This post contains spoilers through the first two sections of Neuromancer. For next week, we’ll read section three.
When Conan O’Brien spoke at Harvard’s commencement in 2000, he joked about a number of predictions he’d made in a (presumably fake) high school graduation speech 15 years earlier:
I would like to make several predictions about what the future will hold: “I believe that one day a simple Governor from a small Southern state will rise to the highest office in the land. He will lack political skill, but will lead on the sheer strength of his moral authority. I believe that Justice will prevail and, one day, the Berlin Wall will crumble, uniting East and West Berlin forever under Communist rule. I believe that one day, a high speed network of interconnected computers will spring up world-wide, so enriching people that they will lose their interest in idle chit chat and pornography.
I start our discussion of William Gibson’s Neuromancer because it’s impossible to read this novel, published the year I was born, without thinking about what he thought the internet might look like and what it actually does—for most of us, anyway. I’m intrigued by the novel’s description of the internet as like”
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 the 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. . . .
I think for some people, that’s true. But I think for most folks, the internet just makes their world a little bigger instead of a lot larger, it makes their world easier to handle rather than turning it surreal. On the other hand, most of us aren’t actually innovators, we’re not plugged in actively testing the limits of what our enabling technologies can do and what societal rules suggest we ought to want to do. Our personal geography is not like Ninsei, where, as Case tells us, “burgeoning technologies require outlaw zones, that Night City wasn’t there for its inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself.” Reading a novel’s a form of tourism.
But there are things I recognize, and one of the things I’m liking most about the novel are the fragments of what remains from the world today, and what it means that Gibson thinks that those are the things that will survive. There’s the Azerbaijani who tells Molly that “You particularly, must take care. In Turkey there is disapproval of women who sport such modifications”—from exposed hair to exposed physical modifications like permanent glasses. There’s the sentimental attachment to extinct horses. A relic of John the Baptist’s hand gathering dust. And of course, cover-ups of the kind that turned William Corto into Armitage. The technology, the kinds of abysses we can bring people back from, may be different, but this is awfully familiar:
The war ended nine days later, and Corto was shipped to a military facility in Utah, blind, legless, and missing most of his jaw. It took eleven months for the Congressional aide to find him there. He listened to the sound of tubes draining. In Washington and McLean, the show trials were already underway. The Pentagon and the CIA were being Balkanized, partially dismantled, and a Congressional investigation had focused on Screaming Fist. Ripe for watergating, the aide told Corto. He’d need eyes, legs, and extensive cosmetic work, the aide said, but that could be arranged. New plumbing, the man added, squeezing Corto’s shoulder through the sweat-damp sheet. Corto heard the soft, relentless dripping. He said he preferred to testify as he was. No, the aide explained, the trials were being televised. The trials needed to reach the voter. The aide coughed politely. Repaired, refurnished, and extensively rehearsed, Corto’s subsequent testimony was detailed, moving, lucid, and largely the invention of a Congressional cabal with certain vested interests in saving particular portions of the Pentagon infrastructure. Corto gradually understood that the testimony he gave was instrumental in saving the careers of three officers directly responsible for the suppression of reports on the building of the emp installations at Kirensk. His role in the trials over, he was unwanted in Washington. In an M Street restaurant, over asparagus crepes, the aide explained the terminal dangers involved in talking to the wrong people. Corto crushed the man’s larynx with the rigid fingers of his right hand. The Congressional aide strangled, his face in an asparagus crepe, and Corto stepped out into cool Washington September.
We can perfect the world, we can perfect ourselves, but we probably can’t reform away nostalgia, or guilt, or shame. We’ll just have a bigger scope, and more powerful tools for them to play out on.