To Surveil in the Cyclopean World

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One of the interesting features of cyberpunk literature, film, and television, is the all-intrusive voyeuristic nature of it all.  As one of the features of this genre is to borrow from the dystopic hells of Bradbury, Huxley, and Orwell, there’s always an apparatus available for viewing the world at any scale.  The audience doesn’t need to be reminded that someone always watches the events unfold, but the genre lends itself particularly well to the notion that you, as audience, are the passive observer always present even when the story has a shadowy element that is monitoring the world depicted.  The camera and the entire apparatus it represents is inescapable.  It also stymies the purging of pathos because the presence of this lens becomes both the window in and barrier to the world under surveillance.  It’s also the only way that the computer can relate and respond to the physical world that is also shared with the audience and the story’s characters.

Why a camera lens?  Of all the senses it is at once the most visceral and detached.  Hearing delivers an astonishing array of information, but the interpretations are subjective and often the greatest concentration of information is arbitrarily shaped.  Smell triggers memories and emotions.  Touch is an internal and often deeply personal sense, just like taste, which requires you to take into a sensitive area of your body the substance to be sensed.  The camera’s lens is objective and it can’t hide what passes through its field of view.  The camera has to be manipulated to avoid objects one does not want to see, but catching a glimpse means that the viewer knows the shunned objects are just out of frame.

Writers and directors know how to do this expertly.  It is a technique used to shape the information and keep the audience focused only on the scenery that creates the desired narrative.  Thus, there is a tendency to metafiction references sprinkled throughout cyberpunk stories.  These aren’t just held to the homages to the source materials, they’re also self-referential and the ironic desire to escape the unsleeping eye.  The main difference between the two methods is the details used to convey the world, and not just in terms of medium.  The writer uses metaphor, yes, but this is a way to take the overwhelming ineffable and distill it into an experience a reader can have.  The director just throws the imagery at the viewer full force and with the sense of overwhelming magnitude because the image conveys the whole of the experience.

There is little difference between the monstrous proportions of the Los Angeles landscape in Blade Runner and the opening line of Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead station.”  Both are devoid of life and full of vibrancy at once.  They are the undulating tabulae rasae upon which the future will be wrought.  The camera eye has turned its focus on the liminal threshold, the very interface through which audience and the unknown entities receiving the visual feeds from the unblinking eyes observe the world.  There is more intimacy on the audience’s part as they have a protagonist or point-of-view character to help ground them in the world, but it’s limited and often kept at a distance.

Cyberpunk is an existential medium.  The art form circles the question of what it means to be human but it can’t get close to an answer because to use more than the eye is tricky.  For one, no one has lived in these environments and there’s no comparison to draw upon, so it can only be dreamt of.  The world is a transhuman one.  Flesh is no longer the privilege that separates the apex predator from the terrain.  It is logic, often cold and unfeeling, bound up in the complex programs that simulate consciousness.  Most such personifications lack the human form and the sensory/emotional pleasures that temper the rational animal aspect of our species.  Their perceptions are mathematical expressions.

The camera lens is different.  It is designed to explicitly mimic the human eye and capture the light streaming into it so the moment can be saved and reproduced and shared with others.  It’s disembodied and detached from time the way memories are.  However, memories fade and become distorted with time.  Preserved properly, the recordings of a camera are virtually eternal and resist degradation caused by age.  This makes the presence of the camera pervasive and invasive to a degree that’s inhuman.  It verges on the supernatural.

What makes the surveillance state so prominent in cyberpunk fiction is our own forms of entertainment and our predatory nature.  Humans are intensely curious about the lives of others; it’s why most stories focus on individuals rather than on groups or nations and their collective narrative through an arc.  It’s one of the primary factors for the rise of reality television’s mass appeal.  But there’s a darker edge to this need to observe from on high or at a safe distance: that’s the predator’s instinct.

This is power in its purest form, not because it gives any true authority or the ability to inflict harm at a distance, but rather because it is ubiquitous and the watcher is invisible.  The predator’s perch is almost always above the prey for its superior vantage point.  Not knowing who’s behind the camera gives a godlike quality to the observer.  The proliferation of cameras creates the aura of omnipresence and, to some degree, omniscience.  Thus, the sense of an inescapable presence always looms large in the minds of the audience and the inhabitants of the cyclopean world.

The camera eye also does something that none of the other senses can that is critical to the cinema and literary arts: it can magnify.  Other senses can be amplified, but they can’t zoom in or out.  This makes them less sensitive as a result.  Scrutiny isn’t possible with the other senses.  But the eye is focused on picture or text and can expand or tighten the frame as needed.  All of this is relatable with what computers can do with a camera lens, and it’s terrifying.

The cyberpunk world has been turned into an amalgam of Plato’s and Polyphemus’ caves.  There are flickering shadows and nightmares observing and devouring the inhabitants as they are wont.  With the godlike twist on surveillance, however, the setting takes on elements of Piers Plowman, Everyman, and Pilgrim’s Progress.  Much of the genre is allegorical, but it does what all good allegory does: use the imagery of the world to construct the allegory.  Cyberpunk just does this in a hyperreallistic way.  Sometimes there is bias here, just like the exclusion of all things outside the frame, but it’s the flood of pure information of hyperrealism that bleeds through.

It makes this godlike entity of “them” on the other side of the lens feel like the Christian allegorical works where God is watching and weighing.  So is the audience.  The viewer is judge and jury, forming an opinion based on the unfolding information.  The signal-to-noise ratio is an ever-present concept that has to be filtered out as the world becomes inundated with an unceasing flow of telemetry and new data.  But, is the audience as voyeur part of the apparatus or just another disembodied figure scrutinizing the world to find any cracks that must be shored up and keep the artifice intact?  To do otherwise would shatter the suspension of disbelief, wouldn’t it?

This is what a computer would do.  Its design is to weigh and measure, focus and zoom as it is programmed to do.  It can only respond to its programming and the stimulus that coding tells it to react to.  The audience is in the same position.  If the story is unfolding on a screen, then the audience is in its own cave watching the projection, consuming the commodity.  Should it be in the form of a book, the eye is constantly scanning the text, line by line.  The text commands the imagery to form in the brain where the actions of the world play out.  In both instances, the brain weighs and measures.  And, with the camera’s power to drag out time the way a memory can be examined, what difference is there between the apparatus that captures and replays the event and the observer?  The realization: the audience is the surveillance state.

As inheritors to Polyphemus’ estate, how can the protagonist represent Everyman and be the true emotional doorway through which the audience enters the world?  It’s a dialectic that cannot resolve itself cleanly in favor of the viewer.  The synthesis requires that it become an amalgam that allows glimmers of Everyman to surface so the audience can insert itself into the story, but that’s as far as Everyman can carry them.  Everyman is being devoured in every frame.  If he dresses like those around him, he disappears and so does the story.  He has to stand apart.  He’s commanded to by his own pilgrimage, caught between the donjon and the tower there is no way to stop until the answers that plunged him into this world have been discovered.  Hence, the dreamer must keep dreaming.

Society doesn’t hold the key to his dilemma, however.  It is allegory and thus empty past its surface.  The power that holds it together is fragile and fleeting.  It can only be held in place with a response of overwhelming force and terror.  What does Everyman do, the only thing he can: he must blind the surveillance state to his true goals and become the one thing they don’t expect.  Rather than becoming one with the social order or remain as the average Joe, he becomes Noman.  And thus, the social order and the surveillance state stays intact, but the audience is bereft of its vehicle to help it shed the pathos built up as a result of the world it’s helped create. Because no man has been judged, no man has gone unnoticed.  It’s the machinery that has been on trial.

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