A post to reddit's /r/cyberpunk from a few months back got me thinking, and I've occasionally returned to it since. It eventually prompted me to ramble here a little.
The poster tells a good story of their own journey through cyberpunk culture. I saw some facets that made me sad I barely missed the poster's era, and others which could have mirrored my own path exactly. In the comment threads, some interesting discussions emerged. A commenter called tso wrote:
I think corporate marketing is pushing very hard to turn it into a fashion, as then they can "de-fang" and package it for retail stores.
That's always the way. The mainstream advertising world has become very good at deciphering what the "kids these days" are doing to express their natural rebelliousness, knocking the teeth out of it, repackaging it, making it "safe," and selling it back to those rebellious kids. Once you've hit your 20s or so, you've already seen it turn over on a grand scale at least a few times.
Disaffected 90s kids rebelled against the 80s preppie fashions of immaculate clothes and designer labels by wearing faded old jeans with holes ripped in them. What to do if you're a jeans company? Boom, the department store shelves are now full of pre-faded, pre-ripped jeans.
The millennials aren't buying your new trendy t-shirts, instead they're digging through cheap thrift-store bins for a 70s-fit t-shirt with a crackling old decal? Boom, the new t-shirts on the racks at Walmart are now all printed with pre-crackled designs referring to long-cancelled TV shows and vintage films. Closer inspection will reveal that each shirt has the exact same silk-screened, mass-produced crackles.
The kids these days, they're retreating from the mass-media-approved world of sitcoms and buddy-cop flicks and sports entertainment and diving voraciously into "nerdy" pastimes like gaming, comic books, gaming, and scifi? Great! Let's make comic and scifi conventions, once the domain of outcasts looking for a rare shred of community available to them, into a massive mainstream industry, with heavy presences and sponsorships by every major movie studio. Superheroes aren't an escape from the mainstream anymore, they themselves are the mainstream blockbusters! You can play your tabletop pencil-and-paper RPGs where the gameplay is an act of collective creativity and imagination, but wouldn't it be better if you were playing this other fantasy game which requires frequent purchases of expensive figurines or rare cards or virtual currency?
The kids aren't buying as many copies of your latest bleeding-edge resource-gobbling 3D video game because they're content using inspired software and community-ripped ROM libraries to emulate retro consoles and dive into old jagged-pixelled 8-bit and 16-bit games? Hey, that's a fashion now! You can make your own new games intentionally jagged and pixelly, and you can work out ways to sell those emulated ROMs over authorized links to the current consoles. What's more, you can also sell them crackly-looking T-shirts with Mario Mushrooms and blocky pixel-esque sunglasses and backpacks with Koopa shells; force the meme until it's a fad suitable for shopping malls!
The kids aren't buying your Billboard top-40 pop music anymore, they're going to dive clubs to listen to punk music - a product born of anger, rebellion, and frustration? Hey, now your multinational record label signs those punks to exploitative contracts and, even better, makes their own pop-punk boy-bands to order to revitalize their own charts.
I remember getting way into mashup tracks and bastard pop in the early 2000s, a scene which had been born of a truly cyberpunk attitude; bored kids at their computers deciding that the best response to a stale and uninspiring media environment was to use newly-ubiquitous tools to twist and turn its own content against it, expressing themselves in new ways and creating something truly special with the old guard as merely fodder waiting to be remixed. I began work on my own mashup album around the same time MTV muscled in on that action, playing record-label-authorized mashups on their channel and even producing their own legal, safe mashup CD/DVD set with chart sensations Jay-Z and Linkin Park, in both "explicit lyrics" and sanitized versions, all available on store shelves.
Adbusters once wrote: "Capitalism is a master of recuperation. What first shakes it, soon motivates it, later strengthens it." Hippie protest songs born of sadness and hope find their ways into TV commercials for dog food a generation later. Your childhood favorite stories of innocence and gentleness will get remade into big-budget CGI blockbusters with sassy celebrity cameos. The Lorax himself will sell you a fucking SUV to drive down that road someone paved through his forest.
As with other cultures, what's meaningful about cyberpunk to cyberpunks is never just the trappings, the outward accessories and blinky lights, the rollerblades and techno music and PVC pants. These things have their place and it's fine to enjoy them if you do, they just happen to be the bits and pieces easy for the mainstream to sanitize and duplicate and market to the next batch of rebellious kids looking for a direction. The truly important facet of cyberpunk is the hacker mindset of figuring out and exploring what's next, both through your own methods, knowledge, and ingenuity and those shared by your fellow explorers, without care for any artificial limitations placed upon you by culture or circumstance or common sense. It's not about filling in a standard checklist and spectating; it's about taking only the useful bits, if any, of the standard checklist, throwing away the rest, imagining your own replacement, and investigating from there.
The cyberpunk spirit led someone to broadcast those mysterious modem tones to the reddit poster, as well as the spirit that act inspired in those who received the messages within. The mainstream might try to recapture some of that when they use that sort of action to inspire artificial viral-marketing stunts. Commercial interests can repackage the trappings all they like, but the true root behind those trappings is much harder to turn into a commercial product.
The genuine hacker spirit which tells those of us inclined to listen that reality is actually a lot weirder, more bendable, and more educational than anything Hollywood can come up with, though, is ultimately a far more rewarding pursuit than any shopping-mall-based accessorizing experience.