Sorry I didn’t post anything in nearly 60 days, but with the loss of two very close individuals in the space of 10 days, moving to a new work site, putting together more furniture, having my car breathe its last, and preparing for summer programming at the library, I haven’t felt motivated or had the time to keep posting any material.
I’m beginning the edits on the intro to archetypes book. It’s only 132 pages, so it won’t take long, but that means I might not be able to fill you in on other projects or keep up with the Learning by Design posts at the pace of 3-7 a week.
Okay, so I might not be able to provide a lot of updates on things given all the stuff I have going on in the background, but I worked on a nice-sized document and several handouts for a game design program. Some of the posts here will be all about that subject as part of what might be a future book. The blog isn’t changing focus, just adding another facet to it for things I’ve been doing quietly for the past 10 years or so.
A couple of weeks and a few thousand words have passed since my last post, but given all the work I’ve put into fixing up the house and having enough room to at least do some typing, if not mapping, has gotten me to the point where I can access enough of my supplies to really churn out some words. Some days I’ve been doing 2,000+ while also putting the house in order. I’m not finished with that project, but the space is livable now, meaning I get to spend more time writing than unpacking.
The blog has seen almost no updates in the last three weeks because I moved to a new living space. We were living in a cramped one-bedroom apartment for the last couple of years, so I was writing/drawing maps using a tiny TV tray and holding my mouse on my lap and trying to sketch out the cartography as I went along. Needless to say, that wasn’t very helpful nor was it conducive to drawing maps of any kind. Luckily, we now have double the living space, which means there’s now enough room to do everything I need without compromising on the quality of the work.
The last few weeks have been interesting as I injured myself at least a couple of times while moving and I got some pretty potent drugs to deal with the pain from what seems to have been a bruised rib. So other than unpacking and cleaning, I’ve been laid up on meds. Can’t say it wasn’t fun, but…
Anyway, back to churning out new content…
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.
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.
There are a lot of issues surrounding Blade Runner that keep me coming back to it in regards to explaining some of the elements of the cyberpunk genre. One of the reasons for this is its rich imagery and how much the film calls attention to its source material. There’s one element that my screenwriting professor points to that I want to address here: the seemingly problematic point-of-view character. The film is populated with characters that are builders and the built. Some of them are in positions of surveillance, making them spectators along with the audience watching the drama unfold—except one character. Deckard doesn’t know who he is. The audience doesn’t know who he is and this is what makes him the perfect character to introduce us into this horrid landscape.
So, why is it the case that Deckard is our POV into this world? It comes from the tradition of noir fiction. During the interbellum period of the world wars, predominantly the Great Depression, people lived hand-to-mouth and this is pretty much embedded in the private investigator characters like Sam Spade. They are perpetually living on the edge, forced to take the next case that comes along so they can keep the lights on and afford a cheap meal. The oppressive heat that seems endemic to these stories lets us know as an audience just how hellish or close to hell these characters are.
The private investigator doesn’t have the ability to refuse the way a cop does. Sometimes the character is an ex-cop who still has connections on the police force. Of course, this just reinforces the concept that the character is caught between worlds. In this case it’s the duly deputized agents of the law (representing the light) and the shady characters the investigator is often paid to follow and discover what they’re up to. This is surveillance by the half-blind without the right gear or all the facts in a murky realm of twilight.
And this is where Deckard comes in. When we are first introduced to him he’s unconcerned with the world around him. He understands it, is a part of it, but wants to be distanced from it. How does the audience know this? He pretends to not understand the pidgin spoken by Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos. In the theatrical release, the audience is told this through the use of a voice over that doesn’t bother to hide that this film takes a lot of cues from film noir. Deckard is our Sam Spade, but his inability to refuse isn’t financially driven. No, this investigator is at the mercy of the law embodied by M. Emmet Walsh’s character, Bryant.
The audience is given very little information about Deckard beyond his desire to not blend into either world. We are told from the very beginning that his position is in question. Furthermore, some line spoken by Gaff recall actions taken or line spoken by Deckard that the audience cannot be sure if Deckard is a replicant or a human. All the audience can know for sure in the context of the film is what Deckard needs to do to escape the hold the law has over him given his skill set.
But, that isn’t the shadowy underworld that Deckard is plunged into. No, because in cyberpunk, the noir isn’t of the streets, but the mind and what it means to be human. This is why the question of the replicants and their place in the social order needs to but can’t be answered without violence. Where does the line between human and machine exist and can anyone be sure that it can’t be crossed? The Voight-Kampff test is supposed to tell Deckard, and the viewer, that at first blush, you can tell the difference. Here is where the femme fatale enters the story in the form of Rachel. The femme fatale character is a succubus figure that, with her beauty and sexual energy, draws the protagonist into the underworld.
The question here is who or what is Deckard. The audience is never told, but as he hunts down the replicants, there’s a subtle descent into the character’s subconscious through his interactions with each target. But, here’s where Deckard’s knowledge diverges from the audience’s and the story shows this world to be filled with Frankensteins and their monsters. The first one is the landscape itself. The monstrosity of the city sprawl and the darkness in which it’s veiled reveals the urban world as one of leviathan proportions. Anyone in the city is in the belly of the beast, which is what is shown with all the teeming press of people surrounded by buildings, some of which overhang the street.
The second realization is that the replicants may in fact be human despite their artifice. This is a nightmarish Pygmalion in the vein of Frankenstein. As a result, we have a world that is completely sterile with the only life therein is either filled with production values or an artifice playing at being alive. Regardless of the case may be the result is the same: extreme alienation and the illusion of freedom. The visuals of the world reflect this. It’s why the city is seen at a distance. The scale of the snake is examined in the extreme to reveal the manufacturer’s serial number in much the same way Deckard cannot look at a the whole of a photo, he has to zoom in and twist and turn around angles to decipher the information it contains in his pursuit of the inhuman while engaging in a decidedly inhuman act.
There is not satori here. Nothing in Blade Runner is appreciated for what it is, only for how it is put together. That is until Deckard is confronted with Rachel and the audience later with the unicorn dream and the subsequent reference with Gaff’s origami unicorn. And the origami (both the match man and the foil wrapper unicorn) here matters because it’s the only sign of life in this bleak environment and emblematic of the missing elements of the environment: vitality and light.
Is Deckard a replicant or is he human? The audience is never clued in and nobody says anything concrete. Yet, hints are given that he may very well be a duplicate of someone else. The theatrical release provided some important references here that give us another monster to confront in the struggle for identity and individualism. Deckard’s outfit is different than everyone else’s, but he is cast from the prototypical gumshoe mold complete with trench coat while Gaff wears the hat. Gaff and Bryant appear to surveil Deckard and when he finally makes a break for it with Rachel, the unicorn is the reference to let the audience know Gaff was there and knows his plans. It is as clear a message as any that in this murky world, someone has perfect measure of this man who doesn’t know himself and the audience cannot truly know.
This is a hideous position to be in and explains why the underworld in Blade Runner isn’t the club or Zhora’s erotic dance with the snake, but rather the internal turmoil Deckard is plunged into after meeting a woman who gives every indication of being human but has to be cross examined ten times as long (and thus psychologically dissected) to detect the artifice behind her construction. Deckard’s attraction to her isn’t Pygmalion’s, it’s the Nathanael’s from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman.” Rachel is therefore a newer model Olimpia and the obsession with eyes begins to make sense in this world of monsters.
Why the eyes, because absolutely nothing can be taken at face value even though nothing has depth. Everything presented is an interface devoid of content except for the replicants. They cry, they fume, they even commit murder as a crime of passion when Roy gouges out his maker’s eyes before crushing his skull. Zhora is a combat model who plays the seductress. Pris, the pleasure model acts like a child and in her death throes is depicted as having a tantrum as she thrashes her way into oblivion.
The violence here is justified as the only humans in the story are passive observers who show more interest in how their creations act and have turned out rather than treating them as people with equal dignity. Tyrell is interested in Roy’s mind and his growth in his short life. J.F. Sebastian is a toy maker whose work helped engineer the construction of the replicants’ bodies. Hannibal Chew only makes eyes, the windows to the soul, but no actual soul. No humans breathe life into this story, they only judge and marvel at their own work. They’ve played god and worship their own idols. This is a grotesque and inhuman response that’s all too human when we marvel at our own deeds and what we’ve wrought.
Deckard doesn’t answer the question of his position, but his escape from the city with Rachel speaks volumes. It’s the only time the sun shines in the film. The wilderness of the trees lacks any connection to the human world of machines and labor-saving devices. It is the equivalent to the monster’s flight into the barren Arctic waste in Frankenstein. Deckard is a monster like the rest of them, albeit one with a conscience. Blade Runner reveals the cybernetic world as one of irrational order. As such, Deckard is the correct POV character for the one thing he does: avoids giving into the madness of the darkness enveloping him, a remarkable feat compared to the artificial intelligences that come before him in the literary roots of cyberpunk fiction.
Well, I lost about a week of productivity due to whatever crud is going around. It was pretty bad and on Saturday when the fever kicked in I ended up having some pretty lucid fever dreams. You know, the kind where you can’t really tell if your actually dreaming or sleeping. It’s pretty weird and one of the reasons I’m glad I don’t get sick all that often.
My lungs are still congested, so I’m not sure how much voice dictation I can do, which is where I can really up my daily word count. That said, I have several essays to crank out and a bunch of other things coming your way that have already been written and just need editing and the like.
Okay, so I guess I didn’t realize it’d been ten days since I last posted anything. That said, here’s a progress report: I’ve been writing a lot. In the last two days alone, I’ve written over 8,000. Well, dictated at least. I churned out nearly 2,000 from handwritten notes in about an hour. It left me winded.
As for my other gaming-related posts, you’ll get some more of those soon. I’m in the process of cleaning up some of that text, but I’ve had to prioritize certain projects over others, which means the blog has gotten short shrift in the meantime. Soon, there should be some more mapping progress to show as well. Fingers crossed.