The early days of cyberpunk

August 10, 2022

The early days of cyberpunk

Sebastiaan Crul
August 10, 2022

The early days of cyberpunk

As man becomes machine and machine becomes man.
Sebastiaan Crul
August 10, 2022
“I am the Video Word made Flesh” — Max Renn, Videodrome (1984)
Officer Lewis: "I asked him his name. He didn't know." Bob Morton: "Oh, great. Let me make it real clear to you. He doesn't have a name. He's got a program. He's a product. Is that clear?" — Robocop (1987)
"Not very sporting to fire on an unarmed opponent. I thought you were supposed to be good. Aren't you the 'good' man?" — Cyborg Batty asks ‘protagonist’ Deckard, Blade Runner (1982)
The early days of cyberpunk
Sebastiaan Crul
Maya Turolla
August 10, 2022
Replicants Roy and Rachel in Blade Runner (1982). Design by Zeynep Algan.

The ‘50s and the ‘60s were the heydays of cybernetic as an academic discipline and resulted in the first cyborg movies (see part I). In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the cybernetic movement turned inward and started asking fundamental existential questions about the blurring boundaries between man and machine. This second wave of cybernetics coincided with a new subgenre of sci-fi, leading to a new type of cyborg movies known as cyberpunk. 

In the early ‘70s, engineering and computer science had lost their appetite for cybernetics and the social craze for cybernetics waned. Mass unemployment had not arrived and new jobs were created. But more importantly, a lot of cybernetic studies had shown disappointing practical results, computers were expensive and slow and it turned out to be more difficult than expected to create useful cybernetic applications. Ideas of cybernetic space suits were nowhere close to becoming a reality and highly anticipated military projects such as the Pedipulator (see picture) and the Handyman inspired Star Wars AT-AT Walker but failed to deliver actual results (Rid, 2016). The idea of cybernetics as a universal discipline turned out to be too ambitious and engineers moved on to new fields such as artificial intelligence and computer science.

Image of the Pedipulator (left) and the Handyman (right).

Nevertheless, the field of cybernetics did not cease to exist altogether but diverged and mainly shifted to disciplines such as biology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, critical theory, and postmodern studies. During the first wave, the social sciences were always less respected than engineers and mathematicians; now the tables were turned. In the ‘50s, they had stood on the sidelines, reviewing and questioning, for example, the usefulness of Shannon's statistical information theory, Wiener’s cybernetics, and Ashby’s homeostat for psychiatry, sociology of linguistics. Now, thinkers such as Luhmann in sociology and Bateson in anthropology became prominent cybernetic theoreticians. 

This second wave of cybernetics, in science often referred to as second-order cybernetics, can be interpreted as a contemplation phase and the reinvention of cybernetics as a social system (Kline, 2015). This contemplation was, to a certain extent, inevitable. If there are scientific celebrities - Norbert Wiener’s quotes and arguments often graced the front page of the New York Times - stating that it will not take long before cybernetic machines surpass human intelligence, then social scientists and philosophers will demand a seat at the table. 

These thinkers wondered what these cyberneticians meant when they used concepts such as consciousness, intelligence, and subjectivity. For example, is the “purpose” of a target-seeking torpedo comparable to the purpose of a man striving for justice? Is the reproduction of an organism equal to a machine building another machine or a computer copying a file? 

Some social scientists embraced the cyborg and incorporated it into political discourse, e.g. Donna Harraway’s famous cyborg manifesto, while others took a more critical stance and feared lumping all kinds of concepts together. The more constructive critics tried to bring in new demarcations and sharpen the definitions of, for instance, consciousness or purpose. For example, philosopher Hans Jonas argued the goal-directedness of cybernetic machines lacks human qualities such as inwardness. From the outside, it looks as if there is directionality present in servomechanisms (e.g. the torpedo “seeks” its target), but cybernetic machines are nothing more than looping mechanical processes. 

Unsurprisingly, reflectivity and subjectivity became the core concepts of the second wave. Parallel to the paradigm shift in quantum physics, the observer needed to be included in the new models. According to second-wave cyberneticians, the classic cybernetic models did nothing more than provide an outward description of the behavior of a closed system. They failed to incorporate how an open system, i.e. one that continuously interacts and exchanges matter and energy with an environment, observes. We observe the system, but the system itself observes as well. To them, a true cybernetic system perceives its environment. Concepts such as self-organization and auto-poesies are included to meet this condition. Phenomenological qualities such as intentionality, immediacy, and qualia became more important to understanding the cybernetic entity, be it organism or machine. 

Although he was already an attendee at the Macy conferences in the early ‘50s, anthropologist Gregory Bateson perfectly captures the essence of the second wave in his definition of information: a difference that makes a difference. Information is not just a neutral quantified difference, but a difference that matters. Information depends on the state of the observer. A spider only picks up signals from its environment that are relevant to it and also actively changes the environment accordingly through constant circular loops. The intimate patterns that arise are best understood not as substantial physical forces but as formal patterns of what Bateson called Mind. For Shannon, this qualitative aspect of information was nonsense and part of what he called “the information bandwagon” during the cybernetic craze in society (Kline, 2015). 

Besides the true meaning of information, another issue that troubled many thinkers of the second wave was the border separating the system from the environment. In the course of the 20th century, a growing number of philosophers (e.g., Polanyi, Merleau-Ponty) began to thematize our intimate relationship to artifacts. Our skin is not the absolute border between ourselves as organisms and the environment, as we all tacitly know when we incorporate technologies such as a bike or hammer into our body sentience. 

Some cybernetic thinkers radicalized this idea. To them, boundaries between humans and machines are constructed rather than given. This has severe consequences; where does the dissolution stop, and how are we transformed if our cognitive abilities get distributed among self-correcting machines? “Where” is the I? And more fundamentally: who am I and what constitutes my individuality and selfhood?  

A movie that profoundly portrays this arbitrary membrane of humans is Videodrome (1984). The body horror of director David Cronenberg is a tribute to media prophet Marshall McLuhan and his theory of media as extensions. Although McLuhan does not belong to the canon of cybernetic thinkers and Videodrome is not a typical cyborg movie, there is a lot of common ground between Mcluhan and the second wave. 

The movie follows Max Renn, the president of a small TV station that specializes in niche content such as X-rated shows and extreme violence. In search of the next big thing, one of his employees obtains an illegal program called Videodrome. After watching the extremely violent show, a long journey of hallucination and bodily transformations begins. While Max tries to unravel the origins of the program during this psychedelic trip, mysterious professor Brian O'Blivion (based on McLuhan) educates him on the nature of the show and the future importance of television and video broadcasting. 

Countless interesting McLuhan themes are explored in dialogues with O'Blivion. The priority of the medium above the message - Mcluhan’s central argument - is of course a core theme. In the movie, the television and video broadcasts do not represent or communicate reality. Television overcomes reality and then becomes reality. There is no reality besides television. This is a more radical argument than that television is a suitable instrument for mass propaganda. 

In a famous scene, Brian O’Blivion tells Max: 

“The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena -- the videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind's eye. Therefore the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore television is reality, and reality is less than television.” 

Maybe the meaning of this sentence can be clarified by referring to Putin’s and Zelensky’s “use” of (social) media. Perhaps Putin still sees the television as nothing more than a tactical tool for propaganda, while Zelensky, as a social media celebrity - born and raised with(in) media - is more sensible to McLuhan's line of thought. Zelensky’s reality is less than television, we might paraphrase provocatively. 

Then there is McLuhan's notion of media as extensions of our senses (also see quote above). The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye, as O'Blivion remarks. Cronenburg did an amazing job displaying this thought in multiple terrifying scenes of bodily transformations. Especially the idea that extensions do not leave our physical constitution untouched is beautifully demonstrated. Technological devices are not harmless instruments we can pick and up and drop without altering our pure body. The endless horror scenes of organs popping out of televisions and Max's stomach turning into a VHS recorder really get under your skin. 

Max repeatedly states “I am the video word made flesh”. In the ‘80s, this must have been a weird and incomprehensible line for most people. With the advent of the smartphone, today we might more easily understand these bodily transformations of digital media. When McLuhan speaks of amputation and numbness of senses and body parts as a consequence of new extensions, this is not merely metaphorical, as we all know when we forget our smartphone when we leave the house. It feels like we really have lost a body part. 

The movie vividly explores the blurring boundaries between man and machine. But what exactly do we become in this posthuman era? What is this hybrid “human-television” if we abandon traditional ideas about humans and technology? Videodrome does not try to provide clear answers as a lot of these issues could only be tackled or resolved on a metaphysical level. But even in science, this did not truly bother most practical engineers of the first wave, though the founding fathers often did not hesitate to formulate metaphysical arguments. For science-fiction writers and second-wave thinkers, on the other hand, it became a favorite topic. 

Many thoughts and ideas of the first wave remained rudimentary or implicit and second wave theoreticians made them more explicit. For example, a hidden assumption of cybernetic theory was that it adhered to some sort of monism, but the actual nature of this monism often remained undeveloped. In the case of a human, cybernetic theory reinterprets the body-soul (or matter-form) opposition as a self-organizing open system, that much is clear. The physical, chemical, and mental become levels of one reality. This means the human ego and its form are immanent to self-organizing matter. 

In other words, intelligence or consciousness “emerges” from psychical-chemical complexity, as a popular hypothesis in these postmodern days states. In-formation is thus key to understanding how matter in-forms and trans-forms itself permanently. However, a difficult question then arises: where exactly does this consciousness or intelligence “end” and “start” in nature and what will be the (new) criteria for separating man from machine? What level of complexity is sufficient? Does this consciousness begin with the psychical-chemical complexity of a stone? And what about a tornado or a microwave? 

This blurring of categories and the difficult existential questions are typical of the second wave of cybernetics and of what we often call the posthuman or postmodern era. But instead of trying to answer these overwhelming second-wave questions, let’s go back to Hollywood. Although the ‘80s mainly showcased blockbusters grounded in the modern worldview of the first wave, posthuman cyborg movies also began to make an appearance. Most successful in box office terms were perhaps movies that followed a traditional narrative and added some minor posthuman contemplations of the second wave. 

Box office hit Robocop (1987) from Paul Verhoeven is a great example of this last category. There is a traditional setting with a crime-ridden city and overworked police officers hoping cyborg technology will alleviate their workload and fight crime. But we immediately notice the storyline is more complicated. After a police officernamed Alex Murphy is brutally murdered, he is recreated as a cyborg by a mega-corporation to wipe the city clean. But the mega-corporation has other goals than a safe and just living environment for the citizens of Detroit. It wants to erase the city center to realize a new real estate project.  

Besides the evil mega-corporation as a central theme, Robocop focuses strongly on existential and psychological themes around identity. When we see the “birth” or “resurrection” of Murphy as Robocop, the director works with a remarkable first-person point of view. This corresponds to the observer perspective we defined as an important characteristic of second-wave cybernetics. If we want to understand cybernetic loops, we need to include inwardness in our models. The sentience of Robocop mixes digital and biological elements while we see others dehumanizing him over and over again when he is still in the laboratory. 

Moreover, this plot has nothing to do with the typically modern Westworld or Frankenstein storyline (i.e. we have created a machine that will eventually turn against us). The ED-209 is mainly struggling with himself and what he has become. His human side is not fully erased and the murder event functions as trauma. Before he was murdered, he was doing everything to uphold the law and protect citizens. Now, as a cyborg, he can’t do anything but follow his programmed instructions. Without control and in a chaotic city, he wanted to be a “justice machine” and maintain law and order. With only control as his life mode, Robocop longs for more freedom of choice. 

The ending scene perfectly captures this aspect of what he has become. When the evil employee of the mega-corporation is exposed, he yells “This is absurd. That thing is a violent mechanical psychopath”, already mixing up elements. Then the CEO of the company, who is held hostage by the villain, fires the evil employee, so according to his program, Robocop is now allowed to shoot him. The CEO compliments ED-209 after he eliminates the employee and says “Nice shooting, son. What is your name?”. Robocop answers: "Murphy". This existential focus on what is left of his identity is typical of second-wave cyborg movies. 

Robocop is a great example of a mix of first-wave and second-wave cybernetics. But to truly understand the cyborg movies of the second wave, we need to add one important element. With a movie such as Robocop, the aesthetic and genre of the cyborg movie had shifted. This was not caused by the models and theories of scientists. The academic contemplation of second-wave cybernetics reflected a wider cultural movement in society. The academic interest of the posthuman cyborg scientists was accompanied by a more pessimistic worldview that gave rise to a new subgenre of science-fiction in the ‘70s and ‘80s: cyberpunk. Robocop is a cyberpunk movie. 

After the counterculture of the ‘60s, events such as the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal caused a wave of disappointment and disillusion in the U.S. Unemployment rose and was met with more pessimism and nihilism, slowly setting the stage for the postmodern era. In the science fiction genre, writers began to abandon the liberal human values of the ‘50s and the naive belief in scientific progress (the sci-fi books of authors such as Isaac Asimov are a good example). Instead of expansion into space and harmonious researchers colonizing other planets within the galaxy, the subgenre cyberpunk imagined a more dystopian and earthly future, perfectly captured in the genre’s slogan: “High tech, low life”. 

The cyberpunk world is characterized by megacorporate domination and advanced technological urban areas, but only a few enjoy the perks of this. Mostly we follow characters that dwell in low-life areas and the viewer is confronted with the meaningless life of the “deplorables” in this society. We see slums and widespread poverty, streets filled with garbage, and neon lights. There are endless rainy days without a clear distinction between day and night. Living in a cyberpunk world feels like a hallucinatory dream, or better, a nightmare. Despair, vice, and pointlessness permeate everything in a timeless flow of incredibly atmospheric scenes (see this excellent three-part documentary about Cyberpunk for an extensive review of the genre). 

Example of cyberpunk aesthetic.

Back to Hollywood. Many cyberpunk movies are based on novels written in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Great sci-fi writers are often ahead of their time. However, the narratives, characters, and themes of cyberpunk novels tend to be quite complex. They are not suited for easy movie adaptation and movie studios thought it was questionable if the novels would reach a wider audience. However, the cultural background of the postmodern ‘80s convinced Hollywood that movie adaptations of cyberpunk novels might actually work. 

Probably one of the most famous cyberpunk movies is Blade Runner (1982), based on a novel by Philip K. Dick. Sadly enough, it was probably still too soon for full-fledged cyberpunk movies (more on that later) and Blade Runner became a box office flop. Fortunately, the movie perfectly captures the important themes of the second phase of cybernetics and soon became a cult hit. The protagonist of the movie, Rick Deckard, is a bounty hunter chasing so-called “replicants”. These cybernetic humanoids were supposed to extend the workforce of humans. Comparable to the plot in Westworld, a design flaw and malfunction has caused the replicants to develop emotions. A limited four-year lifespan was introduced as a solution, but a new batch of cybernetic replicants escapes, giving rise to the bounty hunters who track them down. 

It starts as a typical modern plot of the early wave; bounty hunters chasing out-of-control humanoids. What’s new? But as the movie unfolds, the characters show more and more depth as they struggle with existential questions about their essence. Without revealing too much, the entire plot is about the question of what it means to be an authentic human being in a cybernetic world, similar to Robocop. Robocop has some cyberpunk aesthetics, but the art director of Blade Runner created the golden standard. The cyberpunk classic cleverly raises the existential questions of the second wave while we as viewers slowly languish in the breath-taking darkness of the urban areas.

In rainy slums and industrial buildings, the characters evolve continuously. We see a devasted and highly empathic replicant called Rachel after she finds out she isn’t a human and her memories are implanted. The emptiness in her eyes is anything but the emptiness of a machine. 

The human protagonist Deckard, in turn, is slowly losing himself and falling into despair. Dwelling in the harsh soulless cyborg world, we see him start to question his humanity. We are not sovereign and autonomous thinking bodies; the machine world also permeates and transforms our essence and changes the way we think and feel. More than we are perhaps willing to accept or realize. In a machine-dominated world, we might lose our empathy quicker than we think, becoming more like what we envy. Deckard tried to escape the system but ended up cold and unfeeling. Towards the end, his emptiness more closely resembles the emptiness of the machine than Rachel's. 

In Blade Runner, the early wave questions persist but they are now overshadowed by more ambivalent questions. Does the machine also have dreams and desires? Should we behave in morally acceptable ways towards machines, respect them and treat them as humans? How do machines change us? 

These later movies reflect the posthuman of the second-wave cyberneticians perfectly. The strict boundaries between humans and machines have been broken down and we have entered an era of fractured identities and hybrid beings. 

The Terminator franchise is a good last example of the transition. While The Terminator follows a strictly early-wave plot (see previous article), in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, we see the T-1000 suddenly morph into three different identities within one scene. In the sequel, he is suddenly the good cyborg on a long quest to find out what it means to be a human who can develop meaningful relationships. For example, he realizes that the capacity to construct grammatically correct sentences is different from actually having a meaningful human conversation. This is perfectly portrayed in the scene where the young John Connor teaches the Terminator how to use language properly. After the cyborg uses the formal machine phrase “affirmative” in a conversation, John decides to give him a few linguistic tips. This leads to the birth of the famous quote: “Hasta la vista, baby”. 

We have characterized first-wave movies as simple modern narratives, whereas second-wave movies complicated things. The focus shifted to existential and psychological themes and the setting changed to a gloomy and rainy cyberpunk slum. There is still one element that is missing, which marks the transition to cyborg movies of the third wave: cyberspace.

This article is part II of a series on the history of cyberpunk movies and the evolution of the cyborg in popular culture. Click here for part I. Click here for part III.

About the author
Economist and philosopher Sebastiaan Crul writes articles on a wide range of topics, including rule of law in digital societies, the virtualization of the lifeworld and internet culture. He is currently working on his doctoral degree on the influence of digitalization on mental health and virtue ethics, having previously published dissertations on the philosophy of play and systemic risks in the finance industry.
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