At some point during the recent rise of “Web3’s” biggest protagonists – cryptocurrency and NFT – a project hailed as the most important in the NFT landscape has yet begun to make the rounds. It goes by the name “CryptoPunk,” which sounds like an underground movement that seems to beckon the subversive among us who can afford to participate. But the surface of CryptoPunk borrows all of its aesthetics from the traditions of cyberpunk, but none of their ethos.
During the 90s, physical localization around heavily militarized spaces became unsustainable for activists, who then turned to organizing online. The early Internet then became ripe for a “rising wave of cyber-civil disobedience.” Cyberpunk – and its intersection with ethical hacking – thus represented an ideology of resisting state power and inequality using the Internet as its battleground.
An issue of punk zine from 1999 Punk Planet had this to say about hacktivism: “if this is a cyber war, then information is the weapon and websites everywhere are the front line…” Most importantly, hackers have never, ever hacked for personal gain or advantage.
It cuts to the heart of what punk is: subversive, against the grain of the soulless machines of corporate capitalism, sexy, fearless, rebellious. Punk is resistance – and it was always meant to be.
Cyberpunk, then, responded to concerns about cyberspace, technology, and the changing role of corporations in relation to governments. Works of dystopian fiction – which The Blade Runner, The Matrix, and others who explored the implications of occupying liminal space between virtual and real—were heirs to cyberpunk. They were pessimists about the techno-future, predicting societal collapse in the wake of accelerated technologization. “Cyberpunk escaped from being a literary genre to the cultural reality,” wrote RUSirius in Mondo 2000: A user’s guide to the new edge.
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Now we have CryptoPunk – a fluid term in cyberspace that sounds as exciting, radical and revolutionary as cyberpunk itself. However, it is much less thoughtful or subversive than it sounds; it’s simply a type of limited-edition non-fungible token (NFT) breathlessly hailed: “A status symbol, a piece of internet history, and an indescribably valuable resource, CryptoPunks may be the most important NFT project in existence.”
The CryptoPunk project is a collection of pixelated images that apparently have unique properties “and include things like hats, pipes, necklaces, earrings, eye patches and more.”
The obviously inflated and hollow value of these images aside, the way CryptoPunk is marketed appropriates subcultures that it does not represent. “CryptoPunks are a combination of art, technology, absurdity and social experimentation analogous to radical tokenization methods used by artists such as Andy Warhol,” declares a news article.
However, it is extremely difficult to argue that NFT art that goes for millions in cyberspace is the kind of punk-tech future that the original cyberpunks envisioned. By definition, NFTs are tokens that are meant to be owned exclusively; they are warehouses of private value that serve as economic leverage for the people at the top of the financial food chain—all antithetical to the spirit of punk.
CryptoPunk talks about how cyberpunk, like most other subcultures, is reduced today to existing as just an aesthetic that lives on regardless of its actual roots. The cyberpunk vibe is disco-alien glamour, metallic sheen and sleek chic that now graces fashion magazine covers and catalogs of high-end fashion. In other words, the legacy of cyberpunk rooted in social justice movements is now reduced to commercializing an aesthetic—one that conforms to the status quo rather than disrupts it.
“The classic subculture ‘died’ when it became the object of social inspection and nostalgia, and when it became so susceptible to commodification. Marketers long ago woke up to the fact that subcultures are convenient vehicles for selling music, cars, clothes, cosmetics and everything else under the sun,” noted scholar Dylan Clark.
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Now the jewelry company Tiffany & Co. unveiled. plans to sell CryptoPunk-inspired diamond pendants for 30 ETH (roughly $50,000 USD) each – exclusively to holders of CryptoPunk NFTs. The aestheticization of cyberpunk is thus complete – with a luxury jewelery brand choosing to sell real pendants only to those who already “own” CryptoPunk online. As if this wasn’t enough, the luxury jewelry brand with the name “punk” implied in it has led to a significant boom in CryptoPunk commerce – completing the transition of punk into a meaningless, materialistic fashion statement rather than a veritable movement.
CryptoPunk thus represents everything that cyberpunk was against.
“Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners living on the fringes of society in generally dystopian futures where daily life was affected by rapid technological change, a ubiquitous computer sphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body,” the science fiction author wrote. Lawrence Person, i Notes towards a postcyberpunk manifesto.
Today, CryptoPunk characters are those who inhabit society’s tall glass towers, who largely shape society rather than being victims of it, and who use technology in ways that expand their own financial capital, power, and influence.
What made the Internet such an exciting medium was that it was fast, connected people and provided a collective space. The common thread underlying the punkness of the Internet was its ability to protect solidarity, to keep common resources, knowledge and issues under its digital roof. Cryptopunk is the very antithesis of the commons, “a hyper-masculine ethos governing an already masculine technological logic: the idea that the commons—in this case, the digital commons—exists simply to own and store wealth without labor,” as The Swaddle noted previously.
By appropriating the language of punk, CryptoPunk disguises its status-quo-affirming ideology as subversive and even fashionable, changing the very meaning of punk. By overlaying what it means to be punk with expensive digital goods traded in digital currency, CryptoPunk forecloses many of the possibilities for freedom in cyberspace that punk opened up.
“… on the one hand, there is a drop-out culture dedicated to pursuing the dream of freedom through appropriate technology. On the other, there is a ready market for new gadgets and a training ground for hip new entrepreneurs with high-tech toys on market Cyberpunk… was reabsorbed into the mainstream like every other subculture before it, wrote researcher McKenzie Wark.
In other words, cyberpunk is dead. What remains of it is only the aesthetic, which allows financial instruments – which are inherently antithetical to punk ideology – to carry it as long as it sells.