What is cyberpunk? While it is hardly as problematic a term like steampunk, which is a tempest in a teapot in of itself, it is a genre that gets plastered on quite a few series for mostly cosmetic reasons that often miss the point of the purest essence of the classification.
Therefore I am going to say that to be a full cyberpunk series you need to simultaneously fulfill two requirements. The first is the proliferation of cyber-technology. Cybernetics and Cyberspace should be fairly ubiquitous in the setting. While in many ways we are living in parts of the cyberpunk future laid out in things like the Sprawl Trilogy any contemporary cyberpunk work should be set in the not too distant future where our present information technology infrastructure is even more omnipresent. There should be more advanced augmented reality, more complex and sometimes totally cosmetic integration of man and machine, and a totally ubiquitous internet. The technology should advance with the march of science.
The second part is there should be a fairly oppressive divide between haves and the have-nots with a distinct air of dystopia. The rich should live in luxury and decadence with a technological regime that supports them. At the same time the down and out live in a paradox. While they have progressed a good deal with the ubiquitous nature of technology their lives should actually be worse since they have lost so much freedom and security. Also the gap between the poor and the rich should be astronomical with the resentment on both sides being equally intense.
You see that in all the classic cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, RPGs like Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020, and anime like Serial Experiments Lain and Ghost in the Shell. So our question here today is how much does PSYCHO-PASS fit into this two-part model. Does it have a cyberpunk flavor or is it full-immersed in the genre?
Well for one thing it is clear that the technology has clear progressed beyond what we have today while still being within the realm of reasonable advances. I’m leaving out talking about the Sibyl system itself as that really is more part of the dystopian section of the post. While it is clearly a piece of hyper-technology it is much more a piece of societal commentary than anything else.
Long gone are the headjacks of old in these high-tech futures. Even the recent version of Shadowrun has introduced the idea of a wireless Matrix. No longer do we see outdated notions of people plugging their brains and flying around in cyberspace while being fried by killer ICE. While virtual reality datascapes are still present in the world of PSYCHO-PASS they are far more pedestrian and commercial than your old school matrix. People browse these networks like you would in the modern age. There are distinct dangers of cyber crime, identity theft, and the general exposure of an increasingly information accessible society but networks and cyberspace are no longer the domain hackers and crackers.
All the standard cyberpunk trappings are there. Everyone is constantly connected to the Internet. Akane’s apartment has an rudimentary AI and holographic technology. There is even virtual reality in the form of CommuFields as well as readily integrated augmented reality as a part of everyday life. Tomomi Mazaoka is show to have a cybernetic arm and Toyohisa Senguji is a full conversion cyborg. Shion Karanomaori fulfills the standard hacker role although everyone is shown to have at least some basic competence with using the network technology of the time. There are even security drones and artificially intelligent robotic hunting dogs. The standard weapon of the Public Safety Bureau, the Dominator, is clearly a sci-fi weapon with its stun setting and disintegration mode. Even the reliance on hyper-oats shows a genetically altered diet that makes something as basic as food part of this setting.
People today currently have phones in their pockets with more power than the computers they used to send a man to the moon. So while in old school and modern cyberpunk this network technology in omnipresent we have seen it evolve from this almost unknowable fringe technology that saturates the world to this ubiquitous staple of everyday living. As the technology in cyberpunk worlds becomes more and more real it has gone from being a dangerous stranger to an equally hazardous but more friendly companion like a twisted immediate family member. Now the danger is something we know and have grown accustomed to. The immediate threat is gone but the real menace still remain.
At the same time it is clear that the mere existence of the Sibyl System moves the world into the realm of a dystopia. It is not just a frightening world. It is a world that has the veneer of a utopia but any amount of scratching below the surface shows layers of rot, corruption, and systemic inequality that are actually holding the society together in contrast to what the party line may preach.
The Sibyl System creates a twisted world order that puts everyone in predetermined boxes. Those who do not conform either live in squalor or are brutally eliminated before they can make waves. We see from just Akane and her friends that a privileged class exists with those on top being people who would support the system and those on the bottom anyone who might upset the balance of this facade of peace. There are clearly malcontents and psychopath still operating inside the system. It is just the system eliminates the ones that would cause problems for the hierarchy visibly enough that people think the system is flawless. The Sibyl System purports to keep people safe but over the course of the show it proves to be more of a danger to people than anything that came before it. It just creates a society that perpetuates a myth of safety more than actual safety.
Plus the Sibyl System works on a thought crime system like Minority Report where people are not judged on what they have done but what they might do. People who have a high Psycho-Pass score are either killed or imprisoned. In many cases the person in question has not actually committed a crime. They just have been determined to have the potential to commit said crime. It is encouraging sheepish behavior that goes with the system more than proper or noble behavior. When Shogo Makishima disseminates the helmets that mess with the Psycho-Pass readers people quickly erupt into violence. The base and dark impulses were always there. Nothing was done to remedy these behaviors. They were just forced to hide deeper which also makes them explode more brutally when they are unleashed.
As we see there is the luxurious life of the elite mostly protected by the Sibyl System and filled with high-tech gadgets and distractions to keep them from seeing the life of the downtrodden who exist outside the system. It is not a total disconnect from the way we live today. It is more the next logical step forward from today being reinforced by the Public Safety Bureau that crushes anything that would upset the current balance of power. And beyond that the actual “people” who run the system are actually horrible brains in jars that exist in states making them almost like spectral unholy gods. The cruel and twisted secret masters of the PSYCHO-PASS world pass themselves off as its unthinking mechanical servants. It is one thing to rebel against a visible and putrescent nobility. You see their influence and their virulent effect on your life. But when the ruling class is hidden away it is harder to from a solidified resistance.
And the life of the underclass is brutal. In episode three there is a Foxconn style factory where they make drones and the living conditions there are horrible. The workers there are practically plantation slaves cut off for the rest of the world and have built up a brutal bullying system to just remain somewhat sane. And the enforcers that uphold the Sibyl System are treated like animals. They are leashed and controlled when they are found to have potential for maintaining order and eliminated brutally whenever there is a hint that they are not being as efficient as they could be.
So we have a high-tech world that blurs the line between man and machine while showing how this could be used to support an oppressive and unfairly stratified totalitarian society. That sounds like a cyberpunk world to me. But the major point is that this to show that the cyberpunk is not dead. PSYCHO-PASS is still a show that has all the requirements to be a full on work in the genre but still have things to say about the present. When so much of what was written about in early cyberpunk came to pass the fascination with the style of story seemed to cool. But with the prevalence of networked technology in our daily lives and the ever-present threat of the loss of freedom, privacy, and dignity it is perhaps even more relevant than it ever has been.