Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Knowledge Economy and the New Cyberpunk

I was flicking through my old Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook again last night while listening to the football. Fascinating how different the world looked in the 80s. According to the timeline of the 'Night City' setting, there should by 2020 have been a nuclear apocalypse in Australia, a unification of Korea, a collapse of the United States, and a domination of the world economy by Japan and the EU. Meanwhile many events that were totally unexpected have occurred - in Cyberpunk 2020 the USSR is still a major power and China is still a Maoist backwater. (A lesson in epistemic arrogance if ever there was one.)

Of course, it's not really fair to criticise the predictions of a gang of RPG designers and cyberpunk novelists. They never made any claims to be soothsayers - or at least most of them didn't. But nowadays it seems incredible to think that people actually believed Japan would one day be the world's most important economy - especially if you know anything about the huge demographic nightmare which is fast approaching that country.

I have a friend who's something of an expert in economic migration, who did his PhD on the growing knowledge economies in places like Singapore, Mauritius, and the Seychelles. He was telling me over lunch about how the governments in those countries are attempting to create new economies based on human capital: essentially, because (in theory) anybody doing knowledge-based work can nowadays work from anywhere in the world (thanks to the internet), they are hoping that they can attract researchers, scientists, thinkers, from all over the world to live and do business on their territory. This is seen as the perfect developmental model for places like Mauritius, the Seychelles, even possibly Fiji and Cape Verde (not to mention tax havens like the Cayman Islands whose days are likely numbered).

In a future in which cyberspace is even more dominant than it is today, should we not be considering places like Singapore - high tech, agile, expert - to be the kings of the world? They'd be rich and advanced enough to employ armies of cyborgs and elite mercenary units to defend themselves; powerful enough in cyberspace to use it as a security tool and a weapon of war (teams of military programmers scouring the net and eliminating enemies with wetware); and insulated from crime and social decay by strict authoritarian government, communitarian values, and the sea. Food, material goods and menial labour would be imported from the developing world on vast oceangoing liners. Major corporations with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo would set up home there, rather than the chaotic and violent North America or the politically unstable Latin America and Eurasia. These tiny islands, isolated high-tech paradises, would be the utopias of a dystopian world.

Nice beaches, too.


  1. Outdated cyberpunk stuff is always mildly hilarious. I tend to just call it an alternate reality rather than trying to reconcile it with reality - that way we can spend a minute laughing at the idea of jacking in to make a phone call, and get to the gunplay.

    Taken to its extreme, this technique handily justifies room-sized computers in Traveller.

  2. Sure, the technocratic feudatory (Singapore, HK, Shanghai, Freistadt Amsterdam, Dubai, corporate London, Kiribati Datahaven, etc.) is all well and good. But - as Neal Stephenson asked in "Diamond Age" and "Cryptonomicon" - what happens when the still-armed dinosaur regimes across the border, or the swarming hordes of have-nots who see this gleaming jewel of prosperity in their midst, decide to 'share the wealth' a little?

    History shows us that territorial states (generally) trump city states in the long run.

    Then again, neo-feudal knights errant who chafe under gerentocratic misrule sally forth against the technomadic Robin Hoods of the cybernetic age? Yeah. I'd totally play that Cyberpunk.

    Move over Mike Pondsmith: Noisms says you're in his seat. :)

  3. Comic books have occasionally used this idea--the authoritarian cyber-island--for an interesting practical reason:

    The comic book writers want to write about a country, but they can't use a real-world country because that would screw up continuity for all the other comics based in the same "universe", so they invent a small country and make it have whatever problems and/or technologies they want to write about.

    A good example is the island of Gamorra-used extensively in the tragically (literally--the artist died) short-lived series "The Cybernary"

    and later used in the popular series "The Authority".

    The European mainland comic-book forbearer of the isolated, high-tech, semifascist state would be Dr. Doom's Latveria.

  4. I don't really think that model will work (it's a bit like saying that supermarkets will replace farms), but it seems like a great premise for a game.

  5. DestroyYouAlot: Yeah, that's always the best way to take it. A world in which technology, politics and society developed in a completely different way from some unknowable point of divergence around 1989.

    Chris: You're underestimating the power of technology. Singapore is already a biotechnology powerhouse. Simple solution to all those barbarian hordes: anthrax. Or tactical nukes. Or mercenary armies of full-body-conversion cyborgs.

    But that assumes a far more violent world than would probably exist. Imagine a group of, say, a dozen of these technocratic island states; between them and all of the megacorporations based on their soil, they control the internet. They run global politics - probably in a very benign and non-confrontational, soft-power sort of way, because why bother wasting all that time and energy fighting wars? Aside from Singapore they're all miles away from any large land mass and so don't have to worry unduly about economic migrants and refugees.

    Historically, it's true, territorial states have dominated the world. But that paradigm isn't a very old one. There were no states before around 1400-1500 AD. This could all just be a passing phase.

    Zak: Latveria. Was it bordered by a country called Lithuanveria, by any chance?

    I've always been mildly interested in the comic book/continuity thing, as a lay person. (Comic book for me is Asterix. Tintin, Dilbert and Garfield, and nothing more than that). Why doesn't each author just say, "All my books are in my universe and my Batman is just my Barman, and nobody else's"? I don't really understand why the problem exists. (For the same reason, I could never understand why people complained about how later Star Trek series messed up contuinity with older ones. Why not just imagine it as a reboot each time? There were so many other good reasons to hate later Star Trek series, without worrying about how they ruined continuity.)

  6. K. Bailey: But one day supermarkets will replace farms!! ;)

    It is concievable that you could have a country with lots of supermarkets but no farms. The point is not that supermarkets would replace farms everywhere in the world; more that it's possible for (say) Singapore to have supermakets but no farms, provided that there are farms somewhere in the world for it to import food from. It can then concentrate on high-technology and global knowledge hegemony.

  7. Why doesn't each author just say, "All my books are in my universe and my Batman is just my Barman, and nobody else's"?That's sort of how it used to be, back on the Golden Age. Batman had his universe and Superman had his and Flash had his and so on. But then Marvel figured out that people will buy more comic books if you convince them that everything is part of one continuing story, so if you want to really follow what's going on with, say, Spiderman, you really should be keeping tabs on Hulk and Iron Man and so on, because what happens to them will affect Spiderman in the long run.

    The deeper issue is that these are all corporately owned characters, and artists and writers get hired to write them for short runs -- these days, usually not even a year. And the corporations, for reasons mentioned above, want "continuity" maintained. This impulse is where you get crossovers, and it's killing modern comics because it's driven everyone but the obsessive megafans away from actual comic books in favor of movies and stuff. So sooner or later the subscription/continuity model is going to go away, but whether it takes comic books with it is still up in the air. Obviously the movies have figured out a perfectly workable alternative.

  8. @K. Bailey: Matter compilers (Diamond Age)/ Makers (Transmetropolitan) - insert raw materials, add energy, let the magic of nanotech grow food to order. Short of that you have hydroponics, industrial scale aquaculture, Soylent Green food reclamation plants...

    @noisms: Ok, so where all that interesting cyberpunk conflict coming from? Utopias are generally dull in themselves. Are you thinking in terms of flee/reform/smash the system, or are you thinking in terms of characters achieving success within it (Hackers, William Gibson, TSR's Kromosome setting)?

  9. Dana Jorgensen's Neo-City Project netbook for CP2020 imagined a setting like that. It detailed a high-tech floating city at sea. But it looks like he's now pulled it from the web and is planning on pulishing it as a D20 Modern sourcebook.

  10. @Jerry: Really? I wonder if that means those of us who contributed to the Neo-City Project are going to get a cut? 8)

  11. Continuity between comics allows for an unusual and semi-unique (if you don;t count TV) narrative structure: many stories by different authors are also all part of one big story with twists and turns on the macro level.
    This can be fun.

    Plus Batman punching Superman is fun.

    The other reason for the invented countries is that super-heroes usually exist in something like a recognizable contemporary world, and so fucking too much with Japan would make the whole world less recognizably our own then proposing a small, hypothetical Nipponesque island.

  12. Odyssey: I see. Is it really killing modern comics though? As far as I can tell they seem bigger than ever - but then again, I don't know really anything about them.

    Chris: I was thinking that the PCs in this vision of Cyberpunk would just live in The Rest of the World. Alternatively, they could be employees of those governments or of corporations based there, doing missions in foreign climes.

    Then again the idea of revolutionaries (Marxist or whatever) working within the system would be fun too I think.

    Jerry: I hadn't heard about that. Sounds interesting, but the problem is that I just really don't like d20 in general.

    Zak: Batman punching Superman probably is fun. I wonder how long it'll take before there's a crossover movie...

  13. noisms: It's killing modern comics in the sense that WoW is killing tabletop roleplaying games. It's perhaps not so much killing them as making them irrelevant. Comic book ideas are still making money -- a lot of money -- but the subscription base for the actual, printed product is increasingly restricted to rabid fans who've been reading for years and care about the continuity. I've tried to get into reading comics, and I just can't; even on the days when the comic itself isn't obnoxious, it's usually part of some year-long storyline that doesn't make any sense to me. It's getting harder and harder to just pick up a comic book.

    Back on topic . . . Does this mean that the internet/cyberspace is controlled by a handful of semi-corporate interests, or is it still the free-for-all we're used to, with large islands controlled by said interests?

  14. In my second novel, I purposefully used a version of the future reminiscent of the CP2020 timeline, as an alternate reality. Its incongruities (its post-'80's history) made it clear this wasn't simply my take on the actual course of the future, but somewhence entirely.

    As regards the 2013-2020 aesthetic, the Nagel look was perfect at the time, but it does look very ... odd, today. I think Mike's interest in the superficiality of the CP2020 world rings truer in the art today than at the time.

    --IMO--3rd edition's GIJoe/Barby doll photos was perhaps the single worst faux pas in gaming history apart from JG Glory Hole dungeon.

  15. I think the Japanese "democratic catastrophe" is overrated. Reasons:

    a) it's easily fixed by immigration
    b) it's easily fixed by raising women's participation rate
    c) long-term demographic projections are unreliable
    d) it's happening in all the advanced economies
    e) obesity rates in the west may act as a significant dampener on their military and economic capacity

    I think for example the British need to be much more worried about the collapse of their industrial base than the Japanese need to be about their ageing workforce. At least they have somewhere for their young people to work!

    but I do think that the Japanese economic miracle was overrated in the 80s, for the same reason that their war-fighting ability was overrated in the 30s: fear of inscrutable orientals.

    I have a related post up on my blog, about rpg visions of dystopias. I would like to commend it to you, arrogant though that is.

    And sorry if there is a double post, openid was being weird

  16. Timeshadows: I've never actually seen Cyberpunk 3rd edition, but the rumours are enough to put me off...

    faustusnotes: I think those easy fixes are far from easy. Especially the immigration issue. From what I can gather you're talking 10 million people to balance the books - and that will be a huge shock to Japan's system.

  17. Japan's absorbed bigger shocks before, demographic and otherwise. And they don't have to absorb 10 million migrants if they increase the female participation rate to European levels - not exactly a challenging task, particularly since the shakai hoken system already contains large elements of the policy detail necessary to do it.

    Other societies are already facing this "catastrophe" as well, so Japan's economic problems are not as huge comparatively as the pundits on this suggest. And for all its conservatism, Japan has been able to make radical changes several times in the last 200 years. There's no reason to think they will necessarily have to be beaten by this problem which, after all, is comparatively minor compared to the overthrow of the Shogunate or the destruction of most of their young men, both of which problems they recovered from admirably.