To Dissolve the Line Between Man and Machine: Reflections on Cyberpunk and Suffering in the Meatspace

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” […]

Zack Verham / 11.15.18

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” ​(Neuromancer, pg. 3)

If I self-reflect on how geeky my hobbies are, I’m nothing if not consistent. For the past year or so, some friends and I have been meeting in a basement after work and playing a fantastic Dungeons and Dragons-esque tabletop roleplaying game called Shadowrun. Like DnD, Shadowrun emphasizes collaborative storytelling in a shared fictional universe where each player takes on the role of a main character. Rather than taking place in a medieval world of magic-tinged fantasy, however, the dystopian future envisioned by Shadowrun is deeply embedded within the genre of cyberpunk, and draws heavily from William Gibson’s quintessential ​Sprawl t​rilogy.

The grimy sci-fi sub-genre of cyberpunk often takes place in the seedy underbelly of overcrowded megalopolises, and its stories are replete with black-market cybernetic enhancements, overbearing corporate-controlled governments à la Big Brother, and a globally shared virtual space called *ahem* the matrix. (Neuromancer​, the first book in Gibson’s Sprawl ​trilogy, came out in 1984 and was foundational for the Wachowskis’ ​Matrix​ saga.) Shadowrun is coated in the glossy nylon veneer of the 80s, when cyberpunk initially found its footing in literature and Japanese anime (most notably 1988’s ​Akira​). Drawing on the birth of personal and “social” computing, Shadowrun perfectly prophesies the modern “internet of things” craze where every household object is traversable (and therefore, conveniently hackable) through the global interconnectedness of cyberspace.

Shadowrun characters exist on the outskirts of near-future society. In a world controlled by corporations which exist as pseudo-nations, with their own armies and territorial domains, Shadowrunners operate within criminal teams which perform dirty work for the highest corporate bidder. My character, Finn, is a “Decker” — implying that he specializes in using a cyberdeck (think 80s’ conception of the iPad) to hack into the matrix and manipulate its properties. Every day is a tightrope walk between life and death as a Shadowrunner. Will we make it out of our next job alive? Or will we succumb to the brutality of life in Neo-Seattle?

Playing Shadowrun has gotten me more interested in cyberpunk over the past year, and I’ve realized that this sub-genre is ​everywhere.​ From movie blockbusters (​Ready Player One, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell)​, to television (Altered Carbon), ​to CD Projekt Red’s highly-anticipated video game ​Cyberpunk 2077​, to the many, many books from authors such as William Gibson, Ernest Cline, Philip K. Dick, and Katsuhiro Otomo, the core tenets of cyberpunk seem to have a heavy grasp on our collective conscience. Apparently we’re inadvertently consuming it all the time, just like the poor souls who remain jacked into the Wachowskis’ Matrix, fending off agents and enjoying steaks with Hugo Weaving.

While there’s plenty to write about regarding cyberpunk and my man-crush for William Gibson, I want to focus on one particular tenant of cyberpunk which (a) seems to be a common thread through lots of material, and (b) seems particularly relevant to present life in the cloudy mirror of the dystopian future envisioned by cyberpunk writers: dissolving the line between man and machine.

In cyberpunk settings, the distinction between the organic and the artificial is complicated. The first scene in ​Neuromancer​ illustrates this perfectly — Gibson describes how the main character, a hacker named Case, was caught stealing from his employer. His boss-turned-enemy punishes him by frying his nervous system with a mycotoxin, preventing him from accessing the virtual world of the matrix:

For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh…

…In Japan, he’d known with a clenched and absolute certainty, he’d find his cure. In Chiba. Either in a registered clinic or in the shadowland of black medicine. Synonymous with implants, nerve-splicing, and microbionics, Chiba was a magnet for the Sprawl’s techno-criminal subcultures.

In Chiba, he’d watched his New Yen [the currency in Gibson’s vision of the future] vanish in a two-month round of examinations and consultations. The men in the black clinics, his last hope, had admired the expertise with which he’d been maimed, and then slowly shaken their heads. (Neuromancer, pg. 6)

“The body was meat” is a core tenant of cyberpunk. Shadowrun characters refer to the real world as “meatspace.” In one of the most recognizable lines from ​The Matrix​, Morpheus states “welcome to the desert of the real,” (referencing Jean Baudrillard’s ​Simulacra and Simulation​). Cyberpunk implicitly believes that the human body is an unfortunate constraint meant to be sidestepped through science and the modern magic of engineering. Within the “shared hallucination” of cyberspace, where actions occur as quickly as thought and vast distances can be covered in the blink of an eye, the limitations of the body are removed entirely. Digital life is viewed as a more pure and streamlined form of existence.

At its core, the notion that “the body is meat” is profoundly gnostic. Gnosticism argues that there is an essential dualism between the soul and body — the body is inferior and irrelevant to the workings of the human spirit, which is the core of the individual (in cyberpunk, the soul and the mind are mostly interchangeable). This dualism is essential for survival in the overcrowded metropolises of the future where positive bodily experiences are few and far between. The Oasis in Ernest Cline’s ​Ready Player One ​is a clear-cut example of cyberpunk gnosticism. The Oasis, which is another iteration of Gibson’s conception of cyberspace, exists because physical life in the mega-slums of the future is too sad and uncomfortable to deal with on a daily basis.

Of course, the body is not only a prison for the mind — its frailty is itself a roadblock which can be overcome. The world of ​Blade Runner​ depends on bio-engineered androids who are indistinguishable from the rest of the population. Many Shadowrun players “cyber-up” their characters, giving them all sorts of cyborg implants, which could be anything from industrial-strength arms to cybernetic eyes. Richard K. Morgan’s ​Altered Carbon​ assumes that immortality can be achieved by digitizing the human consciousness and continually implanting it into new bodies, referred to as “sleeves.” The ever-present human desire for immortality is not lost in cyberpunk.

However, cyberpunk’s application of bodily augmentations also raises the Ship of Theseus paradox — namely, how much of a human can you remove and replace with engineered parts before it is no longer human? Or, in the case of ​Blade Runner, ​how many pieces of bioengineered parts do you need to paste together before Frankenstein’s monster becomes a person? This constant grappling with the relationship between the physicality of the human body and our own humanity is a hallmark of the genre.

Scripture has plenty of weight to throw around when thinking about what it means to be human. The plight of Case quoted from ​Neuromancer​ above is an almost exact replica of the story of the woman with the issue of blood which is presented in the Synoptic Gospels. For the woman in that story, who also spent all of her “New Yen” looking for a cure, her “prison of flesh” was the isolation imposed by her failure to fulfill Jewish cleanliness laws. The failures of her body in “meatspace” prevented her from engaging with her social and spiritual communities. Her nervous system had been fried — due to no fault of her own, of course, but fried all the same.

So the question becomes: how does Jesus respond to the symbolic (and in some ways entirely non-symbolic) physiological prison experienced by the woman? His response is so deeply woven into the very essence of God that it doesn’t even require His conscious effort — he heals the woman without intending to, implicitly affirming the significance and importance of her meatspace body.

In fact, the Incarnation itself, God’s becoming flesh to walk among us, is such an utter and profound rejection of body-mind dualism that the gnostic rejection of our own bodies in favor of the immortality of cyberspace becomes untenable. The physicality of God’s life as it is weaved into the world through Jesus affirms the importance of our bodies and physical experience. Even if we can easily “learn kung fu” with Tank’s help through a Matrix training program in cyberspace, the ethical framework created by Jesus’ ministry argues that there is something fundamentally different between cyberspace and Morpheus’ “desert of the real.”

Of course, that’s not in any way to suggest that there is perfection to be found in the human body either — Jesus experienced much physical pain and suffering as a flesh-and-blood human. His body was just as prone to failure as ours is. Jesus suffered greatly in meatspace — and that suffering is, in some mysterious way, affirmed by Jesus as “the new Adam” to be something which is also essential to being human. Cyberpunk’s search for perfection and immortality by augmenting the human body and digitizing the human consciousness is and will always be a pipe dream. James Cone writes:

“By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering….Liberation is not an afterthought, but the essence of divine activity.” (​A Black Theology of Liberation​, pg. 63-64)

To be clear: in no way does this argue that medical advancements and miraculous divine acts which alleviate bodily suffering and hardship are inferior to self-imposed martyrdom. Jesus spent a significant chunk of his time on Earth healing the sick and the hurting. The alleviation of suffering is itself divine. But it is also helpful and paradoxically comforting to acknowledge that, until Jesus comes back, bodily hardship and the physical limitations of the human body will never be completely removed without also removing an essential piece of what it means to be human. Wherever there is suffering, the incarnated Jesus is also present.

Although it’s really fun to play a cybered-up character in Shadowrun, the blurring of the line between man and machine can be a place of profound discomfort for me. How much of who I am is defined by my “matrix” self? Am I the facade of a Facebook personality I put up? What about pixels I see on the screen whenever I look at my bank account?

The good news presented by the gospel is the affirmation of our meatspace bodies as good and holy through Jesus’ emphasis on the miraculous healing of physical brokenness. Our frailty and his own incarnational vulnerability are woven together to create a perfect image of what it means to be a human being graced by Jesus’ divinity, crucified for us.

“He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.’” (Mark 5:34, NIV)