Cyberpunk, Orwellian Fears, and the Faces of Tyranny
Cyberpunk, Orwellian Fears, and the Faces of Tyranny

Cyberpunk, Orwellian Fears, and the Faces of Tyranny

The Cold War ended, and, since its collapse, a generation came of age unlearned in duck and cover drills, unafraid of Red Menaces, and unfamiliar with nuclear wasteland nightmares. A generation was born that wouldn't look into a future of George Orwell's 1984, as the book and the date became things of the past.
May 1 st 2004

The Cold War ended, and, since its collapse, a generation came of age unlearned in duck and cover drills, unafraid of Red Menaces, and unfamiliar with nuclear wasteland nightmares. A generation was born that wouldn't look into a future of George Orwell's 1984, as the book and the date became things of the past.

Times changed. Mustached men of steel, shoes banged on tables, and mutually assured destruction debated by diplomats trying not to blink first were only known as history. The Berlin Wall was torn down, the old maps were obsolete, and our fears were supposed to become the stuff of historians and textbooks.

But our fears remained. The triumph of liberty was declared and democracy was safe and the end of history was hailed, but the things that worried us in 1948 and in 1984 stayed with us. With the times, tyrannies change, and changing they remain. Each time comes with a tyranny all its own.

The real brilliance of George Orwell's writings was his recognition of tyranny in the mundane. It's easy to read oppression in full-scale conflicts, evil in bold declarations of struggle, tyranny in larger-than-life statues. But Orwell looked closely, looked to the simple things ignored by pundits. A prophet in his time, he gave deadly accurate readings of the errors of his days by means of dark futuristic tales, tales formed from paranoid exaggerations.

Everyone can see the terror and oppression in bold-printed headlines, but Orwell looked to the close-printed columns, worrying about the abuse of language, regular English gone to jargon and jargon always serving as a front for propaganda. It was in the details that he believed the great conflicts of his time were being lost. He picked out the mostly ignored aspects of culture, fears and suspicions passed over by sane and normal men. Little qualms and concerns picked up and worried over, obsessed over, until they showed themselves full of terror writ large in his dystopian imaginings.

Ignorance of the past can blind us to the cycle of the present, but the breed of men who see and describe the world even better than our historians are the futurists. The literary prophets typing stories set in the age to come tell us starkly what we know—and hide—about today. Dark visions of the future disclose the present age to itself by making overt in the hypothetical future what is covert in the concrete today. What are only fears this calendar year, and suspicions on today's date, blossom into vivid nightmares when extrapolated into our future. Like bad dreams, the literature of the future, concocted by our paranoid, marginalized, and alienated prophet-writers, dredges from suppression our nagging worries.

In recent years, George Orwell has received the rites of canonization. Anyone who writes dark stories of the future does so in his shadow. All the groups he made uncomfortable during the complicated and divided times in which he wrote are now retroactively conferring high status upon him, bestowing on him full political and literary rank. He has gained stature in the political dialogue, being invoked directly and indirectly on matters of tyranny and its outworks in the details of information, technology, and society. He holds a place in great literature and is counted among our secular saints. But this should give us pause, for a prophet honoured, a prophet recognized, is a prophet tamed. The respected prophet is a prophet whose time has passed. This is especially true of those who write of and from paranoia, stigma, and isolation.

Orwell is applicable to our time, but to apply him is to take him out of his time and to displace him in another. It is a tribute to his larger-than-his-time insight that he can be thus transplanted. Where most Cold War era futuristic literature has been rendered obsolete, Orwell, by paying attention to the worrisome minutiae in the structures of his age, saw the cloaked dangers and the unspoken fears, dangers and fears that, being a substratum of the structured, continue beneath the overt changes. Orwell, in writing up his times, opened up the nature of tyranny. Changing appearances tie his work to his specific age, but he accurately and acutely depicted the essence of the tyranny we fear.

Looking at him from his future, we can fully see that those Orwellian fears aren't fears of the obvious and overt structures but of the hidden and constant ones. We were rightly afraid of the tyranny of fascism and communism, yet the tyranny of our nightmares is more deft and devious and more dangerously present than a party structure or a political ideology. Looking to today's futurists, the cyberpunk writers, we find our Orwellian fears updated for this era of global society, corporate power, and Internet access.

Cyberpunk—the contemporary futuristic literature that began with Philip K. Dick and that is centred in the work of William Gibson—represents the new epoch's nightmare visions of tyranny. Cyberpunk is futuristic in a manner similar to previous futuristic literatures, in setting a common-man protagonist against forces of tyranny in a hypothetical future based on an extrapolation from the present. But the fears of cyberpunk fiction are those of the Internet age, set in a world of globalism and corpocracy.

Watching these sons of Orwell spill their dark dystopian visions based on paranoid exaggerations of our time, to show us to ourselves, we see these dangers as they have come to us. Our future as described by our writers can show us tyranny as it has manifested itself in the mundane details of the structures we embody and within which we live. Comparing the dystopian future of today with the dystopian future of yesterday can bring up, in the similarities, the nature of our persistent fears, and, in the differences, the particular dangers of our age. The differences come in three areas that offer themselves for investigation—changes in technology, changes in society, and changes in information can tell us about our fears of today.

This is a technologically centred time. Our post-Cold War world has been shaped and directed by the progress of technology. An entire generation shares ownership of and identification with technology above and beyond any other bond. Technology—from the Internet to cell phones to PlayStation—is the defining commonality of my generation. Where past generations shared a public vision in the form of a war or a political crisis, the 15- to 25-year olds of the turn of this century share technology in its advancing rise to cultural domination. In our age, technological developments have been quick and confident, settling their weight into every sphere of life. With this shift of technology from peripheral tool to central force, fears concerning technology have come into full force.

Fear of technology is as old as the Industrial Revolution, when the Faustian myths of alchemy gone awry with demonic deals for power found expression in the less supernatural Frankensteinian story of technology gone awry. The stories of creatures rising up in rebellion, the tool turning to terrorize the world, have been a staple of our fears for some time. We've been frightened of the railroad's connection to socialism and bureaucracy's connection to fascism, factories causing the Civil War and the automobile causing teenage promiscuity.

We fear our own creations of power, power capable of taking over. We see this fear in J. R. R. Tolkien's image of the ring, technological in nature and bearing many seeming benefits, but ultimately a great evil and a corruption that cannot be used for good. Indeed, the ring was interpreted by many of Tolkien's first fans as allegorical for the nuclear bomb—the quintessential Frankenstein, with the bomb's creator becoming its fiercest opponent and the cheery commercials of better living through nuclear power turning to images of the earth reduced to a desert in which only the cockroaches survive.

In Orwell's writing, we see the Faust-Frankenstein fear worked out in subtle ways. In Animal Farm, the party and the proletarian revolution start out as good and powerful tools and turn upon their makers. In 1984, Winston Smith is confronted by an entire world that starts out under his control and slips away, rearing a monster head and devouring its makers. Textbooks, newspapers, films, friends, children, spouses, love affairs—all take some variation of the Frankenstein spin from controlled into controlling. At Winston Smith's most defiant moment, he turns to the markedly archaic paper diary, but even his secret writing grows crazed and loses its measure, turning against him and destroying him.

Orwell, though, teases a new fear out of the old and oft reiterated myth—inevitability. Animal Farm ends leaving us with this deep and queasy feeling of quiet doom, as if the true dialectical cycles of history aren't Marxist or capitalist but Frankensteinian, and the terror, the perversion, are crushingly inevitable.

The cyberpunk version of Frankenstein manifests itself as speed. Throughout the genre, the fear of technology, society, and information rushing at a speed beyond accountability is explored. We see it first in Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? when a character wonders how the anchors of the state broadcast record more than 24 hours of shows a day, an exaggeration but one that becomes less and less an odd imagining and increasingly an actuality of modern life.

Gibson tends to describe cyberspace in terms of physical space, leaving one dizzied or nauseous, emphasizing the staggering volume of information by describing feelings of falling, being suspended above a void, or airsickness, thereby emphasizing the uncontrollability of the speed and our discomfort with it. Gibson's Turner, in Count Zero, is required to tap into the thoughts of a machine, describing his cyber-vertigo and the complete immeasurability of the machine's thought matrix. He can observe it, he can pick up hints and clues about it, he can skim it, but he cannot keep pace or understand it. Technology has slipped beyond the reins of the drivers, and our once pragmatic obsession with speed has become the monster we cannot contain.

The Orwellian fear of technology—of our Faustian deals with ourselves in the creation of tools turned monsters—rises again in cyberpunk more vigorously and more aggressively. Technology, once the conveyor of other fears, has become our fear itself. Being an age of technology has frightened us. The thing defining us, the commonality we share, is also the thing that has shaped our society and has the power to distort it. Like nuclear power and suburban homes, technology has excited us with its prospects, brightened our eyes with its hopes, and at the same time deeply worried us. What is this thing we've created, we wonder; what hole have we dug only to fall into?

The subject of every dystopian story is a common little man alienated from society, and through this alienation or because of this alienation, he clearly sees himself, the human condition, and society. Like Dostoyevsky's underground man, who is bitter, spiteful, and lying and because of this sees through the facades and masquerades to himself, his world and, finally frighteningly clearly, to us, the futuristic protagonist of cyberpunk is a man alienated, isolated, and paranoid. Orwell's Winston Smith is a weak and whiney mouse of a man who lives in an office, drinks bad gin, is altogether unnoticeable, and, for all these reasons, he sees the streaming propaganda and the fabric of tyranny.

We are introduced to Gibson's characters as they are lifted from the gutter, used up and washed out, knowing the worst and being the worst and through their complete disenchantment and disenfranchisement are privy to society's filthy inner workings. The futuristic dystopian hero is all things not heroic. Dilbert, not Achilles. He's the man traditional heroes brush aside. He's a man of such personal impoverishment and disgrace that he has nothing to hide and, already being stripped of all societal respect, a man who sees the true horror of his world via his wretchedness and alienation.

The image of the dystopian writer, and especially the cyberpunk ones, is likewise of the social outcast, the uncool whose personal life is tragically pathetic. The current revival of Dick's work, with widespread acclaim and even moneyed attention from Hollywood, is regularly contrasted to the inattention punctuated by disdain during his lifetime. Dick struggled for recognition and respect, seeking to join the league of Orwell and Aldus Huxley but never escaping identification with campy genre-bound science-fiction writers. The mythic image of the dystopian writer as pathetic drunken recluse is an ingrained one and one bemoaned but embraced as the themes of estrangement arise powerfully from the literature and are cast back on the authors and the readers.

These themes are especially intense in cyberpunk as we worry about alienation in new and complex ways. Where the Cold War's future of alienation was related to violent political ideologies and hypocritical party elitism, today's alienation is expressed in cyberpunk as alienation from society and from one's world. Alienation—that cold isolated feeling of being indelibly marked as separate and alone, that condemnation of being a minority of one, insane, an unbeliever who sees the believing masses' utopia as a terror and a tragedy—moves from an enemy of the outside to the enemy of ourselves.

With the end of the great democracy versus communism standoff and the increasingly central role of technology, the government ceases to be a dominant force of power, ceding societal control to the market, businesses of technology, and businesses of media sustained by society, by popular choice, that is to say, by us. Market taste is created and sustained by society en masse in a way we always forgot politics was.

This alienation is played out in cyberpunk literature with the examples of pop and celebrities. An individual creates celebrity by a simple over-coffee-in-the-morning statement such as "I like that singer," and then the celebrity is a celebrity, a household name because individuals said they liked him. The statement, "I like that singer," made by one individual reading the morning news is a participation in the machine of celebrity creation. The individual is, essentially, acting his part in the macro mass functioning of society, and the mass of individuals forming society have created a pop taste by their simple and passing statement.

The individual has participated in the making of the celebrity and has an ownership-stock in the market of celebrities. This ownership sours to alienation as the celebrity, the household name, becomes separated from the individual in such a way that he can no longer recognize his ownership, no longer recognize himself in the celebrity.

It may be the other fans—mobs of Japanese school girls—or the new sound, or the celebrity's death, or the new drug everyone's taking, but it happens, happens at a rapid pace, and the fan is dropped. He's demoted from creator to following fan and them summarily disregarded. That which he believed in no longer believes in him. One moment the celebrity is his, and then he's the bought and paid for product of the pop machine. Yet the change, the sell out, was but part of the process as the celebrity market starts with the investments of a few and then willingly abandons them to promote to the masses.

In Gibson's Idoru, we are shown our future's celebrity culture with computer-generated pop idols, international hordes of school girl fans, "great" bands sustained by corporate machines through generations, celebrity in all forms stretching beyond individual comprehension or ownership.

With the wonders of globalization, our cyberpunk prophets tell us, every day can feel like a stock market failure. The fallout of a "generation gap," where a person once in the middle of the pop culture finds themselves shuffled off and shifted out to the edges, no longer able to comprehend the mass movements they once owned, is multiplied in cyberpunk's expression of our fears so that one is always participating in the creation of celebrities and always losing them.

Of all Orwellian fears, the greatest is censorship. The character Winston Smith worked in the Ministry of Truth, after all, sending information down pneumatic memory holes where the truth of the past was reformed by fire and propaganda into the truth of today and the control of the tomorrow. Yesterday was rewritten in the image of today's ideology. Terrible as it was efficient, minds were formed as the history was written and rewritten and rewritten to the ever-changing meta-narrative of the party.

But fearsome images of burning books and decimated libraries and memory holes seem quaint now. The Internet forever saved us from censorship. It ended forever our fears of a future of burning piles of liberal literature deemed subversive by committees of virtue running purges according to an ideology determined to determine man in its own image.

Information has been ever-preserved, and the world is safe for information, but our information isn't safe. But moving away from the specifics of fascist and communist methods of information control, rereading Orwell from after the Cold War, and revisiting the Orwellian themes with cyberpunk, we find the fears are more fundamental to human existence than we had first supposed. We fear not just information control, but information itself. Paying attention to the worries of cyberpunk's futurism, we see that information has us very, very worried.

As with technology, we harbour fears of our own speed. We suffer not from lack of information but from its disorder. The characters of cyberpunk fiction never lack information, but their information lacks sense. Our dichotomies and taxonomies have failed; our understanding of the world has been swamped by information, and we're left without any solid means of shifting through to the meaning.

Dick regularly revisits problems of perception , placing his characters in situations where they cannot tell what to make of the information, where their information can't tell them if their world is real or even if they're human. Dick explores the problem of our information underdetermining our answers, leaving us working off only our best guess.

Gibson continues Dick's work, his characters repeatedly basing actions on intuition or a vague sense of things. Laney in Idoru finds the "nodes" of information that contain meaning, but he cannot explain how he finds them. He takes in a mass of information, follows the trails, and produces nugget-like pieces that give it all some sense, some half-prediction. He is always guessing and supposing amid the non-linearity, in danger of missing the meaning or misreading it.

Our fear that meaning is being hidden by the tyrannical forces bent on bending man to their ideology has been replaced by the frenzied fear that we have lost the ability to find meaning at all. We have the ability to form endless questions, but our answers seem airy, half-formed, no more than good guesses. From what was supposed to be a peaceful epoch, our information has spun out of our reach, multiplied not quite to meaninglessness but to an inability to justify the meaning we find. We've lost a world of clear rules and chartable patterns and now depend on intuition. We guess at patterns where we cannot show them.

The cyberpunk world has a structure of irrationality to it, where reason is not enough, and a formalized logic will not succeed. There is, in cyberpunk fiction, a deeply unsettled feeling about information, where our fear about our own limits—in pattern recognition, in understanding the matrixed mess of information, in reading the cycles of history and the spirits of our time—rises in our future with a feeling of being thrown over a precipice.

This a long-standing fear, faced freshly and honestly. It's the question of the moderns and the post-moderns: how can I trust my information? The cyberpunk characters find no easy epistemological foundation, not stopping with the clear and distinct clause of Descartes, for they find nothing clear and nothing distinct. The fear of censorship, akin to the Descartes fear that an evil demon might be deceiving him, is but an outworking of the very basic and continually worrying question of how one knows.

Cyberpunk's fears about information are deeply Orwellian but move away from the specific fear of information control to the fears about information itself. The tyranny-created language of 1984, Newspeak, is based on the idea that the way we organize our information and structure our language changes how we understand our world. It is the dystopian fear that our information cannot be trusted, that it is not neutral.

In Politics and the English Language, Orwell explores how this is true not only of futuristic language or in information via politics but also of our own English. Cyberpunk has updated these worries to the current age of information where we are deeply disturbed by the nature of information.

It is no accident that our fears are embedded in our hopes. The paranoid look into that which we trust, finding terror not in the strange but the familiar, seeing ghosts in our time. This was Orwell's task, and this is the occupation of the cyberpunks—to worry our worries, dreaming our nightmares and thereby seeing our age stripped of its gloss.

Times have changed, and specifics have changed, letting the themes of our dystopian darknesses emerge more clearly for their constancy. In the same way one wakes from dreams of falling as a child and as an adult, society has awoken with Orwell and with cyberpunk, and these fears are common to both.

Examining the history of our future, we see fears of technology, alienation, and information worrying us throughout the changes. Those who fought the wars wanted to claim to have defeated our fears in addition to bringing down that era's manifestation of our fears. But the futurists see still our demons in the future, and we who ignore the future are condemned to fulfill it. The cyberpunk literature instructs us to look at our technology, our alienation, and our information, stooping in to look closely at these things that worry us so that we might understand them better.

These covert worries, hidden in the structure of our society and made overt in cyberpunk's dystopian imaginings, are more hidden and more devious than Orwell's worries in two ways. First, by being faceless and, second, by disallowing non-participation.

Cold War tyrannies wore faces. The face of tyranny was unfurled on posters, painted up on murals, and set out in mosaics. The face was etched into the consciousness of the epoch. The eyes of Orwell's Big Brother followed you everywhere. But tyranny now is faceless. The evil follows us everywhere but has no eyes: nothing to oppose, nothing to deny, nothing to hate, nothing to resist. More accurately, cyberpunk fears a tyranny not with a single face but many. Faces we catch the occasional glimpse of and see for our own.

Cyberpunk stories follow the classic lines with the protagonist's normal day and normal life disrupted by a sudden and vicious turn whereby he recognizes the tyrannical structure of the world he's living in. The change, dramatic and terrible, is that in the cyberpunk version of the story one can't not participate. Where Tolkien's character could chuck his ring down a mountain of doom and Orwell's could fight bravely until the brainwashing, the cyberpunk character knows that not only is resistance futile, he's already perpetuated the crime. He has participated and must participate for there is no non-participation.

We see this fear of being damned to participate disturbingly in Gibson's description of cyberspace—a term he coined—as a mass participation in a hallucination. Likewise, religion in Dick's Mercerism is participation in a group hallucination. We've participated in this hallucination, a societal mental creation, and then it becomes more than something we've created or choose to partake in; it becomes the very structure of reality in which we exist. This ethereal concoction of ours becomes something with shape and space, something we can't change by willing change. Something we cannot control. First it is something we can live in and then something we cannot escape.

Dick's work is remarkable for this. His characters, Jonathan Lentham writes, "go on working for grumbling bosses, carrying briefcases, sending interoffice memos, tinkering with cars in driveways, sweating the alimony payments, and dreaming of getting away from it all." There's a Dilbert quality to the whole thing as people very much like those in Scott Adam's comic strip recognize the system, and the structure cannot be overcome or transcended; such hero stuff is ridiculous in their real world, and they fight it not with heroics but with symbolic sarcasm.

The only hope is personal peace, which doesn't mean some sort of moral or ethical separation from the evils but peace in the most practical and working class sense. Escape, in the cyberpunk world, is represented and sought the same way it is by Midwesterners, with pretty postcards of women on the beach in Florida, New Zealand, or Mars. But even there, they're participating. Dick's A Game of Unchance, a dark work even by dystopian standards, describes a Martian farming community caught in the cycle of buying to solve the problems that they bought. Dick's Earth dwellers gaze to Mars dreaming of escape, and his Mars dwellers gaze to Earth dreaming of how it once was, and the message is clear: there is no way out.

Gibson's characters work to pay off debts, financially secure retirement, pay medical bills. A character escapes when she returns to her New Mexico lover, child, and ranch. Another goes to live in a cheap hotel on a Mexican beach with his lover, who doesn't conform to the android and bio-tech age's standard of beauty, but even then he knows it's temporary.

In each of the fears we've considered is a note of Frankenstein—we battle not the machines nor the government nor the invaders but ourselves. The problem, the real problem, is a thing in us. The structures change, but the problems of power are inherent in our structure itself. The days change and the structures change and shift and the problems of power remain. They're us. We run and run, but these tyrannies, like the shadow of a running hamster, are always with us and are us. We defeat the evils of the world only to find them wearing our slippers for quiet evenings in our den.

In the end, we fear the tyranny in ourselves.

Topics: Literature
Daniel Silliman
Daniel Silliman

Daniel Silliman is an American writer and journalist doing graduate work in American Studies at the University of Tübingen in Tübingen, Germany. More of his writing can be read at


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