While the cyborg movies until the ‘80s (see part I & part II) focused on intimate man-machine relations, the ‘90s can be characterized as a tremendous thought experiment in the unlimited possibilities but also dangers of cyberspace, or what we would now call virtual reality. Scientists and artists speculated about mind uploading, sentient AIs, and immortality. The cyborg movies that followed contributed to a cyberspace craze, often portrayed by game-like, psychedelic visions of virtual environments, a craze which is currently repeated in the metaverse hype.
As for cyberpunk, the popular science-fiction cyborg genre that we dealt with in the previous part, the ‘90s mark the coming-of-age and golden era of the genre, with film classics such as Terminator 2 (1991) and Ghost in the Shell (1995), and less well-known movies such as Johnny Mnenomic (1995) and The Lawnmower Man (1992). At the turn of the millennium, The Matrix (1999) became the grand apotheosis of the cyberpunk genre, integrating cybernetic themes of all three waves in an unmatched cyberpunk classic.
During this decade, the cyborg evolved and was now portrayed as disembodied and embedded in computer networks, fiber cables, and silicon mediums. His prosthetic limbs, emblematic of earlier cyborg movies, were replaced by an interface that not so much extended the biological body but rather integrated the body into a wider technological ecosystem. It made us fantasize about new forms of existence and revived the idea of immortal lifeforms.
Consequently, worries and fears evolved as well. Authenticity remained an important matter but autonomy—a first-wave theme—recurred as a concern as well. However, now autonomy was not thematized as the fear of replacement, caused by automated factories, but as the fear of loss of control.
Our current metaverse buzz and anxiety about digital surveillance capitalism have strong roots in the third wave of cybernetics in the ‘90s. Therefore, the cyborg movies of the ‘90s present us with a preview of the hopes and fears of our contemporary digital society. But how did we end up in this third wave and what can we learn from this?
The science of cybernetics co-evolved with the changes in popular culture and cinematography. In the early ‘90s, we were miles away from the cybernetic studies of Wiener (first-wave) and Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto (second-wave). A new third wave of cybernetics began to dominate in academic circles and popular culture. The reason? The computer becoming personal (PC) and entering our living room, leading to more friendly interfaces, consumer-oriented operating systems, new user applications, and worldwide computerized networks. Most importantly, this opened up a completely new space; cyberspace, causing scientists and movie directors to focus their reflections on this remarkable event.
The cyberpunk authors of the ‘80s and the counterculture movement of Silicon Valley did the preliminary work. The most-read author and literary godfather of the cyberpunk genre, William Gibson, already coined the terms “cyberspace” and “the matrix” in the early ‘80s. Alongside other writers such as Vernor Vinge and Bruce Sterling, they envisioned a future in which users would be “jacked in” to a fully immersed virtual reality built upon the internet (then ARPANET), where we would live as avatars, buy and sell goods, hang out with like-minded people and hack governments or companies.
In Hollywood, Tron (1982) was one of the first movies to popularize this concept of cyberspace. We follow a hacker that is pulled into a digital world where he has to battle an intelligent machine in video games. What makes the movie interesting is that it was the first to explore the potential of cyberspace beyond the, at that time standard, command line interface. The main character Flynn does not interact with a computer but continues to live “within” a space completely generated by computers. The possible nature of this 3D environment fascinated many.
For some, this cyberspace was meant to be an extended realm of the mind. Physically connecting our brains to computer networks had unimaginable spiritual possibilities but also implied the danger that our brains could be hacked. Life in cyberspace was “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation”, as Gibson once famously remarked.
As Thomas Rid shows, these cybernetic ideas resonated perfectly in the Silicon Valley counterculture, with its love of creativity, psychedelics, and altered states of consciousness. Science and fiction were intimately connected in computer science and cybernetics and constantly reinforced each other. The cyberpunk genre inspired Jaron Lanier and his company VPL to start working on virtual goggles and haptic gloves as early as in the mid-‘80s. He introduced the term virtual reality to the wider audience and speculated about how VR could create unforeseen new forms of social relationships and intimacy. In turn, cyberpunk authors were constantly animated by the innovations of the Bay Area.
However, the cyberpunk genre, along with the Bay Area entrepreneurs, geeks, and intellectuals, remained mainly a subculture in the ‘80s. Computers were still unfriendly, costly, and mainly owned by universities, businesses, and the government. After the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, things started shifting slowly, but it was not until the ‘90s that the computer became mainstream and a mass-market product.
As we discussed in the previous part, Blade Runner (1982), a pure cyberpunk work that also reflects on computer networks and artificial intelligence, may have been too ahead of its time compared to more digestible box office hits such as Terminator (1986) and Robocop (1987). But in the ‘90s, cyberpunk movies reached a wider audience and became mainstream, with The Matrix as the ultimate crown jewel of cyberpunk blockbusters.
What were the fundamental topics of this third wave? There are a couple of important characteristics that set it apart from the previous wave. First, the relationship between man and machine changed and evolved into a relationship between man and computer. This opened up new possibilities for depicting the cyborg. Whereas the prosthetic limb captures the idea of extension, the interface connecting man with computer systems is more about embeddedness and integration.
Most often, goggles and haptic gloves were the preferred way of imagining the interface. This was the case in an adaptation of a short story by William Gibson: Johnny Mnenomic (1995). Though the movie is generally seen as unremarkable, there are some interesting moments. For example, this scene shows a new cyborg method of warfare: hacking. Connected to computer systems, protagonist Johnny can hack the system. By doing so, he not only has eyes everywhere but is able to manipulate digital and physical infrastructure.
From the hacker perspective, the gesture-based interface and goggles tend to transform the cyborg into a deity, closely resembling later depictions in The Matrix (the architect) and Minority Report (Tom Cruise as John Anderton). With prosthetics and bionics as important research domains, human enhancement has always been an important theme for cybernetics. Nevertheless, when the cyborg is portrayed as a god-like computer hacker that is pulling the strings, this is more in line with the ideology of transhumanism. By this, we mean the conception of truly different lifeforms, not merely the enhancement of existing capabilities. The hacker is everywhere and nowhere, divisibility and invisibility are his trademarks. He spreads like a virus and acts like a hydra.
Nevertheless, if there are hackers on one side, there are those being hacked on the other. The scary thing about hacking is that it often happens without us being aware of it. Thus, the hacking mastermind of the ‘90s is often paired with the unconscious mental slavery of mass society in the age of computers. This typical, new ethical tension became a popular theme in cyborg movies of the ‘90s. It wasn’t enslavement as dependency on the machine that was the main problem, but enslavement as the result of psychological manipulation through the machine.
Today, thanks to documentaries such as The Social Dilemma that discuss algorithms steering and manipulating our behavior, the idea of “brain hacking” has become normalized in our everyday encounters with Big Tech. But cyborg movies of the ‘90s explored the theme in a more radical sense.
In the movie Total Recall (1990), a company called Rekall sells fake memories that are implanted by a computer program and chip. They offer people the benefits of “taking a vacation” without the cost of actually going on an expensive holiday. Apart from all the acute problems our protagonist (Arnold Schwarzenegger) experiences after the implementation, the entire movie mainly plays around with the question of what is real and what’s fake when we let computer systems interfere with our psyche. Is his brain hacked or not? The movie even introduced the famous red pill; the antidote to our false consciousness and neurological gateway back to the “truth”.
The second important theme of third-wave cyborg movies is disembodiment. Besides computer cyborgs and the fear of brain hacking, the early ‘90s gave rise to the belief that consciousness could exist in computer systems without a biological body (Hayles, 1999). Transcendence and mind uploading became popular themes.
This was often portrayed by using a different interface than goggles and gloves, e.g. cables that are plugged into the back of the head or a helmet connected to a computer (see graphic below). Goggles and haptic gloves are suitable for entering virtual reality and transferring our bodily sentience, but these interfaces make us transcend our body and upload our entire existence to the network (think of movies such as The Matrix, Avatar, Transcendence).
The question of machines becoming intelligent was, as we have seen, not new, but now life was imagined as something that was embedded in a single computer or a computer network, like a giant nervous system without biological hardware. The idea fascinated scientists. Still, it is common to describe the World Wide Web as exhibiting qualities we normally ascribe only to consciousness and to call the internet a “superbrain”, “hive mind” or “swarm intelligence”.
Disembodiment and new life forms existing as a program in computer systems quickly became important themes in Hollywood’s cyborg movies. Lawnmower Man (1992) was one of the first to bring them to the silver screen. In the movie, we follow a disabled gardener named Jobe Smith. He becomes a test subject for a company called Virtual Space Industries and this enterprise runs experiments to enhance cognitive capabilities. The leading scientist Dr. Angelo (played by Pierce Brosnan) uses a combination of psychoactive drugs and virtual reality to “train” Jobe in a cyberspace environment. The results are promising and Jobe hopes this means smarter people won’t take advantage of him anymore, but it doesn’t take long before problems begin.
In this entertaining but weird and violent film that is not accessible to a wider audience, there are some worthwhile scenes. After Jobe’s intelligence is enhanced, he invites his new girlfriend to have cybersex with him but accidentally destroys her mind. It is an interesting display of cyber intimacy that resembles a recent episode of Black Mirror. More on this kind of intimacy in a later article.
After this accident, Jobe goes on a rampage and intends to kill everyone that has humiliated him in the past. The benevolent Dr. Angelo wants to save him after he finds out the company is terminating the project. The scientist finds Jobe at his house, where he shares his ultimate plan: to abandon his physical body and become “pure energy” by entering the mainframe. Living in computer networks, he wants to rule the world. His “birth cry will be the sound of every phone on this planet ringing in unison”.
Johnny Mnemonic and The Lawnmower Man are great examples of how cyborg movies during the ‘90s changed. Digital technology is now encapsulating us, and the cyborg is placed in a new arena: the computer network and computer-generated virtual environments. The cyborg is transformed into an inner-worldly god cleverly using his distributed cognition or a being that, as a disembodied lifeform, starts a new lineage of cyborg evolution.
This disembodiment and artificial life in computers provoked intense debate in science. Cybernetic thinkers mostly acknowledged that we cannot live without materiality. But what really mattered was that a living entity and its extensions join in a single information system, constituted by flows of information, not matter. To them, information became the key to understanding (artificial) life and even consciousness, not embodiment and biological structures such as cells, tissue, and organs. Human life is simply a carbon-based version of life, and artificial life in computers is a silicon-based version. It is not up to us carbon humans to decide which is better, evolution will decide for itself.
This school of cybernetic thought, strongly rooted in computer science, fiercely debated with more biologically-oriented cybernetic thinkers such as Francesco Varela, who did not agree with the notion of the substitutability of organic bodies. Advocates of silicon-based artificial life were especially fascinated by how simple rules could give rise to complex patterns, perfectly displayed in the famous “cellular automata”. To them, life is what emerges out of these complex patterns butt, in the end, is grounded in simple informational rules, and has no substantial links to a biological substrate. To contradict Marshall McLuhan: the medium is not the message. The information processing unit or body could be everything, as long as the information can flow freely.
In the cyberpunk anime film Ghost in a Shell (1995), all the above themes return thoughtfully. The classic does an excellent job of translating these overwhelming philosophical debates into a more easily consumable piece of art.
Just as Blade Runner is a beautiful fusion of the earliest two waves, Ghost in a Shell is a great mix of all three waves. Again, the basis is a simple first-wave humanist plot of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, i.e. a cybernetic special agent named Kusanagi is working for humanity while she fights criminals and hunts a villain called Puppetmaster.
Then there are the second-wave posthuman struggles of the ‘80s; the title even directly refers to this dilemma, with the soul or spirit of man being the “ghost” living in a shell (the body), thereby explicitly raising the classic cartesian problem of how these two relate to each other in human beings. The story is known for the long and explicit philosophical musings of the cyborg protagonist Kusanagi, questioning her singularity and uniqueness as a programmed and controlled cyborg system:
“There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.”
But the movie is most famous for its profound exploration of explicit third-wave themes and the evolving nature of the cyborg in a digitalized information society. In the film, human minds can be digitized and transplanted into a non-organic cyborg body without any limits. After such ongoing mind uploading and transference, the movie repeatedly raises the question of what is left of the soul. Can we copy it without loss? Or is every reproduction accompanied by an inevitable and intangible deterioration that cannot be mechanically restored?
Besides mind uploading, hacking the human brain is also widely explored . We see multiple scenes in which characters are deceived after they are plugged into the computer network, and unknowingly turned into obedient slaves implanted with fake memories. Innocent citizens continually metamorphose into hypnotized puppets controlled by a villain.
And who is this maleficent Puppetmaster? He is portrayed as a “ghost hacker” and turns out to be a form of artificial intelligence that has collected so much information on the web that it has created self-awareness (reminiscent of the current controversy around Google’s LaMDA AI). After realizing her owners would probably have her “dead”, this sentient AI tries to escape on the information highway—called “the net”—but is trapped by different firewalls. The antagonist AI then thinks of a new plan and decides to give herself a physical cyborg body, travel to another district, and demand political asylum there.
When demanding asylum and stating she is self-aware, there is a furious response by the original owners claiming “it” is nothing more than a self-preserving AI program. The AI then argues the same thing can be said about DNA and our “selfish genes”—a thought popularized by biologist Richard Dawkins—cleverly placing her on the same ontological footing as humans.
When later in the movie she is asked why she didn’t make copies of herself for preservation, for evolutionary purposes, she answers that exact copies also perfectly duplicate the same weaknesses as the original. An effective virus would not eliminate one but all. Diversity, she argues, in organic reproduction characterized by genetic mutations for instance, is the solution to this vulnerability.
This eventually leads the AI to its ultimate goal: to merge with protagonist Kusanagi. The merge symbolizes that computers and organisms could offset each other’s weaknesses and converge into something new, also hinting at something that is often called “singularity”, the act of humans and machines converging into something completely unknowable and unimaginable with our current consciousness, as depicted by early cybernetic thinkers and later popularized by Ray Kurzweil.
Where has this long history of cybernetics and the evolution of the cyborg in the 20th century led us? It was a story about the fear of automation replacing humans and the enslavement of society as a consequence of the inevitable Second Industrial Revolution (article 1).
It has shown how the early days of cyberpunk introduced new aesthetics to the genre and how the second wave of cybernetics complicated the blurry ethical lines between man and machine (article 2). The problem for them was not only that machines increasingly “act and behave” like us, but also that we’re starting to “operate” like machines.
And finally, it was about the meaning of our embodiment in a digitized world constituted by information flows and worldwide computer networks. Can we live without our biological substrate? Is the mind best understood as software that can be uploaded and transferred across different kinds of hardware?
Then perhaps what you are experiencing right now is nothing but a simulation generated by sentient intelligent machines that are harvesting our bodies for energy in a post-apocalyptic world. Already sound familiar? Perhaps this simulation is something that we could call…… the Matrix.
After this long journey, the evolution of the cyborg in popular culture eventually leads to the great apotheosis of cyborg movies, the ultimate cyberpunk movie of all: The Matrix (1999).
In the next part of this series, we shall dive into this epic trilogy and discuss its huge cultural and philosophical implications. We will thematize the persisting value of the cyborg and explore how the cyberpunk genre diverged after the millennium. Are we experiencing a new golden era of cyberpunk movies or has the genre lost its soul and become nothing more than a style or commercial marketing trick?
This article is part III 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 II.