Imperfect Technology Is An Important Part Of The Cyberpunk Genre – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk briefly about the cyberpunk genre today. Not only is this because I’m reading a cyberpunk/post-cyberpunk novel (“Virtual Light” by William Gibson) but because I also had an experience that reminded me of one of the most important ways to add realism to cyberpunk fiction. I am, of course, talking about imperfect technology.

In my case, this was the vintage mid-2000s computer I was using [Edit: At the time of writing, that is. I ended up getting a more modern one in the months between preparing this article and posting it] doing a scarily realistic impression of a hard drive failure. It fooled me enough to break out a recovery disc and try to reformat the drive in the hope of saving it, only for this to be interrupted halfway through by the same terse DOS-like “Invalid system disk” BIOS error message.

It was only when I was about to disconnect my computer and take it apart that I noticed the USB stick that I’d accidentally left plugged into it. A vague memory stirred. On some computers, if you try to boot with a USB stick in, the BIOS will assume that it’s a smaller hard drive and try to use it as such. After removing the USB stick and restarting the computer, everything seemed to work perfectly… until the interrupted reformatting program appeared on the screen and calmly told me to put the recovery disc back in.

Needless to say, I spent the next few hours reinstalling programs and restoring all of my data from backups. Out of superstition, I changed the desktop background of my computer to a different one to the one I had before the crash. It was the second time I’d had to do this in a year.

Why have I mentioned this? Well, putting it into words sounded more cyberpunk than I expected. After all, the reality of it was several hours of frustration, fear and boredom. Yet, describing it in a slightly fast-paced and jargon-filled way sounds a little bit cyberpunk. But, why?

Well, simply put, the thing that gives cyberpunk fiction it’s unique atmosphere isn’t the dazzlingly futuristic technology, it is the imperfections in said technology. It is the way that futuristic technology collides with mundane everyday life (eg: the classic modern example is people using powerful smartphones to look at cat photos).

It is the quirks in the technology, the fact that it isn’t always 100% reliable, the fact that it follows its own logic, the fact that it can make bizarre mistakes, the fact that it can provoke superstitions in people, the fact that it becomes “obsolete” (usually due to some greedy mega-corporation) etc….

But, more than all of this, imperfect technology is an important part of the cyberpunk genre because of the “punk” elements of the genre. In short, a cyberpunk protagonist will usually use technology in unexpected or unauthorised ways. They’ll make cynical comments about technical glitches or exploit them in clever ways. They’ll either be using “obsolete” technology because they aren’t wealthy enough to afford the very latest thing or they’ll get the very latest thing in a morally-ambiguous way.

In short, a classic cyberpunk protagonist isn’t the kind of cheerful, wealthy person you see in a technology advert who uses the latest thing in a perfect way that improves their lives. They are the opposite of this.

So, yes, as much as cyberpunk fiction is about cool futuristic technology, it is also about the imperfections with this technology. The contrast between reality and advertising.


Sorry for the short article (no prizes for guessing why), but I hope it was useful 🙂

Editorial Cartoon – Classics

Well, I hadn’t planned to make an editorial cartoon today. But, I happened to stumble across this shocking article about Steam’s shameful treatment of users who run classic computers.

Although they aren’t the first company to do something like this (Google and Mozilla spring to mind…), it’s all part of a disturbing trend in tech/gaming towards always pushing the latest thing.

I could probably moan about this for hours but, instead, I felt like making a cynical editorial cartoon about it. Enjoy 🙂

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Editorial Cartoon – Classics” By C. A. Brown

Books Vs. The Internet – A Ramble

A while before I originally wrote this article, I was waiting for my computer to finish a disk check. So, to pass the time, I ended up re-reading a couple of chapters of Warren Ellis’ surreal noir detective novel “Crooked Little Vein”.

Although it had been a little under a decade since I last read this book, it still retained the power to make me laugh out loud at regular intervals, to make me want to keep reading more of it and to make me wish that I had the boldness to write something even half as good.

After flicking through a couple of random chapters, I ended up reading an author interview that was printed at the back of the book. In the interview, Ellis stated that one of his main sources of inspiration was finding… strange… websites on the internet.

However, he also mentions that most of the sites that inspired him no longer exist. Yet, his novel serves as a permanent record of them.

This, of course, made me start to compare books and the internet….

The first obvious difference is that there is less censorship in books. Whilst the US has always had the first amendment, the concept of literary freedom only really began to appear in Britain after the “Lady Chatterley” trial during the 1960s. This gives books a real advantage over the internet in some ways.

For example, I read a lot of books when I was a teenager because books were a lot less restrictive compared to other forms of media (eg: age restrictions on films, stricter censorship standards in videogames, system requirements for computer games, dial-up internet etc..). For financial reasons, I mostly ended up reading second-hand books that were mostly written before the internet was really a popular thing.

But, whether it was the unflinchingly macabre imaginations of horror writers like Shaun Hutson or Clive Barker, the eccentric journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, the retro dystopias of Orwell and Ballard, the sheer weirdness of tattered old sci-fi novels from the 1950s/60s etc.. a lot of the second-hand literature of my teenage years would probably wouldn’t survive for long if it was freshly posted on the internet these days. It’d probably break some content policy or another.

Yet, at the same time, books lack the sense of connectedness that the internet has. If an old book uses some obscure jargon or makes an old cultural reference, then you either have to work out what it means from the context, ignore it, remember to research it later or just use your own imagination to “fill the gap”. If you see something that you don’t understand on the internet, then it’s just a simple case of doing a quick ten-second web search in another browser tab.

Whilst this will probably make you a more knowledgeable person, it also reduces the amount of individuality that everything on the internet has. After all, suddenly seeing something that you don’t understand in a book tells you that you are looking at another person’s imagination. You are seeing something by someone with different experiences and a different frame of reference to you. It reminds you that both you and the writer are different people with different minds and different lives.

Likewise, because books rely entirely on written descriptions, no two readers will have exactly the same experience of reading the same book. Every reader will imagine the characters, locations etc… in a very slightly different way. Yet with, say, a video on the internet or an online article that contains images – everyone sees exactly the same thing as everyone else does.

Yet, at the same time, the internet has the advantage that it is open to all. If it had never existed, then the sharing of ideas would be restricted to whoever the publishers happened to like. Cultural works would only get out into the world if people thought that they had “commercial potential”. Although there is the argument that the old methods of publication served as a “quality filter”, it has also been an unnecessary limitation and/or a source of discrimination of various types.

But, more interestingly, there are also a lot of things that books and the internet have in common. In particular, the feeling of being engrossed in a fascinating novel and reading a fascinating website are pretty much the same. That kind of beautiful trance-like state where you almost feel like you’re somewhere else, like your mind has somehow temporarily taken flight from your body. Like how, in old cyberpunk novels, the main characters would spend hours lost in fascinating virtual worlds.

Yet, even this differs between the two mediums. With books, it is a lot more focused and intense – since you are only reading one book by one person. But, with the internet, there’s more of a sense of exploration. If a topic fascinates you, you can flit between multiple browser tabs, run multiple searches,watch multiple Youtube videoes etc….

So, yes, books and the internet certainly have their differences. And their similarities. It’d be foolish to say that one was better than the other though – after all, this article was inspired by reading a book, it was written on a computer and it was posted on the internet.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (22nd February 2018)

Woo hoo! I am very proud to present the first comic in “Damania Refracted”, a new mini series of several (probably six) self-contained comics. Links to many more comics featuring these characters can be found on this page (with the exception of the first two comics in the “2015” segment of the page).

For those who are new to the comic here’s the comic update where Rox started using an old computer. It isn’t necessary to read that comic to understand this one though.

As usual, this comic update is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Refracted – Luddite” By C. A. Brown

The Democracy Of The Written Word – A Ramble

One morning last spring, I found myself worrying about international politics and the future. To distract myself, I started imagining somewhat unrealistic and fanciful “alternate history” scenarios about how things could somehow turn out for the better. As I daydreamed, I noticed something interesting – most of my daydreams were more influenced by things like TV shows and computer games than any other type of cultural work.

This then made me think about how cultural influences have changed over the years. Half a century ago or more, a well-written novel by a single author could have a surprising impact on culture and politics. The most recent example of this is probably Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” from 1949, which is still referenced in political discussions. But, there are plenty of other historical examples, such as the “invasion literature” genre that was popular in Britain in the years before World War One.

Yet, I realised, the idea of novels having such an influence on people is very much a thing of the past.

Even during the 1960s and 70s, protest songs probably had more of a cultural impact than opinionated novels did. Although there are probably famous opinionated novels from this time period, they usually tend to get a lot less recognition than musicians do.

In more recent years, if someone wanted to make a political point to everyone, they had to do it through something like a TV show. For example, shows like the various versions of “Star Trek” helped to promote a more utopian vision of the future during the 1960s-1990s. They also probably had some level of influence on our current technology too (eg: tablet computers, automatic doors etc.. were probably at least partially inspired by “Star Trek: The Next Generation”).

Of course, culture changes and the shift from novels to protest songs to TV shows as a way of making a political point is an example of it. I mean, in the near future, computer and video games will probably be the main tool that creative people use to make some kind of political point. They’re becoming more mainstream, indie games are more popular than ever before and games are finally starting to be taken seriously as an artform by mainstream culture (at least when they don’t do stupid, greedy things like including loot boxes etc..). So, they’ll probably be the next evolutionary step of opinionated creative works.

But, with all of this progress, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something.

Basically, in order to produce a TV show or a computer game, you need a team of people and a budget. Although novels used to require a traditional publisher, all of the actual creativity just involved one author. One person with a typewriter or even just a pen and paper. This lends opinions expressed in fiction a certain individuality which is much harder to achieve when a group of people are involved.

Likewise, there’s something oddly democratic about the idea of one person writing a story that makes some kind of difference. Yes, in practice, the publishing industry was almost certainly fairly narrow-minded during the heyday of the opinionated novel, but the idea that anyone could write a novel that made a point is an interesting one. After all, the materials needed to make it were cheap and easily available, and almost everyone learnt how to read and write at school. So, theoretically at least, anyone could do it.

The same, of course, cannot be said for more complicated things like TV shows and computer games. Yes, you might argue, “people can make Youtube videos” or “there are ‘game maker’ programs out there which don’t require programming“, but they don’t really compare to the large-budget offerings from more well-financed teams of people.

As such, they lack the meritocracy of the written word. Basically, if a story is good then it is good. If it is well-written, then it is well-written. It doesn’t matter who an author is or how wealthy they are – if they write well, they write well. if they don’t, they don’t. There’s no such thing as “large-budget special effects” in a novel – words are words.

However, with a game or a TV show, the quality and appeal of it depends on a whole host of other factors. Money matters more, a larger team of people are required, technology plays a role etc.. in other words, they miss out on the “anyone can, theoretically, do this” element that prose fiction has. And, when it comes to expressing opinions in a creative way, I think that this makes the world a slightly poorer place as a result.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

What Traditional Creative Mediums Can Teach Us About Modern Technology- A Ramble

2016 Artwork Traditional Art Mediums And Technology Article

Although this is an article about things like print books, traditional (non-digital) drawing and painting, handwriting etc… which will probably make me sound about two or three decades older than I actually am, I’m going to have to start by talking about the internet for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that will hopefully become clear after a while.

Earlier this year, I had a couple of moments that gleefully confirmed some of my cynicism about technology from this decade. I’d opened up Google Chrome to look at a badly-designed Chrome-optimised site (that refused to load a video in my usual browser), when Google Chrome flashed up an ominous warning message claiming that it will soon stop updating itself for anyone who doesn’t use the absolute latest operating systems. Unless Google has since come to it’s senses, this will have already happened a couple of months before this article is posted here.

My initial reaction to this was “Ha! I’m glad that I don’t use Google Chrome regularly!” and then, a few seconds later, I was filled with a strange mixture of creeping horror and ridiculing laughter. My mind was filled with stylised images of “hip” people of my own age, constantly upgrading their technology and constantly changing every digital thing that they surround themselves with. Their lives a never ending flux of shiny new devices, trendy social media websites and incrementally crappier new operating systems.

Somehow, this part of their lives seemed both eerily and laughably superficial to me – like they could never find a digital “home” or a constant in their lives. Like they’d never get to really know the technology they use, before it’s replaced with the latest flashy new thing. Like nothing that they use would ever become truly familiar to them.

Then, a day or two later, I read a slightly old article that claimed that Twitter was in financial trouble. Given my long-running cynicism about that site, this initially filled me with more schadenfreude than is probably healthy. However, the more I thought about it, the creepier it seemed. Twitter, as much as I despise it, has had a major impact on the world. It’s a thing that, for good or ill, has become part of our culture.

And, yet, this extremely annoying – but important- part of our history probably won’t be preserved if it loses mainstream popularity. It’ll probably just disappear. Twenty or thirty years later, most people will have probably forgotten all about it. Just like how many modern computers apparently don’t include floppy drives as standard any more.

Now compare this to the invention of the printing press. Although the technology for mass-producing books has advanced significantly over the years, you can still theoretically use an old-fashioned printing press and, more importantly, you can still read the books that were made using it. The surrounding technology has advanced, but the products of that technology are still as functional, timeless and accessible as they have always been.

Compare it to the invention of the pen. Whilst we don’t use quills any more, a quill is still a perfectly functional writing implement that anyone with the proper training can make. Likewise, whilst fountain pens are less common, you can still buy them. Not only that, the skills needed to use a modern ballpoint or (even better) rollerball pen aren’t too different to those needed to use a quill or a fountain pen.

We have more reliable pens, we have pens that don’t leak and we have pens which don’t need to be refilled regularly. And, yet, they’re still pens. A time traveller from the 19th century could probably work out how to use a modern rollerball pen fairly quickly, for the simple reason that it’s still a pen. It’s functionality, method of use and basic principles are still the same, even if the technology has advanced.

Now look at something like drawing and/or painting. The technology may have advanced significantly (I mean, I make all of my paintings with a waterbrush and watercolour pencils), but the basic actions of using something to create images on paper or canvas hasn’t changed that much in centuries. We might have pre-made paints, paintbrushes with water reservoirs, mechanical pencils, pencils made out of pigment etc… but the basics are still the same.

Modern technology, unfortunately, doesn’t have any of this timelessness. Sure, it has a lot of “progress”, but this progress often comes at the cost of erasing it’s own history. If a time traveller from fifty years in the future appeared today, they probably wouldn’t know how to use a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone. They’ll probably still know what the internet itself is, but they wouldn’t know how to access it using current technology.

However, they would probably still know how to use a pen, how to read a print book and, if they’re an artist, how to paint a picture.

So, in my opinion, these traditional mediums provide a good guide to what new mediums should strive towards. They should obviously keep advancing and upgrading, but they should do so in a way that both preserves their own history and remains accessible to everyone, regardless of their technology level.

However, it’s probably going to take everyone a long time to work this out. Why? Because, unlike pens, books etc.. There’s slightly more of a profit motive inherent in new technology. Whilst old printing press companies might have tried to sell the latest presses to publishers, the books that people read were still books that any literate person could read.

However, with new technology, these companies have the ability to sell both the technology for making stuff and the technology for accessing it. So, out of sheer short-sighted greed, they constantly change both the underlying technology itself and the things that ordinary people use to access it. In other words, they use planned obsolescence regularly.

To them, history doesn’t matter. To them, the sharing of information between the widest number of people isn’t an inherent good. To them, becoming familiar with a piece of technology (and getting to know and love it over the years) is something to be mocked, feared and scorned, because it doesn’t generate profit.

In the grand scheme of things, these are probably short term issues that will be resolved eventually. But, if modern technology wants to truly become part of both everyday life and modern history, the people who make it might want to take a look at everything that came before.

Because, it’s 2016 and I still write things with a pen, I still have a large collection of print books and I still make watercolour paintings – but I can’t update my copy of Google Chrome…..


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Fiction And Art As A Record

2015 Artwork Art and Fiction as a record article sketch

One morning a few months ago, I woke up early and had a really fascinating thought about art, technology, history and fiction.

Since it was way too early to stay awake, I wrote it down in one of my sketchbooks and went back to sleep again – before writing this article later that day. At the time, I couldn’t remember exactly how this idea came to me, but it was probably as a result of yet another cynical thought about the modern world.

Basically, before about a century and a half ago – the only ways to record interesting things that happened were in writing, through drawings and paintings or through oral storytelling. Even up to a decade and a half ago, if you saw something interesting, you could only create an instant record of it if you’d remembered to bring a camera, a video camera or a microphone of some kind.

These days, of course, virtually everyone in Europe, America, South Korea, Japan, Australia etc.. has either a smartphone or a camera phone which they carry around almost all of the time.

If you want to create a reliable record of something, then you can do it instantly. Not only that, you can share it with the world instantly. This has had a lot of good effects on the world – like documenting acts of police brutality in America (which would have otherwise gone unreported), helping journalists to research news reports etc…

But, at the same time, I’d like to think about how it has negatively affected both art and fiction in the present day. As someone who doesn’t own a camera phone or a smartphone (and who has briefly owned a digital camera that no longer works and a few disposable cameras… does anyone remember those?), I probably have a slightly different perspective on this.

As cynical as I am about the modern craze of taking “selfie” photos at every possible opportunity, I can sort of understand it if I think about it for a while.

Yes, if you’re somewhere interesting, then it’d probably be a better idea to actually take photos of that place, rather than of yourself. But, at the same time, it’s practically a human instinct to document our lives – it’s a way of showing that we were here and that we existed. It’s a kind of psychological insurance against our inevitable mortality.

Before the age of smartphones, social media and camera phones, people used to keep diaries a lot more often. The interesting thing about keeping a diary is that, unlike a photo or a video, it’s not only a record of what happened, but also a record of who you were at that time.

In something as private as a diary, you can also record your opinions, your perspective and your thoughts in a way that a photo, a video or an ephemeral online comment just can’t do. A diary is a one-of-a-kind record of something that has been filtered through the unique lens of one person’s mind at one point in time.

Not only that, if you’re creative in any way, then one of the best ways to record a part of your life or somewhere interesting you’ve been is through art and/or fiction. If you don’t have instant access to a camera, then the only way to preserve your memories is through stories and art. But, since memory is slightly unreliable and people expect fiction and art to be “larger than life”, then you can also record how you felt about a particular place or moment in time.

In other words, you can use artistic licence. If you liked a place, you can make it look even more awesome in your art. If somewhere really inspired you, then you can use it as the setting for a really interesting story. You can show the world how you felt about something or somewhere and, more importantly, how your imagination reacted to it. Yes, it won’t be an “accurate” record, but it’ll be far more interesting than anything taken by a camera.

Not only that, the ubiquitous presence of cameras in the modern world has removed a lot of the ambiguity from life. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I couldn’t quite remember all of the idea that inspired this article. What this meant was that I had to think about what I was going to write a bit more. It meant that this article is probably slightly different to the one I would have written if I hadn’t gone to sleep again. I’ll never know what that other article might have looked like.

Although the lack of ambiguity in modern life is a brilliant thing for journalists and historians, it’s a terrible thing for artists and writers. Why? Because art and fiction often rely on ambiguity. They rely on suggestion and they rely on using imagination to “fill in the gaps” in ideas and memories.

If there’s some ambiguity about what somewhere looked like, or what might have happened somewhere – then this gives artists and writers far more leeway when it comes to thinking of creative ideas.

It gives artists and writers far more opportunity to let their imaginations turn real life into something much better than real life.

And, let’s be honest, isn’t that the whole point of art and fiction?

Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂