Tron © Disney/Buena Vista

Cyberspace is surely a virtual world by today’s standards. It may be more chaotic than the likes of Second Life, and its interface alien to we of the Apple/Microsoft generation, but nevertheless it is an envisioned, digital space into which cyberpunk heroes immerse.

The trouble is that for many in these cyberpunk worlds, cyberspace confuses or replaces their reality. There are digital junkies, sentient AIs and reality simulations abound. Identities are fluid and volatile, implants project data directly onto the world around us and our very sense of self can be challenged by the use of a cyberbrain. In cyberspace, how do you know you’re not a dog?

Many cyberpunk works have dealt with reality in some way; Gibson, Dick, Shirow et al caught on that the concept of reality takes on new meaning if communication, perception and our identities all turn digital. How do we distinguish man from machine? Can we verify that what we’re seeing is, in fact, real? What is ‘real’ anyway?

Johnny Mnemonic © Sony Pictures

Johnny Mnemonic, Burn:Cycle and Ghost in the Shell are just three examples of stories with a cyberspace sat parallel to our own reality. ‘Jacking in’ with digital brain ports or sensory devices grants their characters access to a 3D digital space, each with topologies and geographies of their own. They’re usually light on realism – the user is aware that the space around them is alien, and their presence within it may be signified by little more than disembodied hands, rather than a full-body avatar. They tend to be safe from attack.. at least until viruses and hackers start attacking the matrix itself: influencing the user interface; attacking the people connected to cyberspace; or flooding the technology which relies upon it with glitches.

There are stories which take the dangers of simulation on further. When sensory augmentation reaches a certain level, it’s thought possible that we can create whole new, believable realities. Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell deals with a particularly macabre idea related to this: if memories are eventually digitised, surely they can be altered too? Characters in his world are easily derailed by the implanting of false memories – turning bachelors into family men and innocents into potential criminals, all because memories are their reality. Memories are a record of our entire existence up to the present, and some philosophers argue that they play a large part in who we are. If those memories can be compromised, what does this do to the very identity we portray? Do fake memories make a fake person, too? Blade Runner‘s Rachel is a living, breathing debate of this very point. As far as she is aware, she has a past and therefore a role in human society – there’s no questioning the fact she might be a manufactured replicant, but she only has her memories with which to confirm this.

Sometimes cyberspace can be realistic enough that fail-safes must be used in order to stop us being sucked in, similar to how some manage lucid dreaming. Shirow dealt with this idea too, in his Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface manga. As a sentient digital being employed to delve deep into cyberspace backwaters, Motoko Aramaki manages to avoid dangerous reality mazes by altering her own sense of self, rendering one of her limbs as a solid cylinder. So long as that limb does not feel right, somebody has her implanted in a false matrix and she risks being compromised in the real world.

"Kid's Story" from "Animatrix", © Production I.G.

It’s here that cyberpunk crosses into religion and spirituality, for so much about cyberspace reminds us of our dreams. Some virtual realities function as lucid dreaming spaces in which the story’s characters can create their own worlds, such as in Idoru. Others are more sinister. The Matrix stands as example of a timeless question: what if the world around us is merely fabricated? Here we find cyberspace as a method of near-ultimate control, for only a select few residents are allowed to witness the dream for what it is. The rest are left unaware of anything untoward, watched over by the matrix’s enigmatic Agents.

A world in which data is housed inside 3D buildings and people navigate with a variety of avatars sounds, to modern minds, like any MMO game, virtual world or 3D internet. Cyberpunk’s interpretations are quite fantastical by comparison, and the ways in which these spaces can corrupt their characters are near unimaginable for as long as we’re distanced by keyboards and monitors. Instead these immersive worlds echo our very real spiritual concerns, and they behave in a very intimate, dream-like fashion. What if these futures do come to pass? If and when we open our senses to misdirection and entrapment, we may have some lessons to learn from the likes of Motoko and Neo.