Cyberpunk: 1990 Documentary Featuring William Gibson & Timothy Leary Introduces the Cyberpunk Culture

“High tech and low life”: nev­er have I heard a lit­er­ary genre so ele­gant­ly encap­su­lat­ed. I repeat it when­ev­er a friend who finds out I enjoy read­ing cyber­punk nov­els — or watch­ing cyber­punk movies, or play­ing cyber­punk video games — asks what “cyber­punk” actu­al­ly means. We’ve all heard the word thrown around since the mid-1980s, and I seem to recall hear­ing it sev­er­al times a day in the 1990s, when the devel­op­ment of the inter­net and its asso­ci­at­ed pieces of per­son­al tech­nol­o­gy hit the accel­er­a­tor hard. At the dawn of that decade, out came Cyber­punk, a primer on the epony­mous move­ment in not just lit­er­a­ture, film, and com­put­ers, but music, fash­ion, crime, pun­ish­ment, and med­i­cine as well. That time saw tech­nol­o­gy devel­op in such a way as to empow­er less gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions, and oth­er insti­tu­tions than indi­vid­ual peo­ple: vir­tu­ous peo­ple, sketchy peo­ple, every­day peo­ple, and that favorite cyber­punk char­ac­ter type, the “gen­tle­man-los­er.”

We recent­ly fea­tured No Maps for These Ter­ri­to­ries, the 2000 doc­u­men­tary star­ring William Gib­son, author of nov­els like Neu­ro­mancer, Idoru, and Pat­tern Recog­ni­tion and the writer most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the cyber­punk move­ment. Cyber­punk describes him, a decade ear­li­er, as  “the man who may be said to have start­ed it all,” and here he shares insights on how the lit­er­ary form he pio­neered made pos­si­ble styl­is­tic devel­op­ment with­in and the impor­ta­tion of ele­ments of the wider lit­er­ary and artis­tic world into the reac­tionary “gold­en ghet­to” of the sci­ence-fic­tion indus­try. We also hear, amid a far­ra­go of glossy, flam­boy­ant­ly arti­fi­cial ear­ly-1990s com­put­er ani­ma­tion, from a num­ber of cyber­punk-inclined artists, musi­cians, sci­en­tists, and hack­ers.

This line­up includes psy­chol­o­gist, LSD enthu­si­ast, and Neu­ro­mancePC game mas­ter­mind Tim­o­thy Leary, in some sense a prog­en­i­tor of this whole cul­ture of self-enhance­ment through tech­nol­o­gy. How has all this worked out in the near-quar­ter-cen­tu­ry since? It depends on whether one of Gib­son’s dark­er pre­dic­tions aired here will come true: if things go wrong, he says, the future could in real­i­ty end up not as a grand per­son­al empow­er­ment but as “a very expen­sive Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial inject­ed direct­ly into your cor­tex.” For­tu­nate­ly for cyber­punks the world over, we haven’t got there yet. Quite.

(And if this doc­u­men­tary gets you want­i­ng to jump into cyber­punk lit­er­a­ture, you could do worse than start­ing with Rudy Ruck­er’s Ware Tetral­o­gy, two of whose books won the Philip K. Dick Award for best nov­el, all of which come with an intro­duc­tion by Gib­son, now avail­able free online.)

Cyber­punk will be added to our col­lec­tion, 285 Free Doc­u­men­taries Online, part of our larg­er col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Road Trip with Cyber­space Vision­ary William Gib­son, Watch No Maps for These Ter­ri­to­ries (2000)

Tim­o­thy Leary Plans a Neu­ro­mancer Video Game, with Art by Kei­th Har­ing, Music by Devo & Cameos by David Byrne

William Gib­son, Father of Cyber­punk, Reads New Nov­el in Sec­ond Life

What’s the Inter­net? That’s So 1994…

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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