I’m relatively tech savvy, but I’m no student of computer science. I can open up a computer, and do just enough to make sure it doesn’t explode, but don’t expect me to explain to you why a computer’s components are doing what they are doing, or how it all works together. When it comes to writing about computers, I follow the rule of speculative fiction: stay consistent and don’t establish anything that will make your reader incredulous. I mean, no one can be 100% accurate about what technology will look like 100 years from now, so there is wiggle room to predict a lot of fanciful changes.
I like cyberpunk as a genre, to a degree. I’m a fan of the Shadowrun tabletop RPG, Neuromancer, Deus Ex, Netrunner, I thought Ghost in the Shell was okay. There are certain technological advancements that seem consistent across the genre, as a staple. In the same way steampunk absolutely requires terrible facial hair and gears glued to your clothing where it cannot feasibly serve a real purpose, cyberpunk has elements that seem to cross mediums and series. Cybernetic implants are chief among, powerful prosthetic limbs that can serve additional purposes, work better than natural limbs at times, and might be networked with technology that would seem impossible to shove into a human body. Another common advancement is the ‘Matrix’ or ‘Net’, the internet advancing to the point that it permeates society, and has its own weaknesses and accesses that can allow crafty individuals to assault even those who might be unassailable in the physical world. In a way, these two technologies tap into the cyberpunk themes of a world where humanity is vanishing, and an overwhelming drabness is sucking up everything that we once considered magical. Cybernetics represent chopping off what was truly human and attaching computer pieces that don’t quite do the trick, aren’t nearly the same. The matrix/net is an endless world for normal people to be trapped in, so far from reality that they don’t realize they are a shell of a human being living in a post-apocalyptic hellscape.
Considering the age of your average successful writer, and when cyberpunk started as a genre, you can imagine this was a constant fear at the time. People were going to strap themselves into the internet, and never come back out. Outside of a few addicted people here and there, this is rarely the case. The internet is a wonderful tool, and has now outstripped all other forms of communication. We use the internet to communicate real problems, beautiful realities, as well as our made up dreamscapes. I’m not worried about the internet, or what it will do to society. I know that it will continue to shock and change the system, but that this change will eventually just craft changes in how humans work.
In a previous Nanowrimo I wrote, called Update, I followed a pair of detectives that had to catch a murderer. The crisis was that the murderer killed a ‘Public person’, an oversharer who broadcasts every moment of their life from the moment they wake up until they fall asleep. Because of how much social media, the internet, and computers, were in every aspect of society, it should have been impossible for anyone to kill the victim. When I think about the cyberpunk world of this novel I plan to write, Corpfall, I imagine things have only grown weirder from there. When most people don’t bother having any privacy, when every crisis is broadcasts across the world, media and communication have to change. A cyberpunk world has no use for newspapers, and even news media has likely become a glorified Tosh.O (a trend you can already see in your local news, where whole segments are dedicated to highlighting footage from popular internet videos). Information is shared, but so is misinformation. Trends come up in a moment’s notice, with millions of people becoming aware of a new idea simply because others have latched onto it, but some of these trends are just as artificial and constructed as a modern day TV commercial. This is our future, maybe.
Still, Corpfall isn’t about normal people, it is about a super-powered agent and her hacker. Carlos “Tru” Fuller, who grew up hacking in Mexcity, is an expert at the process of tapping into the Net (as I chose to call it, because the Matrix creates its own emotional response that I cannot control). Like a rigger from Shadowrun, or a runner from Netrunner, he knows how to infiltrate, hack, and alter computer systems from remote locations.
Unfortunately, the Matrix of Shadowrun, and similar internet analogs, have always escaped my full understanding. Personally, when playing Shadowrun, I always focused in magic. I only understand hacking in Netrunner because it is the basic process that the abstract mechanics of the cards are representing. Other cyberpunk series I interacted with are of no help in this regard, like the new shadowrun game, or Deus Ex. At the end of the day, it seems like a bunch of keywords are thrown out there, and the reader/player is supposed to get the feeling that computer programs are fighting other computer programs in an effort to protect representations of data that people would want.
That is to say, in most of these cyberpunk futures, the process of hacking is visualized as something akin to a video game battle, and the winner gets to steal information from a computer. Which, if we think about it, seems absolutely ridiculous.
On the other hand, this is speculative fiction, and we have to understand exactly what might be happening here. In Neuromancer, the hacker Case had been ‘burned’ after a previous incident. The access nodes on his body, where he would interface with a ‘deck’ (or computer), were destroyed, making it impossible for him to fully connect to a computer. The idea is that for deckers like Case, you don’t just type a bunch of keys on a keyboard, the best hacking is done when your spinal cord has a direct connection with the computer. This means that you can perform more actions than made possible by any other input method, it means you can sense computer output directly as if it were another sense. To a decker/rigger/runner/hacker, when you are fully connected, the internet can become its own world.
When someone first invented this, it is likely that the first interfaces were boring and predictable. You could see squares that represented your files, touch them, read them, and probably type on a virtualized keyboard or ‘think’ commands to the computer. Entertainment would take it further, with users (who didn’t have the full implants, but other ways to sense this virtual reality) would want computer games and programs that take advantage of this new interface. Soon we have users who set up servers to be social, and games like Second Life or social MMOs already represent this sort of advancement. Soon, most internet users would be used to a VR interface, where an avatar of them represented even basic actions, like going to social locations or visiting digital ‘parties’. Of course normal interfaces would still exist, because you can’t always have a full avatar set up or the equipment that might require.
In a situation with virtual reality internet, that is always growing in scope and features, every user would be experiencing something different. Based on their hardware, operating system, software, output devices, input devices, you have millions or billions of people seeing slightly different version of a space. This would require a sort of ‘agreed upon reality’ system within the programming, where different hardware would need to come to consensus on what they ‘should’ be trying to show to their user. If three computers know they have entered a social room that is based on feudal Japan, they would do their best to portray that, but the general idea of ‘feudal Japan’ might be all that the users can agree is in common.
Hackers also use this virtual visualization. It would help people like Fuller react properly to output. Sure, a computer that is tracing another computer doesn’t need to waste extra power to represent that as a hunting dog, this might be completely on the part of the hacker’s computer. Two hackers entering the same space might not even see the same ‘programs’ trying to attack them. But likely, because the sysops and programmers also grew up in a world that relies on this same virtual reality, they would program a baseline visual aspect to their internet countermeasures. A simple program wouldn’t need much more than to be an arrow shooting out, or an axe slicing down. These work to deter internet users who don’t know what they have gotten into, or are way over their head. It is the new symbology, like giant stop signs when a website is blocked, or the disruptive sound of a computer giving an error message. Few programs need to have complicated symbology, and usually those programs would be intelligent enough that their appearance would make sense. Examples of these would be human shaped guardians, or hunting animals.
So when Fuller hacks into another computer, he attaches to his deck using implanted interfaces in his skin. He can use a less clean method, but this is his preferred way to do it. His computer creates a virtual interface, and he may even have a comfortable ‘home’ environment there to do basic functions. When hacking, his computer interfaces with the net, and the whole of the internet is represented almost like a vague world if he wants it. When he connects to an internet address, a computer or server, that space may have a pre-set visual setting that his computer will try to adapt to. If he connects to a server and it is coded to represent itself as a cozy house, this would be communicated to Fuller’s deck, and his avatar would materialize in a house. This is done automatically to help him understand what the server is trying to communicate. This server could just be a cozy party, and it would be visually confusing if he was seeing an empty box with blips of information while the server was trying to represent a room full of men smoking pipes and talking about sports. If he were to be hacking the server, he would use programs he had installed on his computer to attempt to pull hidden information out of the server, or take control of the server’s functions. Because programmers create program visuals to reflect their function (usually), hacker programs that deconstruct or disrupt these functions can usually take on appearances of their own, and sometimes the theme of destruction matches the visuals (like using a virtual axe to represent a program that hacks at simplistic digital barriers that might often be represented by doors). In reality, these are hacking scripts assisted by their creator to destroy a digital space and mine it for information. The details of what happens to these constructs aren’t important, the results of the data are. The door may look like it is in splinters, but the important part is whether the hacker can now bypass the barrier and get to the other side. This seems obvious when I think through it, but the important part I need to remember is that the visuals don’t mean that hacking is a video game, Fuller or whichever hacker still need to be an active part of the process. Not everything can be done with scripts, or our hacker isn’t all that impressive.
There are other aspects of the technology that I should investigate, like AI, but I’m already reaching 2000 words. This investigating has already helped me a lot, and I might still be able to think about what happened with AI technology in my world before November hits. So maybe I should just be patient.