Cyberpunk is based on a bleak future, high technology superimposed and contrasted with frail humanity, hopelessness and powerlessness that enable violence, and the disparity between the ultra-wealthy and those so poor they end up owing money when they die. Cyberpunk, done right, is about more than overclocked elective prosthetics and a virtual reality Internet. Like all good science fiction it’s concerned with people. The new tech isn’t interesting: how it affects people is what’s interesting.
That said, the Cyberpunk of the 80s was based on a Japanese cultural / economic superpower and the rise of the corporation. Old Uncle Bear suggests that this is silly but still awesome and a retro-futurism Cyberpunk would be cool. But his suggestion is a self-referential farce, which is great for some gaming groups but if you wanted Cyberpunk that isn’t it. If you’re trying to decide whether to play Toon, Paranoia, or Retro-Future Irony Cyberpunk then it fits. I disagree with Uncle Bear’s assessment that the corporation is no longer a threat – we’re just currently experiencing a different kind of destabilization that could easily shift in a few decades.
But what seems to be coming to a head soon is Intellectual Property rights. It’s clear that increased control over customers is in the interest of a company. Only laws and ethical restraints prevent a corporation from devastating human dignity and human rights. But because corporations have a lot of money and teams of lawyers they can influence legislation and judicial process. And because the corporation is not an actual person, there is no expectation in American culture that the entity itself will be ethical. The executives have the opportunity to act unethically and say it was for the good of the company. In the end, a corporation would achieve whatever is good for it, at any human expense, so long as it’s technically possible.
1: All goods are leased. You pay a small amount (or nothing) for the object but you pay to use it. It stops functioning if you stop paying – or cannot pay.
2: Sensory broadcasters stationed throughout the city modify your consciousness. They can make you see what they want, or what you pay to see. There are pop-up ads that you have to pay to block. It affects everyone. Newborns begin seeing ads for sugary cereal and sneakers with favorite monster on the side while they’re still in the womb.
Of course, the Cyberpunk game typically involves characters who are able to circumvent these procedures. Whether they disable the IP controllers or block the SenseNet (or even hack it), they are not the poor unfortunate souls forced to suffer through life.
Yes, I would rename it SenseNet. Feels more Cyberpunky than Inscape. Or maybe I’d call in InSense.
Anyway, in case it isn’t clear I’m all for using Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020 or whatever as-written in terms of technology even though such things are today out of date and it isn’t even 2020 or 2051. For the same reason it’s still fun to watch the Original Star Trek series. Sure they have big chunky plastic buttons instead of touchpads! Sure we have datajacks sticking out of our temples and we need to plug into a computer to use it!
But the setting can change to something more relevant in terms of society. And in terms of tech we can explore its effects without overhauling the game system. I think Cyberpunk loses a whole lot when you exchange sub-dermal plating for nanites, and datajacks for wireless networking. Eventually it becomes indistinguishable as technology and you might as well be playing a Monk or a Magic-User. The trade-off for personal power in Cyberpunk is a loss of humanity, a reduction in how much of you is still flesh and bone. That’s an interesting choice to make and clearly reflects the themes of the genre.