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Graphic by Evan Robins

A Few Notes on Netrunning

Written by
Evan Robins
and
and
March 10, 2023
A Few Notes on Netrunning
Graphic by Evan Robins

Towards the end of February, I had the privilege of attending the Canadian University Press’ (CUP) annual NASH conference in Hamilton, Ontario at the gorgeous campus of McMaster University. Hosted by The Silhouette, a student publication of the very same institution, the conference stretched some one-and-a-half and/or three days (depending on whether one measures time elapsed in hours or in the number of 24-hour increments over which the proceedings were scheduled). Whilst NASH and events of its ilk promise a space for collaboration, professional development, and social exercise, a certain unspoken understanding remains: the primary objective of events like this is networking.

Networking can be loosely defined as the practice of dialogically entangling your social circle with others in your community—be it local, occupational, hobbyist or so on—to the end of some perceived mutual benefit. This is typically done at conferences like NASH, through talking, exchanging emails, business cards, portfolios, and of course, Instagram handles.

Needless to say, I hate networking.

I have, despite my otherwise-developed critical faculties, been playing Cyberpunk 2077 for point of comparison in the future protracted review of a different game belonging to the cyberpunk genre (and, if nothing else, for providing momentary respite from my admittedly unhealthy Genshin Impact habit). For this reason, NASH 85’s broad topic of “Revolutionize!” inexorably drew my thoughts to the grimy dystopian future, and its many plugged-in habitants. With my brain worm thus tickling as though being whispered to by ghost-in-the-machine himself “Johnny” Keanu “Silverhand” Reeves, I began to think of myself less as a journalist, and instead as a netrunner.

“Netrunning,” in cyberpunk’s generic parlance, is to project one’s consciousness into the ether of “cyberspace,” “The Matrix,” and other such two-dollar words for what we all know as “the ‘Net.” This is usually done with the goal to infiltrate an independent computer system for personal gain, be it to cripple cybernetic implants, steal swathes of cryptocurrency, or bring a Megacorp’s internal server to its knees. Herein a rhetorical distinction emerges between a network as a collection of interlinked nodes, and to netrun—navigating these relations to a utilitarian end. While “networking” implies a collaborative, rhizomatic practice, netrunning is the domain of lone wolves and techno-narcissists—a fundamentally individual, if not alienating affair.

The opening gambit of most netrunners is a manoeuvre dubbed a “Breach Protocol”. Successfully executed, this permits them access to a local network which, in gameplay terms, means reducing the RAM expenditure of any attack made against an enemy or object linked to that network—as well as other perks, such as automatically disabling every camera in the network. Whilst Cyberpunk’s user interface (UI) requires this to be done by entering an arbitrary sequence of alphanumeric couplets selected sequentially from a large puzzle board, the flesh-and-blood equivalent of it demands the far more taxing effort of talking to strangers. This manoeuvre is one which I, as (to my knowledge) the only single-member delegation in attendance at NASH 85, had to execute several dozen times each and every day for the duration of said conference. Much like the sequence-based hacking minigame presented to Cyberpunk 2077’s players, my conversations followed a basic and intuitive formula:

  1. “Hi, I’m the only person here from my paper. Would you mind if I joined you?”

[Response]

  1. “What’s your name? I’m Evan.”

[Response]

  1. “Pleasure to meet you, what paper are you from?”

[Response]

  1. “Cool/Nice! I’m a Senior Journalist for Arthur, from Trent University in Peterborough, ON.”

Successfully execute these four dialogue prompts and more likely than not you’ve just ingratiated yourself to whomever it is you’re talking to, along with any colleagues, friends, or other members of their delegation (if you’re lucky). When used under the right circumstances, this tactic can be devastatingly effective. It so happens that entirely coincidentally I, on several occasions, wound up talking to several influential members of CUP who—whether it be out of my genuine charm or pity I cannot say—were extremely nice to me.

While netrunning (if we can call this self-indulgent framing device as such) is indisputably useful, it carries with it a darker double indemnity. Breach Protocols may provide an indispensable way “in” to the realm of the Net, however, the true virtue of netrunning is that it permits the body of the netrunner to be in one place in “meatspace,” while their consciousness—in the Net—is able to freely do as is demanded of them. On Friday night, while at the first scheduled dinner in McMaster’s TwelveEighty pub, my co-worker forwarded me an internal document leaked from within a political entity of considerable size and sway, at least relative to its Peterborough locale. So sensitive was the information contained therein that I dare not repeat it here, but suffice it to say that in that moment I, without thought, “jacked in”. 

I spent the majority of my committee dinner in a frantic back-and-forth with my editors and colleagues located in Peterborough, all whilst I sat in Hamilton neglecting a plate of otherwise-passable Caesar salad. With a laptop, cell phone, and wireless keyboard as my would-be cyberware, I collapsed the physical distance between myself and my coworkers by virtue of this digital synchronicity. What in Marxist tradition is called the “annihilation of time and space,” is intimately tied to the mechanisms of the Net. Netrunning, by proxy, renders inconsequential the distance between object and subject. The worst of the Covid-19 pandemic aptly demonstrated this by virtue of the sudden ubiquity of remote work. This ubiquity has, for many, carried forward in spite of the assertions of a prophesied “return to normalcy.” I, as a journalist, am arguably one of those people. 

I spent a majority of my time in workshop and roundtable sessions otherwise occupied with writing. “The news doesn’t stop for anybody,” is oft said but rarely seen, that is, until one’s professional occupation becomes disseminating it. The destruction of distance also essentializes ever-presence and contemporality. Each new message on Slack, each text message, voicemail, and work inbox e-mail  accrues a sense of urgency, becoming urgent pop-up notifications in the worker’s heads-up display (or, “HUD”), prompting them to jack in now, respond. Cyberpunk’s anxiety-inducing overcluttered HUD proves an apt metaphor for this sensorial bombardment. Your cell phone, laptop, or work computer might not literally assault you with vision-obstructing text boxes which scream “Enemy Hack in Progress,” but when you’re as plugged in as I unfortunately find myself, it sure feels like they do.

Cyberpunk quite succinctly visualizes this by means of the RAM system. Each quickhack demands a corresponding amount of RAM. Using a quickhack deducts the requisite RAM from the total allowance provided by your character’s cyberdeck. While possessing a distinctly gamified role-playing flair, it’s eerie how closely this corresponds to certain ways of conceptualizing neurodivergence and executive dysfunction. While I myself am not the kind of person who likes to visualize my embodied neural experiences by way of kitchen utensils, Cyberpunk’s much-embellished graphic-designed UI proves basically a 1:1 allegory for the rhetorical device employed by so-called “spoonies”. 

Attending this conference at this specific instance wherein I’d been playing this game proved revelatory in a way I never could have anticipated. I left Hamilton having these machinations laid bare; having “seen the code,” to borrow a turn of phrase from a cyberpunk classic of Lily and Lana Wachowski’s. What I saw in said code, what I left the Matrix having learned, was a new appreciation for the value of my work, the work of my colleagues, and the role of our masthead. Conversely, I understood by necessity the precarity of our situation.

In the far future, the megacorporations who govern the world through commerce keep a small militia of netrunners on their payroll. These, unlike amateurs and freelance practitioners of the craft, have unimaginable money and resources consistently at their disposal. Arthur, meanwhile, has no such thing. Much has been expounded by editors, staff, and volunteer contributors alike about Arthur’s nature as a training ground for budding artists, journalists, and writers. Arthur’s editorial practices are nothing if not unconventional. While other papers enforce regimented distinctions between sections—sorting staff members into section editor and section writer positions, each toiling away under the coordination of an editor-in-chief—Arthur embraces a “write what you want” mentality. As a space of experimentation, Arthur refuses to impose constraints on its (often inexperienced) writers. This is invaluable for professional growth.

As our economy becomes increasingly stratified and “jobs” give way to “gigs” and “side hustles,” staff positions like mine and those on the masthead at Arthur become the exception rather than the rule. Cyberpunk’s vision of the dystopian future is not so different from our current state of affairs—the biggest difference being that rather than run odd jobs for corporate cops or shoot gang members to take and sell their guns, the contemporary cyberpunk archetype is that of a precariously-employed craftsperson routinely flitting between a Rolodex of contract positions. The time I spread between my two jobs, five classes, grad school applications, and various self-employment ventures feels as much like multiclassing in a Role-playing Game as it does anything else.

Netrunning, as in its narrative namesake, has been essentialized as professional practice. Freelancers are expected to be perennially available, infinitely accommodating and—in spite of everything—enthusiastic in juggling the barest necessities of caring for themselves with the constrictive demands of employment. Work-life balance doesn’t exist anymore. Odds are it never will again.

After the Third Corporate War, some time before the events of 2077, the NetWatch corporation established the Blackwall, a living program which partitioned the user-friendly surface web from the abyssal dark web realm of rogue AIs. A skilled enough netrunner—projecting their mind into cyberspace—may be able to cross it, however, none who have done so have ever returned. The closest analogy for this Blackwall I may well have found in NASH 85. As a professional development event, NASH demarcates the relatively regimented realm of student journalism from the tooth-and-nail freelance wastes beyond. Student journalism is obviously transitional—one way or another one can’t remain a student forever. Still, crossing this barrier is seen as the crowning achievement to which a student journalist should aspire; that is, finding a place in “the industry.” To cross that threshold, however, is to be set adrift. Journalism as an occupation and as an industry looks more different now than it ever has, to the point where the atomized newsrooms held by conglomerates like Torstar and Postmedia might as well be their own pure simulacra of the collaborative environments in which many students begin. So centred is the mantra of events like NASH around “making it in the industry,” that no one stops to wonder whether or not the industry is worth getting into at all. 

The weekend following NASH my mother and I published a piece in Xtra Magazine. At twenty years of age, I don’t deny this is a stratospheric accomplishment for me. The process of writing for such a large publication was extremely valuable. Not only do I have another strong notch on my CV, but I was equally afforded the opportunity to participate in a round table moderated by actual famous published trans author, Kai Cheng Thom. I have walked right up to this Blackwall and caressed it through my keyboard with digital hands. However, doing so necessitates a decision as to whether one will stay on the surface side of the Blackwall, or else push through—in spite of its promise of no return.

That same week I was offered admission to a Master’s program in Cultural Studies. My life, in that moment, felt inexorably pulled in two profoundly opposed directions. 

I am not a writer; rather, I write. 

I employ this rhetorical distinction for a couple of reasons. I, like many journalists, habitually loathe the passive voice. By this point, I think my disdain for essentialist tendencies has been made sufficiently clear. Positioning my occupation as verb rather than noun emphasizes my agency in the matter. To this end, I’m myself before I am anything else—Evangeline before writer, reporter, netrunner. While the route of academia promises employment security and a place comfortably within the institutional fold, the wilds beyond the Blackwall beckon with assurances of radical autonomy.

Still, as glamorous as it might sound, Netrunning is not necessarily an aspirational career prospect. In many cases, it’s a matter of survival—as is any occupation, really. The market forces endemic to late capitalism present few options to writers, and those that it does are rarely good. Toil under the soul-destroying conditions of freelance work, or else sell your soul for a comfortable job at a prestigious school, or on a large, corporate masthead. The job of a writer is increasingly to find new ways to sell soul to a soul-crushed populace who’ve all but sold their souls. For those of us still early in our pursuit of this craft, the gaudy cyberpunk futures of fiction are not far-flung fantasies. They are promises of things to come, and already here.

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