Neuromancer at 25: What it got right and wrong
- 02 July, 2009 08:55
The tantalizing question about William Gibson's ideas in his novel Neuromancer involves their relationship with the course that the Web took and continues to take as Neuromancer's publication date--July 1, 1984, 25 years ago today--recedes farther into the past. In his afterword to the 2000 re-release of the book, novelist Jack Womack suggests that Neuromancer may have directly influenced the way the Web developed--that it may have provided a blueprint that developers who grew up with the book consciously or subconsciously followed. Womack asks "what if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?"
I'll take a stab at discussing Neuromancer's major tech inventions, including the ones that are already coming true, as well as some that seem unlikely to happen anytime soon.
First, a little background. Neuromancer tells the story of Case, once a hot and high-paid cyberspace cowboy who could infiltrate and rip off corporate databases. But he stole from his employer, who took revenge by crippling Case's nervous system with a mycotoxin, rendering him unable to hack. Alone and suicidal, Case is scooped off the street and given a second chance by a shadowy group of people who have big (and scary) plans. In exchange for curing Case's nervous system, they want him to help them infiltrate the core of a huge and powerful AI (artificial intelligence) called Wintermute.
If you haven't already read Neuromancer, consult the (nicely done) plot summary on the Neuromancer Wiki page, which includes a handy character index and a glossary of terms. The novel is widely credited with popularizing the term "Cyberspace," with presenting a thoroughly developed idea of virtual reality, and with introducing the idea of the World Wide Web. Neuromancer also gave rise to a whole new genre in literature: cyberpunk.
The World Wide Web
The prognostication in Neuromancer that rings most true today is the novel's idea of a World Wide Web. The concept of an Internet already existed when Gibson wrote Neuromancer in 1984: In the early eighties, several universities had strung together various systems of servers via a telecom link. What Gibson introduced was the idea of a global network of millions of computers, which he described in astonishing detail--though the World Wide Web, as we know it today, was still more than a decade away. Imagine the novelty of that idea in 1984 when the personal computer was still a fairly new idea. Of course, things start getting really interesting only in the nineties, when technology linked all of those computers together.
But Gibson took the World Wide Web much further. By introducing the concept of cyberspace, he made the Web a habitable place, with all the world's data stores represented as visual, even palpable, structures arranged in an endless matrix.
Gibson's cyberspace also turned computing into an experience that involved all of the senses. Instead of interacting with the network visually by using a computer monitor, Gibson's characters "jack in" and navigate an enveloping 3D world. Each user is "connected" to the computer via a system of electrodes and neural interfaces emerging from a laptop-type thing called a "deck." Once hooked up and inside cyberspace, the user can experience intense beauty, such as the sight of the huge, shining cities of data that Gibson describes.
Here's how Gibson describes it in the early pages of Neuromancer: "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts...A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding."
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.
Prosthetics and Plastic Surgery
Gibson was fascinated with plastic surgery, the physical integration of human and man-made tissues, and the logical limits that they might evolve toward in a not-so-distant future. Almost everybody in Neuromancer has some kind of physical enhancement. One cybercowboy has a Russian-made computerized heart. Case's friend Molly has mirrored cybernetic eyes built into her sockets that constantly show her the time and other data, and enable her to see in the dark. A bartender has a cybernetic arm that buzzes quietly when it moves. Joeboys (bodyguards) show up with huge "vat-grown" muscles grafted onto their arms.
The goal of plastic surgery in Neuromancer is not so much to enhance beauty as to serve anonymity. Gibson's characters wear their altered skin like masks. In chapter 4 Gibson describes the face of a local gangster in Chiba City: "His [Angelo] face was a simple graft grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides, smooth and hideous." The same character might show up a year later with a completely different face, the novel suggests.
Just this year, the science of plastic surgery achieved its first full-face transplant. Plastic surgeons routinely enhance biceps, chest, and butt muscles. When science perfects the growth of human tissue to predetermined specifications, the industry will likely mushroom again. Twenty-five years after Neuromancer, Gibson's vision of the, uh, "beauty image" is closer than you might think.
Not Gonna Happen Soon
On the other hand, some of Neuromancer's ideas are unlikely to happen for a long, long time, if they happen at all. Here are a few that fall into the don't-hold-your-breath column.
Again riffing on the human/computer integration theme, Gibson identifies the major form of entertainment in the world of Neuromancer as simstim (Simulation/Stimulation). Simstim is a recording (or live broadcast) of the sensory experience of one person that, with the help of a simstim deck, can be re-created exactly in the brain of another. To the person experiencing the simstim, it's like viewing the world through another person's eyes, hearing with their ears, feeling with their skin, smelling with their nose. It's the full sensory stimulation of another person.
In Neuromancer (and later, more thoroughly, in Mona Lisa Overdrive), simstim conjures up the way we think of popular recording artists or film stars today. In Neuromancer, the simstim star of the day is a young girl named Tally Isham. Kids line up and wait for hours just to catch a glimpse of her. She's the Britney Spears of simstim. "The commercial stuff was edited, of course, so that if Tally Isham got a headache in the course of a segment, you didn't feel it," Gibson explains.
Neuromancer's main character, Case, can jump inside the body of his partner in crime, ninja girl Molly, by running her live simstim feed through the electrodes attached to his head. Here's Gibson describing the sensation: "Then he keyed the new switch. The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and colour...She was moving through a crowded street, past stalls vending discount software, prices feltpenned on sheets of plastic, fragments of music from countless speakers. Smells of urine, free monomers, perfume, patties of frying krill. For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes."
Far-fetched, far out, and far off, but pretty damn cool.
If there is a "bad guy" in Neuromancer it is an AI called Wintermute. The collective intelligence of a massive network of computers, Wintermute has the ability to think, learn, communicate, and control the actions of any piece of technology connected to it. Wintermute, we find out, has been craftily controlling the characters in Neuromancer to do its bidding, to free it from real-world limitations on its ability to learn more and grow stronger.
As far as I know, we are still a long, long way from facing this sort of entity. Sure we use massive computer systems to manage huge amounts of data. And we have even used that data, in some instances, to target and do harm to specific individuals of groups. Moreover, to some extent, our computer systems can think and reason.
But existing computer systems are not self-aware and self-determined like the ones in Neuromancer. That could change. Some people in the AI community believe that once we succeed in building a machine smart enough to build still smarter machines without human assistance, the machines will quickly grow smarter and more powerful by orders of magnitude. Check out the first segment of the Animatrix series for a poignant anime speculation/dramatization of how this might happen.
Neuromancer tells of famous hacker, McCoy Pauley, who originally taught Case how to hack and later died of heart failure during an especially dangerous assault in cyberspace. But before Pauley died (in the clinical sense), some people hooked his brain up to a computer and dumped the contents--his hacking expertise, memories, habits, idiosyncrasies, everything--out onto a ROM cassette, creating a "construct" of the former hacker. Long after the flesh-and-bone Pauley's death, Case and Molly steal the construct, which can think and talk, so that Pauley can help them complete their mission.
The conversations between Case and "the flatline" as he calls the construct, are priceless. The construct isn't quite sure whether he's alive or dead, and when he learns that he is just data on a disk he isn't very happy about the situation. Pauley eventually asks Case to erase the ROM, effectively putting his mind to rest for good.
Can a person's consciousness--the whole neurological operating system--be recorded and preserved even as the physical body expires? This prospect raises a lot of messy ethical, philosophical, spiritual, and legal questions that neither I nor my children will likely have to wrestle with.
Very good reading, for sure, but very future-tense technology.
Neuromancer is important because of its astounding predictive power. Gibson's core idea in the novel is the direct integration of man and computer, with all the possibilities (and horrors) that such a union entails. The book eventually sold more than 160 million copies, but bringing the book to popular attention took a long time and a lot of word-of-mouth. The sci-fi, community, however, was acutely aware of the novel's importance when it came out: Neuromancer ran the table on sci-fi's big three awards in 1984, winning the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, and the Nebula Award.