Earlier this week, always-excellent comics site The Nib published a piece declaring 2017 to be a “1990s cyberpunk dystopia.” There’s a good argument that we’ve been moving toward a cyberpunk present for years, especially as science fictional technologies get closer to reality — among other things, the comic cites personal drones, hackable “smart” appliances, and smartphones. But its punchline was specific to the two-week-old Trump administration: “Most dystopian of all, we now have a villainous business tycoon running the nation with the biggest army of killer robot drones in the world.”
Dystopian may be the right word for the current political environment, but cyberpunk is the completely wrong one.
“Cyberpunk” as an actual literary genre is too diverse and complex to be pinned down in a few bullet points, even before it's been splintered into post-cyberpunk and biopunk and splatterpunk and whatnot. But as a cultural reference point, it evokes a few instantly recognizable tropes. You’ve got the street-smart techno-wizards, for instance. The virtual fever dreams. The barrage of brand names. The hardboiled cynicism. And, perhaps above all, cyberpunk pivots on unfathomable corporate power.
If there's one thing that defines our popular conception of cyberpunk, it's the grandly ruthless multinational company, often some kind of computing or biotechnology powerhouse, that transcends mere state authority. Sometimes the company makes government irrelevant; sometimes the company is a government, as in the million franchised states of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. The hackers-versus-suits mythos transcends any specific story: it’s as universally recognized as (when it’s not outright crossed with) Tolkien’s orcs and elves. But so far, 2017 is not the year of the megacorp — it's the year we're reminded of the megacorp's limits.
Last week, for example, President Donald Trump passed an executive order on immigration: a drastic ban on not just new refugees, but initially current green card and visa holders from a number of Muslim-majority nations. It was a direct threat to the largely pro-globalization tech industry, stranding some employees overseas and making it dangerous for others to go abroad in the future. And Silicon Valley — a place full of people who want to cure death, rewrite reality, and fight the rise of killer artificial intelligences — metaphorically cast its eyes down, shuffled its feet, and tried to formulate an objection.
At best, companies reacted immediately with vocal dismay, decrying the order in public statements and lobbying for change. At worst, they expressed vague concern and quietly provided their employees with logistical strategies, until public pressure was strong enough to do more. They were cautious, conciliatory, and pragmatic: Elon Musk, a multibillionaire who thinks nothing of declaring he’ll colonize Mars, determined that getting rid of the ban was "just a non-zero possibility" and asked his Twitter followers to help him rewrite it. The world's most cyberpunk-y businesses, the ones busy developing virtual reality headsets while enmeshing humanity in massive data networks that track our every move, didn't ready their salaried assassins and killer viruses as their sci-fi stand-ins would. Their leaders donated money to the ACLU and showed up at airport protests. They may have far more power than the average citizen, but they seemed just as dependent on the whims of the White House as the rest of us.
Yes, Trump himself is a businessman — but not the kind that cyberpunk fiction immortalized. He's not a menacing executive mastermind or a decadent posthuman, but an emotionally fragile real estate mogul who decided that the presidency was a step up from building gaudy towers and allegedly scamming his biggest fans. His particular mix of business and politics looks less like an omnipotent fusion of government and corporation than a petty kleptocracy, bent on filling overpriced hotel rooms and personally enriching some fellow billionaires. It’s the traditional mainstream Republicans, with whom Trump has a distinctly strained relationship, who are pushing hardest to outright privatize the country.
Individual pieces of cyberpunk-related fiction certainly evoke our political reality. (Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan is eerily apt, if you fuse its election arc’s fascist-lite presidential candidate with his vindictive, blankly jovial opponent.) But the genre’s broadest tropes are rooted in exactly the kind of world order that Trump declares he’ll break up. Trump isn’t a manifestation of our cyberpunk future, he’s a backlash against it.
Late last year, author Emmett Rensin wrote an essay in The Outline decrying the idea of tech entrepreneurs as mythical heroes and villains, which Resnin argued allows them to project power “in excess of its reality." While Resnin primarily contended that this perception lets modern-day robber barons get away with building a financial oligarchy, framing companies as all-powerful also obscures the larger dynamics of US politics. If you see everything through the lens of corporate warfare or sociopaths drinking Soylent, you lose track of who’s holding the nuclear codes. (You also end up ignoring the threat of chemical and fossil fuel companies, whose sci-fi endgame is an all-purpose environmental apocalypse.)
A company like Google wields a great deal of control over our lives. But the biggest threat right now is not that its mission statement suddenly changes to “Be Evil,” as popular cyberpunk plots might suggest. It’s that it confidently pursues idealistic missions without accounting for how that work could be hijacked by outside forces, whether or not it’s a willing participant in the process. This has already occurred with mass surveillance of email metadata; what happens when the FBI reprograms ubiquitous service robots as an ad hoc police force?
Of course, we’re only seeing the surface level of things, so I could always be wrong. Maybe Elon Musk’s measured tweets are just a cover while SolarCity completes a hostile takeover of the US electrical grid while planting Russian false flags. Maybe Trump is secretly deferring to his Silicon Valley adviser Peter Thiel in exchange for a shot at eternal life in one of Thiel’s cyber-gothic vampire covens. Maybe the levers of power are not in the hands of people who want to pull America back to an ugly past, but ones who will dispassionately push us into a terrifying new future. At this point, though, that seems almost like a comforting fantasy.