I don’t know how you’re all holding up, but this quarantine combined with the ineffective leadership of my federal government here in the United States has led me to seriously reconsider my level of engagement with humanity, the arts, and, to a lesser extent, politics.
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the world, it collides with governments in the West that have spent decades deliberately shedding power, capability, and responsibility, reducing themselves to little more than vestigial organs that coordinate public-private partnerships of civic responsibility. This hollowing of the state began in earnest in the 1980s, and the science fiction of that time—the earliest texts of cyberpunk—imagines what happens when that process is complete. Cyberpunk is a genre of vast corporate power and acute personal deprivation. The technologies at the center of it are all means of control, control bought by the wealthy or broken by criminals. Where recourse is available, in whatever small way, it’s through direct action.
Atherton cites William Gibson, cartoonist Matt Lubchansky, historian Nils Gilman, and author and journalist Tim Maughan, among others to great effect here.
This is grim stuff, but it works to serve a concise point wrapped in a human, community-focused message:
Escaping a Gilded Age takes more than just clever protagonists who can outwit the cruelties and exploitations of the wealthy few. As insurmountable as the power of robber barons once seemed, cataclysm and political action brought the Gilded Age to a resounding end. The inoculations against another Gilded Age are found far less in the works of cyberpunk and far more in the Works Progress Administration. Escaping a Gilded Age takes an active, collective politics, one that refuses to let governments hide behind algorithms or abdication of responsibility to the market.
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