Trollpunk Is the New Cyberpunk
My friend Claire Evans has an excellent post on Motherboard asking “What Happened to Cyberpunk?” Why is cyberpunk, the genre/movement that coupled obsession with information technology and wraparound sunglasses, giving us Blade Runner and Neuromancer, only brought up in the context of rollerblade jokes today?
Claire’s answer: Cyberpunk didn’t really go anywhere. It’s everywhere.
It’s under our noses. Privacy and security online. Megacorporations with the same rights as human beings. Failures of the system to provide for the very poor. The struggle to establish identity that is not dependent on a technological framework: the common themes of the cyberpunk classics are the vital issues of 2012. Quite simply, we’re already there.
I think she’s totally right. Cyberpunk set the stage for its own demise by being almost too prescient.
But this raises the question: If the fucked-up labyrinth of today has obviated the kind of speculation that drove cyberpunk, what’s taken its place? What’s the current ascendent culture among the young and net-obsessed? The only obvious answer is troll culture. Which, at the risk of an infinite scroll of #seapunk jokes flooding my timeline, I will refer to as trollpunk. I only got five hours of sleep last night and just don’t feel like writing “troll culture” forty times in a row like some coffee-addled anthropology grad student, OK? (No offense, Whitney.)
Like cyberpunk, trollpunk is hard to define, and any attempt will generate noxious clouds of butthurt large enought to blot out the sun. But here: Trollpunk is an aesthetic, technological, and even literary movement focused on the drama that occurs when you fuck shit up on the internet. General touchstones include: 4chan and Anonymous, “Doing it for the Lulz,” ragefaces, N00dz, doxing, swatting, and all activities from Wiki-definition of “trolling”. Basically, trollpunk is underground web culture.
Trollpunk used to be the domain of gross trolls who defaced Facebook memorial page or Anonymous partisans planning Scientology raids in IRC. But all the Tumblr kids wanted in, and then old people on Facebook discovered image macros and now trollpunk has become an important part of mainstream internet culture, whatever that is. Nyan Cat, the hacker group LulzSec’s unofficial logo is in a Sprint commercial. Someone would probably be writing the trollpunk equivalent of Wired’s 1993 ”cyberpunk is dead” piece right about now if anyone had bothered to define trollpunk in the first place.
That mainstreaming story just one of many similarities between cyberpunk and trollpunk. Both share close proximity to online message boards and hackers, for another. Cyberpunk founding father Bruce Sterling describes in his epic non-fiction book The Hacker Crackdown how one of his sci-fi writer colleagues was raided when Feds mistook one of his book for a real-life hacking guide. Most of trollpunk came from, or was at least distilled by, 4chan and Anonymous hackers.
Cyberpunk and trollpunk are both a special kind of edgy, tracing (some times crossing) the boundaries set up by contemporary information technology in search of new freedom. But they’re on perpendicular edges. Cyberpunk trucked off into the unknown cyberspace of the near future; trollpunk finds the cracks in today’s internet: unguarded Facebook profiles, trollable commenters, remixable memes.
And both movements have had a real impact on how we approach information technology in general. Claire writes that cyberpunk bent reality towards the fantasies it depicted: “Our idea of technology, our sense of what it can do and how we can live with it, is always going to be at least partially informed by the speculative fiction that first introduced us to it.” Similarly, the antics of trollpunks have highlighted certain values in the web. On the positive side would be the value of unbridled creativity and a fearlessness of failure. A negative would be a callousness towards privacy: 4chan trolls pioneered the “revenge porn” genre of stolen sexts popularized and monetized by Hunter Moore’s Is Anyone Up.
It’s in the cultural products of cyberpunks and trollpunks that the comparison sort of falls apart. Cyberpunk left us gems like Neuromancer, Sterling’s Hacker Crackdown and Angelina Jolie’s hair in Hackers. Trollpunks’ contributions to the culture are less important but are maybe more… uh formally interesting? Still, it’s not entirely clear that today’s punk is any less punk. We’ve all trolled and been trolled. But there can only be one William Gibson.