Thursday, December 16, 2004

(This is not the story, this is an essay)

Cyberpunk Philosophy

Introduction.
I watched Ghost in the Shell (the first one), which is an anime(Japanese animated film) based on a manga(Japanese comic book) by Masamune Shirow. It's one of the better anime films around, and fits neatly into a genre of sci-fi called "cyberpunk." For the uninitiated, cyberpunk is a genre which concerns itself with " computers or information technology. The plot of cyberpunk literature often revolves around the conflict between hackers, artificial intelligences, and megacorps. It is the result of a self-correction in the science fiction genre, which classically had ignored the importance of information technology." (www.wikipedia.org)

Background.

"The science fiction editor Gardner Dozois is generally acknowledged as being the person who popularized the term "cyberpunk" as a genre of literature . . . in cyberspace - the clear borderline between the real and the virtual becomes blurred. A typical (though not universal) feature of the genre is a direct connection between the human brain and computer systems.

"Cyberpunk's world is a sinister, dark place with networked computers that dominate every aspect of life. Giant multinational corporations have replaced governments as centres of power. The alienated outsider's battle against a totalitarian system is a common theme in science fiction; however, in conventional science fiction those systems tended to be sterile, ordered, and state-controlled. In sharp contrast, Cyberpunk shows the seamy underbelly of corporatocracy, and the Sisyphean battle against their power by disillusioned renegades. Protagonists in cyberpunk literature often include computer hackers and warriors inspired by Japanese anime, including cyborgs, samurai, and ninja. Protagonists are distinguished from others by their foul language, appreciation of art, and roguish charm—heroes are scoundrels, never clean-cut "good guys."

"Cyberpunk literature tends to be strongly dystopian and pessimistic. It is often a metaphor for the present day, reflecting worries about large corporations, corruption in governments, and alienation. Some cyberpunk authors also intend their works to act as warnings of possible futures that may follow from current trends. As such, cyberpunk is often written with the intention of disquieting the reader and calling him to action.

Cyberpunk stories are seen by some social theorists as fictional forecasts of the evolution of the Internet. The virtual world of the Internet often appears in cyberpunk under various names, including "cyberspace," the "Metaverse" (as seen in Snow Crash), and the "Matrix" (originally from Doctor Who and later on in Neuromancer, but further popularized by the role playing game Shadowrun and later by the movie The Matrix)."(www.wikipedia.org)

Some other cyberpunk stories of note include Akira, Blade Runner, Metropolis(the anime, and to a lesser extent), and Deus Ex(the first PC game, not its sequel), as well as many other sci-fi stories of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

As the wikipedia article explained, cyberpunk deals with a dystopian future of large corporations, sprawling internets, and dirty worlds. The most central themes of cyberpunk usually involve information, body augmentation through technology, artificial intelligence, computers, and dystopia. The general consensus is that cyberpunk deals mainly with oppression, corporate dominance, hacking, etc... It seems to take a page from 1984 and mixes it up with a little sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But as I watched Ghost in the Shell I noticed a greater underlying philosophy that seems to run through it all. This ideology could be found in a lot of science fiction, but it seems to really flourish in the cyberpunk genre.

Context.
First I should mention that I am probably a minority among cyberpunk fans. I am Christian, and have a very firm belief in God. Most cyberpunk fans I've met tend to be agnostics. I think there is a connection with their agnosticism and their interest in sci-fi, especially cyberpunk. I'm leading up to the underlying philosophy that I feel runs strongest in the genre discussed, so just be patient.

Philosophy.
The quest of philosophy, the arts, the sciences, and religion, is all the same. It is a quest of explanation. We seek to discern our past, present and future through these schools of thought. Each pursuit determines truth through different means. The arts use expression, religion uses faith; the sciences use empiricism and the philosophers use doubt(don't be offended by my cursory definitions, I know that there are many more facets to all these; I'm just giving a quick reference for the purpose of this essay).

Cyberpunk is a fiction, and thus fits into the expressive category of art. And yet it derives much of its material from real science, but also from philosophy. While cyberpunk is never religious, it draws contrasts with the Faiths, as either a point of reference or of argument. But here's the interesting part, the part that makes cyberpunk so provocative(when written well). Cyberpunk seeks to explain our past by expressing our future. It deals with the questions of creation and identity, but it does so in a setting not yet realized by humanity, which allows it to ask and answer questions which the others cannot.

Example.
In many cyberpunk stories there is an entity which is not human, and yet behaves like a human. It is often a robot, a replicant, an AI construct, or something like that. It is always artificial, created by man. It usually yearns for a soul, or at least for an identity. We as real humans yearn for these things as well.

This is where the ideology of cyberpunk reveals itself:

In a world of contrived rules and boundaries, over time random events will create a sentient entity(commonly known as a ghost program). This entity, which arises from the complex array or information created by man, now desires to be like man, to be identified. It is no longer an AI, or a bug in the program. It is its own being, with a will and intelligence.

Do you see the parallels yet? The closest explanation we have of our own origins involves a universe of complex rules, in which random events over a period of time create sentient entities. Or we say that God created all this, but that essentially points us in the same direction. Cyberpunk deals with the question of Creation and Identity. It creates a world which repeats itself, a model which emulates the age old quandary of the universe.

The replicants in Blade Runner, originally just genetic programs, eventually develop their own emotions and desires, and they desire to live, to have souls. Asimov wrote a story about the moebius of creation; that men built a computer which kept evolving as the universe continued to entropy, and when all was left was chaos, the computer recreated it again, like God, and said "let there be light." The genetic experiments in Akira represent the next steps in human evolution, beings of incredible creative and destructive power. The program in Ghost in the Shell deviates from its protocols and becomes an actual sentient being. The robots in Asimov's tales begin to develop emotions, have dreams.

All these examples revolve around the central questions man has asked himself for thousands of years. While the scientists and the priests seek to explain our origins with what little evidence we have, the writers are creating their own evidence, creating their own worlds. They say, "this is what could happen, and maybe it already has happened." Ourobouros, the self-consuming serpent.

It's a very interesting topic, and I'd like to get further into it. I need to spend a little more time in research on it. After all, this is merely a rough draft. I hope some of it made sense.

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