At some point during the recent rise of “Web3″‘s biggest protagonists – cryptocurrency and NFT – a project hailed as the biggest in the NFT landscape started to make the rounds. It goes by the name “CryptoPunk”, which sounds like an underground movement that seems to attract subversives among us who can afford to participate. But CryptoPunk’s superficial appeal borrows all of its aesthetic from cyberpunk traditions, but none of their ethos.
During the 1990s, physical localization around heavily militarized spaces became untenable for activists, who then turned to organizing online. The early days of the Internet then became ripe for a “growing swell of cyber-civil disobedience”. Cyberpunk – and its intersection with ethical hacking – thus represented an ideology of resistance to state power and inequality using the internet as a battleground.
A 1999 issue of a punk zine punk planet had this to say about hacktivism: “if it’s cyber warfare, then information is the weapon and homepages are on the front lines everywhere…” More importantly, hackers don’t have never, ever hacked for personal gain or advantage.
It goes straight to the heart of what punk is: subversive, against the grain of the soulless machines of corporate capitalism, sexy, fearless, rebellious. Punk is resistance – and it was always meant to be.
Cyberpunk therefore responded to concerns about cyberspace, technology, and the changing role of corporations vis-à-vis governments. Works of dystopian fiction – like The Blade Runner, The Matrix, and others who explored the implications of occupying the liminal space between the virtual and the real – were the heirs of cyberpunk. They were pessimistic about the future of techno, predicting the collapse of society as a result of accelerated technicization. “Cyberpunk escaped from being a literary genre to become a cultural reality,” RUSirius wrote in Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge.
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Now we have CryptoPunk – a term floating around in cyberspace that sounds as exciting, radical and revolutionary as cyberpunk itself. It is, however, much less thoughtful or subversive than it appears; it is simply a type of limited-edition non-fungible token (NFT) that is hailed breathlessly: “A status symbol, a piece of internet history, and an unspeakably valuable asset, CryptoPunks is perhaps the most important NFT project ever.”
The CryptoPunk project is a collection of pixelated images that have supposedly unique attributes “and include things like hats, pipes, necklaces, earrings, eye patches, and more.”
The obviously inflated and hollow value of these images aside, the way CryptoPunk is marketed appropriates subcultures it does not represent. “CryptoPunks are a combination of art, technology, absurdity and social experimentation that is analogous to the radical methods of tokenization used by artists like Andy Warhol,” states a news article.
It is, however, extremely difficult to argue that the NFT artworks worth millions in cyberspace are the kind of punk tech future envisioned by the original cyberpunks. By definition, NFTs are tokens intended to be held exclusively; they are storehouses of private value that serve as economic leverage for people at the top of the financial food chain – anything antithetical to the spirit of punk.
CryptoPunk explains how cyberpunk, like most other subcultures, is today reduced to existing as a mere aesthetic that lives independently of its real roots. The cyberpunk vibe is a disco-alien glam, metallic shimmer and sleek chic that now adorns the covers of fashion magazines and the catalog of high-end fashion. In other words, the legacy of cyberpunk rooted in social justice movements is now reduced to the commercialization of an aesthetic – something that aligns with the status quo rather than disrupting it.
“The classical subculture ‘died’ when it became the object of social inspection and nostalgia, and when it became so conducive to commodification. Marketers have long realized that subcultures are expedient vehicles for selling music, cars, clothes, cosmetics, and everything else under the sun,” noted researcher Dylan Clark.
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Now, jewelry company Tiffany & Co. has unveiled plans to sell CryptoPunk-inspired diamond pendants for 30 ETH (about $50,000) each — exclusively to CryptoPunk NFT holders. So the aestheticization of cyberpunk is complete – with a luxury jewelry brand co-opting it to trade real pendants only with those who already “own” CryptoPunk online. As if that weren’t enough, the brand that makes luxury jewelry with the “punk” name implied has led to a significant boom in the CryptoPunk business – completing punk’s transition into a meaningless materialistic fashion statement rather than a real movement.
CryptoPunk therefore represents everything cyberpunk was against.
“Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized and alienated loners who lived on the margins of society in generally dystopian futures where everyday life was affected by rapid technological change, a pervasive datasphere of computerized information, and invasive body modification. human,” wrote the science fiction writer. Laurent Person, in Notes Towards a Postcyberpunk Manifesto.
Today, the characters of CryptoPunk are those who live in the tall glass towers of society, who shape its society much rather than be victimized by it, and who use technology in ways that extend their own financial capital, their power and influence.
What made the internet such an exciting medium was that it was fast, connected people, and provided a collective space. The common thread underlying the internet’s punkity was its ability to house solidarity, holding resources, knowledge and common causes under its digital roof. Cryptopunk is the very antithesis of the commons, “a hyper-masculine ethos guiding an already masculine logic of technology: the idea that the commons – in this case, the digital commons – exist to simply own and store the wealth without any work”, as The Swaddle noted earlier.
By appropriating the language of punk, CryptoPunk disguises its status quo ideology as subversive and even fashionable, and changes the meaning of punk itself. By layering what it means to be punk with expensive digital goods traded in digital currency, CryptoPunk is excluding many of the possibilities for freedom in cyberspace that punk has opened up.
“…on the one hand, it’s a culture of abandonment dedicated to pursuing the dream of freedom through appropriate technology. On the other, it’s a market ready for new gadgets and a training ground for hip new entrepreneurs with high-tech toys to market Cyberpunk…has been reabsorbed into the mainstream like every other subculture before it,” researcher McKenzie Wark wrote.
In other words, cyberpunk is dead. What’s left of it is just the aesthetics, allowing financial instruments – which are inherently antithetical to punk ideology – to wear it as long as it sells.