February 09, 2004

Contested Territory

Posted at February 9, 2004 08:26 PM in Science Fiction .
A little something that I found online while searching on Bruce Sterling's Green Days in Brunei, my favorite story by him. One thing most people don't know is that Tom Maddox was (is?) a college professor not too far from where I live. Back in the day, I used to chat with him online.

Contested territory

``When we define or describe a literary or artistic style, we are suddenly in contested territory, where no one owns the truth''
­Tom Maddox, 1994 (107).

Almost twenty years after the arrival of cyberpunk culture and the eruption of white­hot hype it triggered, a fierce contest over control of the term and its meanings continues among SF partisans and critics, journalists, politicians and assorted ideologues of the digital frontier. Since its coinage in 1983 (Butler 9), ``cyberpunk'' has enjoyed broad usage, denoting everything from computer fraud to mirrored sunglasses and black leather pants. For the literary cyberpunks themselves, the buzzword has proven a mixed blessing at best. ``Like my cyberpunk colleagues in the United States and Canada,'' admits Bruce Sterling, ``I've never been entirely happy with this literary label­­especially after it became a synonym for computer criminal (The Hacker Crackdown 143). Mirror Shades contributor Tom Maddox shares Sterling's discomfort over its use as shorthand for any kind of high­tech illegal activity, lamenting that ``kids with modems and the urge to commit computer crime became known as `cyberpunks''' (Maddox 109).

In the popular press, the term has been adopted and adapted to a variety of rhetorical ends in recent years, notably including a salacious exposé of hacker folk­hero Kevin Mitnick i and a pseudo­academic pronouncement on the psychopathology of digital mischief­making. ii In 1997, on the heels of the passage in the United States of the short­ lived Communications Decency Act and at the height of alarmist media coverage of the adolescent Internet, Wired News's ``BS Detector'' column tracked news reports of ``a Canadian family threatened by a `high­tech stalker' with the power to change channels on the family TV set, turn lights off and on, and eavesdrop on conversations.'' Reuters broke the story, with frustratingly little substantiation for its claims, under the headline ``Cyberpunk Terrorizes Canadian Family.'' iii

Among cybercops, ``cyberpunk'' is more than just a convenient and sound byte­ friendly label for hacking. As Sterling's account of the 1990 ``Cyberpunk Bust'' illustrates, authorities have not always been able to see a difference between cyberpunk fiction and real­life cybercrime. The case concerns a U.S. Secret Service raid on the offices of Steve Jackson Games that resulted in the seizure of pre­publication manuscripts for a forthcoming book. The printed volume, GURPS Cyberpunk, was to have been a text­based roleplaying game in a fictional setting derived from cyberpunk fiction. Secret Service agents told publisher Steve Jackson they believed the book was, in fact­­

``... `a manual for computer crime.'
`It's science fiction,' Jackson said.
`No, this is real.'

This statement was repeated several times, by several agents...

Jackson was left to believe that his computers had been seized because he intended to publish a science­fiction book that law enforcement considered too dangerous to see print (The Hacker Crackdown 142).

Though the agents' misreading of ``cyberpunk'' here reflects potent mainstream media characterizations of cyberpunks/hackers as dangerous, destructive and antisocial, hacker culture iv itself has largely embraced the language and style of cyberpunk as conceived by Sterling and the Mirror Shades clique. A quick Google search illustrates the pervasive affinity for cyberpunk terminologies and in­jokes among both hackers and the journalists who cover them. The notorious Code Red virus of 2001 was (incorrectly) attributed in news reports to a hacker known as ``wintermute.'' v The handle refers to the AI title character of Neuromancer, the source of countless other aliases and domains among hackers, crackers and fellow travelers. Erstwhile hacker Mike Godwin, legal chief and co­founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, used the pseudonym Johnny Mnemonic (borrowed from another Gibson character) on the Austin, Texas BBS (bulletin board system) where he and Sterling became acquainted. Godwin later served as technical advisor on Gibson and Sterling's collaborative project The Difference Engine, in which drafts were exchanged electronically between Sterling in Austin and Gibson in Vancouver. The godfathers of cyberpunk were so impressed with Godwin that they named one of the novel's characters­­a swashbuckling nineteenth­century ``steampunk''­­ after him (The Hacker Crackdown 274).

The mere existence of a mutual interest between SF writers and real­life hackers is one thing, but evidence suggests a more involved relationship may be developing. ``Cyberpunk fiction,'' declares a Wired magazine profile of the itinerant `homeless hacker,' Adrian Lamo, ``seems to serve as a model for real­life action'' (Schactman 2). A friend describes Lamo as ``a strange amalgam of Robin Hood and console cowboy... the wandering samurai, Mad Max, (the) hacker with a heart of gold'' (Schactman 2). Romantic idealizations aside, I propose there is more to the notion of a cyberpunk praxis for ``real­life action'' than Wired writer Noah Schactman's idle speculation would seem to suggest.

If cyberpunk's moment on the 1980s' cutting edge of pop culture has passed, perhaps its political program will prove more durable. Sterling's readers of 1986 have already seen, nearly twenty years after Neuromancer and Blade Runner, the realization of countless cyberpunk forecasts for technology, media and the world economy. Amid recently revitalized labor, peace, anti­corporate and green movements organizing globally over the Web, cyberpunk politics may be called an influential discourse for developing cyberlibertarian and digital­leftist worldviews in the twenty­first century. Where previous criticism had focused on its innovations in form and extrapolation, cyberpunk might now be approached as a cultural trope whose influence can be tracked in historical formations already underway.

Why Sterling?

As Tom Maddox suggests, by now cyberpunk may be more meaningful as a marketing tool than as a genre category, and its ``promiscuous'' use in popular discourse has resulted in much semantic slippage and dilution (Maddox 109). To whatever extent the erratic assortment of themes, styles and influences commonly associated with cyberpunk fiction can be neatly pigeonholed into a coherent body of work, Bruce Sterling may as well be its official representative to the media­consuming public. Besides editing the canon­defining Mirror Shades and writing his own cyberpunk fiction, Sterling is a veteran manifestoist and has written extensively on the federal prosecution of hackers in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. Having established himself as a lecturer and a favorite of tech journalists, Sterling (unlike Gibson) is clearly not at all bashful about publicity.

In these capacities, his near­synonymous association with the cyberpunk franchise has provided a vehicle for Sterling to press a political agenda of free information, universal access and individual empowerment. Uncomfortable though he may be with its broad application as a ``literary label,'' Sterling readily embraces cyberpunk as the totem for a loose coalition of libertarian, anarchist and communitarian interests currently active in digital spaces. To map this agenda, and toward formulating a broader political ethos of cyberpunk as it is conceived and embraced in contemporary hacker culture, I review `classic' cyberpunk texts of the eighties as well as more recent efforts by Gibson, with emphasis on the politically outspoken Sterling.

Cyberpunk R&D: ultimate technologies and end­users

As a journalist and lecturer, Sterling has called for socially conscious professionals to involve themselves in debates that will determine not only the acceptable uses of emerging information technologies, but the ideological direction of a culture that increasingly defines and understands itself in terms of its relationship with networked data and mass media. As keynote speaker at a 1992 conference of the Library and Information Technology Association, he told an audience of ``cyberpunk librarians'':

``The nature of our [late capitalist] society strongly affects the nature of our technology. It doesn't absolutely determine it... But as a society we don't develop technologies to their ultimate ends... We don't pursue ultimate technologies. Our technologies are actually designed and produced to optimize the financial return on investment. There's a big difference'' (Thinking Robots... 25).

Cyberpunk librarians, in Sterling's conceit, are those who challenge the profit­ driven model of research and development by taking an active role in shaping the conception, development and application of technology toward progressive, democratic ends. Chief among these is the hacker ideal that information should be free and access to networks universal. Sterling claims Benjamin Franklin as a spiritual ancestor of the cyberpunks, arguing that users of digital information technology would do well to follow Franklin's model of nonprofit, working­class library cooperatives, in which users pool their data and share the administrative costs and responsibilities of maintaining the system (Thinking Robots... 26).

Sterling's foregrounding of the often invisible meanings built into consumer technologies seems to echo Norbert Wiener's moralistic preoccupation with ``good'' and ``bad'' technologies (determined as such depending on whether they manifest helpful or harmful effects on ordinary folks), while his rhetoric positions cyberpunk values squarely against legal and ideological forces that seek to commodify and control information. It also hints that the key political battles of the information age will be fought on semiotic terrain. If cyberpunk fiction subscribes to a postmodern worldview, in which all subjectivity is consumer subjectivity, confined to the exchange of empty signifiers reified as commodity, then political struggle must be, at some level, a struggle over the meaning of consumption. In Sterling's cyberpunk ethic, this means the pursuit of ``ultimate technologies'' adapted to concrete human needs, over and against the passive consumption of fetishized commodities generated by an economic system with its own set of abstract and often erratic needs.

This tension between imperatives of use­value and exchange­value resonates in a well­known line from William Gibson: despite the best efforts of government regulators, corporate developers, security specialists and intellectual property lawyers, ``the street finds its own uses for things'' (Mirror Shades xiii). For better or worse, information technology in particular is, by nature, irritatingly resistant to centralized control. In Gibson, the lively and autonomous black market plays a major role in the production not only of technologies themselves, but also of their meaning and value for users. Neuromancer's Night City, a bustling red light district where the ``intricate dance of desire and commerce'' (Neuromancer 10) drives continuous innovation, illustrates:

``Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast­forward button...'' (7)

``...he also saw a certain sense in the notion that burgeoning technologies require outlaw zones, that Night City wasn't there for its inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself'' (11).

In a sense, then, cyberpunk­style politics is less concerned with who controls the means of technological production than with who can engineer the most effective applications for technological products. Gibson's paranoid bent prohibits him from embracing the black market scenario as one ripe with revolutionary potential­­the unseen ``researchers'' Case imagines monitoring the city will continue to haunt the novel, keeping the mood pessimistic throughout. Ever resistant to classification in binary utopian­ dystopian terms, though, Gibson's vision of the technological outlaw zone affirms the premise that the field of changing and growing technologies will always be a site of contentious power struggles and irrepressible creative energies. Gibson's later fiction, notably the San Francisco trilogy, is more hopeful about the possibility of positive change resulting from such battles. Virtual Light pits its protagonists against the forces of corporate villainy in a violent scramble for a pair of stolen sunglasses, which we later learn is a prototype for a new neural interface information technology. The pair in question contains sensitive data involving a dubious real estate deal­­thwarted in the end, naturally, by the resourceful cyberpunks.

All Tomorrow's Parties, the last installment of the series, anticipates the marriage of digital telecommunications and nanotechnology. Early in the twenty­first century, developers with the ubiquitous Lucky Dragon convenience store chain have devised a means of ``faxing'' physical objects between networked terminals: molecular structures are mapped and transmitted as data, then reconstructed from scratch by nanobots at the other end of the line. Gradually it becomes apparent that the new technology is at the center of a fast approaching historical ``nexus'' that marks a radical turning point in human history. The only problem is that nobody involved seems to know exactly what is coming or what the ``nanofax'' will have to do with it.

The conflict again takes shape over exactly what the new technology means and how it will be deployed. Lucky Dragon's capitalist mastermind also senses, but does not yet fully grasp, nanofax's massive potential. He means to get his foot in the door, though, by first making sure the world recognizes it as a fully branded commodity with a corporate pedigree. Meanwhile, subversive elements are working to apply the same technology to a project with volatile existential and social implications: the creation of physical bodies for AI's. Inconceivable to corporate R&D in any other than marketing terms, an invention that began as a throwaway novelty item for rendering the material digital becomes a means of giving materiality to digital consciousness. In a curious reversal of Neuromancer's theme of liberation through bodilessness, the AI pop star Rei Toei escapes from the corporate owners of her source code by crossing into materiality.

Bricolage: semiotic warfare, symbiosis and synthesis

In the novels discussed above, the narrative turns on the use of technology in essentially `unauthorized' ways. Objects taken from one semiotic context (here, the dominant paradigm of industrial research and design) are inserted, perversely, in other contexts in which their practical and cultural meanings are utterly transformed. This practice, dubbed bricolage by structuralist anthropology, is central to Dick Hebdige's study of British youth cultures in the 1970's. Characterized by improvisational technique and an emphasis on the concrete over the abstract, bricolage devises ``systems of connections between things which perfectly equip their users to `think' their own world'' (Hebdige 103).

Using bricolage, Hebdige's London punks could reconfigure manufactured reality and create their own semiotic maps of their environment, codes that helped to define and fortify the community against a hostile parent culture. Meanwhile, punk style waged ``semiotic guerilla warfare'' on middle class complacency by profaning its most sacred objects­­manufactured goods.

``The most unremarkable and inappropriate items­­a pin, a plastic clothes peg, a television component, a razor blade, a tampon­­could be brought within the province of punk (un)fashion. Anything within or without reason could be turned into...`confrontation dressing' so long as the rupture between `natural' and constructed context was clearly visible...'' (Hebdige 106).

Among the subtler (if not less confrontational) mods, ``the conventional insignia of the business world­­the suit, collar and tie, short hair, etc.­­were stripped of their original connotations­­efficiency, ambition, compliance with authority­­and transformed into `empty' fetishes, objects to be desired, fondled and valued in their own right (Hebdige 105).

Cyberpunk fiction is markedly sympathetic to the cause of semiotic warfare Hebdige describes, but ``bricolage'' means something slightly different for Bruce Sterling. Hebdige is interested in bricolage in style as a means of communication within and among subcultures. In the realm of high technology, though, the bricoleur's craft lends itself to practical applications as well as symbolic ones. Sterling's short story ``Green Days in Brunei'' is, among other things, an exploration of the practice of bricolage not only as a response to capital's stranglehold on production and the meaning of commodity, but as a social technology with utopian implications.

The story concerns Turner Choi, a Chinese­Canadian software engineer contracted by the Sultanate of Brunei to rebuild its small and woefully obsolete robotic shipbuilding industry, for reasons unknown until the end of the story. Sterling's near­future Brunei is run by an ostensibly neoluddite Green party that has carved itself a niche in the world economy by imposing a strict (though by no means airtight) quarantine on electronic communication with the outside world: no Internet, no satellite, no broadcast, no telephone. The Bruneians get by on communal labor and the capital reserves of international tax refugees who flock there to escape the global ``Information Order.''

The unlikely symbiosis of a leftist ruling party, a figurehead aristocracy, and a small population of wealthy Westerners is one level at which the doctrine of bricolage works to afford Sterling's Bruneians some degree of self­governance and security, despite its total lack of military, economic or industrial power. The principle also underlies the Sultanate's plans for its outmoded tech infrastructure. A senior official explains:

``You're a bricoleur, Chong. You can make do. You can retrofit. That's what bricolage is­­it's using the clutter and rubble to make something worth having... We've got nothing but the junk the West conned us into buying, every last bloody Coke can and two­car garage. And now we have to live in the rubble, and make it a community'' (306).

A similar theme recurs throughout Gibson's San Francisco novels. Much of the action centers on an earthquake­ravaged Golden Gate Bridge spontaneously taken over by an army of homeless squatters, who build their own vital and self­sustaining community out of the city's refuse. Bristling with shipping­container shanties and shops improvised from the debris of abandoned construction sites, and cemented by an informal but deeply rooted community ethic, ``The Bridge'' is perhaps the closest thing in Gibson's fiction to a functional utopian society.

``Green Days in Brunei'' makes an explicit connection between bricolage­­both as a technological practice and as a philosophy of life­­and the practice of hacking. As Choi faces the problem of obtaining technical documentation and software needed to resurrect the antique robots without communicating with the outside world, it becomes clear that he will have to break some rules and devise some ingenious strategies if he is to succeed. The solution involves an improvised (and illegal) satellite uplink and a video phone call to Choi's brother in Vancouver. The episode portrays seemingly impossible problems solved by Choi's bricoleurlike knack for spotting counterintuitive, nonlinear shortcuts:

``I need some modem software,'' Turner said... ``Could you get it off the old Hayes in my room?''
``If you don't have a modem protocol, how can I send you a program?'' Georgie said.
``Print it out and hold it up to the screen,'' Turner explained presently. ``I'll record it and type it up later by hand.''
``That's clever,'' said Georgie. ``You engineers.''

The bricoleur's method, for Sterling, is to ``make do'' with what's available and remain constantly awake to the possibilities of unintended applications and simple, even low­tech solutions. Hackers, whose talent consists of more than just raw coding skill, are above all expert bricoleurs. Lacking authorized front­door access to a system, the hacker's secret weapon is a resourcefulness that operates independently of all the procedural, economic and psychological directives that constrict ordinary users. Confronting complex problems means bringing together disparate elements by thinking creatively and unconventionally. One must have the imaginative drive to tweak and redeploy existing hardware and software to one's own particular needs­­to ``retrofit.'' The accounts of real­life hackers consistently emphasize how sometimes the most effective techniques are also the simplest: dumpster­diving for documents, guessing at likely passwords, or simply paying attention when others are not. Celebrity hacker Adrian

Lamo, a homeless 21­year­old who squats in empty buildings, scouts potential shelters by ``randomly trying doorknobs until he found one that rattled'' (Schactman 1). The doorknob­rattling method is also ``a pretty good metaphor,'' Lamo says, for his minimalist approach to hacking, which typically calls for nothing more involved than a web browser, a Kinko's Internet connection, and an eye for other people's careless mistakes. David Tetzlaff points out the indispensability of ``human engineering''­­a knack for finessing people into divulging key information­­in the hacker's craft (Tetzlaff 107). These approaches to problem­solving all emphasize the concrete: pursuing specific and immediate end­user applications, deploying available tools in the most effective ways, and seeking out not the shortest distance between two points, but rather the most direct possible route from A to B.

Chaos, entropy and cyberpunk politics

Adapting his research on cybernetics to the study of social philosophy, Norbert Wiener constructs an all­purpose moral cosmology based on the proliferation and the negation of entropy. To summarize briefly: information is good, non­information (entropy, noise) is bad; therefore, forces which work against the universe's overall tendency to disorder are positive moral agents. Though the universe is steadily winding down to a state of total stasis, human dignity and purpose can still be found in the capacity of intelligent animals to form ``pockets of decreasing entropy in a framework in which the large entropy tends to increase'' (Wiener 32). Living things are special because ``the physical functioning of the living individual... attempts to control entropy through feedback (26).

We might not expect to find 1980's cyberpunks valorizing one of the great patriarchs of the Gernsbackian order against which the early genre emphatically defined itself­­or at least, not in the same way they dote on more recent, postmodern futurists like Toffler, Moravec and Prigogine. Nevertheless, Wiener's ideas about life and cognition as phenomena that can temporarily reverse the accumulation of entropy show surprising parallels in the cyberpunk canon. One is the utopian thrust contained in modest, individual activities like bricolage and retrofitting: Sterling's Bruneians and Gibson's Bridge­dwellers find themselves bobbing along in a sea of refuse and discarded fragments from which they must construct their own locally isolated ``pockets of decreasing entropy'' in order to survive. In these texts, the talent of the bricoleur is very much like the kind of intelligence that Wiener credits with the power to forestall the heat death of the universe just a little bit longer.

Both Gibson and Sterling emphasize the ephemerality of such systems in their stories­­entropy will win in the end, after all, and change is constant­­but their need to establish some framework for meaning in human lives in the face of a decaying universe is consistent with Wiener's. The teachings of chaos theory add an extra transformative possibility to the cyberpunk utopia: according to chaos dynamics, microscopic events at the local level have the ability to manifest massive changes globally­­a phenomenon I will address below.

Contemporary SF criticism has already noted the fertile dialogue between literature and the nascent science of chaos theory. vi Given the overt fascination with the work of Nobel physicist Ilya Prigogine in Sterling's fiction vii ­­and, to varying degrees of explicitness, in that of Gibson and others associated with the Mirror Shades scene­­the recently popularized field of chaotics offers a promising context for a fuller picture of cyberpunk politics. As much as Norbert Wiener, without whom there would be no `cyber' in cyberpunk, Prigogine poses mathematical questions that Sterling's narrative coaxes and unfolds into richly extrapolated social dramas and compelling philosophical problems.

Prigogine's theory of dissipative structures, which attempts to explain how a system in a sufficiently extreme state of disequilibrium can spontaneously reconfigure itself into a new and higher order of statistical complexity, provides the substrate for much of cyberpunk's analysis of technological and technocultural innovation. (It is also, I will argue, key to Bruce Sterling's vision of social progress. As systems grow more chaotic and volatile, their internal elements come in contact with one another more frequently and in increasingly unlikely ways. The resulting arrangements generate massive creative (i.e. counter­entropic) energies and astonishingly novel phenomena all on their own. For Prigogine, the model rather neatly narrativizes, among other things, the progression from monocellular to organic to intelligent life. For Gibson, it describes the process whereby especially innovative technologies seem to emerge simultaneously from unregulated social spaces, a process I noted briefly in the section subtitled ``Cyberpunk R&D.'' In Neuromancer's opening chapters set in Night City, the narrator suggests that the district's illicit activities have been left intentionally unsupervised, though closely monitored, by commercial interests who hope to profit by them. Thus the proliferation of chaotic systems is encouraged but ultimately contained, suggesting a pessimism on Gibson's part entirely consistent with the coolly paranoiac pose of 1980s cyberpunk.

There seems little possibility of revolutionary or progressive change in the world of Neuromancer­­a cynical posture which (perhaps inevitably) drew criticism, and which stands in sharp contrast to Sterling's and even Gibson's own later novels. Prigogine's brand of chaos theory finds expression in Sterling on at least two, surprisingly different, wavelengths. One is the utopian fantasy of bricolage discussed above, in which the teeming complexity of the world economy combined with the strategic application of cyberpunk ingenuity creates a potent force in the service of revolutionary agendas. The other, articulated most pointedly in Sterling's novel Schismatrix and a handful of related short stories, is a millenialist drive to accelerate the processes whereby systems achieve the critical mass of disorder necessary to catapult them forward to the next order of complexity.

``Green Days in Brunei'' illustrates a complex system of odd and disparate elements (proletarians, aristocrats, bureaucrats, technicians, neoluddites, socialists, old and new technologies, Western finances, Eastern religion...) thrown together in a volativle social­economic environment ripe for self­reorganization. Here is Sterling at his most optimistic. The story's ending reveals the purpose of Choi's squadron of retrofitted shipbuilding robots: they are to be employed in the construction of a fleet of ecologically self­sustaining, floating communes. The amphibious kampongs (collective communities) will then export the Bruneians' novel way of life around the world at a time when the old way is proving unsustainable. This non­imperialistic expansion campaign has the added benefit of relieving population pressures at home without having to contend for resources­­the kampongs will meet their own needs using their wits and their cyberpunklike command of both material and social technologies.

Though Sterling holds himself to a respectable level of ambivalence about where this is all going, the story's triumphant final image of Choi sailing off into the Pacific sunset with a Bruneian princess on his arm betrays an almost feverishly utopian vision. The narrative is equally true to Sterling's vision of chaos dynamics and to cyberpunk's obsession with marginal and ``interstitial'' cultures. viii Only in a ragtag, throwaway society like near­future Brunei could a sufficiently advanced state of social and economic disequilibrium be reached to generate the leap forward that Sterling anticipates. In light of Sterling's love affair with Prigogine, it is tempting to read the ending of ``Green Days'' as a subtle intimation that the Bruneian way may just be the next order of complexity for a civilization on the verge of ecological collapse.

Prigogine is invoked directly, in service of a different telos, in Sterling's fiction set in the far­future universe of the Schismatrix. Here, Prigogine's ideas about evolutionary self­determination have become a full­blown ideology, whose adherents anticipate the coming Prigoginic Leap with religious devotion. By way of explicating Sterling's debt to Prigogine, David Porush identifies an impulse at work in the Shaper­ Mech world that might properly be called apocalyptic (Porush 377). Porush implies the millennial yearning for radical change proceeds from a reading of Prigogine that emphasizes the cataclysmic nature of the shift from entropic decay to new and presently unimaginable orders of complexity. Having abandoned a dying Earth to the fulfillment of cyberpunk's and New Wave SF's most dismal suspicions about the future of terran civilization, the human diaspora of the Shaper­Mech narratives has arrived at a near­crisis state of heterogeneity and societal fragmentation, marked with all the classic symptoms of a decadent civilization in the early stages of its inevitable decline and fall. Its subjects  look forward to the next great ``Prigoginic leap'' forward in human evolution, which must necessarily be ushered by some unfathomable catastrophe. Some of Sterling's would­be posthumans even seek to hasten its coming through violence, a process speeded by the vicious contention among the various Shaper and Mechanist factions.

Such is the logic that motivates Schismatrix's Preservationists, though their ideology is a reactionary one that scorns the posthuman future and idealizes the past. The novel's protagonist is a disillusioned ex­radical exiled from his home world after a botched suicide pact conceived as an act of protest ``in the name of humanity! And the preservation of human values!'' (Schismatrix 5). The plot's utter futility and the quaint fanaticism of its naïve young conspirators betray Sterling's misgivings about the motives and efficacy of conventional revolutionary politics.

In context with one another, the communitarian­utopian and revolutionary­ apocalyptic threads in his engagement with chaotics create a partial map of Sterling's agenda for cyberpunk politics. In short, though he champions radical libertarian and anarchist values, in both his fiction and his activism, Sterling's hard­Left revolution has a soft, hippie underbelly. Sterling has little use for unified political programs with transcendent global objectives. Rather, his version of progress­­true to the teaching of chaos theory ix ­­begins with local, microscopic events rich with the potential to blossom into dramatic and unpredictable changes at the macroscopic level. Such a model is, conveniently enough, uniquely suited to the notion of hacking and other cyberpunk guerilla tactics as political struggle: to reclaim the power of agency in a system increasingly dominated by capitalist imperatives, the cyberpunk activist needs only to behave in a way that denies their validity and contributes to the overall momentum of anarchic energies that will ultimately force the system to reinvent itself. Cyberpunk activism requires no central organizational structure or party discipline­­in fact, like hacking, it exploits these features of centralized command­and­control systems and turns them to its advantage.

But Sterling is also deeply invested in the idea of hacking as a practice rooted in ethics. In his nonfiction account of The Hacker Crackdown (1994), he carefully observes the popular distinction between ``white hat'' (benign, socially responsible, motivated by intellectual curiosity) hackers and ``darkside'' (malicious, irresponsible and/or profit­ driven) crackers. The former are, at best, agents of social progress; at worst, they are harmless. The latter are the exception­­the proverbial bad apples who ruin it for everybody.

The commodity front: geeks with soldering irons vs. command­control consumption Recently, resourceful hackers transformed the spectacularly worthless CueCat UPC scanner into a cheap and useful tool for reading barcode. Thousands of the handheld devices were distributed free of charge in 2000 by a company called Digital Convergence. The idea was that users would connect the CueCat to their PC's and use it to scan barcodes printed on consumables from cereal boxes to magazines. The user's web browser would then be automatically directed to product information on the manufacturer's website: point your CueCat at a jar of laxative and you're whisked away to Metamucil.com. Meanwhile, Digital Convergence is tracking your product­scanning activity and compiling reams of consumer data for sale to marketers.

Investors had hoped the value of the data they would eventually collect would recoup their production and distribution costs, but hackers had a better idea. Anyone with a soldering iron and a web browser could learn how to disable the CueCat's proprietary functions, rendering it useless for market­research purposes, and essentially converting it to an ordinary supermarket­variety barcode scanner of the kind that might cost hundreds of dollars on the retail market. The company folded eventually, but not before threatening to shut down sites that published instructions for ``declawing your CueCat.'' The legal premise was dubious, and the hacking community's counterargument was correspondingly to­the­point: if you give me an item, it becomes my property. Don't I have the right to modify my property and use it as I please?

Microsoft took a similar risk when it introduced the Xbox gaming system. The Xbox is essentially a standalone PC optimized for networked game play, containing nearly all the makings of a desktop computer but configured to function only as a game console. Microsoft chose to sell their superior technology at a loss, in hopes that the low price of the hardware would lure gamers away from competitors' more established platforms, and help to build a strong customer base for Xbox game titles. It wasn't long before hobbyists found ways to modify the box so that it would behave like a serviceable 733 Mhz PC that could all but replace your $1100 Dell at a bargain price of $299.

Microsoft was not amused. After trying unsuccessfully to thwart hackers with a new and supposedly more secure design, Microsoft sent its lawyers after overseas manufacturers of mod chips that made the hack possible. As with the CueCat case, Microsoft sought to prevent would­be modders from accessing websites where information and materials could be obtained.

Nevertheless, Microsoft's troubles have been compounded by the activities of a thriving web­based community of Xbox hackers, who use sites like xboxhacker.net and the Xbox Linux Team page, as well as more general geek­culture resources such as Slashdot.org to share information and support. Users of these sites generally consider themselves hobbysists who pursue hacking as a strictly not­for­profit, intellectual exercise: it's not about making money, it's rarely about politics, and it's never about hurting people. By bringing their own set of (noncommercial and ostensibly apolitical) values into a sphere dominated by market logics and the profit motive­­and getting away with it­­­white hat hackers destabilize certain longstanding assumptions about the designer­user relationship and make the case for a future where standardized design takes a backseat to the specialized demands of end users. Moreover, they highlight the ineffectuality of litigation­based solutions to a problem defined by the diffuse, decentralized, informal and above all communal structure of the hacking community (and the web in general, for that matter).

The peculiar dynamics of cases like CueCat and Xbox indicate that twentieth­ century notions of authorship and intellectual property are in a precarious position at a time when users of technology have nearly as much say as designers in how the products they consume will be used. When companies fight to control end­use after the transfer of ownership is not the integrity or the market value of the product itself, but the ability of manufacturers to front­load the product with meanings that will authorize some types of activities while excluding others. When even relatively unskilled hackers have the ability to effectively rewrite authorial intention, how can the ``authors'' of CueCat and Xbox retain any meaningful authority in their relationship with consumers? Will blocking would­be hackers' access to how­to information on the web prove a more effective strategy?

Either way, it seems unlikely that Microsoft will succeed in keeping a lid on Xbox mods in the long term, just as the combined legal and financial might of the record industry managed to win the Napster battle while apparently losing the larger war against digital piracy. The rhetoric of war, in fact, is a defining feature of a conflict in which the distinction between ``us'' and ``them'' is, increasingly, clearly marked. Sterling, himself somewhat given to bellicose metaphors, sees a major historical showdown taking shape:

``Once [ideas] start actually challenging the world, there's smoke in the air and blood on the floor. You cybernetic LITA guys are marching toward blood on the floor. It's cultural struggle, political struggle, legal struggle. Extending the public right­to­know into cyberspace will be a mighty battle. It's an old war... But the terrain of cyberspace is new terrain. I think that ground will have to be won all over again, megabyte by megabyte'' (30).

The cyberpunk crusade against authoritarianism and market determinism is fought by hackers on several fronts: the symbolic, where performance of proscribed acts and recoding of consumption signify dissent and little more; and the practical, where the same acts are undertaken toward immediate human needs, in willful though not necessarily overtly political defiance of governing ideologies. Within these categories, the case could be made, we are still at a fairly superficial level of efficacy. Cultures of hacking and piracy may provide philosophical and even utilitarian frameworks for resistance, but rebellious posturing and acquisitive self­interest rationalized as protest are, as such, no basis for a program of social change. From this viewpoint, it is tempting to dismiss Sterling's fiery rhetoric as so much self­promotional confrontation dressing. Do all these cyberpunk shenanigans accomplish anything concrete, other than keeping a few hundred lawyers busy? David Tetzlaff, in his exploration of the rhetoric of ``warez ethics'' among file­sharing pirates and crackers, suggests a third possibility. Tetzlaff argues that unauthorized activities like software piracy enact an ideological/epistemological struggle over contested terms (property, theft, etc.), and that negotiating the legal and ethical pitfalls of digital living may be useful `training' for survival in an increasingly authoritarian post­fordist labor culture (Tetzlaff 119).

By forcing questions that undermine older assumptions about ownership and control, hackers contend for control of the social meaning and value of information. Cyberpunk holds out the promise that, though commodification and consumption are facts of an increasingly digital life, they no longer need confine us to outmoded economic and legal structures. The hierarchical model of one­way, centralized power relations can be resisted, provided one has the right tools.


i Katie Hafner and John Markoff's Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Soon to be a major motion picture.

ii ``Cracking the Mind of a Hacker.'' Wired. January 20, 1999. [http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1282,17427,00.html] Psychologist Marc Rogers, speaking at a conference of data security specialists, ``offered what he called a new taxonomy of hackers, categorizing intruders as newbies or script kiddies (who are beginners), cyberpunks (older, but still antisocial geeks), coders (who actually write the exploits), professionals (hired guns) and full­fledged cyber terrorists.''

iii ``BS Detector: Prankster Dubbed Cyber­Stalker.'' Wired. April 16, 1997. [http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,3198,00.html]

iv A few working definitions are in order. I refer broadly to ``hacking'' as any activity that applies some form of specialized technical knowledge to the task of accessing or using information systems in ways unauthorized by their legitimate administrators. A slippery concept in legal terms, for my purposes the act of hacking is primarily symbolic. The operative element is transgression, the intentional violation of rules, either as an intellectual challenge undertaken to impress one's peers, an anarchic gesture of disruption for its own sake, for personal gain, or simply to make a point. My provisional conception of hacker culture would include advanced practitioners of classical hacking, cracking and phreaking, as well as less technically sophisticated warez traders and garden­variety file sharing pirates.

v Delio, Michelle. ``The Hunt for the Worm Writers.'' Wired. August 9, 2001. [http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,45956,00.html]

vi David Porush has studied the influence of Ilya Prigogine on Sterling and other cyberpunks including Gibson and Lewis Shiner. In ``Prigogine, Chaos, and Contemporary Science Fiction,'' he reads Prigogine's Order out of Chaos as a call for science to enlarge its scope and revise its methods in order to achieve the kind of descriptive potency exemplified by literature: ``Prigogine's work directly suggests that science requires a discourse more complex than simplifying formalisms... Prigogine suggests that `the simplicity of...physics and chemistry was due to the fact that attention was paid mainly to some very simplified situations, to heaps of bricks in contrast with the cathedral...' Literature, in contrast, has access to tools that reflect how the cathedral actually grows and looks and feels'' (Porush 371).

N. Katherine Hayles, in her introduction to a collection of essays on the relationship between chaotics and literature, sees science and literary writing informing one another, with reductionist binaries as the common enemy, in ways that suggest a convergence of disciplines like the one Porush gestures to: ``...the literary and scientific manifestations of chaotics are involved in feedback loops with the culture. They help to create the context that energizes the questions they ask; at the same time, they also ask questions energized by the context'' (Hayles 7)

vii In his introduction to the 1996 reprint of Schismatrix (including, for the first time, all the Shaper­Mechanist stories in one volume), Sterling names three books that guided his thinking and writing of the Shaper­Mech pieces. They are J.D. Bernal's The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, Freeman Dyson's Disturbing the Universe, and Ilya Prigogine's From Being to Becoming. Sterling was floored by Prigogine's prose as much as by his ideas: ``This book boasted some of the most awesomely beautiful scientific jargon that I had ever witnessed in print. The writing was of such dense, otherworldly majesty that it resembled Scripture. It was very like the `crammed Prose' and `eyeball kicks' that we cyberpunks were so enamored of, with the exception of course that Prigogine's work was actual science and bore some coherent relation to consensus reality'' (Schismatrix vii).

viii ``the interstitial'': Graham Murphy, in a reading of the Bridge community in Gibson's San Francisco novels, describes Gibson's shift to a more hopeful imaginative engagement with the future and his ``underlying desire to explore the transformative possibilities that reside in the cracks of the cultural pavement'' (Murphy 73).

ix Prigogine describes the `butterfly effect': ``There is a basic distinction between stable and unstable motions. In short, stable dynamical systems are those in which slight changes in the initial conditions produce correspondingly simple effects. But for a large class of dynamical systems, such perturbations in the initial conditions are amplified over the course of time. Chaotic systems are an extreme example of unstable motion because trajectories identified by distinct initial conditions, no matter how close, diverge exponentially over time. This is known as `sensitivity to initial conditions.' A classic illustration of amplification through chaos is the `butterfly effect'; by just flapping its wings, a butterfly in Amazonia may affect the weather in the United States'' (Prigogine 30­1). The analogy is also a favorite of Sterling's.

Works cited

Butler, Andrew M. The Pocket Essential Cyberpunk. London: Pocket Essentials, 2000.

Gibson, William. All Tomorrow's Parties. New York: Putnam, 1999.
_____________. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.
_____________. Virtual Light. New York: Bantam, 1993.

Hebdige, Dick. Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: the meaning of style. London: Routledge, 1979.

Hayles, N. Katherine, ed. Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Maddox, Tom. ``After the Deluge: Cyberpunk in the 80s and 90s.'' Thinking robots, an aware internet, and cyberpunk librarians. Miller & Wolf, eds. Chicago: Library and Information Technology Association, 1992.

Murphy, Graham. ``Post/Humanity and the Interstitial: A Glorification of Possibility in Gibson's Bridge Sequence.'' Science Fiction Studies 30 (2003) p. 72­90.

Porush, David. ``Prigogine, Chaos and Contemporary SF.'' Science Fiction Studies 18 (1991) p. 367­86.

Prigogine, Ilya. The End of Certainty. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Schachtman, Noah. ``He Hacks by Day, Squats by Night.'' Wired. March 6, 2002. [http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,50811,00.html]

Sterling, Bruce. ``Free as Air, Free as Money, Free as Knowledge.'' Thinking robots, an aware internet, and cyberpunk librarians. Miller & Wolf, eds. Chicago: Library and Information Technology Association, 1992.
____________. ``Green Days in Brunei.'' The Ultimate Cyberpunk, P. Cadigan, ed. New York: ibooks, 2002. p. 276­340.
____________. The Hacker Crackdown. New York: Bantam, 1992.
____________ (ed). Mirrorshades: the Cyberpunk Anthology. New York: Bantam, 1986.
____________. Schismatrix Plus. New York: Ace, 1996.

Tetzlaff, David. ``Yo Ho Ho and a Server of Warez: internet software piracy and the new global information economy.'' The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory. Herman & Swiss, eds. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Da Capo Press, 1954.  


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