Cyberpunks and Cyberspace


“if they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness.” William Gibson (1981) – ‘Johnny Mnemonic’.

Further recommend sources
Watch: Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Read: Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

Note: Square brackets in the text indicate slide transitions in the weekly Prezi presentation. Use the arrow keys to navigate between points in the Prezi and the mouse can be used to manually navigate the space, zoom in and out and click on the embedded links.


[Cyberpunk] is the first of the science fiction ‘punk’ genres (biopunk, steampunk, electropunk, and so on) and its origin is most commonly associated with the publication of the [Mirrorshades] anthology in 1981.

Edited by Bruce Stirling, the Mirrorshades included the short story “The Gernsback Continuum” by William Gibson, “Snake-Eyes” by Tom Maddox, “Rock On” by Pat Cadigan, “Tales of Houdini” by Rudy Rucker “and “Petra” by Greg Bear among others.

The term (cyberpunk) captures something crucial to the work of these writers, something crucial to the decade as a whole: a new kind of integration. The overlapping worlds that were formerly separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop underground…Cyberpunk comes from the realm where the computer hacker and the rocker overlap, a cultural Petri dish where writhing gene lines splice. Some find the results bizarre, even monstrous; for others this integration is a powerful source of hope.
– Bruce Sterling, preface to Mirrorshades.

The cyberpunk literary genre is heavily influenced by Science Fiction writers, Phillip K. Dick, William Burroughs, J.G Ballard and movies like [Blade Runner] (1982), which began the integration of sophisticated technologies of the future populated by cyborgs, computer networks, drugs, mega-corporations, artificial intelligence, and genetic manipulation, all within a hybrid Asian-American future, often with a sense of dystopian retrofuturism

Many of the themes of cyberculture can be considered as a direct response to the bland monotony of corporate work and the experience of the cubicle-bound information processing: as we see in the first Matrix movie with Neo emerging as the rejection of his Thomas Anderson identity and the corporate ideology defining his reality. The machines of the physical world are representations of the core cyberpunk anxiety, being replaced by automation. 

Cyberpunk is a vision of a post-industrial techno-wonderland, in which all that is left of the planet and human existence is decay and dematerialisation. Cyberpunk worlds are embedded in a contextual substratum of industrial automation and the destabilisation of established order by the development of artificial intelligence,  the technical prowess of elite hackers, and the expansion of the human physical form by cybernetic technologies and gene manipulation.

The message of the Cyberpunk medium, is one so bright that everyone has to wear sunglasses.

Hackers were the previously unrecognised class of information worker, and a group of radical computer users attempting to find new meaning following major social, environmental and technological change. Cyberpunk is the cultural expression resulting from the changes in paid work culture, the demise of ‘blue’ collar industries because of automation, the rise of ‘white’ collar management, bureaucracy culture and the massive increase in corporate power and the simultaneous decline of national, state and sovereign power in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The stories and essays of Philip K Dick prophesied the coming of the age of cyberculture and predates the cyberpunks, and yet all the elements of both are wrestled with in his works. 


The notion of a ‘cyberspace’ is key component of Cyberpunk fiction. 

This image from the 1995 movie [HACKERS] is a fairly standard view of cyberculture as a computational array of information arranged as patterns and constellations of light. We associate this visual representation of the non-physical environment of digital networks with cinema and the televisual contributions to the genre in the 1990s, perhaps most iconically in the [Matrix], which borrowed the visual aesthetic from Ghost in the Shell (1995) directed by Mamoru Oshii,. 

The notion of cyberspace as a disembodied informational space, is a space not without, but not limited to, cartesian coordinates. Cyberspace is often rendered as a macrocosm of information and energy, which informs our conceptual thinking about the cyberspace as the experience of access to information, and forces us to rethink the connections between data, energy, knowledge, machines and the body. 

But another – and perhaps less romantic version of cyberspace looks like this [CABLES]This is the physical reality of cyberspace – or rather the Internet – meaning the massive number of networked connections that exist between humans and machines around the globe.


One of the reasons it is called ‘cyberspace’, is because of the work of writer Williams Gibson and his use of the term, which is considered to be the first literary use in the 1982 short story “Burning Chrome” and later in the 1984 novel Neuromancer.

[Virtual Reality]

Cyberspace is quite literally realised by Virtual Reality (VR) technologies. Although many people cannot physically enjoy the technology in its current state, VR represents an important human-machine interface that is the product of multiple layers of cybernetic systems. The next generation of commercially available VR  is here as we see new consumer level devices from gradually released and iterated [VR Tech].

We will look at some VR examples in the seminar this week, and talk further in upcoming lectures. 

[“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by millions of legitimate operators. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding. (Gibson 1984: 67)”]

[William Gibson], is an American-born, Canadian writer whose particular blend of detective noir and speculative science fiction has made and remade the cyberpunk genre since the story of “Johnny Mnemonic”, was published in Omni magazine in 1981. 

Gibson wrote key contributions to the Cyberpunk genre, including the eponymous Sprawl trilogy: Neuromancer (1984) Count Zero (1986) Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). Gibson’s work, like that of Philip K. Dick, is a collection of profoundly interesting, complex and challenging visions of a potentially close future.

Gibson coined the term “Cyberspace” in the short story Burning Chrome in 1982 but it was thepopularity of the Sprawl Trilogy, and the publication of [Neuromancer] in 1984, that led to the public imaginarium of cyberspace which began to infiltrate popular culture. With Gibson, the mainstream was emboldend to imagine the future potential of cybernetic technologies and computer networks.

Gibson presented a world of action, suspense, gritty realism, and hybrid cultures, very much in the sense of Blade Runner, which debuted in 1982. He is still very active and popular and recently published The Peripheral in 2014.

Not unlike Vannevar Bush, Gibson assembled his cyberpunk world and his ideas about cyberspace from the already available set of resources in popular culture, technology, envrionmentalism, and mythology:  “Geologic spasm: the primacy act of pop poetics”.

Gibson’s writing and stories skim across deeper questions that invite investigation and enfolding concepts and endless layers of details to assemble a contemporary idea of cyberspace, which continues to dominate the public view of cyberspace. 

For many science fiction fans in the late 1980s and early 1990s, cyberpunk offered cyberspace up as a new virtual realm of emancipation and opportunity to move beyond the physical limitations of the body and physical space:

[“The physical conception of space disconnects it from sense perception. Since it is perpetually present, it is absolute, not dependent on the perceptions of a human subject. From a psychological perspective, space does not have such an absolute status; because it is tied to sense perception, psychological space can change. The use of drugs, for instance, can change one’s experience of space in such a way that someone may jump off a building by losing his or her sense of distance.” Andrew Nusselder 2009 Interface Fantasy A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology, MIT Press Cambridge]

Cyberspace, for Gibson, was a metaphor, and his books provide a means for conceptualising the transition from Marshal McLuhan’s electronic age to the information age and beyond into the virtual age.

With Gibson, cyberspace became a metaphor for the imaginary vista of electronic networks and the experiences of Internet communication technologies (ICTs) made possible by ‘computer devices’ (Turkle, 1996).

Cyberspace, especially the ‘cyber’ component carries with it an important nostalgia with its imagining derived from the worlds of fiction and the stories we tell about its relationship to our actual experiences (Bell 2001), “Cyberspace: it sounds like the future was supposed to be.” (Bell 2007, 2).

Gibson prognosticated reality TV, online games and virtual worlds and his writing is steeped in the influence of 1960s American counterculture. 

Gibson’s most important contribution is [Neuromancer (1984)], which presented the concept of the matrix, a product of the corporate enclosure of a post-military-industrial-entertainment complex, where the user ‘plugs’ into the network and navigates the simulated virtual reality interface via a graphical paradigm that is transmitted directly into the brain, via the eyes and control by movement, drawing on the human as a processing unit.

Gibson’s idea of cyberculture as “consensual hallucination” does not only mean the virtual world of military simulations, corporate networks and online multiplayer games, it also means the iconography of your smartphones and the links on the menu bar, the windows and folders graphical represented on screens.

Further Recommended reading:

Bukatman, Scott. “Gibson’s Typewriter.”  South Atlantic Quarterly Fall (1993): 627-645. Reprinted in Flame Wars (1994)

[The Big Sleep] is a film noir, post WW2 feature film with the classic ‘empowered woman’ who is the dangerous femme fatale, similar to the character of Molly Millions, the female protagonist in Neuromancer, a book which is dark, hard boiled, work of neon and chrome set in a world that is decaying and falling over and being built on top of.

The other protagonist is Case, a hacker cowboy, which points to the genre mixing in Cyberpunk between film noir, the Hollywood western and science fiction. Case is a digital thief, working for the highest bidder and the biggest haul,  living on the edge of the new frontier of networks of information and the intangible value of intellectual property, where the law is yet to catch up and the individual is able to take power onto themselves.

Cyberpunk takes the rugged individualism of the western genres, the dark tones and anti-heroes of Film Noir and blends the anti-authoritarian and apolitical and liberatian ideologies that Gibson clearly feels are important and it is is heavily masculine and consumerist world that plays on US fears of an Asian economic and  political power arising from Japan and China,  but at the same time fetishises and embellishes hacking and biohacking of the body with augmented technologies, plastic surgery, body enhancement digital and network interfaces and other cybernetic devices.


Popular views of cyberspace and its inhabitants in the 1980s-2000s were dominated by the idea of Hackers.

Today, we are perhaps more familiar with the concept of the hack, but for the most part the history of the hacker is the idea of a computer criminal, which denies the hackers contributions to computer engineering, software development and network security over the past century. I don’t want to spend too much time on the history of hackers in this lecture, but rather think about how they fit into Gibson’s cyberpunk paradigm.

It was the hackers that imagined the first networks, the first virtual worlds and helped to produce the first network communication technologies, like smartphones, webs browsers and games. These technologies are of course everywhere now, but back in the dark, pre-Internet ages, the technologies we take for granted, like wireless communication and personal computers, found their way into the hands of the few at first, elite programmers, engineers, and  technology experts in university, the military and private research facilities.

The earliest adopters of PCs and those with access to the limited networking infrastructures, gained a kind of reputation for libertarian ideologies and a keen desire to facilitate open access to these innovations.

[This week’s recommended reading and viewing: Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and/or Bladerunner (1982) and Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)]

How cyberspace was imagined in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s helped to shape the technologies that we use today, and 1995 is a big year in cyberculture with the early Internet users gaining access in the home and workplace. It is also the year of the [Windows’s 95] and the start of a new era of graphic user interfaces for PCs, and the proprietary operating system that hackers railed against, that included an enclosed architecture in which to police which programs and tasks could be used.

1995 was the year that the Internet entered public consciousness and also the year it was completely privatized, with companies like America Online selling access to the World Wide Web and public distributing software, including web browsers to the general public to assist in connecting.


One of the legendary hackers, Kevin Mitnick is arrested by the FBI on February 15 and charged for breaking into secure US government networks. It’s also the year of the Sandra Bullock thriller, The Net, which popularised fears of identity theft enabled by the Web and the Internet.

The history Internet culture in the nineties was closely related to cyberpunk in its libertarian and anti-corporatist foundations that was drive by 60s-70s counterculture influenced by [Timothy Leary and John Perry Barlow].

Barlow is the founder of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) and lyricist and drummer of the band The Grateful Dead, and a prominent activist for electronic civil liberties. Take notice of the frontier mythology and the cowboy ethos that is part of this culture, reflected in the ‘net culture’ present in Gibson’s worlds as are the very real online communities of the 1990s were known for their idealistic, and frequently utopian approach to regulation and governance.

In the late eighties and early nineties you get a range of books that put this cultures on display, including Bruce Sterling’s Hacker Crackdown (1992) (See also Clifford Stoll, Cuckoo’s Egg (1989) and Steven Levy’s book Hackers) and other ethnographic accounts revealing detailed sub-cultures include the cypherpunks and the [phreakers].

Phreakers, like John Draper  employed the ethos of individual empowerment and personal agency over government and corporate control and they followed their own codes of behaviour that rejected the state and the establishment. News reports and media coverage in 1990s help to romanticise the ‘hacker’ outlaw and anti-social misfit, perpetuating the myths of lawlessness and disorder on the electronic frontier, re-imagining the post-colonial frontier of the 19th century.

As hackers gained access to prominent government and military networks at Stanford and Los Alamos, threatening access to details of nuclear weaponry, anti-hacker laws, task forces and entire new divisions of security agencies, including the FBI, CIA and the the U.S Department of defence.  This is the same kind of division that Gibson offers us in his cyberpunk worlds, in which hackers are not just criminals, they are beyond the mundane, almost mythological figures, representing real people who are sometimes demonised and sometimes attributed legendary qualities.

One example, one that would be an excellent example of a topic suitable for the subject’s independent research project, is [Julian Assange]. Assange, was a hacker in the mid 1990s, and he worked on a book by Suelette Drefus in 1997 called Underground. This was at a time when the ‘geek’ was becoming a more popular and less threatening figure and a new version of the hacker began to emerge, someone less like a ‘criminal’ or ‘terrorist’ and more like the ‘wizard’, a bit like Merlin figure from Arthurian legend, or even a Gandalf for the digital age.

EXTRA: William Gibson wrote 2 episodes for the X-files (shown in Australia in 1998 and 2000), where Scully and Mulder are investigating hacker activity. If you get a chance to view, note the feature of ‘cutting edge’ 90s technology, especially the CD-ROM and its relationship to the cyberpunk visions of Gibson in the 1980s (all topics that would equally make suitable areas of research for the individual student project).

Remember the independent research project includes your blogs, seminar presentation and research report or digital artifact and addresses the following:

Examine the socio-technical systems, imaginaries and assemblages involved with the cyberculture topic, concept, technology or digital culture under investigation.

Consider how these come into being, are performed, stabilised, resisted and otherwise contributed to.


[Virtual Reality History]

Virtual optical interfaces can be traced to examples of 360-degree art in the panoramic murals that began to appear in Italian murals in the [1560s]. At first floor level, Baldassarre Peruzzi painted the main salone with frescoes of a grand open loggia balcony with city and countryside views. The perspective view really only works from a fixed point in the room otherwise the illusion is broken.

The notion of the 3D goggles has been around for a long time, and [Stanley G. Weinbaum] proposed a google glasses like system for virtual reality in the 1930s in his short fiction called the “Pygmalion’s Spectacles, which included his hypothetical design for goggles that would display holographic recordings of fictional experiences.

[Morton Heilig] was famous in the 1950s for his “Experience Theatre”, which was an attempt to include all the senses in the cinematic experience, by expanding the view to encompass the individual audience and attempted to include them in the onscreen activity. Heilig built a working prototype of his virtual reality device, called the [Sensorama] in 1962, as a large cabinet device that had to be sat inside. The prototype had five short films and stimulated the senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch. This is a concept that we see emerge time and time again, just recently plastics for 3d printing became available that would give off different aromas when used. The use of smell and body posture has been also anticipated in the immersion effect.

In 1968 Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull, create the [augmented reality] (AR) and VR head-mounted display (HMD) system. Rudimentary and exceptionally heavy, the HMD was supported from the ceiling. The device had a basic user interface and a wire-frame virtual environment and was called The Sword of Damocles.

In 1990 Jonathan Waldern, a VR PhD, demonstrates “Virtuality” a Computer Graphics exhibition staged at London’s Alexandra Palace. His garage startup company would go on to produce the Virtuality as a line of virtual reality gaming machines found in video arcades and adventure parks and game stores in the early 1990s. I remember playing these multiplayer at about the same time that i first reader Neuromancer in 1992. The VR machines delivered almost real time (less than 50ms lag) gaming via a stereoscopic visor, joysticks, and networked units for multi-player gaming. Virtuality was the first mass-produced, networked, multiplayer VR location-based entertainment system. Costing up to $73,000 per multi-pod Virtuality system, they featured headsets and exoskeleton gloves that gave one of the first “immersive” VR experiences.

The famous, or infamous, [Virtual Boy] was created by Nintendo and was released in Japan and in North America in 1995.

In 2014 Facebook [invested] $2 billion into  Oculus VR[Palmer Luckey] created his first VR prototype at age 18 in his parents’ garage in 2011, which was a headset that included a 90-degree field of view. Luckey developed a series of prototypes over ten months increasing the range to a 270-degree field-of-view, while also decreasing size and weight.The 6th iteration was named the “Rift,” and He first started Oculus VR in order to facilitate the Kickstarter campaign

9,522 backers pledged $2,437,429 to help bring this project to life.

The VR unit relies on a series of cybernetic feedback loops between the CPU, the Worn device, the user’s Body, and the graphic output and visual display which is also an input device for the on screen direction and movement.

Putting the headpiece on is very much like putting on a mix of  Ned Kelly’s Helmet and Tony Stark’s Iron Man visor – it’s a mix of the primitive and the advanced.

Video for Elders Reacting to the Oculus Rift


[The Virtual Yellow House Project]

The Yellow House was the brainchild of Sharp and filmmaker Albie Thoms, modelled on the failed artist community set up by Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France, during the late 1880s (Thoms 2012). Set up in Macleay Street, Kings Cross, by Australian artist Martin Sharp in 1970, and running through to early 1973, the Yellow engaged local, national and international artists who visited the three-storey terrace building and helped shape the artistic and cultural development of this experimental and communal space. Painting, music, theatre, film, puppetry, light shows and mixed-media performances were held in Spaces with titles such as the Stone Room that were filled with textured walls, artistic recreations of famous artworks such as The Great Wave by Hokusai, and sculptural pieces which became one with the immediate environment.

Over the next three years, the 3-storey terrace at 57-59 Macleay Street became the site of a living, breathing artist community. The exterior was painted yellow, and the interior became an art history museum, with the walls, ceiling and staircases painted and sculptured, and installations put in place to reflect the tastes and interests of anybody who cared to participate. Art, music, drama and film were created, performed and exhibited at the Yellow House by its residents and visitors until the doors were closed early in 1973. The building became an exhibition gallery, artist’s studio, performance space, living quarters and meeting place.

The re-creation of the Yellow House in a 3D virtual reality (VR) environment will make use of contemporary photographic and audiovisual archives applied to technologies such as the Oculus Rift, to facilitate art historical, media, communication and graphic design studies. Resources to be utilised include photographs taken in the Yellow House by photographer Greg Weight and artist George Gittoes, over 30 hours of film footage from Yellow TV produced by Albie Thoms, ABC television documentary and news footage, original building plans from the City of Sydney Council Archives, and oral history accounts by those involved. This material will be used to create a replica space in 3D and add original textures to that virtual space. The prototype developed for this project will, in the initial phase, enable students and researchers to interact with University of Wollongong Library collections focused on Australian counterculture art and publishing movements during the 1960s and 1970s. T

The project will also create an open access teaching and learning tool which can be freely used, modified and adapted for a broad range of applications beyond recreation of the actual Sydney-based Yellow House. These applications will include interactive exhibition spaces and 3D digital archives sourced from the library and archival collections external to the University of Wollongong. For example, the State Library of New South Wales has a dispersed collection of material relating to the Yellow House and the art of Martin Sharp, whilst the archives of Albie Thoms are located in the National Library of Australia and National Film and Sound Archive collections in Canberra.

The primary aim of the Yellow House project is to provide an opportunity for students, academics and the public to engage with library and archival collections in new, innovative and productive ways, and demonstrate the active application of curriculum‑driven, technology-enhanced learning experiences. It will create an open access 3D, immersive and interactive VR gallery based on the Yellow House. Using Oculus Rift and similar virtual reality technologies, students and researchers will enter the virtual Yellow House gallery and engage with its historic elements, learning from, and being actively stimulated by, the experience.

In addition, they will be able to modify and adapt their own Yellow House room using the open data object created as part of the project.

The VR experience will serve as a virtual gallery space for experimentation and collaborative experiences between academics and students and as a means for experiencing not only the University of Wollongong Library’s expanding digital collections but also other relevant material brought to the space by the participants.

In the first instance, the Yellow House VR gallery will be available to students to present their own work and use the virtual gallery as their own space.

The Yellow House web portal will provide the gateway to the virtual reality Yellow House space, along with open data files of this product for reuse, experimentation and redesign by others.

It will be an extension of existing work undertaken by the University of Wollongong Library, including the acquisition and digitisation of significant historical Australian collections: including OZ magazine Sydney (1963-9) and London (1967-73), the Garry Shead and Martin Sharp edited Arty Wild Oat (1962) magazine, and Richard Neville’s The Living Daylights (1973-4).

The Yellow House portal will be integrated with the Library’s existing Digital Collections portal (University of Wollongong Library 2015), and include the technical capability for students and other users to share their experiences and stories regarding experiments with the open source files, thus offering students a new model in which to engage with content.