Cypherium | What’s the difference between Cypherpunks & Cyberpunks?
Cyberpunk 2077 may be one of the most highly anticipated video games of all time.
Announced in 2013 with an award-winning trailer, Cyberpunk 2077’s release on April 16, 2020, will hopefully satisfy the community’s epic seven-year wait for the game. CD Projekt, the company behind the design and development of the game have fanned the flames of expectation whenever possible, including at this years E3 2019, when action star and internet hero Keanu Reeves came onstage at the Microsoft Press conference to announce the game’s release date.
Reeve’s presence at the press conference and his role as “Johnny Silverhand” in the game itself is hardly serendipity or sheer star power. Neo of the Matrix series is not only Reeve’s best-known role, but it is, in fact, one of the best-known cyberpunk characters. Given that we know so little about the game, aside from a few demonstrations, one might argue that the interest and anticipation of the game rest to some degree upon the adoption of the cyberpunk aesthetic into a major video game. Although cyberpunk has been a popular genre throughout all kinds of media since the 1980s, that aesthetic has only partially affected gaming culture, through popular games like Final Fantasy VII and the Metal Gear series. But curiously, novels, television, and movies have been its greatest champions, with some games arising from those cultural products (The Matrix, Blade Runner, Neuromancer, etc.)
Cyberpunk is a genre endogenous to the information age, and yet for most of its history, the genre has produced media about the internet and not of the internet. An “internet aesthetic” in the modern media landscape is decidedly different from a “cyberpunk” aesthetic, which carries a host of particular connotations. Cyberpunk’s style has historically involved elements of hard-boiled detective fiction, post-apocalyptic storytelling, and perhaps most crucially, societies with highly advanced technology but low, degenerative ethical cultures. There exists in most cyberpunk art an inherent opposition between social cohesion and scientific progress. This is the major challenge of a cyberpunk hero: to wield the power of high-level tech to address, and not exacerbate society’s woes.
Perhaps this is why key members of the Cyberpunk 2077 team, creator Mike Pondsmith and quest designer Patrick Mills argue that the aesthetic of their game is “inherently political.” Because cyberpunk media aims to address the relationship between technology and social cohesion, which is an inherently political relationship, these stories and games have a stated stance regarding with questions of power and the allocation of resources. But what exactly is that stance?
When it comes to cyberpunk worlds, fictionalization provides a kind of mask that separates the “inherent” politics of the genre from real-world policies. Cyberpunk 2077 may have a stance on large ideals like the equality of people and the democratization of technology, but these ideals do not necessarily manifest analyses of more practical issues like what is the government’s role in regulating big tech corporations? What does user privacy look like on a corporate level? And other hotbutton issues of today’s world.
For these issues, one might look not to cyberpunk’s artist aesthetic, but rather to cypherpunk, the practical ideology the undergirds many cyberpunk plots and character struggles. Cypherpunks development in chatrooms and email servers happened largely in parallel to the development of cyberpunks in the writing desks and movie studios of the 80s and 90s. It did so, however, not in an effort to understand the world as technology overtakes our means of social organization and industrial production; cypherpunk developed as a cause among activists in order to highlight the urgent need for individual and collective privacy in such a technologically capable world. Cypherpunks, in some ways, take on the challenge of the cyberpunk hero: they seek to meld technological achievement with social harmony by preaching, practicing, and hacking a program of internet anonymity, privacy, and anti-censorship. This, they argue, will be the only deliverance of personal and social values in a world in which tech companies have total control over the data that our daily lives produce. Cypherpunks wish to hide from the eyes of censors and profiteers who we speak to, who we know, what we think, where we organize, and what we want for ourselves and our communities.
Time has only validated cypherpunk concerns. We have seen the misuse of power and data collection with almost every major corporation that has had access to it. And it is no mistake that cypherpunks and crypto-hacktivists have been the forerunners of blockchain technology. Blockchain as an opensource, decentralized, permanent, and permissionless technology amounts to the quintessential cypherpunk instrument. And Satoshi might even be the paradigmatic cyberpunk himself: fictional, anonymous, brilliant, and completely distrusting of power and fame.
So one can only hope that Cyberpunk 2077 captures the imagination of gamer culture, internet culture, and popular culture at large — because lurking beneath its brilliant gameplay and aesthetic the game does may well perform an indispensable kind of social advocacy.