With virtual sex, smart drugs and synthetic rock 'n' roll, a new $ counterculture is surfing on the dark edges of the computer age

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In the 1950s it was the beatniks, staging a coffeehouse rebellion against the Leave It to Beaver conformity of the Eisenhower era. In the 1960s the hippies arrived, combining antiwar activism with the energy of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Now a new subculture is bubbling up from the underground, popping out of computer screens like a piece of futuristic HYPERTEXT (see margin).

They call it cyberpunk, a late-20th century term pieced together from CYBERNETICS (the science of communication and control theory) and PUNK (an antisocial rebel or hoodlum). Within this odd pairing lurks the essence of cyberpunk culture. It's a way of looking at the world that combines an infatuation with high-tech tools and a disdain for conventional ways of using them. Originally applied to a school of hard-boiled science-fiction writers and then to certain semi-tough computer hackers, the word cyberpunk now covers a broad range of music, art, psychedelics, smart drugs and cutting-edge technology. The cult is new enough that fresh offshoots are sprouting every day, which infuriates the hard-core cyberpunks, who feel they got there first.

Stewart Brand, editor of the hippie-era Whole Earth Catalog, describes cyberpunk as "technology with attitude." Science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling calls it "an unholy alliance of the technical world with the underground of pop culture and street-level anarchy." Jude Milhon, a cyberpunk journalist who writes under the byline St. Jude, defines it as "the place where the worlds of science and art overlap, the intersection of the future and now." What cyberpunk is about, says Rudy Rucker, a San Jose State University mathematician who writes science-fiction books on the side, is nothing less than "the fusion of humans and machines."

As in any counterculture movement, some denizens would deny that they are part of a "movement" at all. Certainly they are not as visible from a passing car as beatniks or hippies once were. Ponytails (on men) and tattoos (on women) do not a cyberpunk make -- though dressing all in black and donning mirrored sunglasses will go a long way. And although the biggest cyberpunk journal claims a readership approaching 70,000, there are probably no more than a few thousand computer hackers, futurists, fringe scientists, computer-savvy artists and musicians, and assorted science-fiction geeks around the world who actually call themselves cyberpunks.

% Nevertheless, cyberpunk may be the defining counterculture of the computer age. It embraces, in spirit at least, not just the nearest thirtysomething hacker hunched over his terminal but also nose-ringed twentysomethings gathered at clandestine RAVES, teenagers who feel about the Macintosh computer the way their parents felt about Apple Records, and even preadolescent vidkids fused like Krazy Glue to their Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games -- the training wheels of cyberpunk. Obsessed with technology, especially technology that is just beyond their reach (like BRAIN IMPLANTS), the cyberpunks are future oriented to a fault. They already have one foot in the 21st century, and time is on their side. In the long run, we will all be cyberpunks.

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