Posted by Trixter on October 5, 2014
October is “National Cyber Security Awareness Month”, whatever the hell that means. In recognition of this dubious designation, I’ve made an HD remaster of the 1990 documentary Cyberpunk available. Consisting of interviews with William Gibson, Jaron Lanier, Timothy Leary, Vernon Reid (from Living Color), and Michael Synergy, and briefly featuring a few industrial bands such as Front 242, Manufacture, and Front Line Assembly, the documentary provides a look at what the cyberpunk movement was circa 1990. Subjects such as cyber-terrorism, cybernetic implants/enhancement, virtual reality/telepresence, and general counterculture rebellion against “The System” are touched upon. Inevitable comparisons with Akira are made.
Here Be Dragons
While the producer and director did an admirable job making the source material interesting and presentable to the public, there are a lot of flaws with the documentary. Some are minor and can be overlooked, such as the 1990s trend of inserting faux computer graphic overlays (to try to make the material more similar to the world Gibson painted in Neuromancer). Many of the problems are with pacing; there are entire sections that focus on a particular subject for too long, sometimes without impact. One section in particular goes so long that different digital effects start to fade in and out after a few minutes, almost as if the editor was bored and resorted to doing something with the image to keep the viewer’s interest.
There are also some very misrepresented facts and predictions, but it’s not really fair to criticize a documentary for failing to predict the future correctly. That being said, there are some real howlers in here, from the supposed power hackers wield(ed) against governments, to the silly, amateur computer graphics that obscure hackers’ identities, to the heavily hinted-at concept that Neuromancer itself was responsible for shaping technology and history. The most egregious is equating hacker with cracker (although, to be fair, that’s happened multiple times before and since).
A special mention must be given to Michael Synergy, who perfectly embodies the huckster who started believing his own bullshit. Some of his claims in the documentary are so utterly, patently ridiculous, so incredibly pretentious, that it takes a great deal of willpower not to scream at him when he’s talking (especially when he mispronounces the word “genre”). Were I him, I would have wanted this stage in my life to disappear, and it seems as if that wish has come true: His moniker disappeared with the 1990s. My personal wild speculation is that once the real, actual revolution of the web occurred and it was able to finally call him out, he quietly exited stage left. (Last I heard, he worked for Autodesk in the mid-1990s, was going by his birth name again, living in Hawaii, working in IT; if anyone has a real update, I would love to know what actually happened to him.)
Most depressingly, there is a real missed opportunity with how Jaron Lanier’s involvement was portrayed. In the documentary, he comes across as a stoner who only mentions VR, which is a shame because — then and now — he’s the most relevant and accurate representation of a hacker that the documentary includes. Of everybody interviewed, Jaron is the only person who is still exploring these concepts and ideas, and more importantly their unintended fallout, which you can read about in his most recent book Who Owns The Future?. (Even if you don’t buy the book, follow that link and read the Q&A to get a feeling for his concerns.)
While it may be hard to sit through, the documentary retains glimpses of the innocent, wildly-optimistic, techno-hippie idealism that grew with the rise of personal computing and networking. For that nostalgia factor alone — the time when the Internet existed but the World-Wide Web did not — it’s worth an hour of your time. It’s also worth watching to catch which ideas were especially prescient, such as:
- Whoever holds the most information holds the most power
- Every device will be interconnected
- Physical boundaries will not impede meaningful communication
- People will be individual, mobile, uncensored “broadcast stations” (considering I can post to youtube from my phone, I’d call this a reality)
- The “matrix” as a concept and/or allegory for God (later realized almost to the letter in The Matrix movie trilogy)
…and so on. You could make an interesting drinking game out of catching which ideas succeeded (although you’d get more drunk, quickly, by catching all of the stupid and inaccurate comments).
Cyberpunk: The Documentary is now available at archive.org. Grab the MPEG-TS file if able; it’s 60p, Blu-ray compliant, and won’t take up too much space in your memory implant.