Literature and control: from stalinism to cyberpunk

In the early nineties, a new political utopia around internet had developed in a mailing list called cypherpunks. In his brief texts, Timothy May imagined that we had finally found the dreamed island of "Libertaria". Internet seemed uncontrollable. Cryptography could allow infinite privacy for free trade and the idea of cryptoanarchy appeared in the libertarian American tradition; at last, we have found the “technological solution to the problem of too much government”. Though, of course, this cryptoanarchism turned to be no more than a certain enthusiasm for individual liberty and privacy.1
However, in retrospect this weird optimism was an exception. Some years later, it was obvious that internet proved to be one of the most controlled spaces. Indeed, at the beginning of the new century, some isolated voices advised that certain practices involved in internet could develop in a dystopia. How could we imagine this potential scenario? Of course, at this point, a rediscovery of science-fiction allowed new readings. Being a subject difficult to write in an academic format, science fiction allowed to proposed hypothesis without needing greater justifications. In fact, all works on privacy have proposed some literary metaphor to think about the matter.
The first literary metaphor survived as an obligated reference. The cultural battle of the Cold War had its symbolic beginning in the continuous re-editions of George Orwell's 1984 philo-trotskyist novel published in 1949. At least from there, totalitarianism made us think in the possibility of systematic control and deception.
Phillip K. Dick took these problems to another level. For example, in his post-orwellian passage, in The Man in the High Castle (1962) and in The Penultimate Truth (1964), he developed Orwell’s metaphor to a spectacular degree: what if, in order to definitively exercise its domination, the Reich, after winning Second World War, would find out that the most effective way to keep control was that of making all Americans believe that they had a free and happy life in their homes...
Secondly, in this direction, another retaken metaphor was that proposed by cyberpunk literature. Without getting too far from Dick's questions, cyberpunk was born as a subgenre of science fiction in the early eighties with its own aesthetic and political marks. Through the mirror shades of protagonists in quixotic combat against gigantic corporations of ambivalent existence, we see ecologically devastated environments. The dystopia functions in a political order determined by different indecipherable economic powers hidden one behind another. In this way, political and economic actors become unfathomable behind the merchandise and the tool of dominance that they themselves control: information. Security computer experts, those capable of manipulating and stealing the precious information, take here a new protagonist role. With the punk anxiety of destroying everything, they live under the paradox of the hacker: that last romantic hero with the potential capacity of imploding the system or making some justice, but whose life is diminished by their own tool of combat.
The political metaphor of the cyberpunk insists on the impossibility of determining who the political actors at play are. This literature advances through false certainties and revelations to discover that the horizon has moved; there were other elements to take into account, a new dimension that has changed everything, a larger and more powerful social actor that seems to unify contradictory interests. Where you cannot determinate who owns the companies, who their investors are, what their interests are, where it is not possible to know the production chain of a consumer good, you cannot improve your knowledge about the world. Without any doubt, cyberpunk thought big issues of neoliberalism.
In a direct reference, from cyberpunk to cypherpunk, Assange's book Cypherpunks (2012) took back the name of that mailing list and, at the same time, preserved certain features of this science fiction subgenre: the fear of a dystopian political environment, the quixotian combat against unknown corporations, the potential ambiguity of the tools of emancipation and the anti system positioning of punk marginality.
In the third place, ten years ago Daniel Solove proposed an unexpected literary metaphor to think this kind of topics. He is one of the most well-known academic on privacy. His project is to develop a theory about privacy for its legal protection. But his case becomes especially representative and problematic in the literary metaphor that he chooses to think privacy political problems. The Big Brother metaphor does not go any longer, says Solove: oppression is not so explicitly bloody. Instead, he proposes to take as a reference the type of domination presented in “The Process” (1925) by Franz Kafka. There, the protagonist moves under the force of an abstract and unintelligible power in front of which he is disoriented. The remarkable thing is that his libertarian militancy makes him leave a side the need a better understanding of the new type of relation between individual and society. Because of this, he also decides to disregard the most current and powerful metaphor on the subject provided by cyberpunk. Against Solove’s position, identifying the actors responsible for infrastructure and content behind the internet is essential.
It is not by chance that Solove has chosen a non-politic literary metaphor. Since, in addition to his role as an academic, he has founded a digital security company, which mainly provides courses on how to protect personal and corporate information. As many texts on this subject, Solove's analysis makes clear that his goal is only to problematize in a general way “the dangers of State surveillance”. According to him, we do not need further investigation.
Against this opinion, cyberpunk metaphor allows to keep open the question about the functions of companies of the same flag and their government. Meanwhile, in order to rescue something of cypherpunk, its lemma —"transparency for the powerful, privacy for the weak"— remind us, more than ever, that nowadays transnational corporations handle more capital than the gross domestic product of many countries.

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1: Even today these texts of Timothy May serve for example to the Nakamoto Institute to feed from a utopian philosophy the guarantees of private economic interactions provided by the Bitcoin. His tetralogy is conformed by The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto (1992), Libertaria in Cyberspace (1992), Cyphernomicon (1994) and Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities (1994).