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IdeaFestival 2017: The cyberpunk future is here

We live in a cyberpunk world and rebellion is an essential element to maintain our humanity. Sci-fi author Rudy Rucker discusses the concept of cyberpunk and the tech that might dominate the future.

In the early 80s, mathematician, computer scientist, and author Rudy Rucker was one of two writers introducing the idea of cyberpunk to science fiction fans. The concept of computers merging into our reality and the need to maintain our individuality is more relevant than ever in this digital age.

As one of the founders of the cyberpunk movement, Rucker talked about the concept on Tuesday at IdeaFestival 2017 in his hometown of Louisville, KY. In 1982, when Rucker published his first novel, Software, the idea of computers invading our every waking moment was a distant concept. Now it's reality, as everyone walks around with smartphones in their pocket and a library of knowledge at their fingertips.

But what is cyberpunk? Easy. It's cyber plus punk. "In a nutshell, punk is give the finger and walk away," Rucker said. "Cyber is a sort of all purpose word. What cyber is about, it's about two things we were noticing in the 80s and this was the fusion of people and machines and the fusion of the physical world and the internet world which is something called cyberspace."

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"Punk is the idea that you can treat this with a bit of a rebellious attitude, you don't have to become the bitch of the one-percenters, you don't have to be controlled by Google, you can keep your own self. So cyberpunk is learning to be in this computer reality with a certain amount of autonomy and a certain amount of rebelliousness," Rucker said.

Cyber, meanwhile, is "about two things we were noticing in the 80s and this was the fusion of people and machines and the fusion to the physical world and the internet world which is something called cyberspace. It's something happening in both directions. Robots are learning to act like people. They're getting artificial intelligence and learning speech recognition. The other side of the coin is that we're acting like machines, but we are enhancing ourselves. Most people have a cellphone in their pocket or purse. It's almost like a cyborg you've grafted onto yourself and you spend an alarming amount of time looking at it," he said.

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Two of Rudy Rucker's early novels focused on wetware.

Image: Teena Maddox/TechRepublic

Many of the technologies that Rucker predicted in the early 80s have come true. "Maybe even more so than I expected. The big thing is the total ballooning of the internet, the way it has sort of eaten our reality, everyone is looking at phones all the time, we're constantly online, linked with each other and we're living in what they call cyberspace in this higher reality. It's always necessary at all times for there to be a rebellious punk element to keep them from controlling us."

The cyberpunk internet

The internet is cyberpunk. It doesn't belong to any one person or business. It's free. "It's just these servers all over the place, bouncing things around. It's out of the box...and they'll never get it back. Why is that? Because the guys who designed the internet are cyberpunk."

The term cyberpunk was coined by Rucker and William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, and the term was also popularized by authors John Shirley and Bruce Sterling. Sci-fi literature and films with cyberpunk are set in the near future and feature real-world people, not CEOs and royalty.

The invasion of new technology

New technology is quickly invading our world. Rucker reminded the audience that it was only 150 years ago that Mark Twain bragged he was the first person to ever write a book on a typewriter. And now there are many things happening fast, and Rucker predicts that we will see much more in the world of biotech, telepathy, drones, and energy.

"It seems to me there might be some type of energy source we haven't even noticed yet. Some tiny level or some little spacewarping type thing. I think there will be a lot of good surprises in store," Rucker said.

Digital immortality and a telepathic smartphone interface are potential components of a cyberpunk future as computers merge more completely into our reality.

In the next 20 years, Rucker said he thinks there will be a radical new interface for smartphones. "We won't be pushing buttons, we won't be doing voice recognition, it will be something a little more brainwave based. I also expect to see computer models of people becoming much more common, digital immortality. It's not that the mode will be alive like a person but you'll be able to talk to it like the person is still there, and something approaching telepathy should be possible by using an improved interface to your phone."

Predicting the tech future is nothing new for Rucker. Decades ago he began writing about mind-control cameras that fly around—known as dragonfly cameras in his books. Dragonfly cameras are essentially the same as modern-day drones. He suggested a popular new business in the future might involve people who can't afford to travel to, say, New York City, instead going to a kiosk in their own city and renting a drone in New York to fly remotely for 30 minutes and explore the city.

Keeping a rebellious edge

The concept behind cyberpunk is to keep a rebellious edge, despite the onslaught of machines, aka computers. The real world is big and messy, and the people in cyberpunk fiction are more realistic than in most sci-fi films.

"I know some of you like Star Trek but that's not the world I want to be in. My friend Bruce Sterling says, 'let's get in there with some spray cans and grunge it up.' Space is too much beige plastic and everybody is wearing pajamas. We want black leather, we want graffiti, we want some funky stuff in there," Rucker said.

It's "sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, anti-establishment stuff. We don't want to reiterate about generals and one percenters and aristocrats and rich people and CEOs and federal agents. We want to read about losers, unemployed people, grungers and punks and women and people that aren't white and stoners and we just want to read about the stuff that we know, the actual people that we live with and we don't want to do a fantasy about our rulers and imagining how wonderful they are," he said. "I want to write about the people that I hang out with. Cyberpunk was this thing of combining these two. Getting into the cyberworld reality of the near future but having it be anti-establishment."

The idea of wetware also surfaces in Rucker's books. "The word wetware was a very new word. I was one of the very first people to use it. I had learned it from Bruce Sterling. It's this idea that if you have an organism you can think of DNA like a program that helps grow that thing. Like an acorn is the wetware for an oak tree. Why wet? Cells are thought of as slimy and full of juice. That will be something in the coming century that will be very big. Genomics. Or wetware engineering," he said.

The future of cyberpunk is here. The singularity has happened. Some people don't like the word, but it's a good thing to Rucker, giving people the opportunity to take advantage of the tech benefits but also retain their rebellious attitude.

Rucker said, "It means I'm not going to let the one percent control me. We say we're a free country, but as we see by watching politics, they can take your freedom away any time. You have to be there and fight for it and you can't ever stop. You're either a rebel or a slave."

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About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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