I want to delve a bit into politics. I’d really appreciate having a mature conversation here even though political issues, especially in the U.S., tend to stir up a lot of strong feelings. But, this is a topic that I think is interesting to discuss. I will also warn that this is from a very U.S.-centric point of view, but I welcome discussions from other points of view in the comments below.

The the bad old days of the 1980s, there was a palpable feeling of economic dread covering the U.S. The 1970s saw an energy crisis and a recession hurting the U.S. economy (sounds familiar….) The country experienced “stagflation”, state of inflation where the economy remains stagnant. This lead to lot of speculation about how countries with stronger economies might take a position of dominance on the world stage, replacing the U.S.’s traditional role.

One common focus was the rapid increase in Japan’s economic power, which is reflected in a lot of cyberpunk stories. Let’s take a look at the geopolitical situation envisioned by cyberpunk writers and perhaps look at how that is reflected in current times.

Japan in the 1980s

During the energy crisis in the 1970s, Japan was affected by oil prices just like every other industrial nation. But, while others such as the U.S. suffered inflation, Japan experienced less inflation and actual growth. This strong economy allowed Japan to get on its feet quicker than other countries. During the early 80s, the Japanese economy was still expanding while other countries were struggling to get back on track. This relative strength lead to a lot of admiration by business people, and the hot business trend was studying Japanese business practices to understand the advantages. I remember hearing news stories as a kid about Japanese companies buying a lot of real estate on the West Coast of the United States, fueling a belief (or perhaps a fear) that the Japanese were not just taking the U.S.’s place in geopolitics, but literally trying to own the land that made up the U.S.

One iconic part of cyberpunk is the power of faceless, multinational corporations. Gibson borrowed the Japanese term zaibatsu to describe the large corporations that dominated the world in the Sprawl trilogy. In fact, the modern keiretsu, which is a series of integrated companies but without the strong central families that dominated the zaibatsu, were seen as part of what made the Japanese economy so strong. Having a strong alliance of businesses would allow encroaching corporate power to be centralized and thus theoretically unstoppable given the history.

But, the Japanese economy had another element important to cyberpunk: it was focused on high technology. As computers were becoming more common in everyday life, a large part of the Japanese economy was focused on making those systems. Anyone living in the 80s remembers the rise in Japanese consumer products such as the Sony Walkman or the VCR. Once again, we saw an example of the Japanese taking over an aspect that used to be dominated by the U.S.: manufacturing.

So, the prediction was that Japan would dominate due to its economic power. A lot of cyberpunk literature reflects this, even if just by copying the concept of the large, faceless, multi-national corporations that got their start as the Japanese keiretsu. Of course, we know that this never came to pass. In the late 80s the Japanese economy suffered from a deflated asset price bubble, and a decade of continued deflation followed (called the “Lost Decade” by some). In contrast, the U.S. economy enjoyed tremendous growth and a shift away from manufacturing.

China in the 2010s

Looking today, we see that Mark Twain said it best when he quipped, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” We see another Asian economy rising sharply: China. Not only does it have a powerful economy, the sheer size of the country in terms of numbers means it has a lot of consumers to keep the economy going. Increasing the standard of living is fueling a lot of the growth, but also causing growing pains. The large population also adds a new dimension that the Japanese dominance couldn’t match in the 1980s: military power. A large population and access to high technology weapons means that China could field an army that could not be matched by any other country. With the U.S. spending a significant amount of resources on combat operations in two foreign countries, its losing a lot of its perception of invincibility that was already tarnished in previous wars.

But, it’s maybe not quite the same as Japan in the 80s. A recent, if controversial, Newsweek article talks about how the issue might not be that China is ascending but that the U.S. is descending without a replacement. While China is certainly an economic and military powerhouse, the linked article states that the autocratic form of capitalism in China isn’t something that other countries want to copy, even if those countries would love to have access in order to sell products to Chinese consumers. China is still very protectionist and restrictive, which limits the power they can effective wield over others if they limit the interactions others can have. So, it’s not quite as likely that the Chinese will be able to exert influence over others to the degree the U.S. has in the past.

There’s also the issue of American military presence. The Newsweek article points out that the U.S. spends a lot on military primarily because we’ve played the role of world arbiter and police force when other options have failed. With economic realities meaning that military presences will have to scale back, what does it mean for countries who used to rely on us?

So, it looks like the issue might be more of a void to fill rather than another country taking over as a global geopolitical superpower. Filling a void like that raises a whole lot of other issues, such as how peacefully it will happen. These are some interesting questions to consider if cyberpunk going to use modern times as a template to draw from.

What do you think? What major geopolitical effects do you think will shape a (post)cyberpunk-themed future?