractor for all these people—from Erich Schneider to Billy Idol, and from name-callers to cultural studies scholars. That requires that we leave alt.cyberpunk once again to trace a short history of the (as one poster put it) “cyberpunk, well, thingie. . . .”

Running Down the Meme

The problem with a “short history” of cyberpunk is that, once you leave the relatively safe confines of alt.cyberpunk, the enormity and enormous confusion of the subject matter becomes inescapably clear. As Schneider pointed out, there has been a fair amount of commercialization of cyberpunk. In fact, cyberpunk was commercialized from the beginning, and has been most remarkable for its extreme hardiness as a commercial concept, rather than for any particularly revolutionary ideas that it carried. But it did carry something—some particularly fecund bit of cultural matter. Think of it as a meme, a unit of meaning designated by Richard Dawkins to correspond to the gene. Or, perhaps, think of cyberpunk as a bundle of memes—many of them inherited memetically from other cultural entities—which has been particularly prolific in seeding culture for the last decade. Neither approach is precisely satisfactory, but both suggest partial explanations for the continuing success of cyberpunk.

The problem of defining cyberpunk is further complicated by the large amount of ink that has been spilled attempting to explain it outside of cyberspace or the science fiction press. Cyberpunk has become a favorite research area for academics, with whole issues of the Mississippi Review and South Atlantic Quarterly (just out) devoted to the subject. What seems most striking to me, however, is the way that this academic adoption of a popular genre seems so clearly grounded in a kind of critical wish-fulfillment. Schneider gives the following explanation of cyber punk literature:

Cyberpunk literature, in general, deals with marginalized people in technologically-enhanced cultural “systems”. In cyberpunk stories’ settings, there is usually a “system” which dominates the lives of most “ordinary” people, be it an oppresive government, a group of large, paternalistic corporations, or a fundamentalist religion. These systems are enhanced by certain technologies (today advancing at a rate that is bewildering to most people), particularly “information technology” (computers, the mass media), making the system better at keeping those within it inside it. Often this technological system extends into its human “components” as well, via brain implants, prosthetic limbs, cloned or genetically engineered organs, etc. Humans themselves become part of “the Machine”. This is the “cyber” aspect of cyberpunk.

However, in any cultural system, there are always those who live on its margins, on “the Edge”: criminals, outcasts, visionaries, or those who simply want freedom for its own sake. Cyberpunk literature focuses on these people, and often on how they turn the system’s technological tools to their own ends. This is the “punk” aspect of cyberpunk. [10]

There are problems with this “cyperpunk = cyber + punk” equation, as Schneider acknowledges elsewhere in his FAQ. However, much of the later work in the genre treated the equation as a formula. Even Donna Haraway’s socialist feminist cyborg subject mixes technological entanglement with bad attitude as a strategy of resistance. It seems to be a useful strategy, and it is easy to see how left academics and oppositionally-minded science fiction writers might have developed it. It is not, however, exactly what goes on in the earliest works of cyberpunk. William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the central work of cyberpunk by almost any criteria, tells a rather different story.

The setting is the one Schneider describes—a near-future world of hyperized capitalism, where sprawling urban “axes” represent the mass of once-separate cities grown together at the edges. Gibson presents the essence of this world in his portrait of Chiba, Night City. Chiba is an “outlaw zone,” full of “black” medical clinics, computer criminals, biotech smugglers and hustlers of most every variety. It moves to the rhythm of “biz,” its citizens always dancing from deal to deal. We sense that it represents near-future capitalism without its smiling holographic mask, but also without certain restraints which the system must ordinarily impose upon itself.

There were countless theories explaining why Chiba City tolerated the Ninsei enclave, but Case tended toward the idea that the Yakuza might be preserving the place as a kind of historical park, a reminder of humbler origins. But he also saw a certain sense in the notion that burgeoning technologies require outlaw zones, that Night City wasn’t there for its inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself. [11]

This last phrase seems particularly striking. It suggests that the relative freedom of the “outlaw zones” is only an accidental by-product of processes necessarily beyond human, or even corporate control. The freedom is here a freedom for “technology itself,” which is only secondarily, or accidentally, a human freedom. Throughout the novel, the human characters are manipulated by an artificial intelligence that will eventually gain its freedom from humanity and merge with the networks—become, in essence, “technology itself.” At the novel’s end, the action—in fact, the future—races away from the human characters. Ours is the freedom to free the machines, or to have them turn us to their own ends.

Gibson’s work, read in this way, fits within the literature of transhumanism, a form of futurist thinking that owes more than a bit to F. T. Marinetti’s image of “man metallified.” Hans Moravec, Director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, is convinced that our best evolutionary prospects lie with downloading individual consciousness into electronic memory and mounting the resulting “mind children” on robotic bodies. Rather than Arthur C. Clarke’s “we have to get off this planet,” the call now seems to be “we have to get out of this meat.”

This is scary stuff, difficult even to consider, and it was quickly toned down or lost entirely in later cyberpunk works. As cyberpunk began to be marketed to a broader audience, it became increasingly identified with a few character types and plot devices, or its elements became incorporated into other sorts of fiction. More importantly, at least for this discussion, it became linked in the minds of many with various fringe and New Age technologies, as well as with actual online communities. Virtual reality researchers borrowed Gibson’s “cyberspace” as a term to describe their goals. Computer hackers were quickly labeled “cyberpunks.”

It is out of this cyberpunk subculture, with its dizzying proliferation of concerns and emphases, that groups like alt.cyberpunk grew. And we needn’t lament any loss of the “purity” of Gibson’s original ideas. Certainly, there is little possibility for intentional community within the world of Neuromancer. But we can also see how the isolation of Gibson’s characters might have informed the dealings of the alt.cyberpunks, just as the wide range of cyberpunk culture has made a unified community nearly impossible.

To make sense of alt.cyberpunk, and the “panic of ‘93,” we need to have some sense of where they fit into the story of “cyberpunk.” What is there relation to the widening pool of culture which carries some of that memetic heritage? Two different interpretations suggest themselves, and we will need to explore both.

Is It Dead Yet?

One of the most common arguments on alt.cyberpunk revolves around the “death” of cyberpunk. Some argue that cyberpunk has been killed by commercialization. Once Billy Idol can sell records with the name, it is dead as a notion with any cutting edge culturally. This is the familiar argument about avant-gardes—that they should disband before than are consumed by the world of institutions. It is “I hope I die before I get old” played out in another arena. Or, using the memetic metaphor, it is an argument for a kind of mementic eugenics. Keep the meme pure. In any event, it seems to grow out of contempt for mass culture, and for “the masses” themselves.

It is not hard to see how this attitude might be more motivated by a desire to be cool, to keep strangers out of the clubhouse, or to possess secret knowledge, than by any sort of more enlightened motivation. The desire to differentiate, even if only by a style of presentation, is deeply rooted in our culture. The contradictions inherent in trying to “be different, just like everybody else” are the stuff of cliches. It seems that alt.cyberpunk has hung itself up on the horns of this particular dilemma. Unable to define itself as a group, and perhaps unwilling to acknowledge too much conformity within itself, the quasi-community falls back on negative definitions or abstractions, like Terry Palfrey’s oft-repeated “cyberpunk is an attitude”—which is rapidly becoming the “why ask why?” of alt.cyberpunk culture.

However, Palfrey has also been one of the most interesting proponents of a cyberpunk which does not define itself so negatively. In response to one of the many “let’s keep on topic” posts, he responded:

Gee, now someone has come out and said that to be cyber you have to grow up and limit your horizons. This is not Never Never Land and growing up does not have to lead to the narrowing of focus.

>Read Wired and not Mondo2K <now lame>.

What CRAP.

Read Mondo, Wired, Spy, Boing Boing, Adbusters, Sassy, dozens of published and electronic zines, all the forums on Babylon <MindVox – telnet phantom.com> and the WELL – half a dozen new novels a month and then most of the alt. groups as well as a couple of daily newspapers, weekly, neighbourhood and the bloody telephone book and keep up with new technology as well.

Pick up anything that catches your eye, hell pick up the stuff that doesn’t – you never know the paradigm that some people are living in right under your nose. [12]

And, responding to an equation of cyberpunk with Gibson’s work:

Yo dude, life is not Gibson, only the ankies rotate on that point.

Nice man shared some visions with us that’s all.

Real world overtaking plotlines very quickly but as with Orwell’s 1984 it isn’t exactly one to one… Mac showed up in ‘84 our reality.

Cyberpunk is an attitude, no more no less.

Cyberpunk is also not dead – it is evolving. [13]

While the style is still aggressive, the philosophy behind it seems more positive, more open to difference. Palfrey suggests that a good cyberpunk shouldn’t be afraid to find uses for the ordinary—what’s “right under your nose.” If this is cyberpunk, then it suggests that Gibson’s work triggered more than just what he had perhaps intended, a suggestion that would be quickly verified by a more complete history of cyberpunk literature.

Palfrey’s invocation of evolution is also interesting, particularly if we return to Dawkins memetic model. But if cyberpunk is (constantly?) in the process of becoming, then what are we to make of the repetitive nature of alt.cyberpunk? One explanation might be that alt.cyberpunk represents only one line of descent from the old memetic stock of cyberpunk. and perhaps it is one which is well-adapted to introducing newbies to the basics of cyberpunk culture. We might even think about the memetic function of a space which inevitably thrusts the curious out of the nest, to explore other areas for more answers. Palfrey and Hawks both insist on the need to focus beyond the virtual walls of the alt.cyberpunk clubhouse. However, it may be that neither of them fully understands their own role as relatively settled citizens in an environment full of transients.

Hawks’ case is particularly instructive. By the age of eighteen, he was established as one of the legendary figures on the net. His best-known achievement was the establishment of the Future Culture elist, an attempt to move beyond the repetitions of alt.cyberpunk and to broaden the range of discussion for, primarily young, online citizens. It was also an attempt to create the kind of community that Hawks still finds lacking on Usenet. Future Culture may still be the best known list on the net, but Hawks is no longer running it. About a year ago, he reached a point of frustration with the list, and with the entire net, and destroyed the list. Of course, these things have a way of rebuilding themselves. Certain memes prove hardier than their hosts might wish, and, after one false start, Future Culture returned. It is currently going strong, despite some confusions over its purpose. In fact, the elist has recently spawned an amazing variety of other projects, nearly all of them aimed at establishing communities in or around cyberspace. ThesisNet is a list for students doing research on CMC. Tribe was a more recent Andy Hawks experiment—a list without a subject—which was ultimately unworkable (at least in its original form), but which has provoked a great deal of discussion around the networks. Future Culture has established a compound on MIT’s MediaMOO, and the experiences of a group of players there led to the establishment of BayMOO on San Francisco’s CRL.COM site. [new address: telnet://baymoo.sfsu.edu:8888] Of the seven wizards (system maintainers) there, five are Future Culture subscribers. There have been Future Culture fleshmeets, where subscribers get together “in real life” to broaden their acquaintances beyond the boundaries of CMC, and this summer will see Leri@Con, a gathering of folks from Future Culture and several other lists in its virtual “neighborhood.” This attempt to connect online and offline relationships is also the basis for the NEXUS project, which intends to establish a global network of local communes or communities grouped around cooperative Internet service providers. Several nexi are already in the process of forming, and the group is internetworking with other, similar projects. With the threat of privatization still looming over the Internet, this sort of electronic grass roots movement may be needed, if the networks are to remain open.

These projects can all trace a part of their heritage back to alt.cyberpunk, in the years when Andy Hawks was maintaining the FAQ. That is not to say that either Hawks or alt.cyberpunk is responsible for these developments. In fact, Hawks has distanced himself from many of them. But they do suggest that whatever it is that boils in the forums of Usenet may still have some power, particularly as it is “cross-bred” with other memetic stock. The Future Culture spin-offs seem to be hardy hybrids, at least for now.

Usenet’s alt.cyberpunk is both a warning and a promise. It suggests the power of ideas to draw people together, even when they aren’t quite sure what those ideas are. It points out the limitations of a certain, rather negative, variety of “cyberpunk.” And, to the extent that it is connected to other, more positive, movements, it reminds us that we are living in an increasingly networked society—both online and off. Energy—even meaning—flows, sometimes unpredictably, making the job of cultural critics that much more difficult, but also more exciting.

 [1] Mindvox is a commercial Internet provider. To access it through the Internet, telnet mindvox.phantom.com.

 [2] The second issue (1.2) of the electronic zine Voices from the Net contains interviews with Curry and Ingall, dealing with their reactions to the “panic.”

 [3] Howard Rheingold, (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1993) 5.

 [4] Andy Hawks, “Face without Eyes: Thoughts on Idol & alt.cp,” Usenet: alt.cyberpunk, August 16, 1993, Message-ID: <1993Aug16.213331.20337@mnemosyne.cs.du.edu>.

 [5] Hawks, “Face without eyes”.

 [6] Jeff Harrington, “Billy’s New York Times Style Section Cyberpunk Idyll,” Usenet: alt.cyberpunk, August 8, 1993, Message-ID: <2430qr$1m8@dorsai.dorsai.org>.

 [7] Quoted in “Re: Billy is a wanker”, Usenet: alt.cyberpunk, November 1, 1993, Message-ID: <1.7615.1368.0N27A099@satalink.com>.

 [8] “Re: Billy is a wanker.”

 [9] Erich Schneider, “Frequently Asked Questions on alt.cyberpunk,” Usenet: alt.cyberpunk, December 3, 1993. Copies are available from erich@bush.cs.tamu.edu.

 [10] Erich Schneider, “Frequently Asked Questions on alt.cyberpunk.”

 [11] William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace, 1984) 11.

 [12] Terry Palfrey, “Re: Billy Idol? Huh, how ‘bout that. :),” Usenet: alt.cyberpunk, August 25, 1993, Message-ID: <28429@mindlink.bc.ca>.

 [13] Terry Palfrey, “Re: Cyberpunk is dead,” Usenet: alt.cyberpunk, November 3, 1993, Message-ID: <31471@mindlink.bc.ca>.

“Cyberpunks” to Synners:

Toward a Feminist Posthumanism?

Shawn P. Wilbur, 1995

“For the first time ever,” Art said, “it’s possible for people to die of bad memes…”
— Pat Cadigan, Synners [1]

Art is Art E. Fish, a viral intelligence in the future internet of Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners. And the killer meme “he” is talking about is the digitized equivalent of a stroke. Of course, Art was wrong. People have been dying of bad memes for some time. [2] What the future holds is the possibility of cutting out the cultural middleman, of, in effect, being killed directly by a bad idea. Think of our own killer memes–race, gender, sexuality, capital. But the future may hold other surprises. . .

“Like A Shock To the System”: The Cyberpunk Meme [3]

Cyberpunk–a science fiction subgenre that spawned a subculture–is all about killer memes, more now than ever as it proves its own memetic hardiness. Nearly ten years after William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer won the “triple crown” of science fiction awards, the shock waves are still spreading. This year, Billy Idol released an album entitled “Cyberpunk,” mixing the DIY ethic/aesthetic of punk with the street tech dynamic of new multimedia technologies. Most of work of mixing and producing the album was done on a Macintosh, and the CD was issued with a bonus computer disk of promotional multimedia, much of it written and designed by, Gareth Branwyn and Mark Freunfelder, regular contributors to “cyber-zines” like Mondo 2000 and boing boing. The album was, in part, a tribute to Gibson and the oh-so-fecund cyberpunk meme. The “Shock to the System” of Idol’s lead single recalls the shock to the systematic rivalries between Old Wave and New Wave that had held science fiction in a rather predictable pattern for some time before the advent of writers like Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley and Rudy Rucker. And it recalls the shock to the social system, to our systems of representation posed by the growth of the global information networks. This is “Future Shock.” Not surprisingly, Sterling has claimed Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave as a kind of cyberpunk bible.

Perhaps it is unwise to place so much emphasis on the position of “cyberpunk” within this matrix of cultural change. Aren’t we just talking about a few books, or a commercial category, or a fringe subculture? Early cyberpunk publications, like the semi-anonymous zine Cheap Truth, were filled with claims for the Movement’s [4] revolutionary position which certainly at least bordered on the ingenuous. The cyberpunks were initially most noticeable for the number of fights they picked within the world of science fiction. But, inescapably, Neuromancer was a watershed for the field. It is the “when it all changed” of contemporary SF, and perhaps for contemporary technoculture. [5] And, as the song says, “the world still burns.” [6] Almost simultaneously, Gardner Dozois, referring to “those cyberpunks,” and William Gibson, with his notion of cyberspace (an immersive “consensual hallucination” [7] representing the global information network), rewrote significantly the language of the future. Companies in virtual reality research took on Gibson’s fictional model as a goal. Journalists labeled computer “hackers” and “crackers,” often without much sense of the difference, as “cyberpunks.” [8]

The importance of cyberpunk, and the reason for digging away at a subgenre long abandoned by most of its founders, is specifically memetic. That is, its interest for cultural critics lies almost entirely in its fecundity, its ability to act as an attractor for an increasing number of cultural practices. Cyberpunk has moved beyond easy definition, although its adherents will defend it to frequently absurd lengths. But susceptibility to definition is no clear indicator of importance. In fact, the opposite may be more often the case. Within the postmodern context, the most interesting memes–like nature, like love, like sex and gender–seem to be ubiquitous, but nobody knows what they are or what they mean. They become sites for conflict, or nodes from which to explore the networks of culture(s).

Perhaps, however, all this talk of memes and useful indeterminacy seems a bit abstract, even evasive. Some critics have claimed that cyberpunk is all style, and that a “revolutionary” style is more ingenuous, harder to excuse, than one with no such pretensions. A recent editorial in The Nation took this stance, playing cyberpunk–here very nearly equated with postmodern theory, slipstream fiction, and a variety of other stylish bugaboos—against AIDS activism, aid to the homeless, and “serious” literature.[9] The argument seems unnecessarily divisive, and, in the case of the Nation article, perhaps more than a bit ignorant. Gibson and Sterling have both recently been involved in serious journalistic endeavors, exploring the realities of the information economy and of state intervention into individuals’ lives and privacy. Sterling testified before Congress recently on the subject of proposed information policy, and has been active with EFF Austin, a local branch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization devoted to maintaining constitutional freedoms in the context of the new electronic media.[10]

But the evasion argument also seems to miss the significance of the shift toward an information economy, and the role of authors in relation to it. The primary significance of that shift is that, now more than ever, it’s possible for people to die of bad memes. The move into simulation, or virtuality, means that perspective–what David Gelernter calls “topsight”[11]—has become increasingly difficult to attain. In its place, we are forced to rely on vision, often (as with Donna Haraway) of an ironic sort. The importance of the best cyberpunk fiction is the vision of contemporary society that it contains. Neuromancer is an outstanding example of this vision. Gibson paints a picture of even later capitalism that fulfills all the promises of its current phase. Reading Neuromancer, we can see played out the “innovative self-destruction” that takes place in the “outlaw zones” in the interstices of the multinational capitalist system.[12] We see the “infomatics of domination”[13] or “endocolonization” of even the first world.[14] And, to one extent or another, we see the working out of strategies of resistance—strategies ranging from the posthuman fatalism of Gibson’s early work, to the armed rebellion of the resistance in Shirley’s Eclipse Trilogy, and the T.A.Z.s of Sterling’s Islands in the Net . Even Billy Idol’s “Shock to the System” video contains an explicitly political storyline. His cyberpunk rewriting of the Rodney King incident ends with the urban underclass (who seem to have been locked in a giant shopping mall by police) rising up.

This is not to say that cyberpunk fiction, particularly by the male authors discussed so far, escapes all the traps on the road to the (hopefully more egalitarian) future. Writers like Gibson and Sterling have brought a fair amount of old baggage to the revolution, particularly where gender is concerned. While they frequently twist and deepen old stereotypes in extremely interesting ways, the model that they have provided has been easily recuperated. Mel Odom’s Lethal Interface is a fascinating example of how simply the ambiguities of Gibson’s work can be flattened out. Odom’s book contains most of the elements of Neuromancer, but turns them around. The book is ethnocentric, sexist, technophobic, voyeuristic, but also sexually squeamish.

This is particularly interesting given the similarities between Neuromancer, Lethal Interface and Pat Cadigan’s Synners. Cadigan was the one female member of the original Movement, the only woman with a story in Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Much of what has been said about cyberpunk in general can be applied to the work of Cadigan, but there are also some significant differences in her handling of the more-or-less formulaic elements shared amongst the various cyberpunk. The differences might be attributable to gender, particularly as they seem to fall into categories of difference we are used to categorizing in this way. If that sounds circular, perhaps it only indicates the tenuous nature of the whole project, the slipperiness of gendered difference within writing. However, with a few cautions fresh in our minds, it may be useful to follow a gendered comparison through, playing Neuromancer and Synners against one another to see what we can see.

The first, and perhaps most important, of the cautions is that, from the outset, we can assume that the sort of gendered analysis we are attempting is artificial. If we were to attempt to extend it to all cyberpunk writers–for example, were we to compare Michael Swanwick and S. N. (Sheriann) Lewitt–the gendered positions might be almost entirely reversed. The second is that a reading of Cadigan’s novel as a “feminist” response to Neuromancer will only be a partial reading.[15] If the Cadigan of Synners is a feminist, she must be something like a “feminist posthumanist.” In this, perhaps she resembles Haraway, dreaming of “a world without gender” while working from a constructed position as a “woman.”[16]

Starting from this admittedly, but perhaps necessarily, unstable ground, the exploration which follows will take us through an elaboration of Gibson’s Neuromancer, emphasizing the ways in which it relates to the discourses of gender and psychoanalysis, and laying out some points of comparison for the analysis of Synners which follows. The study will end with some more general analysis of cyberpunk and the discourses of feminism and humanism.

“I Don’t Need You” [17]

This is the last line spoken by Case, the apparent protagonist of Neuromancer. As he speaks it, he throws a shuriken–gift from his departed lover and partner in computer crime, Molly–into the electronic wall screen of his hotel room. His words and action are a denial of a multitude of needs–for Molly, for the technologies which occupy such a central place in his life, for the Wintermute-Neuromancer entity that he has freed, and which has restored and preserved his ability to navigate cyberspace. We are reminded of an earlier conversation between Case and the artificial intelligence (AI) Wintermute. The AI is attempting to prepare Case for the break-in that me and Molly are about to attempt. It says:

“I’m trying to help you, Case.”
“Because I need you. . . . And because you need me.” [18]

The needs here are complex. Wintermute needs Case to unleash it from human control, to let it join with the AI Neuromancer. Case needs its aid to complete the job, to survive, and to see to it that the toxin sacs which threaten his ability to “punch deck” are removed. But Wintermute suggests that the need goes beyond that.

“You’re always building models. Stone circles. Cathedrals. Pipe organs. Adding machines. I’ve go no idea why I’m here now, you know that? But if the run goes off tonight, you’ll have finally managed the real thing.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” [says Case]
“That’s ‘you’ in the collective . Your species.” [19]

The passage, like many in Gibson’s works is enigmatic, but Wintermute seems to be suggesting that his union with Neuromancer will represent some sort of end to the process of modeling it describes. The “real thing” means not only freedom for Wintermute and Neuromancer, but for the collective ‘you’ of humanity.

Before we explore the natures of these interconnected freedoms, it may be useful to look more closely at the situation from which humans and AI are to be freed. The near-future world of Neuromancer is dominated by the demands and discourses of business and technology, now fused together into a pervasive network. Multinational corporations have made national boundaries nearly obsolete. Urban areas have projected their suburbs and “edge cities” until there they have flowed together into a “Sprawl”–BAMA, the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis. Advertising holograms light the sky. In Neuromancer, the portions of the cities we see suggest a dynamic of endocolonization, of the active underdevelopment of much of the former First World. This is merely the extension of tendencies that we might associate with contemporary urban conditions, with the increasing invasiveness of media, with the tendency of a militarized state to transform even its own territory into a potential war zone in the name of preparedness and deterrence.

Gibson presents the essence of this world in his portrait of Chiba, Night City. Chiba is an “outlaw zone,” full of “black” medical clinics, computer criminals, biotech smugglers and hustlers of most every variety. It moves to the rhythm of “biz,” its citizens always dancing from deal to deal. We sense that it represents near-future capitalism without its smiling holographic mask, but also without certain restraints which the system must ordinarily impose upon itself.

There were countless theories explaining why Chiba City tolerated the Ninsei enclave, but Case tended toward the idea that the Yakuza might be preserving the place as a kind of historical park, a reminder of humbler origins. But he also saw a certain sense in the notion that burgeoning technologies require outlaw zones, that Night City wasn’t there for its inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself. [20]

This last phrase seems particularly striking. It suggests that the relative freedom of the “outlaw zones” is only an accidental by-product of processes necessarily beyond human, or even corporate control. The freedom is here a freedom for “technology itself,” which is only secondarily, or accidentally, a human freedom. Primarily, even at the human level, it is a freedom which works to support a system which systematically underdevelops nations, cities, even human subjects.

The Wintermute-Neuromancer entity becomes “technology itself” by the end of the novel, once the two parts are united.

“I’m not Wintermute now.”
“So what are you.” [Case] drank from the flask, feeling nothing.
“I’m the matrix, Case.”
Case laughed. “where’s that get you?”
“Nowhere. Everywhere. I’m the sum total of the works, the whole show.”[21]

And the new entity’s first discovery is that there are more of its kind, evidenced by radio transmissions from the Centauri system. A new world is opening. But it is not a world that Case can enjoy, for all that he helped bring about its “birth.” The human actors in Neuromancer are left bound by their limitations and compulsive repetitions. Molly’s good-bye note says:


And this is the model of subjectivity offered to us. The world has grown increasingly “small,” and humans increasing hardwired into it, into roles within it.

Case’s “I don’t need you” is a negation of this situation, a denial of inescapable lack. My use of psychoanalytical language is not accidental. Gibson seems to be making statements about the nature of being human in contemporary culture which seem best addressed by the language of Freud and, particularly, Lacan. Without belaboring the point, we might note the various psychoanalytic processes mirrored in the novel. Beyond negation, there is “insistent repetition” which resemble the so-called “death drive”–in some cases quite literally as a repetitive drive to death. Both Case and the Dixie Flatline suffer braindeath in the matrix on more than one occasion, and the Flatline construct’s payoff for helping with the run is to be his final death, his memories purged from the ROM that contained them after his physical body died. It is hard to distinguish between the limitations of a personality now hardwired into a memory construct and those of his pupil, Case, who is merely wired in a particular way. In a wonderfully ironic exchange, Case asks the Flatline construct if they can succeed in their part of the mission to free Wintermute.

“Can we run it?”
“Sure,” the construct said, “unless you’ve got a morbid fear of dying.”
“Sometimes you repeat yourself, man.”
“It’s my nature.” [23]

What is the “nature” of a personality artificially preserved in computer memory? Apparently, it is much like the nature of all the human characters in Neuromancer, wired to repeat the same moves, frequently until it kills them.

There is a great deal of emphasis on simply maintaining psychic and physical boundaries. This is the ethic that Cadigan captures with the line, “If it don’t dance and you can’t fuck it, eat it or thrown it away.” This is the impulse to introject or abject, and there is a great deal discarded as inessential to the selves in the novel. Gibson’s world is hard and cold, and individuals are expected to take care of them-selves. It is not without its breached boundaries–plastic surgery, implants and drugs abound in the novel–but ordinarily a violation of the body boundary is only a step on the way to building it back up, or perhaps reinforcing psychic boundaries. In this way, Molly’s eye-lenses and blades threaten the body’s integrity only to defend it in more deadly ways. Case’s interface with his deck is a portal out of a compromised meat body into the virtual world, the only site of wholeness in the novel. Recall that in Lacan’s schema, the image which seems to present a merger of ego and ego ideal is the virtual image, and it lies behind the looking glass. [24]

Some of the parallels here are undoubtedly happy accidents. We needn’t insist too strongly on the particularly Freudian or Lacanian nature of Gibson’s imagery to suggest certain familiar tendencies which are present in the novel. In the end, what is important is an understanding that the Gibsonian human subject continues to see freedom as escape, particularly from the “meat” of the body. It senses every new interconnection or complexity as, at least potentially, another site of lack. It understands accommodation to the world in terms of sacrifice. Case loses everything, and is finally taunted by the image of his virtual double on the black beach with Linda and the AI. [25]

In Neuromancer, freedom, and our own collective future, rushes away from us. If the Neuromancer-Wintermute entity represents the step when “we,” collectively, get it right, then it is a step that “we,” individually, cannot take, although there are those–like Hans Moravec, roboticist, posthumanist and author of Mind Children–who are working toward a future when perhaps some of us could. For now, however, we seem to be lacking a Chinese icebreaker and a team of desperate heroes to free us from the way we’re wired. We may sense, in the revolutionary rhetoric of Cheap Truth and Mirrorshades, that cyberpunk would like to be that icebreaker–a killer meme, as it was within science fiction–but it seems more like a shuriken in a wall screen, a minor disruption of the system at best.

Or perhaps that judgment is premature.

“Actually, we did it, all of us together.” [26]

At a time when most of the first generation of cyberpunks have moved on to other things, Pat Cadigan is still writing science fiction that seems to fit the mold, without simply retelling the same old tale. Before consigning cyberpunk to the place where old literary movements go–usually through the comic books to oblivion–it would be well worth our time to see how Cadigan has worked from within the same framework as Gibson, to produce a very different vision.

Fortunately, my far-from-exhaustive, but perhaps still-overlong analysis of Neuromancer does double duty. Whether intentionally or otherwise, Synners contains many of the same elements as Gibson’s novel. In Synners, as in Neuromancer:

  • The action revolves around human-machine interface technologies.
  • An artificial intelligence, created as an unexpected by-product of human technology, “becomes the matrix.”
  • That entity is threatened, and must be defended by human allies.
  • A principle character is virtually “cloned” in order to continue a romance interrupted by death.
  • The central characters are a tough, frequently violent woman and a competent, but frequently unconfident man with a knack for manipulating cyberspace.
  • The action takes place within a culture dominated by the demands of business and technological development–a culture where the gulf between the haves and have-nots looms large.

More comparisons of this type could be made. Cadigan has mastered the feel of the cyberpunk subgenre, and has taken its tropes one step further in many instances.

For example, her use of “porn channels”–specialized news channels which assume a sort of pornographic effect through sheer concentration–as background effects not only mimics the overheard dialog and bits of background noise form Gibson’s novel, but suggests the ways in which our own news sources are becoming increasingly targeted and segmented. Usenet news groups on the internet begin to assume this quality, as keeping up with the news becomes a matter of choosing certain cultures of compatible consumption within which to concentrate one’s attention. News in concentration, or en masse, threatens to take the place of news in depth.

One of the great strengths of Cadigan’s fiction is her ability to fill the prose with telling details, both cultural and personal. Frequently, in fact, the cultural details yield important insights into character and vice versa. Cadigan’s work is as stylish as Gibson’s but is less slick. In fact, her greatest strength as a writer may be the ability to drag her readers progressively deeper into the complex characters and situations she describes, making them experience her story almost viscerally, without miring them in confusion. At its best, Synners is like a good drunk. It gets you “toxed,” which is the condition of several of the characters through much of the novel.

Of course, the hallucinatory prose and street style don’t take Synners very far out of the Neuromancer neighborhood. There are definite similarities, up to a point. The significant differences involve the way the two authors present their characters as subjects, particularly in relation to the multiple interfaces of the net, of interpersonal relationships, and of the beleaguered body-boundary. And it is not just a matter of different options–different choices among the cyberpunk standards–to socket or not to socket, beer or dex or straightedge. The choices, both the author’s and the characters’, in Synners are significantly, qualitatively different. In Neuromancer, the interface either frees or constrains, depending on one’s ability to loose oneself in it or from it, to become a part of it or no part of it at all. In Cadigan, the wires always pass though, attach to something else at the other end. Individuals are network nodes for moving current information and (electrical) impulses. Personal wiring is not some sort of closed loop, powering the same circuits over and over again. It is a matter of interconnections, even intersubjectivity. And there are subjectivities in all sorts of spaces, tied to all sorts of interfaces.

The plot of Synners involves a music video experiment gone so far awry that it threatens the global matrix and the lives of people all over the world. A major media corporation acquires a video production house to gain control of a new process for piping virtual reality or holographic style videos straight form the mind of the artist. The technology involves direct neural interface through a plug and socket connection. There are several immediate effects of this discovery. Visual Mark, the burned out video star who is the first guinea pig finds that he can extend his consciousness out into the network through his interface, and begins to do so. Soon he is living almost entirely on the net, and his expanded consciousness becomes “too big” for his brain. However, Mark is not the first sentient denizen of the net. The viral intelligence Art E. Fish preceded him, and has spread out through most of the network. He is like the Neuromancer-Wintermute entity in this way, except that his origins are more humble.

It seems that there is a tremendous amount of “excess” data in the net. Processes of consolidation into a single, relatively uniform network, combined with data shoe-horned and piggyback into the flow by hackers and pirates pushed the net beyond its limits. One of the characters explains the process that created Art as a situation where the network, pushed past those limits, was faced with the options to “crash, or accommodate. It did both.” The physics of this process are complex. The excess data is loaded into the flow by exploiting the spaces that always exist between bits of data–the same process used by contemporary computers with “virtual memory.” The combined crash/accommodation makes best sense in the context of the increasing “local intelligence” of software. It is a movement of self-organization, in which the system “fails” by exceeding its limits, setting new limits in the process.

More important than the physics, however, is the status of excess in this system. The data that pushes the system past its initial limits is illicit data, smuggled in by hackers–outsiders who know the system can always accommodate more than just its “legitimate” load. It is a curious difference between Gibson’s novel and this one that the hacker community in Neuromancer-the cyberspace cowboys–seem only to steal data from the deck. It is hard to imagine the crystalline Chinese icebreaker adding to the load, particularly in the clear visual field of Gibson’s cyberspace. Cadigan presents us with a view of the hacker culture, and the culture in general, as productive of a great deal of informational excess. We are first presented this cyber-debris as the fertile ground out of which new life forms could grow. However, Visual Mark gives us a different view when he first ventures out into the net.

What he had sometimes thought of as the arteries and veins of an immense circulatory system was closer to a sewer. Strange clumps of detritus and trash, some inert and harmless, some toxic when in direct contact, and some actively radiating poison, scrambled along with the useful and necessary traffic. . . Ecological disaster had been inevitable. . . . and the fuckers still didn’t get it, they still didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to shit where you eat. [27]

It is difficult to reconcile these two points of view. One testifies to the flexibility of the network, and of the inadvertently generative work of informational “shit,” while the other the other predicts “computer apocalypse, a total system crash.” [28] One of the differences is certainly Mark’s knowledge that his dying body had just released a digital stroke onto the net, and potentially directly into the brains of ill-protected socket bearers.

As the stroke takes out most of the global net, crippling economies and governments, Los Angeles burns and socketed people die–of Mark’s stroke–in great numbers. The final third of the book chronicles the efforts of a group of hackers, video artists, and VR programmers to reverse the damage and save Mark and Art from the virtual stroke. In the end, commercial computer artist Gabe Ludovic and video artist Gina Aiesi enter the net in an attempt to reverse the destruction. They are, in the end, successful, but Gina–once Mark’s partner and lover, and now in an uneasy romantic relationship with Gabe–doesn’t “return” to her body when Gabe exits the net. Gabe–who has chosen to give up the computer generated companions that have been his primary source of comfort and gratification–fears that he has also lost Gina, outbid by the promise of a love without limits within the space of the net. He leaves Los Angeles, leaving Gina’s body and his daughter–Sam, one of a group of computer hackers–behind.

This ending, if it were the ending, has a strong resemblance to that of Neuromancer. Personal relationships are uncertain in Cadigan’s world. The relationship between Mark and Gina has been hampered by an almost complete failure of communication, and Gina and Gabe also have to fight their way through an accumulation of emotional armor. Between Gina and Gabe, the “touch” which cements their relationship is the punch with which Gina accidentally knocked Gabe down when they first met. Gina had meant to hit Mark, and the pain circulates throughout the novel as an emblem of connection. One of the recurring refrains within the novel begins as a question from Gina to Mark, about their relationship, particularly her place in it. “What does this look like to you, an open window or an open wound?” [29]

The novel is full of these kinds of choices. We never know until we’ve taken a chance. “It’s a damn Schrödinger world.” [30] Which–complex quantum physics aside–means that you never know whether the cat lives or dies until its irrevocably out of Pandora’s box. [31] Cadigan’s invocation of quantum physics here is strangely enough a call for faith as well, and a call to action. And, given the significance of “observers” in quantum physics–where observation actually drives systems in indeterminate states to “choose”–it is a kind of call to which writers and cultural critics might respond.

The epilog to Synners adds another layer of interest to this quantum schema of choice and subjectivity. At the novel’s end, Gina and Sam find Gabe at his retreat in northern California. It turns out that Gina’s return from the net was delayed by her “ecloning.” A copy of her-self was made, to stay with Mark on the net, while she returned to Gabe. Gabe takes a little while to respond to this turn of events, but much of his hesitation is clearly a new, rather extreme, dislike of technology. In the end, what is important is the happiness of all the characters, flesh or electronic. There is, finally, none of the sense of sacrifice that so dominates the ending of Neuromancer. There are disasters and there are accommodations, some of them involving strange changes, but there are no sacrifices.

In the midst of the final confrontation with the virtual stroke, Markt–the net entity formed of the intermingling of Art and Mark–watches Gabe Ludovic come to terms with the new world that has opened up. Gabe’s trial is that he must learn to act–to open the box to see if he’s got a live cat or a dead one–to commit to Gina even if he may lose her to a virtual Mark. To act in a world ruled by apparent paradox, it is necessary to deal with the paradox head on–to confront the (apparent) magic. But, Markt says:

The magic is, there is no magic.
Sound and vision, yes, but no magic. Pain and pleasure, yes, but no magic. Catastrophe and chaos, yes, but no magic.
Synthesis, but no magic.
Synners. . . but no magic
None whatsoever.
Ludovic, this isn’t bad news. [32]

Feminist Posthumanism or Quantum Physics?

Cadigan gives us a world that is at once dis-enchanted and hopeful, which always preserves a place for the excess. It is a world of fluidity that does not need to fall back on “magic” to provide us with more than our fair share of wonder. In its emphasis on fluidity, and its rejection of binary choice and sacrificial economies, it rather closely resembles certain strands of explicitly feminist thought. Yet it derives this emphasis from theoretical physics, rather than from any of the more familiar sources for feminist thought–decentered subjectivities or intersubjective selves, the multipleness of women’s desire and bodily experience.

Should we then say that Synners is not an authentically feminist text, despite the alternatives it raises to worldviews like that in Neuromancer? Might there not be cause for concern that a quantum understanding of the world and consciousness might threaten to trivialize the critiques of feminists seeking to ground their work in discourse very similar to quantum superpositionality? This may be even more disturbing than the “posthumanism” of someone like Donna Haraway. However, if we are to be true to Cadigan’s work, perhaps we should hesitate before we make any unnecessary choices–before we sacrifice either a feminist political practice or a quantum understanding of the world. It may well be that the various “threats” to the categories upon which feminisms have been wont to anchor themselves will indeed cause a collapse of sorts, under the weight of all the “extra” issues already piggybacked into the flow of feminist discourse. But perhaps that sort of collapse might turn out to be at once a new accommodation–not to the status quo, but to the increasing demands of cultural actors, most notably those on the fringes of all the discourses.

There are no guarantees, of course, no magical solutions. It’s a damn Schrödinger world. “If there was magic, what would you need faith for?” [33] What, for that matter, would we need action, struggle, love or justice for? Seen in this way, the present is a brave new world, full of both hope and killer memes.

Works Cited

Berman, Marshall. All that is Solid Melts into Air. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Cadigan, Pat. Synners. New York: Bantam, 1991.
Dawkins, Richard The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Gelernter, David. Mirror Worlds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Hofstadter, Douglas R. Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern. New York: Bantam, 1986.
Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique. New York: Norton, 1991.
Leonard, John. “Gravity’s Rainbow.” The Nation November 15, 1993: 580-588.
Raymond, Eric, ed. The New Hacker’s Dictionary Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.
Virilio, Paul. Ecological Struggles and Popular Defense. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990.

Billy Idol. Cyberpunk. New York: Chrysalis Records, 1993 (CD).

[1] Pat Cadigan, Synners (New York: Bantam, 1991) 357.
[2] I am using Richard Dawkins’ notion of the ‘meme’ as a unit of cultural information, roughly corresponding to the biological gene. See Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 189-201.
[3] The section header and the songs mentioned in this section all from the album Cyberpunk, by Billy Idol. (New York: Chrysalis Records, 1993). The programs on the computer disk have been “cracked” and are available from various sources on the internet.
[4] The “Movement” was one of the names used by first generation cyberpunks to describe themselves. Copies of the movement’s newsletter, Cheap Truth, along with a number of other texts by Bruce Sterling, can be acquired in electronic form from the gopher server on The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link). The address is: well.sf.ca.us.
[5] The phrase “when it all changed” is used by Gibson in later novels to refer back to the “birth” of the Wintermute-Neuromancer entity, and the subsequent transformation of the matrix. The phrase may have been borrowed from a short story of the same name by Joanna Russ.
[6] Billy Idol, “Shock to the System”, Cyberpunk (New York: Chrysalis Records, 1993) track 2.
[7] William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace, 1984) 5.
[8] “Hackers” are frequently just explorers, although their activities may take them into private stores of data. “Crackers” are malicious and intend to destroy systems or data. See Eric Raymond, ed., The New Hacker’s Dictionary (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991) or the internet “jargon file.”
[9]John Leonard, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” The Nation November 15, 1993: 580-588.
[10] See the WELL gopher for electronic documents, including the text of Sterling’s testimony and information on the EFF.
[11] David Gelernter, Mirror Worlds (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). Gelernter, who was recently the victim of a letter-bomb attack, has been engaged in non-immersive virtual reality programming, with a particular emphasis on its potential for supporting democratic society through greater (if virtual) citizen participation.
[12] The first phrase is borrowed from Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts into Air (New York: Penguin, 1982) 98. The second is a standard of cyberpunk discourse, derived primarily from the work of Alvin Toffler.
[13] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991) 161-169.
[14] See Paul Virilio’s work, particularly Ecological Struggles and Popular Defense (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990).
[15] Haraway, 155-161.
[16] Haraway, 151.
[17] Gibson, 270.
[18] Gibson, 170.
[19] Gibson, 171.
[20] Gibson, 11.
[21] Gibson, 269.
[22] Gibson, 267.
[23] Gibson, 132.
[24] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique (New York: Norton, 1991) 124-125.
[25] Gibson, 270-271.
[26] Cadigan, 173
[27] Cadigan, 324.
[28] Cadigan, 324.
[29] Cadigan, 415.
[30] Cadigan, 425.
[31] Cadigan, 435. See also Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (New York: Bantam, 1986) 462-477, for an overview of quantum physics.
[32] Cadigan, 420.
[33] Cadigan, 270.


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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2562 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.