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April, 2004 : Essay:

The Microchips of Wonder

Virtual Communities and Contemporary Cyberpunk

In the Information Age, we have begun to move away from the idea that local community is our immediate family and those in the same town or village. Over the last thirty years or so, email, chat technologies and other forms of Computer Mediated Conferencing have brought a new community into existence, redefining the very term: Community, which once referred to a particular locale now suggests sets of individuals with similar interests and passions. One side effect is that the Net has allowed for a proliferation of voices and political views, some of which have come to the fore in popular conscience since the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. A new popular conscience has begun to develop, one that questions the political and social status quo and, more importantly, now has a voice that is outside the control of the media conglomerates and which is global in nature. The bookshelves of our local stores fairly groan under the weight of the studies and critiques of contemporary culture. It is interesting to note that this movement, perhaps coalesced most publicly by Naomi Klein's No Logo, is being explored within speculative fiction.

Internet culture has found its mark in the writings of three American authors, all of whom look at differing aspects of our refashioned world. William Gibson is popularly known as the creator of cyber-punk, a zeitgeist surfer who has an uncanny knack for taking the pulse of a period and laying it bare. In Pattern Recognition (Penguin, 2003), he takes a broad but intense look at the notion of the logo and critiques our approaches to it. Neal Stephenson's latest sequence, the Baroque Cycle, follows the ancestors of his previous novel, Cryptonomicon (Avon, 1999), and explores the origins of the Information Age along with ideas of political freedom and liberty. Stephenson also explores how expanding communications frameworks affect an ever widening community. Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe (Tor, 2004) explores the issues of social responsibility, the Play Ethic and the way that Internet communities have fashioned their own world. All three authors come together in a generational sequence as well. Gibson, as one of the architects of the cyberpunk movement, and Stephenson have helped unpeal the effects and definitions of the Information Age and are closer to the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s but Doctorow is a child of the cyber age: member of the activist groups that have come together from the Internet and are engaged in protecting the freedoms of the Internet.

In Quicksilver (Morrow, 2003), Stephenson revisits the history of the Information Age, going back to its very roots and exploring the fundamental principles of the creation of networks—knowledge, politics, society and mercantilism. The first networks follow the creation of the Royal Society and Newton and Leibniz's spat over the invention and redefinition of the calculus. The story moves away from the universities and the letter writing that goes on between academics and thinkers when characters Eliza and Jack Shaftoe become involved in carrying and writing letters from the edges of the European world; fueling the spy industry as a by-product. From closed academic communities arises a network of communications originally designed to disseminate and discuss new lines of thinking which becomes absorbed into the wider society for its own uses above and beyond the original purpose. Effectively, the networks come together and develop through the idea of knowledge capital: the goal is to attain and spread knowledge freely between the community members thus building the capital for all members.

The Footage:Fetish:Forum (hereafter F:F:F) offers the same knowledge community within Pattern Recognition. As mysterious, fragmentary film footage is leaked onto the Net, various 'discoverers' come together on that particular message board to discuss the significance and through this banter, they accumulate theories and possible ways forward. It is through the F:F:F that Cayce Pollard makes several breakthroughs towards cracking the secrecy around the film and comes to discover the source. Cayce is also employed (and spied upon) for the task by Hubertus Bigend, the owner of the advertising agency who last contracted her, because he realizes that she alone has the accumulated knowledge to solve the puzzle: partly because she is not actively part of any group but also because she maintains the closest to a real identity on the board. She alone is the truest to herself. This allows Cayce to navigate the changing political masters behind her task because she is free to trace the patterns that underline the clues without tribal blinkers. Dorotea, an aggressive executive with a background in industrial espionage who has posted on the F:F:F, and Boone, hired by Bigend to hack into Cayce's email whilst she completes her task, allow themselves to become intricately linked in the plotting and their penalty is to be excluded from the discovery and also to put themselves in danger with forces larger than themselves. Because they allow politics to become intricately linked with this virtual community, they are disbarred from the freedoms that underpin it whereas Cayce can freely use the community because she joins in the reciprocal nature of sharing knowledge without needing to ally the knowledge to a particular cause.

As these communities have to adapt to changes in political climate, the issues of freedom of speech and freedom of use come to the fore. When the political hierarchy changes in Quicksilver, the academic network becomes unsafe and Daniel Waterhouse, one of Newton and Leibniz's associates, and also a Protestant in a strongly Catholic country, is forced to flee to America. In the diaries of Daniel Waterhouse, Stephenson develops the antagonism between the idea of free communications and the political will to allow it. Although the individuals are now scattered, they are still able to communicate and to encrypt any sensitive information and to carry on, if much more slowly, their conversations. The community in this sense is not one that is held in the same physical locale, rather it is one that is intellectual and maintains similar interests.

In Eastern Standard Tribe, Doctorow's virtual community is made of tribes bound together by similar interests rather than physical space. Status is maintained by joining in these interests and building kudos within the community by adding to the knowledge capital. In a corporate world, these tribes actively send out agents provocateurs to the business community to wage war against the mercantile elite. The main end is to gain knowledge but uses of this change from personal edification to active business war. Doctorow, however, introduces and explores the notion of social capital when Art, the main character, is committed to the asylum. Howard Rheingold suggests in Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Addison Wesley, 1993; revised MIT, 2000) that the chat rooms offer the chance for the online community to socialize and bond through their interests whilst sharing knowledge. Out of this arises the concept of gaining social status for acting towards the interests of the whole community, rather than for the individual or purely mercantile purposes, so creating social capital. Art works out how to fool the asylum's computerized door system and discusses the problems of the institution with an unhappy doctor. From these discussion, they discover a way to improve the hospitals so that they are more efficient and humane, thus creating a network based on knowledge as well as forming a social partnership. Doctorow also plays with this in the creation of the Bitchun society in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Tor, 2003) who are remodeling Disneyland to their own ideals. The original society members were more interested in change and creation rather than maintaining their surroundings. The basis of the social organization is meritocracy and reputation economics which can only be gained through artful creation and gain for the whole group. This is furthered by the exploration of Play Ethic. At its most simple, Play Ethic is the idea that work should be creative, flexible and self-improving, rather than the Work Ethic which dominates most of our lives. The Play Ethic allows for the community to adapt because its utilizers are happier. Instead of using the virtual community for self-profit, they look toward using the accumulated knowledge capital to improve society, finding the third aspect that virtual communities offer—communion.

In cyberspace, folk come together for various reasons but one of the by products is that they find or form a community with others, sharing a common interest or questions. In the same way the chat rooms are populated, the Royal Society forms from the letters to provide a community of like minds to discuss and to propagate the Age of Information. Cayce finds friendship on the F:F:F, a like-minded community centered around the footage, which keeps her in contact with people across the world and outside of advertising and mediates the sickness that logos engender in her. Rather than remain part of the advertising culture, to which she is allergic, she has access to an interest and a puzzle. It provides a haven from the realization that she comes to that perhaps the world functions in a different way to that which she expects. Her job is a "cool hunter", defining and identifying street culture for various firms. In this way, she rides a zeitgeist wave but also has to recognize patterns. The footage, as well as the subplot concerning the whereabouts of her father, demonstrate that we are moving into an age where apophenia—the creation of patterns where there are none—is the dominant mode.

All three of these authors have taken current events and technologies and rather than projecting into the future, they are extrapolating their ideas into a world that is visibly recognizable as our own yet also subtly different, a return to the Gernsback vision of SF as a story mixed with scientific fact and prophetic vision. Arguably this is what good Science Fiction does anyway and that the finest writing engages with the language of Science Fiction. We now live in the watershed of the most profound cultural event for the next thousand years, the Millennium, and instead of trying to define a future vision, these three authors have neatly begun to unpick the fabric of the society. What each of these authors does is to extend their vision and their language, which encourages new ways of communicating socially and intellectually. Ideas that exist in the cyber ether and are readily discussed by the digerati and technocrats can be extended to the larger populous of users, so allowing them to grow and develop in popular conscience.

Gibson begets Stephenson begets Doctorow, thus forming a generational history of zeitgeist writing from the edge as well as solid development of the cyberpunk movement. Physically they live either on the edge of the world hyperpower or in the zones that have spawned protest movements (both active and passive) and this affects their writing psyches. Because they are writing from the edge, from the outside looking in, they are able to view the world slightly askew and to pose the important questions for our society and how it deal with the cyber-community. They write from a position that is outside of the establishment and are willing to ask whether we want to live our lives in a work huddle trying to avoid political machinations or to find a way to improve life for the wider community and to extend the knowledge and social capitals. In many ways this reflects back to the hippies and the original Hackers but tries to extend and popularize this ethos outside of the computer community, essentially this is a call for large scale social engineering that engages and involves the smaller tribes rather than the corporate giants.

A challenge has been posed by these writers and responses given through reviews and critiques of their works. This is popularly seen as the age of the Nerd but they how a system developed for the military and academics has become a powerful tool for social and political change, necessitating shifts in our own visions of community. What is necessary is that we rise to the challenge and shape the new millennium rather than accept changes.

Copyright © 2004, Iain Emsley. All Rights Reserved.

About Iain Emsley

Iain Emsley hails from the U.K.


Apr 21, 14:47 by John Frost
What communities are you part of?
Jul 18, 10:09 by Bruce Sterling
That's rather interesting, actually. Do say more.

Bruce Sterling
Jul 21, 18:15 by John Frost
Hmm. This is a cryptic thread. What do you think Bruce was asking? What do you think *I* meant?
Aug 22, 15:27 by Robert Richardson
The black dog runs at night.

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