2020 will probably not be remembered as the Year of Cyberpunk, thanks to the instantly-infamous botched release of Cyberpunk 2077, the most-anticipated game in years whose promise of a deeply-immersive roleplaying experience in a technologically-supercharged hypercapitalist dystopian future was marred by, well, hypercapitalist strategies such as media manipulation, development crunch, and perhaps even a culture of artificial console scarcity. However, the genre’s resurgent relevance is no accident: in a country whose 21st century has so far been defined by 9/11, the 2008 recession, Donald Trump, coronavirus, and climate change, a cynical perspective of the future seems all but guaranteed. “The world you expected to be the future didn’t happen," said Mike Pondsmith, the creator of the original Cyberpunk tabletop roleyplaying game, in an interview with Wired. “We were supposed to get The Jetsons and instead we’re not sure if we’re gonna get fed."
Pondsmith understands well that while speculative fiction is not a crystal ball, it can tap into the archetypal wellspring of the collective unconscious; and by swapping the veil of our society’s political superstructure for an artificial one, it can help us more clearly identify the universal Marxian base underneath. While 2019 may not have brought the flying cars and replicant slaves predicted by Blade Runner, universally considered the cornerstone of the cyberpunk genre, the film’s deeper concepts - of a depressed late capitalist asphalt jungle, of a society plagued by a mutually-dependent but equally toxic relationship between humans and technology, of an economy built on the backs of racialized slave labor, and of a world struggling to emerge from the cultural and environmental fallout of the collisions caused by industrial globalization - are more relevant than ever.
The massively destabilizing events of 2020 (most notably the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump’s ultimately successful campaign to deeply erode public confidence in the American democratic machine, and the economic consequences of both) may have accelerated the United States’ trajectory towards a hypercorporate capitalist endgame more than any other year on record.
First and foremost, the nightmares of 2020 America’s (non-)federalism, pseudo-Randian economic philosophy, and mind-flaying media vortex, each deadly hurricanes in their own right, are bound into a perfect storm by the longstanding paradox of American libertarian-conservatism, which seems to believe that the American government should be deliberately made as bad as possible just to prove a point about freedom. This toxic ideology has been allowed to bubble to the surface of the American melting-pot like never before thanks to Donald Trump, and the pandemic has lit the fire underneath it all to bring the entire cauldron to a boil.
Unlike many other countries, which view the health and safety of their citizens as at least an incidental priority, the federal government decided soon after passing the CARES Act that the pandemic would have winners and losers, already a long-foregone conclusion by the corporations who knew from the beginning that a deadly pandemic is simply a “disruptive" opportunity for profit. The spring shutdown finally dragged the baby boomers and the luddites kicking and screaming into the fold of computerized work, and the profits have not stopped raining in for cloud companies like Zoom, Google, and Amazon. The latter corporation, which already excelled at out-Wal-Mart-ing Wal-Mart by using predatory loss-leading and deeply-exploitative workforce practices in a bid to control the global distribution of all consumer goods, is so good at extracting money from the working class that on one day this year their CEO Jeff Bezos, already the richest man in the world, made over $150,000 per second.
Meanwhile, jobless rates are extremely high as poverty spreads across the board, businesses are shuttering left and right, and meager unemployment benefits will run out unless Congress can pass an even more austere stimulus package. Don’t forget that over 300,000 people have died of COVID-19 so far in the United States, and untold millions more have experienced life-changing injuries, job loss, and other hardships as a result of the pandemic’s uncontrolled spread throughout the country.
All of these problems are inextricable from the structural inequalities of a country whose economy was, and continues to be, fundamentally reliant on exploited and slave labor, despite record-breaking civil rights movements. Further complicating the matter is the rapidly-accelerating climate crisis, which has seen record natural disasters just as the too-little, too-late Paris Agreement has failed to live up to its promises.
I’ve described a society plagued by deep economic inequality, where technological and medical corporations wield unprecedented power and dominate the cultural landscape, capitalist globalization has exacerbated instead of solved racialized exploitation and slavery, and runaway climate change is leading to disastrous fires, famines, and floods. Sound familiar?
One of the most interesting dynamics of many cyberpunk stories, especially recent games like 2077 and the Deus Ex franchise it borrows heavily from, is the relationship between technology, capitalism, and health, as transhumanist aspirations to fuse technology with the body through implants, replacement limbs, and neural links are met by the problems of technological malfunction, corporate ownership, planned obsolescence, network surveillance, and competing visions of what it means to be human. In most of these scenarios, augmentations are a Faustian trade-off promising new capabilities and longer life at the expense of autonomy, as the invariably ultra-powerful companies that produce implants secure their fortunes in the business of human betterment.
Even here, a comparison can be found in 2020; while robotic body enhancements have been slowly transmuting from science fiction to reality for decades, the real game-changer has been the pandemic’s ability to consolidate the power of medical corporations and single-handedly wipe clean their deeply troubling reputations. If the coronavirus pandemic in America has been defined by the failure of its healthcare system on almost every level, the vaccine distribution now underway in Western countries reflects the deeply troubling corruption which pervades the pharmaceutical industry. These megacorporations, who are less in the business of medicine than they are in the business of extortion and death, are fastidiously name-branding “their" vaccines despite the fact that they were created with massive state funding (including pre-orders totaling at least $9 billion) using government-sponsored research conducted by scientists across the globe. This genius marketing strategy rebrands these for-profit companies as global saviors, despite the fact that they are typically caught exploiting the opioid crisis and testing experimental drugs on Nigerians, and the vaccine’s for-profit distribution model will leave the global south stranded for months and years after the rich countries have been inoculated.
If this cultural reset sticks, and if common-sense universal healthcare initiatives fail or fumble in a government which will still be torn apart by libertarian-conservatism even after Biden ascends to the throne, medical corporations may be given a media carte blanche to engage in even more exploitative practices. As tech megacorps are using their newfound profits to sink their teeth into the health data market, it’s clear that one way or another, the medical industry will be radically transformed and consolidated under these massive for-profit entities; the cyberpunk vision in which staying alive literally costs you an arm and a leg may not be as far-fetched as it seems.
Despite his setting’s dystopian violence, Pondsmith is not a total pessimist; in his interview, he points out the miraculousness of modern technology which enables him to talk face-to-face with someone thousands of miles away against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic. Certainly I feel fortunate to have such science-fiction technology as video calls, mobile computers, and robotic vacuums. But maybe that contradiction is the secret sauce of the cyberpunk recipe, which so clearly brings out the paradoxical flavor of our insane era: we have miracles, and we suffer, too.
Even Marx noted that capitalism has the interesting effect of meeting technological advancement with economic regression; the more efficient our tools become, the more artificial bureaucratic and service work must be created to maintain the lie that work and value have any correlation whatsoever. I would propose a small amendment to Pondsmith’s quote which may sum up the contradictory, late capitalist cyberpunk future we live in, today, right now: “We got The Jetsons and we’re not sure if we’re gonna get fed.”