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Cyberpunk: Terminal Chic

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THE BOSTON GLOBE Tuesday,November 24, 1992 LIVING ARTS pg. 29 & 32
Cyberpunk: Terminal Chic By Nathan Cobb 

It was nearly midnight deep inside Venus de Milo, a dark and sweaty Boston 
dance emporium. The Shamen, a British musical duo augmented by an assortment
of digital gewgaws, was unleashing a storm of high-energy technopop that
was cyberpunk through and through. "We can see tomorrow in each other's
eyes," they sang at one point as the bouncing crowd raised its collective
fist, presumably in the direction of cyberspace.

But what was most interesting about the 800 or so raving sould in attendance
was that they didn't look like they'd stumbled in from the set of "Blade
Runner." Instead, they were merely members of the Lansdowne Street night
shift: postpunks, Eurokids, college students, young professionals, 
twentynothings, geeks, nerds, Rastas, slackers and even a few bodybuilders
in tank tops who appeared to have taken a wrong turn coming off the
Tobin Bridge. Considerably more beer was chugged than the high-nutrient
"smart" drinks that are touted as the cyberpunk libation du jour.

So you are forgiven for wondering if cyberpunk is an authentic
subculture or a media buzzword.

Actually, it's both.

Forget for a moment that it was born as a word to describe a dar, morbid,
near-future science-fiction movement of the 1980's. "Cyberpunk" is now
more commonly a handy term for combining the related cadres of techno-
bohemians-primarily hackers, crackers and phreaks (see primer) - who
populate the computer underground. But the word is also used to describe
the trappings of this cantankerous, decentralized, and antiestablishment
subset that have surfaced in popular culture. It is the hairy-eyed, 
obsessive wizards of today's computer netherworld who personify
cyberpunk's foremost futuristic theme: the merging of man and machine.

For better or worse, the popularization of cyberpunk has made it analogous
to surfing. A handful of computer jockeys have spawned a style and 
an attitude. It's no coincidence that Mondo 2000, a glossy quarterly 
magazine that trumpets the pop version of cyberpunk, likes to talk about
"surfin' the new edge." Way cool.

And consider: Cyberpunk is only a corner of a much broader cyberculture-
at-large, which includes an online worldwide population of middle-aged
couch potatoes, wheezy academics, corporate pooh-bhas, govermnet drones, 
and on and one. "In the future it will be everywhere, but it won't be
called cyberculture," says Stranger, a 17-year-old Miami high school
senior who, like most hackers, prefers his computer handle to his real
name. "It will just be called culture. A few years ago, people used
to talk about 'the emerging TV cuture.' We no longer talk about a 'TV
culture' today. It's a given. Somdeay soon, no one will talk about 
'emerging cyberculture.' Because it will be a given, too."

The pop culture version of cyberpunk cuts a wide bandwidth. "It's things
like music, art and video done with a hacker sensibility," says Chris
Ewen, a disk jockey at Man-Ray, a Cambridge music club that frequently
features bands that fall into the cyberpunk catch basin. "It's using
tehnology just to see if you can do it, just like someone would break
into the AT&T computer system just to see if he could do it." The wizardry
of the hacker meets the alienation of the punk.

Lisa Sirois of the South End, 23 years old, fits the image. By day she is 
a free-lance graphic designer who hunkers down over a computer keyboard. 
By night, she simply switches terminals to help make the aggressive, 
dissonant, computer-generated music of D.D.T., a local band. She talks
warmly of the computer hacker/cracker mantra that information should not
be proprietary. And she speaks the musical language of Apple rather than

"We're no longer playing instruments, we're programming," she explains.
"We sequence the music on a computer, store it on a hard disc, and then
record it onto digital audio tape. Then, when we perform, we supplement
it with live drums and keyboards. We're 'live' and on tape. We play on
an electronic stage."

Cyberpunk's fast crawl to the surface has included not only pop music
(industrial, postindustrial, technopop, etc.), but also television (MTV,
Saturday morning cartoons, the late "Max Headroom" series, etc.) and movies
("Total Recall," "Lawnmower Man," the Japanese "Tetsuo" series, etc.). For
historians, a new version of 1982's "Blade Runner," set in darkened Los
Angles in 2019 and the first and foremost cyberpunk movie, was recently
reissued with much fanfare. A slick bi-monthly magazine called Wired, aimed
in part at the cyberpunk set and financed in part by MIT Media Lab director
Nicholas Negroponte, is due out in January and proudly touts itself as the
Rolling Stone of technology. And the principals of Mondo 2000 -- 
"dominatrix" Alison Kennedy, who calls herself Queen Mu, and editor Ken
Goffman, aka R.U. Sirius -- are giddy over the 60,000-copy first printing
of their just-published cyberpunk sourcebook, "A User's Guide to the New

Sirius, speaking from the rented northern California mansion that Mondo
2000 uses courtesy of the inheritance of the royal Mu, declares that
"Hollywood is going nuts trying to figure out what to do about cyberpunk.
We're constantly getting called by studio people looking for ideas,
looking for advice." Sirius' own latest idea is to peddle 67 weeks' worth
of an infotainment TV show that combines computer graphics and live action.
"We're trying to sell it as a cyberpunk Pee-wee's Playhouse for rock'n'roll
adults," he explains.

Meanwhile, back in the computer underground, such ventures are generally 
viewed with deep and characteristic cynicism. Connected via telephone
to vast and unmapped computer networks that facilitate electronic (not
to mention terse and silent) rather than personal communication, linked
to thousands of specialized electronic "bulletin board" systems where
information is squirreled and exchanged, disembodied hackers and crackers
make up a creative and sometimes nefarious community that holds little
tolerance for outsiders. "Poeple who don't even own computers go around
saying 'Cyberific!' " snorts Kingpin, a Boston teen-ager who prefers his
nom de hack. "I feel these people are standing on our ground. It's kind
of like they've intruded on us."

Yet Kingpin is a role model for the pop culture notion of cyberpunk. He
is part of a semi-outlaw village that maintains its own language,
traditions, values, rules and heroes. Its residents often invade
corporate academic and government computer systems without invitations.
Kingpin himself casually lists the names of a local bank, a national
credit bureau, a federal agency and even a fast-food chain whose computer 
systems he has cracked.

Or consider Rogue Agent, somewhat older than Kingpin, to  whom hacking
And cracking are full-time occupations. He, too allows as how he's 
visited his fiar share of local computer systems, including those of 
Motorola, Inc., Digital Equipment Corp. and Lotus Development Corp.
Like other hackers who delve in cracking, he defends himself by pointing
out that his visits are made purely for "browsing" purposes. But what
about invasion of privacy? "That's a tricky one," he replies, before 
adding a common cracker theme: "I feel that if people put their faith
in a system that isn't secure, they deserve whatever happens."

The cyberpunk future includes the likes of a computer-generated artificial
environment known as virtual reality. (Not so futuristic, perhaps: VR
arcade games are already here.) It includes dreams of virtual sex. (Not 
so futuristic, either: textbased "sex" already exists on computer networks.
Call it Phone Sex: The Next Generation.) It includes further developments 
in robotics, artificial intelligence, even artificial life. More to the
point of punk, it includes "smart drugs," legal substances that allegedly
increase mental capacity.
"Cyberpunk is the natural inheritor of that American cultural movement 
that called itself beatniks and later hippies," says John Perry Barrlow,
a writer, Wyoming rancher, Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a computer civil rights organization.
"You have a group of bohemians armed with digital technologies and a 
certain kind of gloomy optimism. I see a great deal of dyspepsia about
technology along with a willingness to embrace anything that comes along.
Cyberpunk seems to be filled with grim predictions about the future 
coupled with a willingness to hasten its advent by whatever means possible."

Whether a real subculture of a gleam in Hollywood's eye, cyberpunk tends 
to fill the rest of us with uneasiness and even fear. We see the cyberpunk
as a bad-ass bogyman who works the back alleys of an electronic neighborhood
that we don't know at all. He's a resident. We're immigrants. He's stoked
on technology. We're techno-dopes. He's the future. We're the present.

Bruce Sterling of Austin, Texas, admits to being a tad baffled by cyberpunk's
elevation from literary genre to pop phenomenon. As one of the best known
of the cyberpunk science-fiction writers, Sterling is a true cyberpunk
laureate. He was there at the genesis. "'Cyberpunk' will be written somewhere
on my tombstone," he muses. "There's nothing I can do about it. But I can't
wait for the day it goes from being popular culture to being high culture.
Because I've got my tux ready for my Nobel Prize ceremony."

A cyberpunk primer

Cyberspace: the information space where the cyberculture lives, 
connected by computer networks and bulletin board systems.

Cyberculture: the digital society of the late 20th century,
which includes electronic couch potatoes, academic researchers,
corporate executives, college kids, cyberpunks, et al.

Cyberpunk: 1. a science fiction movement; 2. a subculture of
cyberculture populated mainly by hackers, crackers and phreaks;
3. a pop culture phenomenon based on 1 and 2.

Hackers: hard-core explorers bent on stretching the capabilities
of computer systems. Deep roots at MIT.

Crackers: hard-core explorers bent on breaking the security of 
computer systems whether maliciously or not.

Phreaks: Practioners of the art and science of cracking the 
telephone network.

Virtual reality: an oncoming technology using head-mounted displays
and touch-sensitive gloves to create an artificial world. Seen as
the ultimate cyberspace voyage.

Virtual sex: VR in the bedroom. Doesn't exist yet, but cyberparents