The Slide Toward Our Cyberpunk Future

Cyberpunk FutureThe end is nigh.

Okay, not really the end. In fact, not the end at all. More like the beginning… of a very dark time. A dark, cyberpunk reality. 

A second dark ages, if you will.

This post is not really intended to be political, but I expect it will be just by the sheer nature of what I’m talking about. But what am I talking about? The future.

One trope in science fiction that always nagged at me was the idea that humanity has grown in technology well beyond our wisdom. This doesn’t bother me because it’s not true, rather because it is. And the more we advance technology, the more true it becomes.

This particular trope also goes hand-in-glove with the scifi subgenre of cyberpunk. And why cyberpunk has never bothered me before, it kind of terrifies me now. Why? Because while in fiction cyberpunk is fun and dark and full of righteous outlaws fighting against the oppressive corporatocracy, reality is much different. Or at least I expect it will be.

Defining Cyberpunk

There are a lot of reasons why I think the future just might suck. However, before I get too deep into that, lets cover the definition of cyberpunk. And there are plenty of definitions.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines cyberpunk as, “science fiction dealing with future urban societies dominated by computer technology.” 

Of course, following this definition, Star Trek and Star Wars would even classify as cyberpunk. Personally, I think this is a little too broad.

Dictionary.com defines it as, “science fiction featuring extensive human interaction with supercomputers and a punk ambiance.”

This is a little better. At least here we get that it has a punk ambiance. This eliminates Star Trek and Star Wars, for the most part. But I still think it’s not quite specific enough.

NeonDystopia, a site that focuses on cyberpunk culture and fiction, defines it as such, “Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future.  On one side you have powerful mega-corporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs, and vice.  In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval.”

Ah, there we go. Lawlessness, mega-corporations, drugs, politics, corruption and advanced tech all wrapped up in a dystopian bow? Now we’re cooking. 

Anyway, my point is to show the major elements that make a story (and by extension a society) cyberpunk. If you look around at the world today, it seems pretty obvious we’re heading for a dystopian society. We have excessive political upheaval, super-massive corporations gobbling up everything and dominating the markets, rampant political corruption and technology vastly outpacing our species’ ability to use wisely.

But don’t take my word for it… Okay, take my word for it, but I’m gonna give you a little more to chew on. In fact, let’s get into one specific thing: the tech. One piece of tech in particular.

Cyberpunk Tech

One of the common tropes in cyberpunk fiction (The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Ghost in the Shell, and many more) is  the ability for a person to plug their brain directly into a computer. Most of the time, when we consume cyberpunk fiction, this concept is one of those that feels far out, like maybe some day, but not anytime soon, right?

Wrong. 

Neuralink ultrathin electrodes
Ultrathin electrodes embedded in the brain, the basis for Elon Musk’s new Neuralink tech.

Introducing my good friend Elon Musk and his latest future-busting technology, Neuralink. 

Okay, Musk isn’t really my personal friend, but he is developing the technology to interface your brain with a computer. Well, smartphone, really.

We’ve known that the brain uses electrical impulses since at least 1875 when a British physiologist named Richard Caton recorded weak electrical currents in rabbit brains, but it wasn’t until recently that we’ve had the technical and material advances necessary to even think of this as something that could be real. Musks presentation significantly highlighted the idea that this is a foundational, general purpose technology, and that its future uses are near-limitless. The list of serious potential uses is lengthy in of itself:

  • Memory Loss
  • Depression
  • Hearing Loss
  • Insomnia
  • Addiction
  • Blindness
  • Extreme Pain
  • Paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Anxiety
  • Strokes
  • Brain Damage

Just off the cuff, that’s a rather impressive list. And if you can push your imagination just a touch further, the list becomes much longer. After all, our brains control every function of our body, minute and significant. And with an advanced enough interface and understanding of the brain, every one of those functions could be improved or altered using a Neuralink. Musk even mentioned the future ability to play video games like StarCraft and Crysis and insinuated that you could eventually use a Neuralink to drive a Telsa. 

How very cyberpunkish and dystopian.

For the Masses

The Neuralink DeviceBut what does this all mean? Will people willingly have a computer chip shoved into their brain? Will it even be affordable for people?

Honestly? I think all three will be yeses. Of course, some people will be reluctant, but as it becomes more common, barriers of fear will fall. As for the willingness, Musk has already shown the device used on pigs, who have somewhat similar brain structures as humans. And, that the device can be removed without harm. The “installation” procedure is almost entirely done by a robot, with the goal to make it completely automated as soon as possible. This means the entire process can be clean, sterile and very efficient. 

But will it be affordable? I expect eventually. Musk said his goal is to make it around a few thousand dollars. Now, that doesn’t make it affordable for everyone, but it is within reach of most middle class people, which means in 40 years, the devices could become very commonplace.

But, with a technology like this that could so fundamentally alter and improve society, why do I think it’s dystopian? Because of the potential downsides. Security, for one. Musks team did say that security is their top priority. After all, who wants to have a hacker break into their brain implant to make it overload or install malware on their cybernetic eye to show them porn ad after porn ad? No one. See, the brain is super delicate, and while these devices are designed to interact delicately, people with nefarious intents are rarely so conscientious. 

From Future Tech to Dystopian Tech

Let’s even go a step further. With the rise of authoritarianism and corporatism, many people are already feeling our slide into a dystopian future. And as technology advances, things like the Neuralink will likely provide avenues to help push us further into that cyberpunk-like reality. What if someone is able to hack into a Neuralink app network and plant a virus. This malware could feasibly give a terrorist organization access to hold anywhere from thousands to millions of people hostage. Those people could be killed, given brain damage or even pushed into doing things they might not want to do. 

How? Look at it this way… if a Neuralink can alter brain functions to the point of fixing depression or anxiety, who’s to say it couldn’t go the other way, make them worse? Or what about amping up aggression. A hacker could feasibly create a riot of unwilling people who, for all intents and purposes, are rage zombies. 

Now my goal isn’t to create fear, or to insinuate that Musk stop what he’s doing. No, I think Neuralink is an important part of our future. Instead, I think we should look at where society is heading. As I said earlier, for a long time now, humanity’s technology has outstripped its collective wisdom, and that divide is only getting worse. No, I think we should start focusing on teaching that wisdom to overcome our natural fears and anxieties. Help everyone to understand and be empathetic. 

Otherwise, we risk letting Phillip K Dick, William Gibson and Hollywood become the dark prophets of our dystopian future.

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