Friday, 25 May 2012

Kicking the (Chrome) Bucket

Revising for my only written exam of the year, I came across an article by Svetlana Boym entitled Nostalgia and Its Discontents. I remember reading it the first time and finding it not only informative, but enjoyable - which is rare for theatre and performance articles, let me tell you - so I set about quite happily reading it again. My exam is for my Theatre of New Europe module - New Europe being the struggle for a new European identity after the trauma of the Second World War (an attempt to move away from the fact that, as a continent, we managed to slaughter three whole generations of people). About halfway through my re-reading, I found that I had unlined this quote: 

Yet the nostalgia that I explore here is not always for the ancien regime, stable superpower or fallen empire, but also for the unrealized dreams of the past and visions of the future that have become obsolete.

Boym is referring here to the hopes of a newly-'liberated' East Germany, but, perhaps influenced by my recent excursions as a latex-clad Cassandra in the midst of space-Troy, I realised that Boym could quite easily have been talking about science fiction and the genre of cyberpunk. Second Life seems to have a fairly popular cyberpunk scene or, at least, to cultivate cyberpunk themes into their more general science fiction sims. It allows for the performance of the nostalgia of a future that was outdated before it even arrived.

As technology advances and our cars remain steadfast to the ground, we are realising that the future we dreamed we would be in by now hasn't happened yet, and probably never will. We wanted chrome and latex and flying cars and some kind of electric-magic that would allow us to communicate instantly with anybody across the global telepathically. Instead we got Facebook and Twitter; our cars are firmly rooted to the ground, and I'm pretty sure a new Primark, selling only cotton and denim, just opened in town.

Dissatisifed, then, we are nostalgic for the time when we believed in that future and this, I feel, is the crux of the cyberpunk genre. The aesthetic of cyberpunk is drawn from the grit and grunge of bygone eras; the spacemen that lurk in the shadows of the dystopian cities are clad in the spacesuits of Barbarella and paint their faces with the Bowie lightning bolt, because that is how we felt they would look twenty years ago.

They connect to the system, Matrix-style, by a series of wires. They have USB ports in their foreheads. They back-up their files to floppy disk. They store their spy-documents on microfilm. Never mind that we now in 2012 - the real future - have wi-fi and sharing platforms and Wikileaks. We liked those ideas, and, in that past-time, the flying-car future was still possible. The dream had not yet kicked the (chrome?) bucket.

Our technophobia, however, does not allow us to glorify the technology we desire too much. Our fear has been immortalised by films such as The Matrix (1999) and Terminator (1984), to name but two examples. It is not the fault of technology, however, but the corruption of those who use it, and so, invariably, we create images of slick, USB port-equipped, latex-clad, plastic-surgery-beauties with blonde hair, popping food pills in clean, chrome castles in the sky - but they're baddies. The goodies are miles below, tunnelled beneath the ground where they wave floppy disks around and have dirty, sweaty, needy sex. If they have hair, it's dark in colour, and their clothes show off as much skin as possible, perhaps reflecting another layer of nostalgia for a time when we revelled in the body and its physical, palpable beauty, rather than intangible computer coding and the invisible internet. And this is perserved in the presentation of the cyberpunk in Second Life.

An attempt at a cyberpunk aesthetic. Best viewed on flickr - click here.

This notion is depicted perfectly in William Gibson's The Gernsback Continuum - of which they made a short tv film in 1993. A photographer is commissioned to take photos of 'yesterday's tomorrow' which, in the examples he is shown, is bound up in the aesthetic of the American Dream - yet another highly-romanticised topic. Once he starts photographing, however, he is haunted by what his friend calls 'semiotic ghosts' from the 'mass consciousness' - the ghosts of the now-obsolete future and aesthetic that he is attempting to photograph.

The Starship Diner
What I find most interesting, and most amusing, about Gibson's piece is the idea that television will rid the photographer of these 'semiotic ghosts'. That's right - television. One of the landmarks of technological development. I like the idea that can be extrapolated from that - that the future didn't turn out the way we planned because we didn't go out and make it happen. We stayed home and watched TV instead.

It is interesting to note, too, the similarities between The Matrix and Second Life. Second Life allows us to plug our minds into a body in the virtual world which acts as a kind of residual self-image - or allows us to play up an attribute from our personality, or a personality we long to possess.  When we unplug, the character in the virtual world dies, vanishing from the system. As those who log into the virtual world, we are those tunnel-dwelling naked grubs, going for a joy-ride in the dangerous realm of the dystopian digital world.

But because Second Life isn't real, it not only facilitates the performance of nostalgia, but positively encourages it. It becomes a haven for what Boym refers to as reflective nostalgics - nostalgics who recognise the impossibility of the world they are nostalgic for and, despite their romanticism and their longing, avoid a 'homecoming' as much as possible - because they can recreate their flawed world without having to deal with the consequences such a world would invariably bring in real life.

In reality, Second Life allows for the performance of the nostalgia of pretty much everything. If you wish to live your life as a Tolkien-esque elf, nostalgic for a medieval period long since passed, you can do so. But this is simply looking into the past, and in the realm of the cyberpunk, we can look not only nostalgically at the past, but also at the future that the present made obsolete.

Maybe I will write more on this later - that is, if I don't get distracted by the television first.


  1. It's not often that I find myself reading blog posts outloud but today I did, I read yours to S because it is/was so fab.

    Great post, even greater writing!
    You should put yourself out there net wise as a reviewer.....

  2. This is a marvellous post, Kits. Good work.

  3. Awesome post! Facebook blocked me from sharing it, though, so I put in a complaint to Facebook about it. FB seems to think it's spam? This makes me nostalgic for a future where AI wouldn't make mistakes like that.

  4. Hi bubblesort,

    Thank you very much - and thank you for wanting to share! I have absolutely no idea why FB thinks it is spam. Cruel FB! Thank you for reading :) x

  5. Masami Kuramoto1 June 2012 at 13:17

    Hi! Good article!

    I think the reason why cyberpunk keeps referring to outdated technology is because the visual language of the genre was conceived almost singlehandedly by Ridley Scott's movie "Blade Runner" in 1982. The technology in that movie indeed reminds us of a bygone era now, but thirty years ago it absolutely had a bleeding edge feel. And unlike other old sci-fi movies that could be associated to the cyberpunk genre (e.g. "Westworld", "Logan's Run"), Blade Runner aged well and still looks "cool" by today's standards. And so it keeps inspiring content creators in Second Life as well, which is why INSILICO so closely resembles Blade Runner's vision of a future Los Angeles, including the grungy look and the flying cars. It may seem nostalgic, but unintentionally so.

    By the way, those flying cars in Blade Runner were not really a symbol of technological optimism. They were actually car-shaped police helicopters, not a means of transportation available to the general population.

  6. Hey - thanks for reading :)

    I confess, I haven't actually seen "Blade Runner" (it's on my to-do list!), but what you are saying makes lots of theoretical sense. I think that "The Matrix" (I love that film okay!) works in much the same way, and still looks tres chic against today's films.

    I didn't know they had any kind of flying car in "Blade Runner", though, at all. I was referring to the general 'fifty years from now' expectations of society, lol. It's one of those tropes, and I'm sure there's a statistic about it somewhere only, when I wrote this, my head was full of exam revision, and I didn't want to fill it with statistics!

    Thanks again :) I like getting comments! Lol.

  7. Masami Kuramoto3 June 2012 at 20:42

    If you like cyberpunk, Blade Runner is definitely worth checking out. I like "The Matrix" too, although the sequels were kind of disappointing in my opinion. Other movies worth watching are "Gattaca" and "Renaissance". There are probably more, but I don't remember...

    Japanese animation also had some influence on the genre. The original "Ghost in the Shell" from 1995 and its sequel "Innocence" come to mind, but also "Battle Angel", "Jin-Roh" and shows such as "Serial Experiments Lain" and "Ergo Proxy". Also worth watching if only for the looks: "Casshern", the movie version.

  8. Yeah, I figured - it's on my to do list, lol. And yeahhh, I know "Ghost in the Shell", but found it very difficult. Managed to get through all of "Elvin Lied" though, lol, and, somehow, "Neon Genesis Evangelion" - but that is perhaps another story.


All questions, comments and feedback are welcome. Thank you.