"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one
begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts"
— Sherlock Holmes (A. C. Doyle)


Glancing around at the plethora of cyberpunk websites that have been springing up like kudzu from the ashes of old archives on the web, I've noticed a puzzling and worrying trend. Apart from massive lists of guns, vehicles and powered-armour specifications, there's a complete lack of detail about the most interesting parts of a cyberpunk world, the actual societies and current state of the world. It's as if someone writing in 1950 about today's world gave you lists of computer specs and aircraft speeds, and neglected to mention the collapse of Communism or racial desegregation in the USA. That's the puzzling part. The worrying part is the complete fiasco of reasoning that's emerged from those few hapless souls who have actually tried to forge a coherent world structure from the mess of technical data that fascinates so many 'cyberpunks'. You might note I use the term in quotations, a quaint form of indicating my disdain for those people who consider cybernetics, guns, drugs, powered-armour and fast military vehicles to be the essence of cyberpunk, having no doubt entirely forgotten the literary origins of the genre and the essentially lo-tek nature of the world setting.

Time after time I stumble through the thickly-padded datasheets of chronological data from the insanely-ridiculous pages of the original CP2020 and (slightly less ridiculous) Shadowrun manuals. Time after time I find websites devoted to perpetuating gross misconceptions about politics, geography, economics, politics and society. If this was simply ignorance at work I would be tempted to dismiss it out of hand, but amazingly enough it stands side-by-side with scientific tracts that go into excruciating detail about biological, genetic, medical and cyber-mechanical gadgets and innovations! Obviously it wouldn't be fair to say that most cyberpunk websites are written by morons, since the 'scientific' (mostly extrapolations of current hypotheses) aspects are often of excellent calibre, being no doubt written by science majors and such. Yet the paucity of even mediocre writing about possible future events is evident everywhere.

Why do people feel that futuristic scientific postulations require (correctly) some knowledge of science (biology for bioware, electromechanics for cybernetics, etc.) while at the same time believing that political and economic events can be made up out of thin air? It's hilarious to read an article which simultaneously refers to "double-bonded third-iteration sequence polymers" and "the drug-riden [sic] country of Columbia [sic]". What political scientist in their right mind would ever conceive of a scenario which pits Serbs and Turks against their arch-nemesis (!) Italy? What brilliant social theoretician figured that there would be "riots for living space in the USA"?

Such inane, wrong, thick-skulled, stupid and (more politely) uninformed ideas seem to persist, nay, even demand to be accepted as common sense in the many cyberpunk games I've witnessed and read about. Certainly some mistakes must of necessity be overlooked since they derive from old sourcebooks (or research materials) and recent events have overshadowed them - the most notable examples being the use of USSR and EC in CP2020. Yet one wonders why cyberpunk publishers, and their website cousins, seem calcified into an antiquated world structure and cannot seem to shake loose the old cobwebs and grasp new concepts. Talsorian continues to refer to the EEC even years after the formation of the EU (European Union), and stoically stands by its ridiculous claims of Eurotheatre global and orbital domination in the face of _all_ known facts. To take this example further, there is no conceivable way for Europeans to leapfrog the Americans and somehow manage to build mass-drivers, lunar colonies and space stations in so short a time because the Europeans a) don't have nearly as much money available for their space programs as the Americans, b) don't have the scientific community to support massive research into these fields, which are being pioneered by Americans, c) don't have the capability to neutralize America's amazing preponderance in nuclear weapons (that whole pathetic "rocks off washington bit"), d) have way more reasons to be friends with the Americans that to be their enemies. This is only a partial list, but I'm trying not to bore you with the technical details. In short, it's never going to happen, no matter how badly battered America becomes in this Dark Future (tm or something).

Which brings us to that eternal catechism of the cyberpunk faith, the idea that the American economy will 'collapse' and therefore the government will 'collapse' and therefore the United States will somehow cease to exist. Let's get something straight off immediately: countries do not go out of business. They don't 'collapse' for economic or financial, or any other reason short of revolution or invasion. This is a law of economics, and is therefore as immutable as particle physics. That is, it's a law that applies in the real world and can only be broken under very strange circumstances (like physics in a particle accelerator). An economy doesn't collapse unless everyone decides not to go to work ever again. The idea that a stock-market crash will somehow cause the economy to 'collapse' is ludicrous from an economic perspective. The Great Depression was not caused by the 1929 Black Thursday stock-exchange crash. It was caused by several fatal mistakes made by the Federal Reserve Board (American central bank) following the crash, and by the economic recession that was already under way. Everything clear now? So, a stock-market crash, even if it were coupled with the absolute worst-case scenario of high unemployment, vast short-maturity debt, and complete fiscal ineptitude on the part of both the Fed and the Administration would only lead to a severe recession, and even that could be moderated with looser monetary policy. Ugh, just trust me, the USA will never 'collapse' into an economic wasteland; rather, it will more likely become a police state. Then there is the idea of some incredibly-evil dictatorial president seizing power with the help of the intelligence agencies. Another ludicrous concept which has as much credibility from a political-historical-sociological viewpoint as all Japanese suddenly becoming libertarians. You can speculate on it, form opinions on it too, but don't try to disguise such tripe as educated prognostication.

It seems to this not-so-humble writer that most cyberpunk timelines and societies are built on the flimsiest political constructions by people who consider genetic details and gun specs vastly more important than the most basic political and economics facts of the modern world.

To summarize, the cyberpunk genre as presented on the Internet today has become nothing more than a macho street-life of today enhanced with shiny prosthetics, big guns, big vehicles and big bad corporations. Leaving aside the sociological factors of the 70's and 80's that gave birth to the cyberpunk genre, one begs the question why so many cyberpunks continue to perpetuate pathetic misconceptions about the state of the world then (in the late 1980s when the majority of worlds were established) and especially of the world today, a worldview which they no doubt derive from equally-misinformed television 'news' and popular pseudo- documentaries.

So what's to be done about it? Well, for one, take a look at my timeline which, though not perfect either, is at least much closer to fundamental global realities than any other I've seen. Next, take the time to open an atlas before you start defining the destinies of nation-states in the dark future. Learn how to spell 'dependent', 'collaboration', 'hangar', and other complicated words. Look up a few economic facts about comparative advantage, unemployment, income distribution, productivity, and international trade. Don't be shy to ditch all those glossy cyber-thingies in favour of social advances that would be inconceivable today. Try to think of radical new forms of music, art, entertainment. Imagine a world of millions of tiny purchase networks, or computerised plant reforestation, or swelling social movements for causes undreamt-of today. That's the hard part, and that's why it's always ignored in cyberpunk roleplaying. We prefer to stick with warm-and-fuzzy trends of today posing as trends of tomorrow, such as ecological protests or corporate domination. It's easy to extrapolate, but extrapolations of world history are nearly always wrong. Take a chance, make a new world, think hard and drop all the stale cyberpunk cliches. Build a better, brighter tomorrow!

Mateusz Krepicz is a Shadowrun/Neon Twilight GM and full-time Hell-Pisser.
Contents under pressure. Keep away from heat and sunlight.
© 1997 Real Fuckin' Crypto