Plastic and Chrome

Cyberpunk is a bit overplayed these days. Or at the very least the classic Gibsonian model that we all consider a proper standard. Kids these days like other versions of *punk – like Steampunk or Dieselpunk. Cyberpunk was big in the late 80’s and early 90’s when the web was young and the technology boom was new an exciting. I spent many evenings in those days playing Cyberpunk 2020 and loving every second of it. Today that universe, that quintessential Gibsonian feel seems dated and dull. These days kids won’t even play Cyberpunk if it has no Elves or Dragons in it, like Shadowrun does.

Part of it is that we live too close to it now. The “future” of Neuromancer seems almost anachronistic to use, because in some ways we have surpassed it. While the cyberspace Gibson imagined never panned out, we now have wireless internet delivered to us via hand held devices that fit in the palm of your hand. We don’t have neural implants yet, but we are building augmented reality optics that will help us seamlessly blend the digital and analog experiences. Our corporations have obscene amount of power over governments, but they never took over, nation-state style like in most Cyberpunk settings in large part due to the internet democratizing access to knowledge and reshaping political discourse. Hell, eve even have our own Panther Moderns, but they wear Guy Fawkes masks instead of crazy future cammo, and are more interested in LULZ than activism.

The other part is that we live on the cusp of singularity now. When Cyberpunk was invented, human augmentation was mostly a science-fiction concept. Nowadays transhumanism is a thing – it is a philosophy seriously discussed by academics and scholars. Times have changed and Cyberpunk will soon join other *punk genres on the “Retro/Fantasy” shelf, being taken down from the “Science Fiction” one.

So I propose a new, updated cyberpunk setting which takes transhumanism in stride and takes account of the approaching singularity but still manages to be dystopic enough to be a fun game/story setting. First let’s make a few assertions on top of which we will build this new world:

  1. Human mind can be fully digitized
  2. Citizens chose to give up reproductive rights in exchange for constitutionally guaranteed immortality
  3. While the laws guarantee continuity of life after death, they do not guarantee access to a flesh body and/or presence in the physical world

The immortality problem is a big one – every time you bring it up, people want to talk about overpopulation. So we can assume that at some point in the future we will have a serious discussion about this and might decide that living forever is more important to us than being able to freely reproduce. So we put in a framework that can let us strictly control the number of births. And we do it in a democratic way. You want a kid? You put your name on a waiting list that is strictly first-come-first-served. When someone out there decides to give up on living, or migrate into a virtual world, you get to make your baby. Of course there is a loophole in the system that allows you to trade spots on the list with someone else, or even sell your spot for money.

Most people don’t bother making babies the traditional way. The default method of reproduction works kinda like that described in Black Oceans – basically design your child based on available genome templates, choose desired physical traits and some company will artificially make a baby for you in a test tube. You pay, then nine months later you pick up your baby. Natural pregnancy is just considered too risky. Especially since medicine has lapsed quite a bit due to mind digitization – quite like in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out stories.

It is just much easier to back you up, and then restore you than to try to cure whatever is wrong with your body. Flesh bodies are actually very expensive to maintain, and rather difficult to back-up (flesh brain takes hours to map, whereas digital minds can be saved and loaded in seconds). Thus most people past the age of 18 switch over to mechanical or synthetic platforms that among other things guarantee real-time cloud based backups, immunity to diseases and ease of replacement.

As it is, most people usually use artificial bodies not even capable of reproduction. Rich folks have expensive, squishy bodies that approximate the real thing almost perfectly – think of the androids from the Alien movies. Poor folks have cheep plastic and metal contraptions straight out of the pages of Battle Angel Alita. Most can only afford a synthetic face, mounted on a robotic body – some don’t even have money for that and instead paint elaborate designs on their factory-standard bodies, and tweak their voice-boxes to have a unique voice so that friends can recognize them.

Cheaper Plastic Body

An example of how a lower-end plastic body with a softer synthetic face could look like. The hair is likely a wig, though some individuals may be able to afford realistic synthetic hair.

If you somehow manage to trash your body beyond the repair, and you don’t have enough money for a cheap replacement you are restored as a ghost in the virtual reality network and your real-world spot is up for grabs for anyone who can pay migration fees and afford a body.

The virtual reality system is organized into realms that are either semi-or fully independent. Most of the nation-states run their private “Afterlife” realms that abide by the laws and regulations of that state. The US one is more or less a true-to-life simulation of the late 90’s – a period folks tend to look at with nostalgia now. It is that period of time when technology was sufficiently advanced for comfortable life, but everyone still had flesh bodies and none of the crazy stuff has started going on yet. Once you are in an afterlife realm, you can freely communicate with the real world – you can text, call, communicate via the internet and etc. You can also work, play and do everything a person in the 90’s would.

If you get bored, you can apply to migrate to another realm that abides by different rules. Maybe you want to live in a medieval simulation. Maybe you want to try something more abstract – a realm where you don’t actually have an avatar but instead exist as a disembodied mind, and can concentrate on intellectual pursuits and personal growth. Some realms are accelerated – their subjective time runs faster. The hardware that exists in the real world can emulate human thought patterns quite easily – they are not that CPU intensive. So some realms get really beefed up servers, and crank their subjective clock as fast as it can go. So they experience centuries of actual existence in span of mere hours. A lot of such realms are run by singularity enthusiasts who basically want to speed up global progress this way – though periodically these societies iterate so fast and so far away from the baseline they no longer can communicate with the rest of the world.

In fact, this is one of the big problems of the virtual realms: the trend is that the older a ghost gets, the more bored and detached they become. Most eventually end up in one of the abstract – dis-embodied or accelerated realms becoming some strange super-human mind-constructs that can no longer easily communicate with baselines (but sometimes can contribute via technology or ideas), or worse – they enclose themselves in their own private solipsist realms where they live out some masturbatory fantasies, becoming a dead weight on the system. Realms that go incommunicado for too long, and/or cease to make payments usually get put on a decelerated/throttled schedule where they only get few CPU cycles per hour or so.

I mentioned the default afterlife for US citizens is an idealized 90’s sim, because people want to escape from the weird stuff. What is the weird stuff? Well, some of it is the crap that comes out of the accelerated realms – weird technology – like working implementation of nanomachinery. There exist matter converters and synthesizers that have turned the scarcity based economies upside down, and completely ruined some people, while making others fabulously rich. There are gray goo incidents of escaped nano rampaging through parts of the world dissolving and/or rebuilding it according to some glitch. There are engineered nano-plagues that cause strange effects – some cause viral advertising growths to appear on buildings or artificial bodies. Other cause unpredictable effect – like one strange incident dubbed “Bone Plague” that affected few blocks in Brooklyn. One morning the inhabitants of the “Boneyard” (as it is now known) woke up to discover their bodies and their neighborhood covered with a self-healing layer of bone like substance.

There is Diamond Age / Transmetropolitan style viral advertising via infectious memes that embed themselves in your consciousness and drive you crazy. There are elective memory surgeries like in Glass House – where individuals can choose to excise certain memories (or embedded memes) from their consciousness and reinvent themselves.

And then of course is the grand restructuring project – an Accellerando style conversion of the Solar System into a one big Matrioshka Brain.

So in essence, the world is slowly changing into something different. The sun is slowly dimming due to the re-structuring of the inner planets an converting them into computronium dust – a project sheparded by beings from accelerate realms who can no longer be even described as human. This is wrecking havoc on the Earth’s climate but people don’t care much because local weather can be controlled via mobile micro-sats. The pollution is at all time high, and the natural ecosystems are dying out because of UV radiation, nano-plauges and the toxic waste we produce. But alas, there are almost no flesh-people left in the world, and artificial bodies are not bothered by radiation or polluted air so again – most people don’t care. The planet’s surface is slowly eaten by huge city-hives (the overpopulation thing was a hard fight, so there are a lot of people in the world right now) and server farms. There is an ongoing debate between the people who think clinging to the physical realm is silly, and that all people should migrate into sims, and those who think ghost-existence is less than ideal, and in long term leads to chronic solipsism (thus mass migration into virtual world would spell the end of humanity in long term).

recharging batteries

Those using robotic bodies no longer need to eat or sleep. However, they still have needs – for example, a need to recharge and/or replace their batteries. There is no better way to control poor, annoyed, downtrodden immortals than to give them shitty batteries that need frequent charging.

On the surface of Earth the main conflict is that between the rich corporate types with nice fleshy, synthetic bodies, and poor-downtrodden robot-like under-class which struggles to keep their stranglehold on physical existence and pushes their dilapidated, malfunctioning bodies to their limits just to be able to pay the electric bill to recharge their batteries. While the rich live in comfort, and take walks in idyllic weather controlled gardens, the poor struggle in the radiation blasted, smog filled streets of the mega-cities. Their plastic and chrome shells being constantly corroded by the acid rains, their batteries always leaking and their minds constantly plagued by software glitches and hardware malfunctions.

What would posses a man to live in such hostile environment, rather than choose the comfy retro-90’s simulation? A voracious appetite for life, regardless how bad it is? Fear of loosing oneself in the virtual chaos of the Realms? Attachment to things that are real, rather than the functional lies of the simulated worlds? Or maybe all of the above.

How is that for an “updated” cyberpunk style near-future campaign setting?

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5 Responses to Plastic and Chrome

  1. GermanPete GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    The update sounds pretty neat and feasible to me.
    A bit like a mix of Eclipse Phase (crazy great transhumanism RPG where a lot of people exist only as virtual personae or in cheap synthetic bodies due to some rampant uncontrolled AIs) and what Richard Morgan described in his Takeshi Kovacs novels.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ GermanPete:

    Well, I guess I need to check out Eclipse Phase and Takeshi Kovacs novels now. :)

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  3. cptacek UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    And then an EMP blast deletes everything and everyone dies?

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ cptacek:

    Well, locally sure. But I’d assume the grid would be heavily distributed and decentralized. So it would have to be an apocalyptic scale EMP blast to blanket like most of the civilized world. Even today that would send us straight back to stone age and cause millions of deaths.

    I mean, when was the last time you have experienced an EMP blast that ruined all your electronics? Personally I have seen them only in the movies, so I don’t think it would be such a huge issue.

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  5. Thomas UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    EMP Blast? Cute.

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