Johnny Mnemonic is the 1995 film adaptation of William Gibson’s short story of the same name and Robert Longo’s directorial follow-up to Speed, which is appropriate—the film is a train wreck. As the story goes, Johnny, a cybernetic courier with a hard drive implanted in his brain, will die unless he can deliver his last mysterious shipment of data under 72 hours. For reasons unknown, the Yakuza want to kill Johnny for this precious information. The film ends when the protagonists give heroin to a cyborg dolphin so it can hack Johnny’s brain and later the planet.
Beyond Johnny Mnemonic’s nonsensical plot, one of the most confusing things about it, as with so much of cyberpunk fiction, is its white savior complex. It’s cliché at this point: evil overlords (mega-corporations, totalitarian governments, artificial intelligence) rule over a wasteland of trashcan fires and gleaming towers. In the shadows, a cerebral leader (Morpheus, Roy Batty, the clairvoyant tumor in Total Recall) leads the plucky, soot-covered resistance. Invariably these leaders enlist a special white dude (Wade Watts, Case, Neo) in the struggle, a savior who almost single handedly overthrows the villains, using hacker-like, veil-piercing skills to turn the evil technological apparatus on itself.
While corny, Johnny’s rant about club sandwiches, hotel laundry service, and $10,000-dollar-a-night hookers is admittedly refreshing because he ends up pulling the curtain off the whole cliché. Johnny shouldn’t be the savior of the resistance: he’s a wormy little yuppie with expensive tastes.
I love cyberpunk for its goofiness and its neon-soaked aesthetic, but something has always bugged me about the genre’s reliance on this savior thing: cyberpunk celebrates/lionizes hyper-individualism and exceptionalism. It oversells the skills of a very special boy at the expense of the collective struggle for liberation of the oppressed, who by definition are the central protagonists in these struggles.
And sure, hackers loom large as the protagonists of many cyberpunk narratives, but the genre doesn’t even get hackers right. Unlike their fictional counterparts, hackers aren’t puked fully-formed out of vats of pink goo like Neo is in The Matrix. We know that the skills of hackers are often intimately informed by collective struggle and conflict. Consider the free software movement’s open source model and the way its license agreements contest traditional proprietary models of software control and ownership. Or the history of the hacker underground in the 1980s and 1990s: marginalized by the computing industry and law enforcement, many young hackers exposed critical security flaws in software in order to demonstrate that they possessed legitimate knowledge. Cypherpunks’ frequent clashes with governments and intelligence agencies have only served to hone their cryptographic methods and threat models. What we can understand from these histories is that hacker knowledge and skills are always political, they arise from historical conflicts, contesting control and authority.
This is what rings false about cyberpunk narratives: a good hacker isn’t a savior or a rock star. A good hacker is part of the struggle. They should be a comrade. Cold Mexican beer for all!