Neuromancer at 25: What it got right and wrong

Neuromancer tells the story of Case, once a hot and high-paid cyberspace cowboy who could infiltrate and rip off corporate databases

On the other hand, if something goes wrong, as during Case's risky hacks of corporate databases, the user can feel actual pain and even die (or "flatline," to use Gibson term).

Think that idea of "jacking in" is far-fetched? Check out this ScienceDaily news account from way back on March 14, 2002: "Researchers at Brown University have used a tiny array of electrodes to record, interpret, and reconstruct the brain activity that controls hand movement--and they have demonstrated that thoughts alone can move a cursor across a computer screen to hit a target."

The virtual worlds that we have today are a long way from the "consensual hallucination" of cyberspace as imagined by Gibson. But we can see some very promising beginnings. Linden Lab's Second Life captures many people's imagination because it adds the next layer of experience to the Internet. Second Life builds a visual, aural, participatory world on top of--and as an expression of--the dead network of computers that forms the Web.

Of course, Second Life involves no direct hookup to the user's frontal lobes, as Gibson's cyberspace does. And Second Life differs in another key way: It seeks to replicate the real world that we're already familiar with. Though still in rudimentary form, Second Life seems to strive toward the model put forth in The Matrix, in which the virtual world is an exact, full-sensory "simulation" of what its inhabitants know (or remember) as real life. Gibson's cyberspace similarly engages all of your senses, but it is nothing like the real world and doesn't purport to be.

But whereas in The Matrix technology functions primarily as a means of control, in Neuromancer its role is more complicated: At times technology is benevolent, and at other times it's malevolent. Many of the inhabitants of Neuromancer's near-future world see technology as a liberating force, a way to escape from the ravages of pollution, disease, and war.

Fixation on Technology

Ultimately Neuromancer is a book about the increasing presence of technology in the life of human beings. This may well be the dominant story line of the 21st century.

People in Neuromancer constantly use, wear, think about, and talk about technology in its various forms. Case uses a deck, goggles, electrodes, and other gear to jack into cyberspace. Others insert tiny chips called "microsofts" (no relation to Bill Gates's company) into slots behind their ears. Microsofts form a direct neural link with the brain and can deliver anything from raw data to games to various forms of entertainment (such as "simstim," described below).

Here's Gibson introducing the idea of microsofts in chapter 4: "Booths lined a central hall. The clientele were young [...]. They all seemed to have carbon sockets planted behind the left ear [...]. Behind the counter a boy with a shaven head stared vacantly into space, a dozen spikes of Microsoft protruding from the socket behind his ear." Another character in Neuromancer, an art dealer, leaves seven microsofts inserted behind his ear to make him a walking encyclopedia of art history.

Gibson's view of tech culture in the future is starting to look a lot less exotic. Despite its advances, we tend to experience technology as a slow, creeping force in life--with effects so gradual that we don't really notice. But look around; it's everywhere. If it all suddenly shut down, we'd be helpless. And if Gibson is right, technology will play an even bigger part in life and culture over the next 25 years.

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Mark Sullivan

PC World (US online)
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