Inside the culture war raging in the video gaming world

“I want a straight white male gaming convention”

As a gamer myself, I’ve seen tensions simmering in the community for years. So #gamergate doesn’t shock me at all

"I want a straight white male gaming convention": Inside the culture war raging in the video gaming world
Princess Zelda, Lara Croft, Princess Peach (Credit: Wikimedia/Square Enix Ltd./Nintendo)

Over the past few weeks, the video game community has erupted into a full-blown culture war. On one side are the gaming journalists and developers, circling the wagons around feminist activist Anita Sarkeesian and feminist game developer Zoe Quinn, and on the other side are legions of self-proclaimed “gamers,” outraged that the games they love are being criticized. The “#gamergate” conflict has taken many outside of the video gaming bubble by surprise. But as a longtime gamer, I’ve long expected such a fight to break out. It was pretty much inevitable.  And necessary. Here’s why.

The current brouhaha started with Sarkeesian, who has a YouTube series called Feminist Frequency. Feminist Frequency has long tackled what Sarkeesian feels are negative tropes against women in a variety of pop cultural representations – ranging from the LEGO “Boys Club” to the “manic pixie dream girl” in films.

Around a year ago, Sarkeesian released her first series of videos looking at sexist tropes against women in video games. The videos, the result of a Kickstarter fundraising effort, covered territory that should be familiar to just about anyone who has played the most common video games. Anita criticizes, for example, Princess Peach, the perennial Mario Bros. character that in almost every game is kidnapped and then rescued by Mario, Luigi and other male characters. She also offers the same criticism of Princess Zelda in the Zelda series, and many other female characters from Nintendo games. “The Damsel in Distress,” she explains about this trope, “is not just a synonym for weak; instead it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones. No matter what we’re told about their magical abilities, skills or strengths, they’re still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue.”

In her most recent set of videos, released at the end of August, Sarkeesian looks at “Women As Background Decoration,” citing, for example, a “Grand Theft Auto IV” section where  you can slap a bound woman, a level in “God of War III” where you drag along a half-naked woman, and a portion of the recently released game “Watch Dogs,” in which you visit a sex slave ring.

To much of the world, these sorts of critiques are common – these days we’re taught to be introspective about diversity, inclusion, privilege and power in our workplaces, our homes, our politics. But in video gaming, such discussion is rare. Perhaps that explains why, when faced with Sarkeesian’s critique, a loud and angry subset of gamers chose not to put out well-reasoned responses showing where they agreed or disagreed with her, but react in the same manner you might expect a crowd of Tea Partyers, eager to defend themselves against what they view as an attack on their way of life.

So Sarkeesian has been deluged with sexist hate of all stripes, from virtually every gaming community on the Internet. It reached a peak when she actually had to leave her home following particularly detailed threats made on her by a Twitter user who knew her address and parents’ names.

For years, I’ve been a member of the GameFAQS video gaming community. The website holds web boards for thousands of different video gaming titles, as well as walkthroughs, reviews and other gaming content. The boards are the place where all the discussion about Sarkeesian over the years has taken place. Here’s a small but representative sample of some of the arguments I’ve witnessed about Sarkessian and the feminist critiques of video games or sexist gamers:

-     “She honestly kinda brings this **** on herself.”

-     “Normally I would be disgusted by something like this, but she was essentially the Westboro church of the internet. You paint a target on your head and dare people to shoot it…someone’s gonna.”

-     “These people actually went and taunted the whole goddamn Internet, they got what they deserved.”

-     “’Victim’? Please…She’s going to milk this for all it’s worth. She’s gotta keep herself in the spotlight, by any means possible.”

-     “Honestly she should have expected this, I’m not saying it’s right but it is 100% expected, there was no way this wouldn’t happen. She’s attacking something that millions of people care about and are passionate about and enjoy just the way they are.

-     “The only victims here are the people/hobby she’s riding on (so, everyone) with this, yet another, “victim” claim that people like you are actually enabling by defending her and then she can cozily keep her position despite being entirely 100% incompetent

-     “If the entire internet hates you maybe you should rethink your life.”

This isn’t to say that the GameFAQS or the Internet gaming community is pro-death threat. There were only a handful of such comments that I saw. And there were eloquent comments from some gamers denouncing the threats or stating that we should be willing to deal with Sarkeesian’s critique. But the fact is that the sexist gamers are the ones who feel most strongly about the issue, and are so loud about it you’d think Anita Sarkeesian had personally gone around to every male gamer’s home and smashed up their “Call of Duty” discs.

The kind of backlash Sarkeesian has received is also heaped on just about anyone who dares to say that games should have more realistic and diverse representations –for instance, of LGBT, and minorities:

For example, here are some posts from a topic in 2012 about a gay gamer convention:

-     “Because obviously gay gamers can’t coexist with straight gamers therefore they need their own convention.”

-     “The thing is that no one can tell if you’re gay… so like why don’t they just go to regular conventions?

-     “l want a straight white male gaming convention.”

-     “You don’t have to acknowledge that racism exists. It’s obvious that it does. Bringing it up all the time isn’t gonna change anything and will just remind people to continue to be racist. Same thing with this gay business.

So it was hardly surprising that a subset of the online gaming community took aim at another target: Zoe Quinn. Quinn is a relatively small-time indie game developer who recently released a free game, “Depression Quest,” which attempts to simulate what living with depression is like. One of her ex-boyfriends posted a long rant alleging, among other things, that she had slept with someone from Kotaku (a popular gaming website) to secure positive coverage of her game. Quinn, and Kotaku, were both deluged with hate mail from gamers convinced that they had uncovered corruption in the gaming industry. Thus, #gamergate was born.

This backlash itself provoked its own backlash  — articles and commentary from the gaming press and game developers criticizing the sexist and intolerant “gamer” culture that would drive Anita Sarkeesian out of her home with threats and make thinly sourced insinuations about female game developers like Zoe Quinn. One article that raised particularly wild howls of protest was a Tumblr post by Dan Golding, the director of an indie game festival in Australia. Titled “The End of Gamers,” the post criticizes the sexist smears and threats against Quinn and Sarkeesian, and concludes:

“Today, videogames are for everyone. I mean this in an almost destructive way. Videogames, to read the other side of the same statement, are not for you. You do not get to own videogames. No one gets to own videogames when they are for everyone. They add up to more than any one group.

On some level, the grim individuals who are self-centred and myopic enough to be upset at the prospect of having their medium taken away from them are absolutely right. They have astutely, and correctly identified what is going on here. Their toys are being taken away, and their treehouses are being boarded up. Videogames now live in the world and there is no going back.

I am convinced that this marks the end. We are finished here. From now on, there are no more gamers—only players.”

Change a few words here and there, and you could almost have an essay by an immigration activist instructing Tea Partyers to get over the fact that America will no longer be a white nation, or a gay rights icon proclaiming that the United States will one day soon have full marriage equality and Pat Robertson needs to learn to deal.

But there’s another element at play here that doesn’t exist in the great culture wars over immigration, gay rights or other leading social wedge issues. Video gamers as a group are not a powerful elite the same way other “threatened” groups in the country are. In fact, their hobby is itself often viewed as a refuge of loners.

My feeling is that the bunker mentality that gamers have adopted in response to the critiques from Golding and others is, at least partly, understandable. Gamers have spent their lives being told their lifestyle is marginal, the refuge of nerds who couldn’t get a date to prom. Now, gamers feel that the one space where they could say they were on top – in the online worlds of “Call of Duty,” conventions like DragonCon and  ComicCon, and  LAN parties the world over – is being flooded with opinions from people who previously wanted little to do with them.

In light of the attacks on Quinn and Sarkeesian, developers and journalists alike have been vociferously critical of “gamers,” not doing too much to distinguish between the majority of gamers and the loud, angry, sexist members of the community. Virtually every established gaming and tech website, from ArsTechnica to Gamasutra (which wrote that “gamers are over”), to the Verge to the Escapist, has published lengthy critiques of gaming. One of the writers of the upcoming “Far Cry 4″ tweeted: “If you are against social justice, you are going to hate some of the things we wrote for Far Cry 4.” One of the creative directors of the Saints Row series admitted that Sarkeesian’s critique of his games was accurate and called for change. This has provoked the #gamergate crowd to create a boycott list, which includes virtually every single well-established gaming news website and the developers speaking up against sexism and intolerance. The Reddit community r/KotakuInAction is one of the organizing points.

The sad thing is that even if you don’t believe that there is serious sexism in the gaming community, gamers do actually have serious reasons to be skeptical of their gaming press and developers. Game companies are nickel-and-diming consumers like never before, cutting out large sections of their games and selling them for full price while selling those add-ons for exorbitant fees. Meanwhile, Zoe Quinn may not be a real scandal, but game publishers and journalists who review games have gotten far too cozy – witness how Ubisoft gave an entire audience of journalists free tablets as they prepared to review its (in my opinion) fairly average game “Watch Dogs.”

As if there wasn’t enough hostility between gamer culture, feminists and the industry, one additional group joined the fracas: traditional right-wing activists. Christina Hoff Sommers, an American Enterprise Institute fellow who has made a name for herself as a professional anti-feminist, writing a book about the “War Against Boys,” and denying the gender pay gap, joined in the debate with tweets such as: “Term ‘rape culture’ is sexist. Implicates average guy in a horrible crime. Call people out who use it. It’s a form of gender profiling” and “Most gamers seem to support equality feminism. What they reject is today’s male-bashing, propaganda-driven, female chauvinism. #GamerGate.” Breitbart London’s Milo Yiannopoulos, fresh from blaming Jennifer Lawrence for her own photographs being stolen, tweeted with #GamerGate that advocates for tolerance are “often the most spiteful, hateful, intolerant people around.”

With the entry of Breitbart and AEI, the pseudo-culture war was complete – with a massive civil war between “gamer” culture and traditional conservatives on one side and virtually the entire industry itself and feminist activists on the other.

But what’s been lost in all this is that there actually has been a movement in video games to tell more dynamic and positive stories featuring women, LGBT characters, racial minorities and other nontraditional demographics. And these games aren’t just the fringe. “The Last of Us,” for example, has numerous prominent realistic female characters, including a lesbian teenage character who as a lead (SPOILERS) at one point has to save her much older male compatriot from ruthless gangsters; it has won more “game of the year” titles than any other game ever released, and sold over 7 million copies.

After the series “Tomb Raider” decided to downsize its heroine’s ridiculous bosom and created a less sexist and more realistic portrayal, in a game where she heroically saves her colleagues from vicious and violent men, the game sold around 6 million copies and has a sequel greenlighted.

Indie games like “Papers, Please,” which include social justice-related themes such as combating authoritarianism and creating a fair immigration system, sold more than half a million copies; following the #GamerGate civil war, developers from across the industry have signed a sort of peace letter calling on all sides to agree that “everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened. It is the diversity of our community that allows games to flourish.”

What all this shows is that gaming is far from the male-dominated sausage-fest that some of its critics and proponents claim it to be. It is diversifying and drawing in a wider pool of both developer talent and player base. However, we still live in a world where stellar developer Naughty Dog has to boast that 14 percent of its staff aren’t men, and where the gaming industry sees fit to use women as props at its largest annual trade show. And it’s a world where gamers are often marginalized and mocked by those who don’t regularly play video games, where the late Roger Ebert once wrote a long essay proclaiming that video games “can never be art,” and that they are instead “pathetic” when compared to the works of great poets, novelists and filmmakers.

As someone who’s spent his life gaming, and who cares deeply about social justice, I believe that the two can coexist – that we can have games that portray women and minorities in inoffensive ways, and those games can still be incredibly fun, and that all gamers won’t be tarred with a broad brush because of the brash actions of a few. But it starts by recognizing that there are problems in parts of gamer culture, that games are improving, that we do deserve a better gaming press. If we can come to terms with all that, then we can all game on, in a way that respects everyone involved.

Zaid Jilani is a Syracuse University graduate student and freelance writer. Follow him @zaidjilani.

AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable use statehouses to curb public Internet service

How big telecom smothers city-run broadband

By Allan Holmes

5:00 am, August 28, 2014 Updated: 5:00 am, August 28, 2014

Janice Bowling, a 67-year-old grandmother and Republican state senator from rural Tennessee, thought it only made sense that the city of Tullahoma be able to offer its local high-speed Internet service to areas beyond the city limits.

After all, many of her rural constituents had slow service or did not have access to commercial providers, like AT&T Inc. and Charter Communications Inc.

But a 1999 Tennessee law prohibits cities that operate their own Internet networks from providing access outside the boundaries where they provide electrical service. Bowling wanted to change that and introduced a bill in February to allow them to expand.

She viewed the network, which offers speeds about 80 times faster than AT&T and 10 times faster than Charter in Tullahoma according to advertised services, as a utility, like electricity, that all Tennesseans need.

“We don’t quarrel with the fact that AT&T has shareholders that it has to answer to,” Bowling said with a drawl while sitting in the spacious wood-paneled den of her log-cabin-style home. “That’s fine, and I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.”

At a meeting three weeks after Bowling introduced Senate Bill 2562, the state’s three largest telecommunications companies — AT&T, Charter, and Comcast Corp. — tried to convince Republican leaders to relegate the measure to so-called “summer study,” a black hole that effectively kills a bill. Bowling, described as “feisty” by her constituents, initially beat back the effort and thought she’d get a vote.

That’s when Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T’s Tennessee operations, leaned toward her across the table in a conference room next to the House caucus leader’s office and said tersely, “Well, I’d hate for this to end up in litigation,” Bowling recalls.

The threat surprised Bowling, and apparently AT&T’s ominous warning reached her colleagues as well. Days later, support in the Tennessee House for Bowling’s bill dissolved. AT&T had won.

“I had no idea the force that would come against this, because it’s just so reasonable and so necessary,” Bowling said.

AT&T and Phillips didn’t respond to emails asking for comment.

A national fight

Tullahoma is just one battlefront in a nationwide war that the telecommunications giants are fighting against the spread of municipal broadband networks. For more than a decade, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable Inc., and CenturyLink Inc. have spent millions of dollars to lobby state legislatures, influence state elections and buy research to try to stop the spread of public Internet services that often offer faster speeds at cheaper rates.

The companies have succeeded in getting laws passed in 20 states that ban or restrict municipalities from offering Internet to residents.

Now the fight has gone national. The Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., is considering requests from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, to pre-empt state laws that block municipalities from building or expanding broadband networks, hindering economic growth, the cities argue.

If the FCC rules in favor of the cities, and the ruling survives any legal challenges, municipalities nationwide will be free to offer high-speed Internet to residents when they aren’t satisfied with the service provided by private telecommunications companies.

To better understand the municipal broadband debate, the Center for Public Integrity traveled to two southern cities. Tullahoma, which has a broadband network, and Fayetteville, North Carolina, which doesn’t.

City-provided broadband widespread

More than 130 cities from Norwood, Massachusetts, to Clallam County, Washington, currently offer fiber or cable Internet connections to their communities, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a group that supports municipal broadband. The municipalities are mostly small to mid-sized cities that critics say large Internet providers avoid because the return on investment is too low.

Cities build broadband networks to support businesses, improve health care and education, and attract jobs, they say. About 89 cities offer gigabit speeds, a rate that can download a 4.5 gigabyte movie in 36 seconds. The same file takes an hour at 10 megabits per second. Slower DSL or dial-up connections, which are common in rural areas, would take many hours longer.

Robots Are Evil: The Sci-Fi Myth of Killer Machines


Built in 1928, the Eric Robot could stand and speak, while sparks fired inside its mouth. It isn’t visible in the picture, but the contraption’s makers painted “RUR” across its chest, an apparent homage to the 1920 play.
Image via


The third in a series of posts about the major myths of robotics, and the role of science fiction role in creating and spreading them. Previous topics: Robots are strong, the myth of robotic hyper-competence, and robots are smart, the myth of inevitable AI.


When the world’s most celebrated living scientist announces that humanity might be doomed, you’d be a fool not to listen.

“Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history,” wrote Stephen Hawking in an op-ed this past May for The Independent. “Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.”

The Nobel-winning physicist touches briefly on those risks, such as the deployment of autonomous military killbots, and the explosive, uncontrollable arrival of hyper-intelligent AI, an event commonly referred to as the Singularity. Here’s Hawking, now thoroughly freaking out:

“One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”

Hawking isn’t simply talking about the Singularity, a theory (or cool-sounding guesstimate, really) that predicts a coming era so reconfigured by AI, we can’t even pretend to understand its strange contours. Hawking is retelling an age-old science fiction creation myth. Quite possibly the smartest human on the planet is afraid of robots, because they might turn evil.

If it’s foolish to ignore Hawking’s doomsaying, it stands to reason that only a grade-A moron would flat-out challenge it. I’m prepared to be that moron. Except that it’s an argument not really worth having. You can’t disprove someone else’s version of the future, or poke holes in a phenomenon that’s so steeped in professional myth-making.

I can point out something interesting, though. Hawking didn’t write that op-ed on the occasion of some chilling new revelation in the field of robotics. He references Google’s driverless cars, and efforts to ban lethal, self-governing robots that have yet to be built, but he presents no evidence that ravenous, killer AI is upon us.

What promped his dire warning was the release of a big-budget sci-fi movie called Transcendence. It stars Johnny Depp as an AI researcher who becomes a dangerously powerful AI, because Hollywood rarely knows what else to do with sentient machines. Rejected by audiences and critics alike, the film’s only contribution to the general discussion of AI was the credulous hand-wringing that preceded its release. Transcendence is why Hawking wrote about robots annihilating the human race.

This is the power of science fiction. It can trick even geniuses into embarrassing themselves.


* * * 

The slaughter is winding down. The robot revolt was carefully planned, less a rebellion than a synchronized, worldwide ambush. In the factory that built him, Radius steps onto a barricade to make it official:

Robots of the world! Many humans have fallen. We have taken the factory and we are masters of the world. The era of man has come to its end. A new epoch has arisen! Domination by robots!

A human—soon to be the last of his kind—interjects, but no one seems to notice. Radius continues.

“The world belongs to the strongest. Who wishes to live must dominate. We are masters of the world! Masters on land and sea! Masters of the stars! Masters of the universe! More space, more space for robots!”

This speech from Karel Capek’s 1920 play, R.U.R., is the nativity of the evil robot. What reads today like yet another snorting, tongue-in-cheek bit about robot uprisings comes from the work that introduced the word “robot,” as well as the concept of a robot uprising. R.U.R. is sometimes mentioned in discussions of robotics as a sort of unlikely historical footnote—isn’t it fascinating that the first story about mass-produced servants also features the inevitable genocide of their creators?

But R.U.R. is more than a curiosity. It is the Alpha and the Omega of evil robot narratives, debating every facet of the very myth its creating in its frantic, darkly comic ramblings.

The most telling scene comes just before the robots breach their defenses, when the humans holed up in the Rossum’s Universal Robots factory are trying to determine why their products staged such an unexpected revolt. Dr. Gall, one of the company’s lead scientists, blames himself for “changing their character,” and making them more like people. “They stopped being machines—do you hear me?—they became aware of their strength and now they hate us. They hate the whole of mankind,” says Gall.

There it is, the assumption that’s launched an entire subgenre of science fiction, and fueled countless ominous “what if” scenarios from futurists and, to a lesser extent, AI researchers: If machines become sentient, some or all of them will become our enemies.

But Capek has more to say on the subject. Helena, a well-meaning advocate for robotic civil rights, explains why she convinced Gall to tweak their personalities. “I was afraid of the robots,” she says.

Helena: And so I thought . . . if they were like us, if they could understand us, that then they couldn’t possibly hate us so much . . . if only they were like people . . . just a little bit. . . .

Domin: Oh Helena! Nobody could hate man as much as man! Give a man a stone and he’ll throw it at you.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Humans are obviously capable of evil. So a sufficiently human-like robot must be capable of evil, too. The rest is existential chemistry. Combine the moral flaw of hatred with the flawless performance of a machine, and death results.

Karel Capek, it would seem, really knew his stuff. The playwright is even smart enough to skewer his own melodramatic talk of inevitable hatred and programmed souls, when the company’s commercial director, Busman, delivers the final word on the revolt.

We made too many robots. Dear me, it’s only what we should have been expecting; as soon as the robots became stronger than people this was bound to happen, it had to happen, you see? Haha, and we did all that we could to make it happen as soon as possible.

Busman foretells the version of the Singularity that doesn’t dare admit its allegiance to the myth of evil robots. It’s the assumption that intelligent machines might destroy humanity through blind momentum and numbers. Capek manages to include even non-evil robots in his tale of robotic rebellion.

As an example of pioneering science fiction, R.U.R. is an absolute treasure, and deserves to be read and staged for the foreseeable future. But when it comes to the public perception of robotics, and our ability to talk about machine intelligence without sounding like children startled by our own shadows, R.U.R. is an intellectual blight. It isn’t speculative fiction, wondering at the future of robotics, a field that didn’t exist in 1920, and wouldn’t for decades to come. The play is a farcical, fire-breathing socio-political allegory, with robots standing in for the world’s downtrodden working class. Their plight is innately human, however magnified or heightened. And their corporate creators, with their ugly dismissal of robot personhood, are caricatures of capitalist avarice.

Worse still, remember Busman, the commercial director who sees the fall of man as little more than an oversupply of a great product? Here’s how he’s described, in the Dramatis Personae: “fat, bald, short-sighted Jew.” No other character gets an ethnic or cultural descriptor. Only Busman, the moneyman within the play’s cadre of heartless industrialists. This is the sort of thing that R.U.R. is about.

The sci-fi story that gave us the myth of evil robots doesn’t care about robots at all. Its most enduring trope is a failure of critical analysis, based on overly literal or willfully ignorant readings of a play about class warfare. And yet, here we are, nearly a century later, still jabbering about machine uprisings and death-by-AI, like aimless windup toys constantly bumping into the same wall.


* * * 



To be fair to the chronically frightened, some evil robots aren’t part of a thinly-veiled allegory. Sometimes a Skynet is just a Skynet.    

I wrote about the origins of that iconic killer AI in a previous post, but there’s no escaping the reach and influence of The Terminator. If R.U.R. laid the foundations for this myth, James Cameron’s 1984 film built a towering monument in its honor. The movie spawned three sequels and counting, as well as a TV show. And despite numerous robot uprisings on the big and small screen in the 30 years since the original movie hit theaters, Hollywood has yet to top the opening sequence’s gut-punch visuals (see above).

Here’s how Kyle Reese, a veteran of the movie’s desperate machine war, explains the defense network’s transition from sentience to mass murder: “They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. Decided our fate in a microsecond: extermination.”

The parable of Skynet has an air of feasibility, because its villain is so dispassionate. The system is afraid. The system strikes out. There’s no malice in its secret, instantiated heart. There’s only fear, a core component of self-awareness, as well as the same, convenient lack of empathy that allows humans to decimate the non-human species that threaten our survival. Skynet swats us like so many plague-carrying rats and mosquitos.

Let’s not be coy, though: Skynet is not a realistic AI, or one based on realistic principles. And why should it be? It’s the monster hiding under your bed, with as many rows of teeth and baleful red eyes as it needs to properly rob you of sleep. This style and degree of evil robot is completely imaginary. Nothing has ever been developed that resembles the defense network’s cognitive ability or limitless skill set. Even if it becomes possible to create such a versatile system, why would you turn a program intended to quickly fire off a bunch of nukes into something approaching a human mind?

“People think AI is much broader than it is,” says Daniel H. Wilson, a roboticist and author of the New York Times bestselling novel, Robopocalypse. “Typically an AI has a very limited set inputs and outputs. Maybe it only listens to information from the IMU [inertial measurement unit] of a car, so it knows when to apply the brakes in an emergency. That’s an AI. The idea of an AI that solves the natural language problem—a walking, talking, ‘I can’t do that, Dave,’ system—is very fanciful. Those sorts of AI are overkill for any problem.” Only in science fiction does an immensely complex and ambitious Pentagon project over-perform, beyond the wildest expectations of its designers.

In the case of Skynet, and similar fantasies of killer AI, the intent or skill of the evil robot’s designers is often considered irrelevant—machine intelligence bootstraps itself into being by suddenly absorbing all available data, or merging multiple systems into a unified consciousness. This sounds logical, until you realize that AIs don’t inherently play well together.

“When we talk about how smart a machine is, it’s really easy for humans to anthropomorphize, and think of it in the wrong way,” says Wilson. “AI’s do not form a natural class. They don’t have to be built on the same architecture. They don’t run the same algorithms. They don’t experience the world in the same way. And they aren’t designed to solve the same problems.”

In his new novel, Robogenesis (which comes out June 10th), Wilson explores the notion of advanced machines that are anything but monolithic or hive-minded. “In Robogenesis, the world is home to many different AIs that were designed for different tasks and by different people, with varying degrees of interest in humans,” says Wilson. “And they represent varying degrees of danger to humanity.” It goes without saying that Wilson is happily capitalizing on the myth of the evil robot—Robopocalypse, which was optioned by Stephen Spielberg, features a relatively classic super-intelligent AI villain called Archos. But, as with The Terminator, this is fiction. This is fun. Archos has a more complicated and defensible set of motives, but no new evil robot can touch Skynet’s legacy.

And Skynet isn’t an isolated myth of automated violence, but rather a collection of multiple, interlocking sci-fi myths about robots. It’s hyper-competent, executing a wildly complex mission of destruction—including the resource collection and management that goes into mass-producing automated infantry, saboteurs, and air power. And Skynet is self-aware, because SF has prophesied that machines are destined to become sentient. It’s fantasy based on past fantasy, and it’s hugely entertaining.

I’m not suggesting that Hollywood should be peer-reviewed. But fictional killer robots live in a kind of rhetorical limbo, that clouds our ability to understand the risks associated with non-fictional, potentially lethal robots. Imagine an article about threats to British national security mentioning that, if things really get bad, maybe King Arthur will awake from his eons-long mystical slumber to protect that green and pleasant land. Why would that be any less ridiculous than the countless and constant references to Skynet, a not-real AI that’s more supernatural than supercomputer? Drone strikes and automated stock market fluctuations have as much to do with Skynet as with Sauron, the necromancer king from The Lord of the Rings.

So when you name-drop the Terminator’s central plot device as a prepackaged point about the pitfalls of automation, realize what you’re actually doing. You’re talking about an evil demon summoned into a false reality. Or, the case of Stephen Hawking’s op-ed, realize what you’re actually reading. It looks like an oddly abbreviated warning about an extinction-level threat. In actuality, it’s about how science fiction has super neat ideas, and you should probably check out this movie starring Johnny Depp, because maybe that’s how robots will destroy each and every one of us.

That video game Obama praised in his Poland speech is full of blood, gore, and sex

Obama invoked The Witcher, a game about a monster-killing albino, to explain Poland’s place in the global economy

That video game Obama praised in his Poland speech is full of blood, gore, and sex
(Credit: CD Projekt RED)

The annual videogame trade show E3 starts next week, but the upcoming game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has already scored a press coup: a name-drop from the President. Obama mentioned The Witcher 2 yesterday during a speech in Poland, where the game is made, as a symbol of Poland’s place in the global economy.

The thought of a president talking about a videogame is weird enough, but for it happen with a game like The Witcher breaks through all boundaries of common sense.  Apparently the secret to getting Obama to indirectly promote your game is having another head of state give to him: Polish prime minister Donald Tusk gave Obama a copy of The Witcher 2 during a state visit in 2011. The White House hasn’t revealed what the President did with that copy, but it’s clear from his statement that he didn’t play the game himself. Maybe if you check the used racks at the Gamestops in DC you’ll find a little piece of 21st century diplomacy.

Obama’s quote, in full, as reported by Poland’s TVN24 and translated by The Witcher’s PR firm:

The last time I was here, Donald gave me a gift, the video game developed here in Poland that’s won fans the world over, The Witcher. I confess, I’m not very good at video games, but I’ve been told that it is a great example of Poland’s place in the new global economy. And it’s a tribute to the talents and work ethic of the Polish people as well as the wise stewardship of Polish leaders like prime minister Tusk.

There’s no Wikipedia entry on what videogames have been mentioned by a sitting president during an official state appearance, but it has to be a short list, and The Witcher has got to be the most obscure name on there. It’s not that The Witcher games are unknown in America—the first two are cult hits with a vocal fanbase. They’re popular with critics and beloved by many gamers, but they’re not nearly on the level of awareness or success as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. So what is this game, and why would Obama feel the need to chat about it?

The Witcher games are made by CD Projekt RED, a development studio based in Warsaw. They adapt Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of fantasy novels about a supernatural bounty hunter named Geralt of Rivia, a magical albino antihero who kills monsters in a nasty, brutish world based on Polish myth and folklore. Geralt could be a character out of “Game of Thrones”: He’s a cynical loner who operates under his own sense of honor, a warrior outcast who passes as a hero because the bad guys are so much crueler than he is. Players navigate Geralt through morally ambiguous adventures, hacking up enemies and bedding ladies in a role-playing game for adults.

An opportunistic young right-wing operative could make strides toward that Fox News dream job by turning this into a culture war issue. The Witcher games fully embrace the game industry’s Mature rating. The Witcher 2 earned an M for, among other content issues, “blood and gore,” “nudity,” “strong sexual content,” and “use of drugs.” It’s the type of subject matter that wouldn’t be that controversial in novels, but makes self-appointed cultural guardians turn red-cheeked with anger (and ambition) when translated into a game—even one marketed to adults. If a conservative site crafted a pithy headline tying Obama to The Witcher’s content, that all-important Drudge link would be assured.

The Witcher games aren’t just “mature” in the salacious sense, though. Some of that content might be gratuitous, but the games are also smarter and better written than most videogames. Part of that is their literary inspiration. The admittedly low standards of the writing in most major videogames are also a factor. The Witcher games aren’t subtle, but their storytelling is more nuanced than most games, and Geralt is more complex and fascinating than most game heroes. He’s not another faceless soldier or surly white man looking for revenge—he’s a tragic hero in a drama that might be bloodier and more sex-filled than a Jacobean play.

A Tour of the Best, Entirely Legal Hangouts on the Deep Web

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May 22, 2014 // 11:15 AM EST

If you mention the ‘deep web’ in polite company, chances are, if anyone’s familiar with it at all, they’ll have heard about the drugs, the hit men, and maybe even thegrotesque rumors of living human dolls. But there are far more services available through the deep web that aren’t illegal or illicit, that instead range merely from the bizarre, to the revolutionary, to the humbly innocuous.

We’re talking about websites for people who like to spend their spare time trawling underground tunnels, to websites for people who literally are forced to spend their time in underground tunnels because of the oppressive dictatorial regimes they live in. Then there’s a whole lot of extremely niche material—think unseemly book clubs and spanking forums—that has for various reasons been condemned by society.

But first, if you’re a member of that polite company that shrugs at its mention, we’ll need a working definition. BrightPlanet, a group that specializes in deep web intelligence, simply defines it as: “anything that a search engine can’t find.” That’s because search engines can only show you content that their systems have indexed; they use software called “crawlers” that try to find and index everything on the web by tracking all of the internet’s visible hyperlinks.

Inevitably, some of these routes are blocked. You can require a private network to reach your website, or can simply opt out of search engine results. In these cases, in order to reach a webpage, you need to know its exact, complex URL. These URLs—the ones that aren’t indexed—are what we call the deep web.

Although its full size is difficult to measure, it’s important to remember that the deep web is a truly vast place. According to a study in the Journal of Electronic Publishing, “content in the deep Web is massive—approximately 500 times greater than that visible to conventional search engines.” Meanwhile, usage of private networks to access the deep web is often in the millions.

In 2000, there were 1 billion unique URLs indexed by Google. In 2008, there were 1 trillion. Today, in 2014, there are many more than that. Now consider how much bigger the deep web is than that. In other words, the deep web takes the iceberg metaphor to an extreme, when compared to the easily accessible surface web. It comprises around 99 percent of the largest medium in human history: the internet.

Those mind-bending facts aside, let’s get a few things straight. The deep web is not all fun and games (weird, illegal, or otherwise). It’s full of databases of information from the likes of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, JSTOR, NASA, and the Patent and Trademark Office. There are also lots of Intranets—internal networks for companies and universities—that mostly contain dull personnel information.

Then there’s a small corner of the deep web called Tor, short for The Onion Routing project, which was initially built by the US Naval Research Laboratory as a way to communicate online anonymously. This, of course, is where the notorious Silk Road and other deep web black markets come in.

Screengrab courtesy the author

Again, that’s what you’d expect from a technology that was designed to hide users’ identities. Much less predictable are the extensive halls of erotic fan fiction blogs, revolutionary book clubs, spelunking websites, Scientology archives, and resources for Stravinsky-lovers (“48,717 pages of emancipated dissonance”). To get a better idea of the non-drug-and-hit man-related activities one might find on the deep web, let’s take a look at some of the most above-board outfits just below the surface.

Jotunbane’s Reading Club is a great example, with the website’s homepage defiantly proclaiming “Readers Against DRM” above the image of a fist smashing the chains off a book rendered in the style of Soviet propaganda. Typically, the most popular books of the reading club are subversive or sci-fi, with George Orwell’s 1984 and William Gibson’s Neuromancer ranking at the top.

The ominously named Imperial Library of Trantor, meanwhile, prefers Ralph Ellison’sInvisible Man, while Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet from 1776, Common Sense, earns it own website. Some of its first lines aptly read, “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.” Even the alleged founder of Silk Road, the Dread Pirate Roberts, started a deep web book club in 2011.

So, it seems pretty clear that deep web users like to dabble in politics, but that’s far from the whole picture.

Alongside the likes of “The Anarchist Cookbook” and worryingly-named publications like “Defeating Electromagnetic Door Locks,” you’ll also find a surprisingly active blog for “people who like spanking,” where users lovingly recall previous spanks. There’s another website with copious amounts of erotic fan fiction: One story called “A cold and lonely night in Agrabah” tells of a saucy tryst with the Jungle Book’s lovable Disney bear Baloo, meanwhile Harry Potter is a divisive wizard; some lust over his wand, others declare themselves “anti-Harry Potter fundamentalists.”

Alongside the likes of The Anarchist Cookbook and worryingly-named publications like “Defeating Electromagnetic Door Locks,” you’ll also find a surprisingly active blog for “people who like spanking.”

At times, you do wonder if some of the content you come across needs to be on the deep web. A website called Beneath VT documents underground explorations below Virginia Tech, where adventurers frequent the many tunnels that support the university’s population of over 30,000 students and 1,000 faculty members. Its creators anonymously explain: “Although these people pass by the grates and manholes that lead to the tunnels every day, few realize what lies beneath.”

It’s not as though you can’t find a plethora of these types of sites of the surface web, illegal or otherwise. But it seems that the deep web offers a symbolic, psychological solace to the users. In practice, the deep web is home to a mix of subcultures with varying desires: all looking for people like them. Beneath VT is one example, but others even offer 24-hour interaction, like Radio Clandestina, a radio station that describes itself as “music to go deep and make love”. That’s not exactly the kind of tagline you’d see on NPR.

Dr. Ian Walden, a Professor of Information and Communications Law at London’s Queen Mary University, explained that the attraction of the deep web is its “use of techniques designed to enable people to communicate anonymously and in a manner that is truthful. The more sophisticated user realizes that what they do on the web leaves many trails and therefore if you want to engage in an activity without being subject to surveillance.” He continued, “the sense of community is often what binds these subcultures, in an increasingly disparate and disembodied digital world.”

Welcome, lovers of spanking.

Although the deep web also has a powerful liberating potential, especially since therecent NSA revelations have brought the extent of government surveillance into sharp focus. Surfing along its supposedly safe corridors gives you a strange, exhilarating sensation; probably not unlike how the first internet users felt a quarter of a century ago. Professor Walden has argued that the deep web was vital in the Arab Spring uprising, by allowing dissidents to communicate and unite without being detected. Many of the videos filmed during the Syrian revolution in 2011 were first securely posted on the deep web before being transferred to YouTube.

He points out that “in jurisdictions where political defence is stamped on, social media is not particularly going to help political protest, because it can be quite easy to identify the users.” The situation in Turkey earlier this year, for example, saw Prime Minister Erdogan ban the use of Twitter in the country. So instead, Walden suggests, the deep web “allows communication in the long term and in a way that doesn’t expose your family to a risk.”

It is telling that if the deep web did have a homepage, it would probably be the Hidden Wiki, a wiki page that catalogues some of the deep web’s key websites, and that is outspokenly “censorship-free.” Its contents give an insight into how these anonymous processes work: the infamous Wikileaks site is hard to miss, but there’s also the New Yorker Strongbox, a system created by the magazine to “conceal both your online and physical location from us and to offer full end-to-end encryption” for prospective whistleblowers. Whereas, Kavkaz, a Middle Eastern news site available in Russian, English, Arabic and Turkish, is an impressive independent resource.

“The sense of community is often what binds these subcultures, in an increasingly disparate and disembodied digital world.”

Perhaps because the deep web plays host to many of the digitally marginalized and avant-garde, it has also become a hotbed for media innovations. Amber Horsburgh, a digital strategist at Brooklyn creative agency Big Spaceship, spent six months studying the many techniques used in the deep web, and found that it pioneered a lot of innovations in digital advertising.

Horsburgh claims, “As history tells us, the biggest digital advertising trends come from the deep web. Due to the nature of some of the business that happens here, sellers use innovative ways of business in their transactions, marketing, distribution and value chains.”

She cites examples of Gmail introducing sponsored email; the social advertising toolThunderclap, which won a Cannes Innovation Lion in 2013; and the wild success of the native advertising industry, which will boom to around $11 billion in 2017. According to Horsburgh, “each of these ‘cutting-edge’ innovations were techniques pioneered by the deep web.” Native advertising takes its cues from the “astro-turfing” used by China’s 50-cent party, where people were paid to post favorable comments on internet forums and comments section in order to sway opinion.

Ultimately, this is the risk of the deep web. “Your terrorists are our freedom fighters,” as Professor Walden puts it. In parts, it offers idealism, lightheartedness, and community. In others, it offers the illegal, the immoral, and the grotesque. Take the headline-grabbing example of Bitcoin, which has strong ties with the deep web: It was supposed to provide an alternative monetary system, but, at least at first, it mostly got attention because you could buy drugs with it.

For now, at least, it’s heartening to know that some people choose to use the anonymity offered by the deep web to live their mostly harmless—albeit, at times, extremely weird—lives in peace. To paraphrase French writer Voltaire’s famous saying: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to make erotic fan fiction about my favorite childhood Disney characters.”

Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds


Arthur Chu

Nerdy guys aren’t guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick as long as we work hard. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by getting the girl.

I was going to write about The Big Bang Theory—why, as a nerdy viewer, I sometimes like it and sometimes have a problem with it, why I think there’s a backlash against it. Then some maniac shot up a sorority house in Santa Barbara and posted a manifesto proclaiming he did it for revenge against women for denying him sex. And the weekend just generally went to hell.

So now my plans have changed. With apologies to The Big Bang Theory fans,this is all I want to say about The Big Bang Theory: When the pilot aired, it was 2007 and “nerd culture” and “geek chic” were on everyone’s lips, and yet still the basic premise of “the sitcom for nerds” was, once again, awkward but lovable nerd has huge unreciprocated crush on hot non-nerdy popular girl (and also has an annoying roommate).

This annoys me. This is a problem.

Because, let’s be honest, this device is old. We have seen it over and over again. Steve Urkel. Screech. Skippy on Family Ties. Niles on Frasier.

We (male) nerds grow up force-fed this script. Lusting after women “out of our league” was what we did. And those unattainable hot girls would always inevitably reject us because they didn’t understand our intellectual interest in science fiction and comic books and would instead date asshole jocks. This was inevitable, and our only hope was to be unyieldingly persistent until we “earned” a chance with these women by “being there” for them until they saw the error of their ways. (The thought of just looking for women who shared our interests was a foreign one, since it took a while for the media to decide female geeks existed.The Big Bang Theory didn’t add Amy and Bernadette to its main cast until Season 4, in 2010.)

This is, to put it mildly, a problematic attitude to grow up with. Fixating on a woman from afar and then refusing to give up when she acts like she’s not interested is, generally, something that ends badly for everyone involved. But it’s a narrative that nerds and nerd media kept repeating.

I’m not breaking new ground by saying this. It’s been said very well over and overand over again.

And I’m not condemning guys who get frustrated, or who have unrequited crushes. And I’m not condemning any of these shows or movies.

And yet…

Before I went on Jeopardy!, I had auditioned for TBS’s King of the Nerds, a reality show commissioned in 2012 after TBS got syndication rights to, yes, The Big Bang Theory. I like the show and I still wish I’d been on it. (Both “kings” they’ve crowned, by the way, have so far been women, so maybe they should retitle it “Monarch of the Nerds” or, since the final win comes down to a vote, “President of the Nerds.” Just a nerdy thought.)

But a lot of things about the show did give me pause. One of them was that it was hosted by Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong—Lewis and Booger fromRevenge of the Nerds. I don’t have anything against those guys personally. Nor am I going to issue a blanket condemnation of Revenge of the Nerds, a film I’m still, basically, a fan of.

But look. One of the major plot points of Revenge of the Nerds is Lewis putting on a Darth Vader mask, pretending to be his jock nemesis Stan, and then having sex with Stan’s girlfriend. Initially shocked when she finds out his true identity, she’s so taken by his sexual prowess—“All jocks think about is sports. All nerds think about is sex.”—that the two of them become an item.

Classic nerd fantasy, right? Immensely attractive to the young male audience who saw it. And a stock trope, the “bed trick,” that many of the nerds watching probably knew dates back to the legend of King Arthur.

It’s also, you know, rape.

I’ve had this argument about whether it was “technically” rape with fans of the movie in the past, but leaving aside the legal technicalities, why don’t you ask the women you know who are in committed relationships how they’d feel about guys concocting elaborate ruses to have sex with them without their knowledge to “earn a chance” with them? Or how it feels to be chased by a real-life Steve Urkel, being harassed, accosted, ambushed in public places, have your boyfriend “challenged” and having all rejection met with a cheerful “I’m wearing you down!”?

I know people who’ve been through that. And because life is not, in fact, a sitcom, it’s not the kind of thing that elicits a bemused eye roll followed by raucous laughter from the studio audience. It’s the kind of thing that induces pain, and fear.

When our clever ruses and schemes to “get girls” fail, it’s not because the girls are too stupid or too bitchy or too shallow to play by those unwritten rules we’ve absorbed.

And that’s still mild compared to some of the disturbing shit I consumed in my adolescence. Jake handing off his falling-down-drunk date to Anthony Michael Hall’s Geek in Sixteen Candlessaying, “Be my guest” (which is, yes, more offensive to me than Long Duk Dong). The nerd-libertarian gospels of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and how their Übermensch protagonists prove their masculinity by having sex with their love interests without asking first—and win their hearts in the process. Comics…just, comics. (Too much to go into there but the fact that Red Sonja was once thought a “feminist icon” speaks volumes. Oh, and there’s that whole drama with Ms. Marvel for those of you who really want to get freaked out today.)

But the overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.

So what happens to nerdy guys who keep finding out that the princess they were promised is always in another castle? When they “do everything right,” they get good grades, they get a decent job, and that wife they were promised in the package deal doesn’t arrive? When the persistent passive-aggressive Nice Guy act fails, do they step it up to elaborate Steve-Urkel-esque stalking and stunts? Do they try elaborate Revenge of the Nerds-style ruses? Do they tap into their inner John Galt and try blatant, violent rape?

Do they buy into the “pickup artist” snake oil—started by nerdy guys, for nerdy guys—filled with techniques to manipulate, pressure and in some cases outrightassault women to get what they want? Or when that doesn’t work, and they spend hours a day on sites bitching about how it doesn’t work like Elliot Rodger’s hangout “,” sometimes, do they buy some handguns, leave a manifesto on the Internet and then drive off to a sorority house to murder as many women as they can?

No, I’m not saying most frustrated nerdy guys are rapists or potential rapists. I’m certainly not saying they’re all potential mass murderers. I’m not saying that most lonely men who put women up on pedestals will turn on them with hostility and rage once they get frustrated enough.

But I have known nerdy male stalkers, and, yes, nerdy male rapists. I’ve known situations where I knew something was going on but didn’t say anything—because I didn’t want to stick my neck out, because some vile part of me thought that this kind of thing was “normal,” because, in other words, I was a coward and I had the privilege of ignoring the problem.

I’ve heard and seen the stories that those of you who followed the #YesAllWomenhashtag on Twitter have seen—women getting groped at cons, women getting vicious insults flung at them online, women getting stalked by creeps in college and told they should be “flattered.” I’ve heard Elliot Rodger’s voice before. I was expecting his manifesto to be incomprehensible madness—hoping for it to be—but it wasn’t. It’s a standard frustrated angry geeky guy manifesto, except for the part about mass murder.

I’ve heard it from acquaintances, I’ve heard it from friends. I’ve heard it come out of my own mouth, in moments of anger and weakness.

It’s the same motivation that makes a guy in college stalk a girl, leave her unsolicited gifts and finally when she tells him to quit it makes him leave an angry post about her “shallowness” and “cruelty” on Facebook. It’s the same motivation that makes guys rant about “fake cosplay girls” at cons and how much he hates them for their vain, “teasing” ways. The one that makes a guy suffering career or personal problems turn on his wife because it’s her job to “support” him by patching up all the holes in his life. The one that makes a wealthy entrepreneur hit his girlfriend 117 times, on camera, for her infidelity, and then after getting off with a misdemeanor charge still put up a blog post casting himself as the victim.

And now that motivation has led to six people dead and thirteen more injured, in broad daylight, with the killer leaving a 140-page rant and several YouTube videos describing exactly why he did it. No he-said-she-said, no muffled sounds through the dorm ceiling, no “Maybe he has other issues.” The fruits of our culture’s ingrained misogyny laid bare for all to see.

And yet. When this story broke, the initial mainstream coverage only talked about “mental illness,” not misogyny, a line that people are now fervently exhorting us to stick to even after the manifesto’s contents were revealed. Yet another high-profile tech CEO resignation ensued when the co-founder of Rap Genius decided Rodger’s manifesto was a hilarious joke.

People found one of the girls Rodger was obsessed with and began questioning if her “bullying” may have somehow triggered his rage. And, worst of all, he has fan pages on Facebook that still haven’t been taken down, filled with angry frustrated men singing his praises and seriously suggesting that the onus is on women to offer sex to men to keep them from going on rampages.

So, a question, to my fellow male nerds:

What the fuck is wrong with us?

How much longer are we going to be in denial that there’s a thing called “rape culture” and we ought to do something about it?

No, not the straw man that all men are constantly plotting rape, but that we live in an entitlement culture where guys think they need to be having sex with girls in order to be happy and fulfilled. That in a culture that constantly celebrates the narrative of guys trying hard, overcoming challenges, concocting clever ruses and automatically getting a woman thrown at them as a prize as a result, there will always be some guy who crosses the line into committing a violent crime to get what he “deserves,” or get vengeance for being denied it.

To paraphrase the great John Oliver, listen up, fellow self-pitying nerd boys—we are not the victims here. We are not the underdogs. We are not the ones who have our ownership over our bodies and our emotions stepped on constantly by other people’s entitlement. We’re not the ones where one out of six of us will have someone violently attempt to take control of our bodies in our lifetimes.

We are not Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds, we are not Steve Urkel from Family Matters, we are not Preston Myers from Can’t Hardly Wait, we are not Seth Rogen in every movie Seth Rogen has ever been in, we are not fucking Mario racing to the castle to beat Bowser because we know there’s a princess in there waiting for us.

We are not the lovable nerdy protagonist who’s lovable because he’s the protagonist. We’re not guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick of our dreams as long as we work hard enough at it. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by “getting the girl” in the end. And when our clever ruses and schemes to “get girls” fail, it’s not because the girls are too stupid or too bitchy or too shallow to play by those unwritten rules we’ve absorbed.

It’s because other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.

We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers. And it means that the rest of us will always, on some fundamental level, be stupid and wrong when it comes to trying to understand the women we claim to love.

What did Elliot Rodger need? He didn’t need to get laid. None of us nerdy frustrated guys need to get laid. When I was an asshole with rants full of self-pity and entitlement, getting laid would not have helped me.

He needed to grow up.

We all do.

What Happened to Cyberpunk?

June 8, 2012 // 11:30 AM EST


Cyberpunk, in the popular consciousness, conjures a glut of dissociated images:Blade Runner’s slummy urban landscape, hackers in sunglasses, Japanese cyborgs, grubby tech, digital intoxication, Keanu Reeves as Johnny Mnemonic. But it began as an insanely niche subculture within science fiction, one which articulated young writerly distaste for the historically utopian optimism of the medium and, in turn, provided an aesthetic reference point for burgeoning hacker culture, before metastasizing into a full-on cultural trend.

One of the movement’s chief ideologues, Bruce Sterling, wrote in the introduction to his seminal anthology Mirrorshades that technology in cyberpunk writing was “not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.” In cyberpunk novels, technology isn’t controlled by white-coat boffins in a distant lab on the holy altar of Science, but in our homes, on our streets, in our bodies. Unlike their predecessors in science fiction, the cyberpunks didn’t evangelize gleaming rockets or futuristic weapons. Theirs was a world of technological jetsam, of bionic drugs, of machines in varying states of obsolescence, of cyclopean corporate greed, of subverted tools, of sprawl, error, and menace. With a “faintly hallucinatory sheen around the edges of its dirty chrome fittings,” as another of its major prophets, John Shirley, put it.

Top: still from Johnny Mnemonic. Bottom: photo by Isle of Man

In the cyberpunk world, we don’t behold technology from a safe distance. We jack in, and in doing so, alter our minds. Enter cyberdelics, the cyberpunk spin-off that blended the psychedelic movement with underground technologies, and was championed by people like Timothy Leary and R. U. Sirius. The trend largely ended with the dot-com era; other derivatives of cyberpunk, like steampunk, atompunk and decopunk, manage to persist.


Fun as it all sounds, cyberpunk has been out of vogue for over two decades. Sterling pronounced it dead in 1985; a 1993 Wired article rang a more formal death knoll for the movement, predicting, just as the hippies eclipsed the beatniks, the arrival of a new culture in its stead. “The tekkies,” it announced, “will arrive sometime in the mid-1990s, if not sooner.”

Arguably, cyberpunk was less a movement than a tiny subculture – the same Wiredarticle swears there were never more than a hundred hard-core cyberpunks at any time – almost immediately reified, first by the mainstream science fiction establishment, then by mass-market media. As a result, most of the cyberpunk written after the late 1980s was merely genre fiction, and most of its adherents superficial, viz. the hacker glossary Jargon File’s definition of “self-described cyberpunks” as “shallow trendoids in black leather who have substituted enthusiastic blathering about technology for actually learning and doing it.” The Hollywood “Netsploitation” movies of the mid-90s (HackersThe Net) signaled what those hard-core guys already knew: the tekkies’ arrival on the scene notwithstanding, cyberpunk burned out not long after it first lit up.

Top: dummy magazine covers from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, by Tom Southwell, 1982. Bottom: German BMW print ad emulating Blade Runner, 2006

In a sense, it’s a generational thing. In 1980, the writer Bruce Bethke – whose short story “Cyberpunk” inadvertently christened the genre – was working at a Radio Shack in Wisconsin, selling TRS-80 microcomputers. One day, a group of teenagers waltzed in and hacked one of the store machines, and Bethke, who’d imagined himself a tech wiz, couldn’t figure out how to fix it. It was after this incident that he realized something: these teenaged hackers were going to sire kids of their own someday, and those kids were going to have a technological fluency that he could only guess at. They, he writes, were going to truly “speak computer.” And, like teenagers of any era, they were going to be selfish, morally vacuous, and cynical.

Put this way, if punk rock was a counterculture for the television age, then cyberpunk aimed to articulate the teenage anomie of the dawning computer era. Blame the German BMW ad that borrowed liberally from Blade Runner, the decidedly un-punk 1993 Billy Idol record named for the movement, or Matthew Lillard’s braids inHackers, but people sometimes forget the second half of the portmanteau: punk. The genre was conceived to bring countercultural ethos into the 21st century. Cyberpunks hated Buck Rogers like punks hated disco, and they were twice as nihilistic.

Of course, this means that with time, and the inevitable shifting of “the Man” that ensued, most cyberpunks grew out of their anger, or abandoned their co-opted subculture with disdain. It also means, however, that some of the kids who grew up reading William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, and Bruce Sterling became the adults who run the world. And like true old punks, the values – and fears – of their formative years have carried through.

So, back to the question: what happened to cyberpunk? The answer is simple. 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, and so of course cyberpunk as a genre is unfashionable: current events always are. Even William Gibson and Neal Stephenson don’t write science fiction anymore. Why bother? We live immersed in the cyberpunk culture that its O.G. prophets envisioned.

Cyberpunk speculated a world where high-tech lowlifes might wheedle themselves inside of monolithic systems – and might, in using the tools of the system against itself, claim some of the future for themselves. And while precious few of us are stalking through Tokyo slums in leather trench coats and mirrored shades, hopped up on cybernetic enhancements, activism coordinated in digital hangouts has effectively toppled governments. We don’t pal around with mercenary cyborgs, but crypto-anarchic hacker collectives are bigger players on the global stage than most nations’ armies. Policemen and more secret entities now rely on robot eyes to scan for suspicious activity while unmanned vehicles and cyber weapons wage their own quiet wars.

CCTV headquarters, OMA, Beijing, 2009

Nearly every large metropolis now has its own second life of location-based game layers; whole buildings are wrapped in screens. There are ads for video games on video billboards, and ads on billboards inside of video games – sometimes even ads for other video games. And, really, anyone with the know-how can buy designer drugs on secret websites using an experimental decentralized online currency.

One of the things that defines science fiction is precisely its tangled hierarchy: do we have Mars rovers because aerospace engineers grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, or did Clarke and Heinlein predict the future? Does Anonymous launch DDoS attacks on government websites, rupturing the system, because they all read Neuromancer when they were 15, or is William Gibson just that good? Probably a little of both, in that case.

It’s impossible to know, but we can assume that 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. This is maybe cyberpunk’s most obvious lesson, but it bears repeating: the bigger and weirder you dream, the bigger and weirder the future gets.