Cyberpunk and the bleakness of reality

I recently read two articles discussing the politics of cyberpunk in the context of the upcoming video game »Cyberpunk 2077«. I started with »The origins of Cyberpunk 2077« by Gareth Damian Martin (via Rock, Paper, Shotgun), in which he observes that cyberpunk should not be considered a warning or forecast, since its characters are actually much more empowered and independent than most of us are now. He still finds worth in cyberpunk as a much-needed room for self-expression. The second piece, »Where are the Radical Politics of Cyberpunk?« by Cameron Kunzelman (via shares many observations with Gareth's piece, but has a different perspective and consequentially comes to a very different conclusion. Cameron describes cyberpunk as an unrealistic, comforting fantasy for people who play their part in the machine, emphasizing individuality and style over broad structural change. I found both articles to be very thought-provoking, leaving me with a pretty bleak view on both cyberpunk and where we are (headed).

From my point of view, current human society is driven not by the goal of enabling and living good lifes, but by excelling in arbitrary metrics like money and power. Both are accumulating in mega-corporations and super-rich individuals, but capitalism permeates everything and structures on every level – for example the way people spend their time or the way cities evolve. Moreover, there is a considerable tendency to expand market-based exchange into unclaimed territories on physical, social and emotional layers. A side-effect of these tendencies is that there is constantly less room (in people's lifes and in cities) for developing and growing alternatives.

Cyberpunk depicts a world that seems to be haunted by inequality and ruled by boundless capitalism to a much higher degree than our present-day society. On the other hand, it features individuals who game the system, physical spaces that are neither commodity nor means of production, and vast amounts of individual time that are not spent optimizing yourself as a commodity or selling your labor. The highly structured and limiting reality of living under megacorps is something that only happens to others, in other parts of the city. It is just a back-drop against which the individuality of the protagonists shines even brighter.

The people depicted in cyberpunk have freedom and control to an extent that is rarely found these days. Thus, our reality might not look as bleak as cyberpunk's on first sight, but it is actually in worse shape. We might not live in a comically dystopian society, but we seem to be less in control than those who do. However, even with these non-commercialized spaces, with resourceful individuals with a lot of time, with a ruling system full of game-able weaknesses and blind spots, there is still no perspective for societal change in cyberpunk. Even cyberpunk's protagonists with all their freedom and skill are not able or willing to use their resources for something beyond individual gain or symbolic resistance.