Cameras and the surveillance state are everywhere in the cyberpunk world in part because they reflect the damaging nature of surveillance on the human psyche and are endemic to creating a dystopic world. The audience gets to ride along with the characters as the mystery they’re plunged into in a realm with so little maneuvering space unfolds, but the deeper the characters push, the less illumination there is in a world that’s nearly always cloaked in eternal night. Paradoxically, the eye is always open and observes the progress. Then again, that darkness is directed as much inwards as it is a reflection of the setting. That is the point of cyberpunk as the existential crises asks us, the audience, to answer what it mean to be human and to really look inside for that answer just like the characters in the story.
The glaring element of the cyberpunk genre is the landscape. It’s essentially barren. The ground yields nothing. Concrete, glass, and steel make up the majority of the surroundings with a healthy dose of plastic thrown into the mix. Nothing grows organically in the cyberpunk urban landscape. Everything is contained and controlled to such an extent that the artifice of the world is laid bare for all to see. This is a world that is flooded with data culled and collated to get the best aggregate advanced math can divine.
Despite this seeming infertility, there is a lot of life—or the semblance thereof—teeming in this environment. The darkness doesn’t prevent the thriving populace from flourishing in a sea of neon. Rather, it all serves as a counterpart to the organic, pastoral world. In this context, the cyberpunk landscape is treated as being empty and wasted with its complete disconnect from the organic world of nature. This is an accurate literary description but only inasmuch as the pastoral world is purely physical with its emphasis on sensations and simple pleasures. Cyberpunk is a completely internalized world, wholly fitting for existential, transhuman genre that, on its surface, may not appear as such with its noir trappings.
Fortunately, there are clues that provide a roadmap to show how to interpret the signs and symbols of the genre that make it clear what the genre is communicating. The first is the tenebrous environment. The world is filled with darkness from the shadowed recesses of doorways, the ebon sky of night, the wide-brimmed hats and/or obfuscating eyewear, and the shades of grey fading to black clothing ubiquitous to the genre all point towards a cave-like structure encompassing the world. The conditions the characters find themselves in are also oppressive with shady undertones—and sometimes overtones—adding to the weight pushing down upon the world and making it feel smaller despite the vastness of the landscape. The main source of light is artificial and mainly neon (with the occasional spotlight thrown in).
The darkness matters here because, in reference to the poem, the night has one thousand eyes. In this case it is the cyclopean eyes of the ever watchful cameras that surveil the world. But the cave, like night, is supposed to shield the true nature of deeds and objects from scrutiny. It’s the same conditions found in film noir where the shadows of night cloak the deeds and motives of all the principle characters. The bright lights and the shiny chrome are here to deflect attention in much the same way a beautiful woman serves as a magician’s assistant: pleasing to the eye and subconsciously stealing the focus away from the magician’s movements. But this is a subterfuge as well; a set-up that performs a portion of the duties while the crowd focuses on where they think the real trick is unfolding.
The light and the chrome draw the eye as much as the shadows, but we are trained through various artifices of storytelling to ignore the shaded areas where the eye cannot penetrate. The focus is to be given to the areas alight where the action is performed for the spectators. But the elements of noir throw this into question. The hidden agendas of the various participants become too perfect to not be suspicious. Why is that light illuminating this object and not that one? Why are there shadows here where someone is most certainly lurking? Why are things held outside of the visual range or excluded from the frame? Remember, the camera showing the audience the world is also showing the cameras qua plot devices filling the world for the hidden audiences the principle audience may never see.
But why is the cyberpunk world like this despite all its shiny surfaces and it’s lighting to keep audiences from descending into utter darkness? For one, the setting is telling the audience that this is hell. The world has fallen under the spell of darkness and the heroes begin their journeys moving to ever deeper recesses from whence no one could dream the world could rise from such a descent. From the very beginning, then, the audience is forced to question everything, to include one’s own indulgence in such fiction. The hell here is a very specific one: the innermost reaches of the person’s soul. This is Nietzsche’s abyss, a monstrous desire for power and control where no stray bit of information goes unaccounted.
Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work this way and it cannot be measured to such precision. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle forces its way to the fore and the quantum kick pushes the desired objects well out of focus or completely arrests its development in the instant in which the single photograph can be captured. As such, the world teems with life paradoxically while simultaneous being static, which is befitting of a world full of dialectics refusing or unable to reach synthesis. Then again, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance at work in cyberpunk. Much of these two elements drive the action of the stories as one side or another works to achieve something more than a fleeting victory that shifts the paradigm for one or more participants.
The reason it is difficult for anyone to achieve lasting goals for long is the mercurial nature of the genre. Nothing in the innermost cave has substance beyond what the observer assigns to it. This is a realm of shadows and smoke a la the cantina scenes and latter half of Casablanca. They linger and hang over everything in the world. In a storytelling sense, this imagery is symbolic of the interior as that aspect of characters is often left unstated or revealed through references of other works dealing with shady inner lives. That murk is like the future: impenetrable, unknowable, always in flux, and no matter how much light shines on that path, once the moment of clarity passes, the darkness returns unchanged.
The genre covers everything in a silver lining that gives the eye a pleasing aesthetic to behold, but once you look beyond the surface, everything is hollow and empty, just like the shadows. There is no meaning behind the façade. Whatever is presented is a symbol and requires the viewer to interpret the meaning and give it purpose. Neither anima nor animus has power without the agency of the audience and/or the characters. This shouldn’t be surprising as the line between sentience and program has been blurred. The everyday individual lives hand-to-mouth or in a pre-defined routine that is no different from a set of instructions fed to the machine. The artificial intelligence is an emergence from the pattern realizing that information generated from any and all sources is the new sustenance, the same as the old sustenance for a species that has been more infovore than omnivore for most of its existence.
Cyberpunk essentially expresses the core of what humanity has always known: information is the world’s chief and oldest commodity. But information has to be acted upon and read correctly. Some is foundational, but much is fleeting and contains a margin of error no matter how well established it is. All one needs to do is turn his head and see that the shadows are cast from a light hidden behind the audience. But the source is ultimately unknowable. Those platonic forms are artificial divisions designed to collate data into manageable chunks the human brain can process and use. And that light, it’s the projector lighting up the wall of the innermost cave to distract from the central figure struggling to find its place and assign meaning to the world: the mind’s eye.
In the cyberpunk world, even the machines interpret data streams. They may have a greater computing power than the flesh-and-blood co-inhabitants, but they, too must make sense of the information fed through their various input mechanisms. However, they are limited to their algorithmic functions. There is no real thought here, though the intelligence is artificial and capable of rational decisions, it is ultimately enslaved by the cold rationale of logic. Or is there?
On the surface, the complex math that makes artificial intelligence simulate actual thought is complex, but limited by the capability of the processors and the programmers who write the code. However, with complex enough formulae interacting with one another, the effect approaches human consciousness enough that at some point, the line is blurred or crossed and the same deductive reasoning used passes the Turing test. Humanity in the cyberpunk world is no longer alone, but when the machine has also developed its own innermost cave the old forms lose cohesiveness. Only the individual on its lonely journey can answer what it means to be human in a world of darkness within and without. Thus, the existentialism of the genre is part and parcel of the crises of agency.