Corporations in the Cyberpunk World

Adam Mazer '08, The Cyborg Self, Brown University, Spring 2005

Whether in literature or film, the cyberpunk genre has become known for its darkly powerful technological dystopias. Over time, the genre has evolved to include certain stock elements recognizable as distinctly cyberpunk, one of the most obvious being the existence of large, opressive corporations. This element is often a complex reflection of the present.

One of the most obvious of these elements is the prescence of large, world-dominating corporations. From the Tessier-Ashpools of Neuromancer to the television networks of Max Headroom to the Genom Corporation of Bubblegum Crisis, corporations invariably exert far more control over the worlds of cyberpunk literature than do governments. Why is this? Well, first of all, the cyberpunk genre was created in the 1980s, a time when the role of government in the United States was supposedly being lessened by the Reagan administration. Possibly as a result of this, private corporations gained greater and greater influence over as society. The '80s is, of course, referred to as the "Me decade," and this is due in no small part to the rise in capitalist sentiment and thereby corporate power. Also at this time, technology had become less and less the realm of government, and more that of private corporations, especially with the beginnings of the silicon age and the increased presence of computers.

It makes sense then, that writers concerned with the not-too-distant future would look to the present for inspiration, and in doing so, they recognized that corporations, not governments, were on the forefront of technological domination. They then extended this process to its reasonable conclusion, wherein these corporations become more powerful and important than national governments themselves. This is especially interesting in contrast to earlier near-future dystopias like 1984. In 1948, when Orwell wrote 1984, governments were on the rise; the shadow of totalitarianism, especially the oppressive regime of Stalin in the Soviet Union, loomed large over the entire world. Orwell, then, wrote a novel set in the near future in which government control had become basically complete (and technologically based -- telescreens are basically TVs with surveillance capabilities). Likewise, Gibson, writing somewhat ironically in 1984, saw the rise of corporate power -- especially Japanese corporate power -- and converted that into a bleak future where exclusive corporate families like the Tessier-Ashpools control cities, lives, and even the basis for entire civilizations.

Perhaps one of the reasons the cyberpunk genre has become so popular is that it touches a societal nerver. One of the ways in which it accomplishes this is by drawing on the idea of corporate power. Today, possibly even more than in the '80s, corporations exert a huge amount of control over nearly every aspect of the world. By drawing on people's anxieties about corporate control, cyberpunk cements itself firmly in the minds of almost all who read it.

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Last modified 18 March 2005