Neoliberalism in the 1980s espoused globalization and deregulation of economies, which encouraged open markets and corporate development. Consequently, the themes in popular cyberpunk literature showed the extrapolated effects of neoliberal policies, as shown in the novel “Neuromancer” and “Blade Runner” film. Themes include technological development and the idea of consciousness. Corporate power is evident in both pieces of literature engendered in underlying neoliberal aspects of globalization, deregulation, and non-intervention.
Necromancer (1984) by William Gibson is a cyberpunk novel set in a distant future where humans and artificial intelligence interact in virtual and physical spaces. Case, the protagonist, meets an augmented-mercenary, Molly Millions, who offers to cure him of an injury to his central nervous system (Gibson 10). The injury prevents him from accessing virtual reality called the matrix. The movie is about a hacker contracted by Molly for his skills in return for healing his wounds, thus allowing him to access the matrix. The story’s setting makes it so that the humans live in a hallucination collective data space that enables humans to interact in the virtual space.
The novel presents the artificial intelligence (AI) feature Wintermute, a virtual entity seeking to overcome the boundaries set by the Turing test. Wintermute seeks to rejoin its second half, “Neuromancer”, capable of formulating a stable personality (Gibson 215). The limitations prevent the program from stabilizing its personality and existing as an autonomous entity in cyberspace. Consequently, Wintermute contracts Armitage, Colonel Willis Corto, who, in turn, hires Molly and Chase to help with its cause to gain super-intelligence.
The novel’s central themes include technological development gone awry and the argument of consciousness. Humans, in the story, exist beside AI and augmented reality, where health depends on the capability to pay. The creation of the AI program makes it so that humans rely on its existence for fundamental aspects of life, such as mental health, for Armitage. Case, for example, leverages his skills as a hacker to receive healing from Molly (Gibson 20). Alternatively, Armitage and his companions rely on the success of Wintermute’s rejoining “Neuromancer” to achieve their respective aims.
“Blade Runner” by Ridley Scott is a cyberpunk film set in a dystopic version of the 21st century where humans and genetic clones exist in a physical and augmented world. Rick Deckard, the main protagonist in the film, is a bounty hunter who specializes in hunting rogue ‘replicants’ (Scott). Replicants are genetically engineered by the Tyrell Corporation and seek to mimic human behavior in their appearance and habits (Scott). The corporation aims to create consciousness in the replicants with modifications for strength, intelligence, and speed nut and later sells them as artificial humans.
As Deckard hunts the four replicants, he faces the existential questions of consciousness and the characteristics of being human. The replicants have an imposed limitation on their lifespans, killing them once their expiration date approaches (Scott). The expiration date mimics the restriction on humans by nature and allows the corporation to simulate the nature of human experiences further. However, the limitations place undue stress on the replicants who can extend their lifespans, unlike humans.
The film questions the legitimacy of the rights of manufactured consciousness and what it means to be human. The replicants struggle with emotions and physiological issues, similar to the situations of ‘normal’ humans. The film thus questions the moral impetus to hunt rogue replicants while they closely mimic human experiences and have a consciousness. Additionally, the film shows the continued treatment of replicants as products and machines despite indicating that their consciousness is almost indistinguishable from that of an average human (Scott). There is evident corporate power in the film, where Tyrell Corp can manufacture artificial humans and call for their execution.
Neoliberal sentiments tend to emphasize aspects that accentuate the core of corporate empowerment. Hathaway (315) highlights four core neoliberal policies: free markets, deregulation, free trade, and non-intervention. Additionally, free markets encourage capitalists to take advantage of opportunities in various regions and thus increase their profit margins. Hathaway (315) posits that the neoliberal movement in the 1980s prompted the globalization of corporations as governments deregulated their markets, allowing for regional integration.
The Tyrell Corporation in the “Blade Runner” film can manufacture humans and authorize their decommissioning. The complete control exercised by the corporation over the replicants implies that it potentially dictates the existence of a race of conscious beings. The visual representation of Los Angeles in 2019 shows a dystopic world where the Earth’s inhabitants reside in a polluted environment with minimal vegetation (Scott). The city sports skyscrapers dotted with graphic holograms as marketing features for various corporations. The continuous exploitation of economics and the environment by corporations creates the dystopic future envisioned by the film.
The novel, similar to “Blade Runner”, questions the nature of human consciousness since “Neuromancer” and Wintermute both explore the nature of their existence and the formation of stable personalities. Alternatively, “Neuromancer” highlights neoliberal ideals where the digital revolution allows humans and AI to interact in the virtual space. The deregulated virtual space creates the conditions for making a super-intelligent AI capable of affecting the lives of humans. Deregulation in cyber space allows the creation of a super-intelligent AI consciousness that, in turn, affects human experience.
In both the film and novel, neoliberal corporate power seems to allow corporations to toe the line between creating artificial consciousness and playing the role of creator. Corporate power is apparent in both pieces of literature, prompted by the underlying neoliberal elements of globalization, deregulation, and non-intervention. However, both literary pieces imply that despite the creation of artificial consciousness by corporations or humans, neither can dictate the limitations of consciousness.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. HarperCollins, 2001.
Hathaway, Terry. “Neoliberalism as Corporate Power.” Competition & Change, vol. 24, no. 3-4, 2020, pp. 315–337.
Scott, Ridley, director. Blade Runner, Warner Bros., 1982.