Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


The Cyberpunk Genre as Social and Technological Analysis

Posted on | August 13, 2018 | No Comments

I once taught a Freshman seminar at New York University in Information System Management (ISM). The course was introductory and only two credits, so I felt we needed a focused, fun, yet comprehensive set of analytical concepts to shape our discussions and assignments about ISM in the modern world. I decided to use the “cyberpunk” genre (a subgenre of science fiction) to look at the relationship between emerging digital technologies and the types of societies they were creating. Can the analysis of genres also be used to analyze attributes of modern technology and their impact on the lives we live?

Frances Bonner’s “Separate Development: Cyberpunk in Film and TV” in HAL-ICONFiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of the Narrative (1992) provided a framework concentrating on “…computers, corporations, crime, and corporeality–the four C’s of cyberpunk film plotting.”[1] The four “C’s” were used by Bonner to analyze whether various films and television shows could be categorized as cyberpunk.

Would cyberpunk include such “Sci-Fi” literary classics as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984)? How about films such as Blade Runner (1982), The Matrix (1999) and the Terminator series? What about the relatively more recent Ready Player One (2018)? The 4Cs can be used to evaluate each of these for their cyberpunk “qualifications.” Bonner considered the TV show Max Headroom to probably be best embodiment of a cyberpunk genre creation based on her the 4 C’s.

Interestingly, cyberpunk looks to have gone mainstream more recently with major blockbuster movies. Often they reflect the 4Cs. Tony Stark, in the Ironman series, for example, embodies corporeality with the use of the Ironman exoskeleton, the corporation with Stark Industries, and computers with networked augmented reality. Its criminality indicts several sources, including corrupt corporate executives, disgruntled Russians, and alien hordes – not standard cyberpunk icons but an indication of the expansion of the genre towards “cy-fi” – cyberfictions.

More recently, The Ghost in the Shell (2017) starring Scarlet Johansson reprised the anime classic by the same name. Created by Masamune Shirow, it became an animated movie in 1995. The movie examines whether memory or action defines identity but uses technology and cyber villainy, with the CEO of Hanka Robotics being its major antagonist.

While the 4 C’s are useful for genre analysis, they can also be helpful categories for socio-technical analysis. The typologies provide classification systems according to structural features that assist distinctions and interpretations. These have been used to examine the iconography of cyberpunk media, such as character types in graphic novels or set designs in films, to determine its adherance to the genre. But they can also help analyze the socio-technical aspects of manufactured products and processes. These include digitally-based services such as search engines or AI. The 4Cs provide convenient analytical categories for examining modern societies by using Bonner’s conceptual tools: Computers/Cyberspace, Corporations, Criminality, and Corporeality.

The 4 “Cs” in Socio-Technical Analysis

Computers can easily be replaced with “cyberspace” as the combination of digital processing and networked communications provides a convenient point of departure for an analysis of contemporary cybersocieties. Technology such as AI and robots have been a staple in cyberpunk, as are networked flying cars.

ColussusComputers initially appeared in literary productions as large, dominant “brains,” such as the giant computer in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) or HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). These were no doubt based on the SAGE computers built by IBM and MIT as part of a North American hemispheric defense system based on radar stations located along the defense early warning (DEW) line ranging from Alaska, along the northern borders of Canada to the tip of Long Island in New York.

By the 1980s, the network capabilities added new dimensions and thus plot devices. War Games (1983) drew on the history of the large mainframe computer (Whoppr) used for nuclear defense purposes but also introduced home terminals and a networked environment. Cyberspace soon competed with science fiction’s interstellar rocket ship as the dominant literary icon.

Cyberspace originally meant virtual environments and simulations that simulate physical spaces, objects, and interactions in a digital context. It referred to data stored in large computers or a network represented as a three-dimensional model through which a virtual-reality user can move. It is represented in media through graphics, keyboards, text-boxes, and human-computer interfaces.

Cyberspace is still often used to refer to the realm of digital communication, especially when it comes to security. Cybersecurity has become an essential discipline for safeguarding digital assets, preserving privacy, maintaining business continuity, and protecting individuals, organizations, and society from the growing threats posed by cybercriminals, hackers, and other malicious actors in cyberspace.

Corporations are organizations with limited liability and strong incentives to maximize profits. Investors are protected to amount of their investments and not liable for negligence or criminal conduct on the part of the organization. Corporations are designed to raise capital by selling shares to the public.

Corporations often have a legal status as “artificial persons,” which gives them rights comparable to human citizens. This peculiar status emerged because of interpretation to a legal decision called Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad that applied the 14th Amendment to corporations. This amendment to the United States Constitution was originally designed to secure rights for the recently freed slaves but corporate lawyers were able to use it to their benefit to ensure corporate entities could enter into legally binding contracts, own property, and to sue other companies and people.

Corporations are prevalent icons in the cyberfiction genres. Intelligent buildings such as Network XXIII’s headquarters in Max Headroom or DieHard‘s Nakatomi Tower represent the phallic connotation of corporate vitality. In the age of ethereal digital money, the marble and steel high-rise is the material representation of modern power. In the theological context, where the power is arranged hierarchically, height attains a spiritual significance. An example from “real” life, the corporate Majestic Tower in Wellington, New Zealand was built next to St. Mary’s Catholic church and given a mocking halo of lights as the country’s elite embraced a new corporate mentality. Corporations are often represented through icons such as skyscrapers, board rooms, logos, AIs, stock prices, ticker tapes, executives.

Criminality is a standard literary device that was successfully applied to the cyberpunk genre. It refers to transgressions of law and addresses issues of ethics. Known historically in crime fiction and especially for its use in the gangster genre. The gangster as a product of the new urban civilization confronted the contradictions of liberal capitalism with its promise of a classless, democratic society. The genre pitted desire against constraint, where the gangster violates the system of rules and bureaucracy in the name of tragic individualism. The gangster character-type with its propensity towards dramatic action and individualistic profiteering has long been a vehicle for politicizing capitalism’s perennial problems — alienation, debt, greed, poverty, and unemployment. While most cyberpunk reifies the individual neo-liberal hacker and “his” struggle against officialdom, its more politicized forms point to skill base and capital investment required of high tech corporate espionage. Criminality in fiction is often represented by icons such as dress, weapons, language, violence, bling, computer hacking, and mug shots.

Corporeality is one of the most intriguing areas of the cyberpunk domain. What is the relationship between human bodies and technologies? What is human consciousness? The ghost in the machine? How do technological developments augment or replace the human body? How can the body be bio-engineered? A central issue is commodification and the body? Drugs, implant devices, and external aids such as eyeglasses and hearing aids are some of the technology sold to augment or control the human body. Cybernetic organisms, Donna Haraway’s “Cyborgs”, and Tim Luke’s “Humachines” constantly test the boundaries of what we consider human and what we consider machine. Corporeality is often represented by icons such as mind-body and other interfaces, drugs, and interchangeable body parts.

Bonner suggested that narratives can be categorized as “cyberpunk” when they include some combination of computers, corporations, crime, and corporeality.[2] The 4 Cs of cyberpunk genre analysis also provides categories to examine the technological, economic, medical, and legal issues facing modern societies. They can help analyze the types of visual textual and auditory techniques that shape our stories of imagined futures. They can also be exploratory categories for understanding current socio-technical trajectories.


[1] Bonner, F. (1992) “Separate Development: Cyberpunk in Film and Television,” In (1992) Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. George Slusser and Tom Shippey (eds.) Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.
[2] ibid, p. 191.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2018, Aug 13) The Cyberpunk Genre as Social and Technological Analysis.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at New York University and St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. He wrote his PhD dissertation on Symbolic Economies and the Politics of Global Cyberspaces (1993) while teaching at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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