We live in a world where information and services are not bound by geography. Alaskan natives can use their computers to visit Kiwi casinos and listen to a Chinese pop music radio station over the internet, something that would have belonged to science fiction just a couple of decades ago. Authors and movie makers have imagined how the hyperconnected world would look like in their future. Science and technology has made sure some of their dreams and predictions came true, with others waiting to happen sooner rather than later. Looking back, cyberpunk seems to have been more accurate than it seemed back in the day. Many of the preferred elements of the genre are already here or just around the corner.
Corporate rule and virtual internet
In Neuromancer, William Gibson’s genre-creating science fiction novel, we have the chance to meet Case, a “console cowboy”, hacking servers through a completely immersive, virtual depiction of what would later become the internet. The world depicted by the Canadian author might have seen “scifi” back then, but it’s increasingly lifelike today: megacorporations ruling the world, humans becoming estranged, entangled in a web of accessible entertainment and cheap thrills, and artificial intelligence playing an ever-increasing role in business and government alike.
Come to think of it, many of the things described in the novel and its two sequels (which will soon become a big screen feature, maybe even a trilogy) are already on the way.
Robocop (1987) and Ghost in the Shell (1995, 2017) are surprisingly similar when it comes to their settings. Both of them bear the marks of cyberpunk – a dystopian future ruled by corporations and technology – and they both have human “ghosts” trapped inside a mechanical body as protagonists.
While replacing one’s entire body with a mechanical one still belongs to the world of science fiction, humanity has taken the first steps toward this goal. Severed limbs are today replaced with functional prosthetics that can almost act as if they were a real one, and controlling a computer using one’s mind is a technology already discovered. Humanity might soon shed its biological body and transfer the brain – or, perhaps, the consciousness – into a robotic body, thus finding immortality. As it has predicted numerous times by science fiction writers.
AI has been depicted numerous times in works of science fictions, sometimes as evil (HAL 9000, Skynet), sometimes as a benevolent, like Jane in Orson Scott Card’s “Ender” saga (in the novels, not in the movie, though), born inside the ansible network and offering humanity the gift of instant FTL travel, or Isaac Asimov’s robots who are there to make humanity’s life easier (even though a good part of humanity wants to see the world rid of them completely). In popular culture, AI is almost always evil, though, which tells a lot of how much trust we have in artificial sentient beings.
Today, science is on the verge of creating true artificial intelligence – close enough for ethical and legal questions on the matter to emerge. Today, computers learn, have access to incredible amounts of data, and may one day become what so many works of fiction predicted – the rise or fall of humanity.