When our machines can converse with us and have agency on par with our own, what separates us from them? This question comes up time and again in cyberpunk literature, but the answer is found as much in the aesthetics as it is in the symbolism embedded in the stories. It is perhaps the one coping mechanism in the genre that is described emotionally but never stated outright or addressed beyond the sensations the appearances give. Not doing so makes sense in light of the bleak landscape. The emptier the interior becomes, the greater the level of aesthetics in the story and the darker the external world appears. Why, though?
The progress of science works to uncover every secret of nature and to fully understand how it works with the best tools a society can produce. At some point the lenses of the various fields have to turn towards a central object that is at the heart of the questing: humanity. When everything else seems on the verge of bending to human will, what else is there left to examine than that very will? Perhaps this is one of the symbolic purposes of so many camera eyes to remind the audience and the inhabitants of this dark world that they are under the microscope.
Being espied upon so much is problematic in and of itself. The genre compounds the problem by introducing entities that have the same properties of inner life as their creators—simulated or otherwise. Does one blend in and become part of the faceless mass indistinguishable from machine life or break free and defy the body of research that has spilled out the contents of that inner world and rendered their former mystery mundane and predictable? Responsible for all this is the tool that promised to liberate humanity from its bonds of labor: the computer.
The calculating nature of the machine sped up work and helped create art in ways once too difficult to produce by hand at profitable rates. Thus, art and artifice moved into mass culture in new ways while simultaneously solving other problems, such as creating textiles and labor-saving devices to give people greater productivity, which translated in some areas as free time. Now, the idea of free time is not new to the industrial revolution, but its enjoyment by virtually all levels of society comes about at this time. Art and culture flourish in idle time, but until machinery opened it up to a wider audience, most leisure was reserved for the upper echelons of society.
The more machinery took away the need for human labor to do menial tasks, the more time was available for leisure. We have a tendency to take this for granted, so when the various elements of culture, fashion, art, aesthetics, and sensuality appear in cyberpunk, they often don’t stand out as much as they should for the symbolic and rebellious natures they possess. It makes sense that it doesn’t feel so subversive or out of place to see so many people express themselves in myriad ways. What differ are the attitudes and associated reasoning, and these differences matter.
In reality and in this genre, machinery has removed humans from the manufacturing equation for much of the assembly process. Where they diverge is in the machine’s ability to mimic human consciousness to the point where artificial intelligence passes the Turing test. Such technology has severe consequences for society. Barring the fears of the singularity point where machines outstrip our abilities and we’re replaced, a computer that mimics what is considered the providence of humanity is a terrifying thought. Add to this the continued divorce of humanity from its own labor and the sense of isolation and alienation is nigh complete.
There is a problem with too much free time and not enough work to justify a person’s existence. This isn’t a social construct, but one of personal meaning. The psychological implication is what drives people to invent new avenues of being either through new industries (what we would refer to as innovations) or repurposing what already exists to fill in a niche that guarantees gainful employment. Now, money isn’t the end goal, but it is a reflection of the value of that personal meaning. The emptying out of the interior leads to the hollow existence that fuels anxiety in the real world and magnified to excess in cyberpunk literature. How, then, does one combat the intrusion of the machine into the psyche when it can pass the Turing test?
This is where sensations come into play. A lot of flesh is on display in most cyberpunk settings because it is a representation of not only what is real, but also of what artificial intelligence is incapable of possessing. Machines can record, document, and observe events as they unfold, but the lack of true sensations prevents the machine from the most human of responses: experience. Artificial intelligence can only describe what its raw data provides. This is an interpretation of numbers.
Sensations are part of the basis of emotional responses. As such, the level of sensuality, and thus sexuality, in cyberpunk stories is a direct relationship to encroachment into and alienation of the individual in the work space and the subsequent struggle for meaning. In other words, it is as much a coping mechanism as it is a refutation of, rebuttal to, and rebellion from the computer’s dominance of human endeavors. The problem is that the tools that were meant to make labor easier have reached their logical ends and replaced the need for people to perform most of these tasks without the economy shifting to a model that provides the vast majority of the population what the rich and powerful possess: leisure in excess.
Sex, sexuality, and sensory input are the height of human expression in a world where there is nothing but free time. Cyberpunk literature depicts the poor as having to sell their bodies in some form to make enough to survive if they aren’t smart enough to get by when most of the infrastructural services that would create an equal playing field (e.g. schools, libraries, etc.) are virtually nonexistent. The world is turned on its head as the poor are more idle than the rich, who have to hustle to maintain their positions and privileges. And with nothing left but the feasts of carnal delights and their associated sensations, fashion, which is used to enhance sexuality, is used by the rich and poor alike to create an aura of allure.
Most of these displays are subconscious given the drive to use art as a physical manifestation of a person’s cutting edge prowess in an ever-changing world. They also are divided along lines of class. High fashion is associated with the rich, who spend their time collecting the fine art treasures of the past. Displays that leave little to the imagination or are flamboyant/garish have a similar purpose for the poor. They are meant to invoke feelings and garner attention to use the physical to express the skills and experiences possessed. In short, they are productions of meaning.
When the view is that work will eventually set the whole of humanity free, the conflation of work and pleasure or work with pleasure is inevitable in the cyberpunk genre. After all, the haves have more while the have-nots continue to slide into abject states of being and both are driven towards leisure. However, the discrepancy between the two groups leads one to see leisure as luxury and the other as enjoying what one can with what is easily attainable. This divide is quite Victorian and is why the dystopic nature of the genre can be disturbing to some as confirmation bias is easily read into the tropes. Doing so misses out on the truth that these are aesthetic escapes from the artificial intelligence hiding behind the monitors and camera lenses of the digital world.
Sensations and the drive to experience them can be dark. They are also illogical. People give in to their impulses freely in the cyberpunk genre because their positions or the technology at their disposal makes it not just possible, but also grants indemnity. This is a place clearly where the artificial mind cannot follow. It also feeds into the production of meaning that all this sensory stimulation produces. The characters aren’t indulging for the sake of indulgence, they do so because it’s not only expected, but also a release from social pressures.
To express the true magnitude of the horror of the dystopian world in the cyberpunk genre, characters have to give in to carnal delights to survive. The pure decadence serves not only as an escape mechanism from the societal pressures and struggles, but also as the balm that provides some modicum of succor to the psyche. The broken world and destruction of meaningful employment at the hands of our own machines is a true nightmare and the regression of the human spirit into carnal arts is the self-medication and remedy that holds the social fabric together and builds cohesion since everyone is in this together. They use sex, sexuality, and sensuality as a means to an end. An end that has one purpose: identifying who is human. It is in effect a way to turn the machine into the Other.