The first days of a year always have a feel, to me, of science fiction; of a piece of the future made real. You’re looking at a new date everywhere you turn. The name of the year is not the old name. You find yourself living inside something whose coming you have been awaiting, a future now present. But typically this strangeness doesn’t last long; sooner or later the human tendency to adapt makes a new normal, and life as it has been reasserts itself.
Only for me the strangeness came early this year, and I’m not sure when it’ll go away. I’ve been following the ongoing Wikileaks story, or set of stories, and increasingly I have come to feel as though I’m watching a cyberpunk novel unfolding in real time. The release by the Wikileaks site of confidential diplomatic cables, following on the heels of similar releases of confidential documents to do with American military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, has spiralled into an array of interlocked narratives and events that seem to me to suggest something about the shape of the world in the year 2011.
Specifically, it suggests that cyberpunk has turned out to be the wave of the future after all.
I’m late to this realisation. William Gibson’s been writing about the present day, or the recent past, in his last three books. The world’s caught up to his vision, technologically and, sadly, to some extent socially; there’s an interview of his in which he talks about the similarity of 19th century literature to Neuromancer — everybody’s either rich or poor. Certainly one of the features of the last twenty or thirty years in North America has been increasing social inequality; for possibly the first time in a thousand years of Western history, the middle class has been shrinking in influence and numbers. The class divide is growing, and we may indeed risk turning into a fully-fledged cyberpunk dystopia.
But my sense of a similarity between cyberpunk fiction and the Wikileaks affair isn’t primarily technological or social; it’s not as if we have street samurai running around, or at least not that I’ve noticed. Instead, it seems to me that thematically and to some extent structurally the Wikileaks story seems very familiar; the shape of events follows the patterns of cyberpunk narrative. That’s not entirely surprising. The ideas and ideals of cyberpunk fiction explicitly inspired some of the reality. But it seems to me that the way events are playing out, in turn, reflects back on cyberpunk fiction, what it is, what its limitations have been, and what it might yet be.
At this point, it may be better to be clear about the sequence of events. What is alleged to have happened in the Wikileaks affair is more or less the following:
A dissatisfied American soldier stationed in Iraq, Bradley Manning, who had access to a computer network called SIPRNet, used by the United States Department of Defense and Department of State to transmit classified material, decided to leak some of the material he found on the network. Manning apparently believed that by doing so, he might influence U.S. foreign policy for the better. You can find the whole story here, though it’s important to remember these are essentially only allegations; nothing has yet been proven.
The story of how Manning got the classified material off of SIPRNet has the feel of fiction, and indeed of cyberpunk fiction; the details, as given by a hacker claiming to be a friend of Manning’s, have the precision and mundanity of a good story. You can imagine it as a scene in a spy novel: Manning would go in to work with a CD-RW labelled “Lady Gaga” filled with music, then erase the music, and fill the CD with secret documents. Supposedly he wrote: “(I) listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while “exfiltrating” possibly the largest data spillage in American history.”
Manning allegedly chose to release the documents to Wikileaks, an organisation (not, despite its name, a wiki) which publishes confidential and newsworthy material. Their website, which at least for the moment can be found here, states that their work is based on a belief in free speech and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Specifically, they say, “Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society’s institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations.”
The ethos seems to me to hearken back to the sensibility of cyberpunk fiction: information wants to be free. It’s the romanticism and idealism of the struggle against the system of the world in the name of liberty; the use of information-age technology to free people or inspire them to free themselves from authority. Again, this is not surprising in and of itself. This sensibility spread from fiction to computer hackers and back; you could argue, I think, that Wikileaks itself in part derives from cyberpunk fiction. The point that I want to make is that recent events have shown how much that sensibility, the ethos of cyberpunk writing, has a major effect on the everyday world of the year 2011.
Wikileaks has not confirmed that Manning was their source for the classified material they released in 2010. In April, Wikileaks released video from 2007 of American military personnel in Iraq killing civilians and journalists; in July they released classified documents relating to the war in Afghanistan, and then in October posted more documents concerning the Iraq war. Although the 2007 video was shocking, the other documents didn’t seem to have much of an impact, perhaps because they tended to support the general narratives of the conflicts that the media were already presenting. But then in late November, in perhaps its most controversial move thus far, Wikileaks began posting U.S. diplomatic cables — messages from and to American diplomats and the American State Department, gathered from postings around the world. (It seems ironic that the term “cables” dates back to a now-obsolete technology, when these sorts of messages were sent by telegraph.)
Wikleaks has been posting the documents in stages, hoping to heighten their impact. The first batch of leaked cables were shown to selected media organisations, who were able to report on the material in the cables first. Various revelations have duly followed from the cables released over the past month, though it’s questionable whether any have been really noteworthy; you can see one take on some of the most surprising stories from the first batch of cables here, and another here.
For what it’s worth, Wikileaks approached the U.S. government before posting the cables, and offered to withhold documents that would put the lives of informants at risk. The U.S. refused to negotiate with Wikileaks, emphasising the illegal nature of posting the documents. Most Americans seem to side with their government in this matter; a recent poll suggests 77 percent of Americans disapprove of Wikileaks posting the diplomatic cables, while another says that 68 percent believe the posting “harms the public interest.” A third poll suggests that 51 percent of Americans disagree with the posting — but only 36 percent of Canadians, and 38 percent of Britons.
I’ve been trying to be as neutral as possible in discussing the Wikileaks affair. For what it’s worth, I have mixed feelings about it. I want transparency in government, and as someone who writes history, I can see the value of these posts for future historians. On the other hand, I can see the potential for instability not only in these specific leaks, but in Wikileaks’ general approach and aspiration. Overall, I think the risk is worth it, but I can understand why others differ. If you’re interested, you can read one journalist arguing that the release of the Wikileaks documents are inconsequential here, along with quotes from U.S. government officials supporting his point, or read a somewhat more personal reaction from a journalist on the left of the American political spectrum noting that the release of the documents feels like an attack on his government.
What I want to talk about here is the way that these events seem both like and unlike cyberpunk fiction, at least as I’ve known it. You have an organisation of hacker activists dedicated to transparency and human rights; a leak from a secure computer network; state secrets made public. That’s all according to the script. But: the secrets seem not to be any great revelation. People, even people outside of the United States, are divided on whether the release was a good idea.
Above all, what I take away from the Wikileaks affair is something not normally associated with cyberpunk fiction: the importance of character. Manning did what he did (if he did in fact do it) because of who he is. The controversy, the leaked documents, all these things come from the background and experiences of Manning, come from his determination to do a certain thing for a certain reason. Why he believed what he believed, why he did what he did, come from the experiences that shaped him.
This may sound like a commonplace, but I think it’s a sense of character that’s missing from cyberpunk, and from the literature most commonly viewed as its antecedents — classic SF, pulp crime, noir thrillers. Bruce Sterling, who has written both cyberpunk fiction and non-fiction about real-life hackers, had a strong article about the Wikileaks affair whose main thrust is an examination of the characters of Manning and of Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ “editor in chief”. The sense I get from the article is that truism of literary fiction: character shapes events. What happens next will depend on who these men are as people.
But then, and this is what brings me back to cyberpunk, it also depends on the systems with which they interact — governmental and legal systems as much or more than computer systems, but systems nevertheless. It seems to me that much cyberpunk fiction is about systems and the manipulation of systems, including social systems. And the Wikileaks affair I think has the effect of highlighting the way our social system operates, the way it deals with an unexpected stress; and the way that unexpected stress brings out pre-existing stresses within that system.
Consider how Manning’s homosexuality has been made an issue. As the American military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy towards homosexuality was being overturned, at least one conservative group has tried to correlate Manning’s orientation with the leaking of the diplomatic cables. It’s not that there’s anything to it; it’s that the Wikileaks affair is interacting here with another issue, highlighting a tension within at least some elements of society over sexuality and sexual orientations.
For a more involved example, consider the following: after the release of the diplomatic cables, Julian Assange was arrested for rape, based on two charges filed in Sweden. Many people found the timing suspicious; it looked like the powers-that-be were trying to smear Assange and Wikileaks with whatever came to hand. That in itself sounds like something out of a thriller. Futher, early reports often suggested that the charges derived not from actual violence but from some technicality of Swedish law.
This was wrong. Whatever the truth of events, the charges themselves are serious. Some people were therefore taken aback when Michael Moore, who had stated his intention to donate $20,000 to Assange for his bail, in an interview on Countdown With Keith Olbermann seemed to discount the importance of the alleged crimes, suggested they derived from a government-conducted smear campaign, and repeated the claim that they were based on something as trivial as a condom breaking during consensual sex. Writer and blogger Sady Doyle wrote a post taking Moore to task, which turned into a general protest on twitter, calling on Moore to apologise for his statements. After Olbermann got involved in the debate, he drew criticism for his own comments, gave a half-hearted apology, and ended up suspending his twitter account. Doyle herself has reported receiving numerous hostile and indeed misogynist comments and threats as a result of her ultimately successful campaign.
So not only has the Wikileaks story spread to include a controversy on the American left, major media figures, and a twitter protest (internet technology at work in a different form), but as a result of these things it’s demonstrated stresses in society surrounding gender and rape. It shouldn’t be surprising that these stresses exist. What surprises me is that they should become a part of an affair which seems to have no necessary connection to them — in the sense that the leaking of diplomatic cables does not seem to automatically lead to a controversy around these themes.
But because the Wikleaks affair has become so significant, it was likely that at some point it would in some way connect itself to gender issues. Or to put it another way: if a story is sufficiently significant to society, themes important to society will tend to connect themselves to the story. The story becomes a complex system, interacting with an even more complex system — society at large.
Society as a system is a cyberpunk theme; but gender, on the whole, seems to me to be a theme rarely dealt with in cyberpunk fiction in a major way. So the Wikileaks story is truer than one would expect from cyberpunk fiction, and therefore, perhaps, deeper as well. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, but perhaps more profound, even more troubling. At least when we’re talking about this one type of fiction.
What about other types of fiction? What about that 19th century social realist fiction mentioned by Gibson in that interview I linked to, up above? That was a type of writing that often aimed at diagramming or describing society — books like Bleak House, War and Peace, and Middlemarch aimed at presenting an encyclopaedic view of the world around their writers, of the system of life they perceived. The type of social issues I’m talking about, gender and sexuality and the like, which would seem to complicate a piece of cyberpunk fiction in an unusual way, would be much more at home in these social realist texts. But then again, could social realism cope with the fundamentally technological nature of the Wikileaks story, and could it dramatise the way in which the story suggests the nature of the information age, and the way it threatens to change how we think of government, transparency, and diplomacy?
Maybe. What I think is that the Wikileaks affair suggests that a contemporary work of social realist literature of sufficient scope would be cyberpunk, at least in part. I think both types of writing aim at dramatising the system of the world; the Wikileaks story suggests that they could fuse at a different level, incorporating cyberpunk themes and sense of technology with a broader, humanistic sense of the complex and contradictory ways it all plays out. This is what I mean when I said that cyberpunk has turned out to be the wave of the future: it has become the way to a profound form of realism.
But one might go further. After the publication of the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks suffered more than a storm of controversy; some financial companies refused to process donations to Wikileaks, or suspended Wikileaks’ account with them. This led to supporters of Wikileaks, notably a group called Anonymous, launching electronic attacks against these companies, with some surprising success. They’ve even gone after at least one government. Anonymous is a broad-based movement; anyone can take part, just by downloading a piece of software. Once installed, the program, called LOIC, makes the computer it’s on one of the machines taking part in the attacks against whoever has attacked Wikileaks, whether government or corporation. What does the acronym LOIC mean? Like something out of Golden Age science fiction, it stands for Low Orbit Ion Cannon.
It’s always seemed to me that one staple of Golden Age sf plots is the plucky outlaw band who take down a corrupt empire by being smarter than their enemies; look at Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. If that’s so, then Anonymous, and perhaps Wikileaks itself, seems to be setting itself up as something along those lines. I have my doubts about whether this is a viable strategy in the long term, but there’s something intriguing in the way that real life is fusing tropes from both cyberpunk (anarchist idealists) and classic sf (a pariah elite, as John Clute usefully calls it).
But the fusion of these two somewhat contradictory forms suggests a possible contradiction in the Wikileaks aesthetic. The goals are egalitarian and even anarchistic — but the means seem to be technocratic, based on who best can manipulate technology; who, in the end, is smarter. So the tension between cyberpunk and classic sf is actually the debate between ends and means. What’s the answer? Is the Wikileaks approach so easily grasped, is the LOIC program so simple, that the technocracy can become mainstream? Have we all become cyberpunks?
Beats me. I’ve been arguing that cyberpunk has, historically, had its limits; that while it’s captured the complexity of human social systems, it hasn’t captured the humanity of complex social systems. That is the nature of reality: to be more complex and less filtered than any story. Truth, in the end, remains stranger than fiction. And the appearance of the truth varies with the individual perspective.
Reality is not clearly-shaped. A story’s determined by what it leaves out as much as by what it includes; for a story to work, it has to choose its viewpoints carefully, it has to trim its extraneous plots. Otherwise it’s shapeless. It’s a sprawl. On the other hand, what keeps reality from appearing shapeless is precisely the stories we tell ourselves about the world. And that is the nature of narrative: to suggest a structure for the world.
It seems to me now that cyberpunk fiction suggests a useful structure by which to understand the world of 2011. It is limited, in many ways; truth is a corrective to fiction. But for the moment, as a fiction, as a narrative, it seems to hold some kind of meaning which suggests a structure for events. We’ll see how long that lasts.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His blog is Hochelaga Depicta.