It’s not often I get really, properly angry about alternative fashion and culture, but lately I’ve been working in a flagship cyber- store in Camden market, and to cap it all I’ve just started reading Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. All of this has got me thinking again about cyberpunk, cyber-culture, and what the subculture signifies. So shall we cyber-?
Right. Cyber-culture is, at baseline, both ridiculously inoffensive and disarmingly radical – despite the fact that a good swathe of participants manage to miss the point entirely. It’s a bizarre neon synthesis of goth-, punk-, emo-, rave- and ‘urban’ cultures that looks hyperbolically towards some arcane design-political paradigm known as ‘the future’. The aesthetic is sleek, different, chrome-tinted with an edge of grunge, and the lifestyle attracts scenesters and wannabe kids from every walk of hip London life. Which is great. Or, rather, which would be great if the lifestyle wasn’t founded on a basis of conspicuous consumption, taking stimulants and going to clubs.
Hanging around the back of Cyberdog one dark Wednesday night in January, chatting to its body of staff – of assorted ethnicities, gender-and-sexual orientations, all hard-working scene kids under 24, and all completely bonkers – one comes to realise that ‘cyber’ culture, rather than the break from the mainstream it claims to be, is in fact a crystallisation of UK youth culture. Here we all are: young, mental, working too hard, over-spending on ridiculous clothes and odd, high-maintenance hairstyles, listening to repetitive music , dicking around with each other’s hearts. Here we are, cool, stupid, impulsively jacking off to some half-cocked vision of the future dreamed up by roleplayers and scene-savvy designers in loft apartments. Fucked up on booze and boring drugs. Waiting for our futures to start.
That’s my problem with cyberculture: it doesn’t have a project anymore. Ever since the abandonment of the suffix ‘-punk’ by the cyber- scene, cyberkids have lost their way. We’ve been caught up in dancing, shopping and the cutting edge facade of the ‘future’ obsession, blindly hopeful with only a thin layer of really imagining what the future could be like if we put our minds to it, beyond neon pink and sparkly. Even though neon pink and sparkly isn’t a bad place to start.
Cyber is no longer really punk, and it’s no longer really political. No, it’s not enough to yell ‘fuck the system’, swallow a handful of pills and watch Velvet Goldmine. Again. No, it’s not enough to be gay, or bisexual, or to have interesting hair – being a minority does not make one politically aware by default, even if it should. No, it’s not enough to be firmly of the opinion that drugs should be legalised and prepared to expound on the topic at parties: the legal status and criminal knock-on effects of illicit substances are important topics, but not compared to, say, the issue of a living minimum wage, or immigration, or how to stop our society turning into the achingly corrupt surveillance state that Gibson and Sterling themselves were warning us about back in the nineties.
Just because something is fun and sexy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s important, and it’s high time we got it through our buzzed-out little heads that this stuff is sexy too- a different kind of sexy, because it’s about power, privilege and state-creation. We should be able to rock with that, and if we can’t, and if we’re too munted or comedowny or spend so much time on our hair and make up on the next General Election day that we don’t have time to vote, it’s not the system that’s got it wrong – it’s us, and our tiny attention spans. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Cyber can be punk, and it should.
Ultimately, the strange, shy kids who make pilgrimages to Cyberdog on a Saturday come there because they want a better world. Because they’re disappointed with the one they’ve been born intoand want to re-make it. The problem only arises when, distracted by the flashing lights and thumping chords, so many of them stop there. Too many become distracted by the flashy, fashion-conscious elements of the scene forgetting that future-building is not a product, but a process. There is nothing wrong with imagining a future that’s cleaner, faster, deeper, weirder, where people can remake their lives and their bodies at whim, one that’s more accepting and more exciting than the proto-fascist US hegemony we’re being fobbed off with. But you can’t buy it online, and you can’t reserve entrance tickets, and you won’t find it at the bottom of a baggie.
The Revolution is Just a T-Shirt Away
Training the young to imagine possible futures is vital; it was and remains the most important element of cyberpunk as a literary, musical and fashion movement. But creatively imagining a future and working to build it must not stop when one has achieved the look. It’s now perfectly normal for cyber-scene kids trotting around Camden never even to have heard of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling or Rudy Rucker, and that’s not forgiveable. By all means save up for those dread falls, by all means try the pink pills, but for god’s sake read the literature. The world is now leaning more and more towards the nightmare universes imagined by the godpersons of cyberpunk literature – internet access is near-universal in the western world, resources are becoming scarcer, global corporations are gaining power and influence beyond the dreams of some countries. If we want to survive this new world order, then we’ve got to be ready – not just look ready. If we want to take down systems, if we want to be hackers and independent tech contractors and urban warriors, it’s not enough just to recreate the look and gobble MDMA. We’ve got to put the punk back into cyberpunk.
And now I’ve caught myself humming Billy Bragg’s Waiting for the Great Leap Forward, so it’s time to sign off. More coming later about cyber-culture and gender, which I think deserves a whole separate post.