hckr.fyi // thoughts

How to Be a Cyberpunk

by Michael Szul on

This post is a rewrite from the Apotheosis project, and was previously published in both blog and podcast form on Codepunk.

In the last post, we had some fun reliving a little early 2000's Internet culture, but what we're doing here in this project is digging deeper into the roots of cyberspace. That brief interlude was me reminiscing of a time when I was highly involved in an underground culture, while also checking in on an old friend and his work—which is fully immersed in the world-building that Bill Ahern and I are exploring in virtual reality—and seeing how that work reflects upon today.

Prior to that blue blaze path we wrapped up a discussion on Boing Boing and had every intention to look at that other pioneer of early Internet culture: Mondo 2000.

Mondo 2000 Issue 14 from Fun City MegaMedia

Unlike with Boing Boing though, I'm going to start with the end. Or to be more specific, I'm going start with a tome designed as a riff on Internet culture and stereotypes: The Cyberpunk Handbook. The subtitle of this book is The Real Cyberpunk Fakebook, which tells you about all you really need to know. The question then, is whether the Mondo take on cyberpunk in a satirical sounding tome is as poorly comical as the previously read Happy Mutant Handbook, which since our review has been relegated to the recycle bin of history (or at least my actual recycle bin).

Spoilers: I'll be ripping on this tome and Mondo a lot in this post. Don't take offense. As we work backwards in Mondo's history, you'll see my admiration for the magazine and the group. In this post, you'll see my disappointment.

Shelving this into the category of "I read it so you don't have to," Mondo's cyberpunk book might be even worse than the Happy Mutant Handbook. Both of these books represent actual printed investments in ideas of the Internet and one can't help but feel that the mental cycles and paper invested in getting either book out the door could have been better spent on sleep and leaving the trees in the ground respectively.

I'm trying not to be harsh, but there are plenty of us who grew up in the early years of the Internet, wrapped in modem cables, tripping over floppy disks that were actually floppy, and navigating BBS systems that didn't consider computers, cyberpunk, or the digital space as a trash heap of "jokes." I put jokes in quotes because really nothing in the book is funny. In fact, there were even a handful of statements randomly cut off by the writer as an "ah, shucks, forget about it, it's not worth bringing up," including whole chapters that were dismissed in such fashion—an odd approach to bringing up entire sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters only to dismiss it and not even discuss the subject matter.

Now before I get to far into this, I'm well aware that the book was meant as a joke, and is essentially an expanded book version of a "how to be a cyberpunk" flier Mondo created. Still, from Mondo 2000, there isn't even an attempt at pearls of wisdom. At least in the Happy Mutant Handbook there were some serious articles about quality Internet culture—even if the book was mostly dragged back down by the childish nature of Boing Boing's prank obsession. With the The Cyberpunk Handbook, you get a dictionary of some words you might have forgotten over the years (this was actually fun to review), but ultimately, the entire book is an unfunny cash grab that insults cyberpunk as a genre, insults hackers and computer programmers, and doesn't even have the common decency to add to Internet history with some form of relevance. The idea of The Cyberpunk Handbook holds more cultural value than the actual book itself. The book itself is a half-written idea wrapped in a leather jacket, wearing mirrorshades, and outlined nicely into listicles—at least they foreshadowed BuzzFeeds' contribution (or lack thereof) to the Internet.

I read the entire book yesterday, and as I'm writing this, I'm forced to pull it off the shelf because I can barely remember anything of importance that I'd want to bring up as a discussion. The authors mix different sub-cultures together rather than truly defining cyberpunk (goth isn't close to cyberpunk, but okay…), and they overly obsess about the aforementioned leather jackets and mirrored sunglasses because they thought Molly Mirrorshades was cool. They dis Tron, misspell way too many words (because that's cool, bro), and mention bestiality a few too many times (I guess they were 10 years old when they wrote this). The book is forgettable and I only followed through with this discussion because it paints a clear picture of why Mondo 2000 ultimately faded into history.

Both The Cyberpunk Handbook and the Happy Mutant Handbook open with a foreword by Bruce Sterling. In fact, so many of the same people and ideas are referenced by each tome that you would be forgiven for confusing the two or think that The Cyberpunk Manual was a discarded rough draft of Boing Boing's attempt.

Now, we'll get to the history and influence of Mondo 2000 in a later post, which will help bring things more into context, and I promise you, we have an affinity for Mondo.

The reason I led with this publication is because of how well it overlaps with Boing Boing's prank culture. Sharing similar writers and similar geography essentially took both publications in the same direction with the same influences, and—short of the science fiction authors and hackers who contributed to the works—the same comical obsessions that eventually watered down the publications. The Cyberpunk Handbook was published in 1995. This was the same year that the Happy Mutant Handbook saw the light of day. In fact, the movie Hackers also appeared this year, which was a comical Hollywood interpretation of both hacking and the 90's. All three contained a similar view of emergent, youth culture around computers, but each was also just one step far enough away from reality to be a pseudo-representation couched in self-deprecating, semi-nihilistic humor. This was the early years of Clinton neoliberalism. The mystic 60's and 70's that influenced the early Internet culture and early ingenuity had already faded. The 80's battleground between Reaganism and left libertarian counterculture concluded with consumerism now adopted as the dominant religion in America. Bush the First merely built the bridge between Reagan and Clinton with Clinton's free trade stance and the emerging neoliberal philosophy of the Democratic party convincing the youthful transgressors of the new decade that little would change in politics. As Mondo faded and Boing Boing became more commercial, self-deprecating and self-defeating attitudes toward enacting true change devolved into prank culture, 90's stereotypes, and kids at a keyboard playing mostly videos games and talking on AOL chatrooms.

Three years prior to The Cyberpunk Handbook saw the publication of Mondo 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge, which acted as an anthology of essays on cyberpunk, cyberspace, and the computer sub-culture. We'll tackle that publication next as we work our way backwards in time, but it's worth mentioning that both tomes cover the same subject matter with The Cyberpunk Handbook being almost a parody of the former—as if Mondo saw their declining influence and/or declining ability to keep the magazine running on all cylinders and decided the best way forward was embracing the emerging self-deprecating attitudes and insult humor of the time.