The first time we ever see the power of the "light side" of the Force is to psychically dominate a security guard. The first time we see a lightsaber in use, it's to maim someone in a bar brawl. It's the "elegant weapon" of a man so feared that his battle cry sends the local people scattering.
Small wonder, given that his apprentice slaughtered those same people indiscriminately and without repercussion.
This man, Obi-Wan Kenobi, pines for a time when he and his brothers roamed the galaxy, meting out their unaccountable rulings as emotionless judges and executioners— when not using their powers to cheat at dice.
Someone made an excellent cyberpunk movie once. It crowned a form of science fiction that emerged in the 1980s, defining our now-familiar discomforts with corporatization, internationalization, and the dehumanizing effects of being able to talk to anyone, anywhere, at any time. This forgotten film expertly exploited American anxieties about Japanese hegemony to shine a light on its own cultural imperialism, presenting a world in which Hollywood itself clumsily aped the cinematic styling of dominant foreigners. In this excellent and sadly hypothetical cyberpunk movie, Johnny Mnemonic is playing on the monitors in the background, a knowing semiotic joke.
Johnny Mnemonic is the story of hapless Americans (embodied by hapless American character actors) who flee the grasp of international Pharmakom, represented by bankable Japanese actor/director Beat Takeshi, and their Yakuza hirelings. Along the way, they get in poorly-staged firefights and exchange confusing expository dialog that never properly explains anything. At the end of the story, they run out of antagonists, so Pharmakom bursts into flame.
It's exactly the sort of movie a dystopic corporate hegemony would produce.
At every level, it bears the stamp of a Japanese world, long-feared but clearly not going to happen by its 1995 release date. The film projects stereotypically American depictions of Asian actors, and places, onto a western cast and locales. The only character with any emotional weight is corporate boss Takahashi, played by Takeshi. Everyone else is a walking echo of a better b-movie.
Each character is drawn thinly, as though meant to be stereotypical. Keanu Reeves' character even has no backstory beyond his name, Johnny, and his apparently American nationality. Joking about Americanisms ("Double-cheese, anchovies?") and his desire to live in a frictionless corporate bubble are all he has to his personality. Character actor Dina Meyer plays a wannabe bodyguard with "augments", presented as a barely-concealed metaphor for drug abuse. Henry Rollins plays a doctor-cum-babbling street person everyone seems to be taking seriously, for some reason. Ice-T is a future gangster. Dolph Lundgren is a murderous cyborg preacher, adding "JESUS!" to all of his one-liners.
The dialogue is awkward. Scenes are obviously rerecorded over the original soundtrack. It feels like a translation dub, even though it is clearly not. Characters grudgingly spout one-liners. Nobody is smug. Nobody is relaxed. Nobody is having fun. The movie is endured by its cast.
While Johnny Mnemonic was produced in the United States and filmed in Canada, it premiered in Japan. The Beijing of the movie is sleek and rich, but with a core of unrest. All we see of the United States, outside of corporate offices, is ruins and slums.
Consider how, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the idea of asian cultural and industrial dominance seeped out of science fiction to flavor thrillers, procedurals, and business dramas. It is a measure of Johnny Mnemonic's badness that, having stumbled its way to a place of insight into corporate hegemony, as illustrated by an ahistorical caricature of Japanese power, it then fails to comment on it at all.
Real brands that existed at the time, like AT&T, are freely intermixed with fictional brands like Infobahn and Sino-Logic. With greater self-awareness, this could have worked well. For example: the psychedelic view of cyberspace isn't computer hacking, it's product placement for CyberSpace Attack, available this Christmas as a launch title for the Sino-Logic 16 (with a prominent "As seen in Johnny Mnemonic" on the box). The gloves sold separately, of course. You didn't think they were actually going to teach people to hack computers, did you?
Instead, the result is bland, evoking product placements for things that don't exist more than world-building detail.
Taken as a metafictional product of a fictional cyberpunk dystopia, much of Johnny Mnemonic makes sense. By 1995, many of the predictions of cyberpunk were coming true. The internet was — and is — a place where people live and work and socialize. Liberalism slowly elevated corporate interests above national ones. We never did get the cybernetic arms or brain jacks, and nobody really wanted the virtual reality, but that's like mistaking Heinlein's classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress for being about rocket ships or nuclear fusion. Science fiction is the fiction of ideas, and cyberpunk is fundamentally about how people come to terms with technological progress that has outpaced the ability of people to understand and morally adapt to it, in societies that feel as if they are "designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button."
In the same short story collection as "Johnny Mnemonic", the novella this film is based on, is another, less famous story by William Gibson: "Gernsback Continuum". This story, named for science fiction author Hugo Gernsback, is Gibson showing the full extent of Philip K. Dick's influence on his writing. The story is about a photographer whose pictures (of what appear to be the cynical present of the 1980s) trigger visions of the Gernsback continuum, an idealized, brushed-aluminum-and-glass ideal of what golden age science fiction writers imagined the world would be like. The protagonist struggles with visions of spacesuits and zeppelins and flying wings, and it's never clear if he's seeing into and photographing an alternate timeline, or if he's merely hallucinating. He can't escape it until he throws himself entirely into the ugliest and seediest parts of reality, and even then, the doubt lingers.
Johnny Mnemonic almost works in this way, as metafiction produced by an implied Gibson continuum, the 1995 of the world that would go on to produce cyborgs and cyberspace. It almost forces the viewer to observe the technological and corporatist progress of their own lives. The blatant branding for fictional brands, the odd casting, the reversal of cultural sway. All of these could combine together to criticize the corporate machine that produced this movie, to criticize the hegemony of Hollywood.
In practice, though, Johnny Mnemonic only has an odd feeling of kitsch, as though it were the earnestly bad product of an only slightly different present. While much about cyberpunk holds true today, especially the core idea of culture shock caused by technological progress making life unrecognizable, Johnny Mnemonic falls into the gap where dystopic ideal met with dystopic reality. In a 2007 interview, Gibson described his writing as no longer being about the future, but rather "speculative fiction of the very recent past." While Gibson caught up, and, in his own words used "a toolkit that was in large part provided by science fiction" to "a handle on the world today," Johnny Mnemonic fell just short. But somewhere inside that deeply mediocre movie is a vision of that Gibson continuum, just out of reach.
They want you to lift the veil pulled over your eyes by the progressives who secretly control society. Like Neo escaping the Matrix, your choice is to wake up and see how the world really is, discarding religion, subjectivity, and feminist indoctrination. Conspiracy theorists, Men's Rights Activists, Pick-Up Artists, GamerGate, even the Neoreaction: all of these communities share a common creed, tech-fluent and superficially self-aware. To outsiders, it's distinctly conservative. But they don't see themselves as conservatives at all.
Welcome to the Red Pill worldview, where the entire world is a game and the people who are winning are the best players.
They've yet to assume a formal name, remaining a loose confederation of overlapping reactionary movements resistant to (though exploited by) their would-be leaders. Most identify as libertarian, many as atheists, and they are overwhelmingly white and male. They're comfortable with progressive terminology and how technology has changed society, which puts them sharply at odds with most conservatives, who see both as a threat to traditional values. Many "Redpillers" perceive conservatism as censorious and unscientific, and instead identify with the "freethought" and "skeptic" internet communities.
Despite this, Redpillers define themselves as opponents to progressives. They seek to roll back the achievements of "cultural Marxists", "Social Justice Warriors", "political correctness" and "radical feminists", justifying ruthless tactics as a necessary response to these perceived excesses.
One of the core dogmatic beliefs is in a just world, or at least one the cultural Marxists weren't mucking up. A focus of unwavering belief is meritocracy: if you're successful, then you deserve it because you're superior. If you're superior—and Redpillers are prone to deem themselves so—then you deserve to be successful. The presence of one without the other, such as success without merit or merit without success (especially in regards to oneself), is evidence of some kind of social-justice trickery.
This leads, of course, to pervasive bigotry.
This takes active forms, such as the conclusion any woman or person of color who outperforms a Redpiller must have cheated to do so, either with sexual favors or affirmative action. But it takes passive forms, too, such as the corresponding belief that any time white men have an advantage over anyone else, it must be because those men are just better at it, rather than for systemic reasons. Redpillers rationalize even vicious bigotry as hatred of a particular person who happens to be a minority, rather than hatred of the minority groups themselves. And you are the real bigot, for pointing out any sort of pattern.
Despite the anti-feminist focus of MRM groups, members describe themselves as believers in real equality, identifying with euphemistic labels like "men's rights advocate" (MRA), "egalitarian", or "equality feminist". MRAs reject the feminist idea of patriarchy—the idea that male chauvinism is perpetuated not by intent, but by internalized, unconscious behavior—as a conspiracy theory, but also often hold that feminist ideas only spread because of a literal conspiracy of cultural Marxist infiltrators in governments and academia.
These imagined cultural Marxist plots, to foist progressive beliefs on everyone, aren't only opposed because they are perceived to be unfair, but also because they obscure the truth. While the scientific method only concerns itself with what can be observed and measured, a uniting thread of Redpillers is scientism, which goes a step beyond that to reject the authority or value of anything that can't be handled by empirical observation.
Indeed, anything that is studied subjectively, like philosophy, religion and theology, or art, is considered a lesser subject because it cannot provide the objective truths of "hard" science. Formally, they assert that objective methods are applicable to every imaginable field. Informally, however, Redpillers tend to simply reject other people's opinions as subjective while prizing their own as objective. This "realz before feelz" approach characterizes GamerGate: their nebulous ideas of ethics in video game journalism often come down to "objective" reviews of video games which never espouse any opinion they might find disagreeable.
This approach comes along with a narcissistic idea that their superior understanding of "real" science can propel Redpillers beyond the fools who prize subjective or emotive qualities.
The get-rich-quick psychology doesn't just apply to money: so-called "pick-up artists" such as Daryush "Roosh V" Valizadeh or Matt Forney offer how-to schemes to win the "game" of sexual conquest, although that advice often amounts to emotional abuse or coercion. In the most extreme case, this pseudologic even carries into legal thinking, with "Freemen on the Land" and their schemes to somehow escape taxes or other legal obligations [PDF link].
Rejecting subjects that cannot be studied in a controlled setting allows Redpillers to reconcile their conspiratorial scientism with the just world hypothesis—say goodbye to even credibly scientific approaches. Redpill communities' intellectual pretentions make them fertile ground for pseudoscience on all these fields, from Praexology economics to neurolinguistic programming.
Redpillers also often subscribe to biological essentialism, a viewpoint that is far from uniquely conservative in its appeal. For example, it's also the province of trans-exclusionary feminist writer Cathy Brennan, who describes herself as a "gender atheist", equating modern psychological ideas of gender identity with religion. [EDITOR'S NOTE: See Cathy Brennan's response to this at the bottom of this article] (Contrast with the co-writer/director of The Matrix, Lana Wachowski, who came out as a trans woman in 2012.)
Human biodiversity, a euphemistically-named biological-essentialist racist movement, is also popular in Redpill circles. Proponents of HBD, such as neoreactionary video blogger and self-described "white nationalist on paper" Davis Aurini, hold that differences in outcomes for different races and ethnicities aren't a result of racism, but rather of genetic differences between races.
While these so-called "racial realist" views aren't mainstream in science, they are common in the Redpill universe, especially its most militant and regressive regions, such as the Neoreaction movement. Also occasionally called the "Dark Enlightenment", this is a movement that seeks to defeat "the Cathedral" (an incoherent alliance of everyone who isn't a neoreactionary) and roll back liberal affectations like humanism and democracy in favor of monarchy, slavery and ethnic pogroms.
Thankfully, Neoreaction isn't particularly large or influential. It is mostly confined to a handful of bloggers such as Michael Anissimov, software developer Curtis "Mencius Moldbug" Yarvin, and author Nick Land. But even this fringe of the Redpill Right finds support in unexpected places. You can find Redpiller arguments in any sufficiently young, sufficiently white, sufficiently male internet company, be they neoreactionaries or bitcoiners, hardcore skeptics or GamerGaters, tax evaders or pick-up artists.
The Redpill Right is the new conservatism of a secular, internet-savvy generation, and its perceived enemies are legion.
Meads v. Meads [PDF link], a 2012 Alberta court decision by Associate Chief Justice J.D. Rooke. On the pseudolegal arguments of Freemen on the Land and similar movements.
"For the record, I am not a 'biological essentialist.' Indeed, that is the very opposite of feminism. I have never written a single thing that supports the idea that because a person is born female or male that they should act in any specific way. Indeed, I have written numerous publicly available posts that say the exact opposite of this. See, e.g., Cisterhood is Powerful."
And from the comments: "Hi, Cathy Brennan here. The writer, who I have never heard of, misrepresents my views. I don't subscribe to "biological essentialism." Indeed, I have no idea what that means."
Last Friday, January 9, at 11:50 PM, someone tried to "swat" Seattle web developer Israel "Izzy" Galvez—a false anonymous tip phoned into the police, in the hopes that they would raid his home. Galvez's crime was to have criticized GamerGate, the loose reactionary movement of hardcore gamers. The anonymous tipster's effort was thwarted, however, as Galvez had already warned the local police. He had seen the users coordinating their efforts on /baphomet/.
Raiders often gloat about trying to drive their targets to suicide with harassment.
/baphomet/ is an invasion board, in a tradition originating on—but now banned from—4chan's infamous /b/ "Random" board. It shares the origins and some of the tactics of Anonymous "operations" like Project Chanology, but not their taste for activism.
Here's the fashionable anti-feminist narrative: any woman who complains about mistreatment is a "professional victim" doing it only to promote herself. Speaking out against harassment, in this view, is evidence of an ulterior motive, as though ending that mistreatment wasn't enough of a motivation on its own.
These women—and it is almost always women—are accused of inciting this mistreatment in order to profit from decrying it. Though these accusations are transparently unfair and untrue, the trolls using them to attack vulnerable people are nothing new. What is new is the cottage industry of professional victimizers, using crowdfunding tools to capitalize on their infamy and devote even more time to harassment.
Anonymous image boards are a continuous froth of simultaneously earnest and ironic hostility. What the anonymous denizens of these boards consider polite discourse is indistinguishable from open attack. This works in their own subculture, but when exported elsewhere, their hostility and antipathy for personal identity creates problems. This clash of anonymous imageboard culture with the parts of social media where people live and work created the divide underlying GamerGate, making it difficult for outsiders to understand.
The flagship English-language anonymous imageboard is 4chan, founded by Christopher "moot" Poole in 2003. Most of the imitator or successor boards have names that play on 4chan's name, like 420chan or infinitechan (also known as 8chan); such forums, collectively, are often called "chan" boards. On these boards, all or nearly all posters simply post as "Anonymous", and the oldest posts are deleted as quickly as new posts are made. On most boards, posters can append a name to their posts, with or without a unique hash identifier known as a tripcode, but most posters don't. (Posters who do are affectionately/derisively known as "tripfriends", or more often a homophobic slur in place of "-friend.") This stands in stark contrast with most internet forums, where posters are expected to stick to permanent pseudonyms, giving them an identity, history, and reputation.
These anonymous imageboards have their own idiosyncratic culture, despite the lack of permanent identity. Posters call themselves anons, or occasionally channers. While anonymity is a core part of this identity, merely being anonymous does not make you an anon. Rather, it's about identifying as a larger whole. Capital-A Anonymous, such as the Project Chanology protestors and the hacking/activist groups like @youranonnews, are anons, but most anons don't think of themselves as part of Anonymous.
Without identity, every anon is whoever they want to be at the moment. It's freeing! Anons exalt these imageboards as the only place people can truly be themselves, without being burdened by their identity or consequences. This includes genuinely awful or hateful opinions. Anons have a broad, often absolutist view of free speech, sometimes extending that so far as to include threats of violence or extreme pornography. Anons are extremely protective of their culture and this very broad view of free speech, because of both great faith in their ability to self-police argument and an unconscious, internal reliance on irony.
The atmosphere is that of a paradoxically jovial angry mob. Almost everyone sees their own point of view as the consensus, assuming that most people most people agree with them. Any possibly contentious statement is presumed to be ironic, told as a joke or to rile up people who disagree. Since everyone assumes that anyone who disagrees is arguing in bad faith and doesn't mean what they're saying, anyone who disagrees is a fair target for apparently hateful mockery. This basic assumption of bad faith applies even when arguments are long-lasting and well-known: for example, the console war arguments in /v/, 4chan's video games sub-board. However, this mockery is defanged by anonymity and irony.
Everyone's anonymous, so a poster can just join the winning side of an argument, cheerfully mocking their own older posts. One poster can even play both sides from the start. Every anon can choose whatever opinion they want to have on a post-by-post basis, so everything flows smoothly even as people hatefully attack each other for having the wrong opinion. Anons believe in this free marketplace of ideas: good ones survive the firestorm, while bad ones burn to ash as everyone dogpiles on mocking them.
Anon culture is a decentralized echo chamber, but one that can produce interesting things through the work of many hands. Anons hold that whatever consensus emerges is the right one as an article of faith, even if that consensus becomes more and more toxic over time. One example of how hate can concentrate is 4chan's /pol/ sub-board. Ostensibly for discussing politics and current events, it is now dominated by white supremacists. This toxicity isn't necessarily contained to one board: usually-ironic, sometimes-not homophobia, racism, and antisemitism are common to almost all anonymous imageboards.
One toxic belief common to many anon imageboards is a love/hate relationship with so-called tripfriends. Anons love anyone who identifiably supports the consensus; similarly, GamerGate's supporters pile adulation on the "e-celeb" thought leaders of GamerGate. However, anons hate people who identifiably disagree with them, because they can't presume those people's opinions are ironic trolling. Those people are fair game to be shut up by any means necessary, because that's how the game is played.
In particular, being identifiable is counter to the anon creed. "Doxxing", or releasing personal information about someone in a defamatory or intimidating way, is one of the worst things you can do to an anon, because it pierces their anonymity. However, it is an acceptable method of punishment for someone who attempts to aggrandize themselves: they brought this on themselves for not being anonymous. Encyclopedia Dramatica, a wiki devoted to archiving anon culture, is one of the main hosts for "dropping doxx" on people to shut them up or embarrass them.
GamerGate inherited these tenets of anon culture. It began on anonymous imageboards — 4chan at first, and later 8chan after moot effectively banned it from his board — and spilled into the rest of the internet, places where people live and work under their own names. Outside of the anonymous imageboards, people weren't prepared for anons' animosity, personal attacks, and essential assumption of bad faith. The open hostility and silencing behavior of anon culture immediately turned septic, when it was turned on people who don't have the shield of anonymity to protect them.
GamerGaters insist that they have no leaders, and resist any attempt from inside or out to impose structure. Unsuccessful attempts have been made: MMORPG game developers Damion Schubert and Raph Koster proposed that GamerGate back a formal advocacy group called GAMR, and anti-feminist YouTube video blogger MundaneMatt and others proposed an informal "council" of GamerGate core personalities. All of these efforts were rejected, in part because they relied on elevating individuals above the whole.
It isn't clear why Vivian is so joyless about games, or why she's never wearing any shoes.
Image by anonymous 4chan /v/ user.
Vivian James, the GamerGate mascot created for a game development contest, is the perfect exemplar of these attitudes. In GamerGate's many propaganda images and infographics, she completely submits to the gamer identity. In one often-shared image, she demands that everyone similarly submit, yelling at GamerGate's opponents to "Get off your high horse!" She isn't interested in anything but playing games and you shutting up so she can play them. In one image, she shows what GamerGate values: not just playing games, but uncritically submitting to gamer culture as it currently exists.
One example of how the anon underpinnings of GamerGate can turn toxic is from early in GamerGate's life. GamerGate discussion was banned from many sites because GamerGaters were spreading personal information, nude photos, and defamatory accusations against game developer Zoe Quinn. In anon thinking, banning them for this was a betrayal. "Why can't we talk about Zoe Quinn's supposed misdeeds and let our own consensus emerge naturally?" The damage being done to her reputation and the threats being enabled by spreading this information were all moot; what matters is the unfettered emergence of consensus. Moderation is an unnatural intervention.
This hostility to moderation reaches all the way down to the personal level, particularly on Twitter. Stating a contentious opinion on an anonymous imageboard is an invitation to argue. GamerGaters challenge people they don't know to arguments, and feel snubbed when they're blocked or told to get lost. To their minds, why would you post in the #gamergate hashtag on Twitter if you didn't want to defend your arguments — and yourself — from attack? GamerGaters who intrude into conversations to argue are offended to be mocked as "sea lions", after a Wondermark comic.
This tension in anon culture, that every single person is empowered by the whole of the group and thus merits treatment as a peer, turns these individual hostile challenges into a storm of entitled demands for attention. Anons see themselves as peers to everyone, empowered by the support of the group, and thus entitled to participate in any conversation they aren't forcibly prevented from entering. Even if, for example, cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian didn't have to deal with harassers and bad faith people, she couldn't possibly argue with every comer over every point of disagreement. However, not doing so is seen as a sign of the weakness of her arguments, in anon thinking.
This makes anons perfect cover for harassers. Not being willing to accept bad faith arguments on their own terms and debate them as if they merited a response is seen as proof of the weakness of your arguments. Therefore, it's very easy for actual bad-faith arguers to barrage people with nonsense and demand to waste the time of people they want to harass, using the potential ire of a swarm of anons as leverage. This has long been one of the main tactics of the anon harassers targeting Anita Sarkeesian. She invited argument then didn't defend her position! It must be worthless.
This thinking also makes anons very susceptible to the "professional victim" narrative popular among anti-feminist and misogynist writers. The "Literally Who" women targeted by GamerGate, Quinn, Sarkeesian, game developer Brianna Wu, and software developer Randi Harper, are smeared by saying they want to aggrandize themselves somehow. Why else would they protest against the various abuses they've endured? If hostility is a natural consequence of having contentious opinions, then the only reason anyone would protest any hostility is to somehow garner undeserved sympathy. That hostility is just part of the internet, in anon thinking.
Anonymous imageboards breed continuously frothing angry mobs with their hostility turned ever inward. This hostility is defanged by irony and anonymity, so it can sustain itself without doing lasting harm to the participants as long as it remains within its own bubble. However, because this culture evolved in that bubble and relies on silencing tactics to police itself, it does not blend well with the rest of the internet.