Neuromancer’s Cyberspace: the Right, the Wrong and the Ridiculous

William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ is the origin of cyberspace, and is the first meaningful paint of the digital frontier that would become today’s internet. Back in 1984, Gibson’s cyberspace was fantastical and proved difficult for readers to get to grips with. Later the similarities between the internet and Gibson’s cyberspace led Neuromancer to be considered a prophetic work, years after it’s publication. These astonishingly accurate predictions are not only close, they’re near spot-on over a quarter of a century later. But how did Gibson get Neuromancer’s cyberspace both right and wrong?

Right: Cyberspace is dominated by corporate-owned data

Tech utopians of the ’90s were optimistic about cyberspace. They believed the budding internet would bring about a new age of individual freedom and expression. But the sanctity of the individual is scarce in Gibson’s cyberspace. Vast corporate data structures dominate the landscape and any individual entering cyberspace is considered a hacker.

These hackers, or ‘cowboys’, deploy virus-like icebreaker programs in a bid to penetrate corporate entities and obtain information from within; a practice that would be familiar to a present-day hacker.

Whilst Gibson’s corporations differ from the largest companies of our time, corporate data ownership and domination of cyberspace are uncomfortable reminders of companies like Google, Facebook and other tech giants that control immense amounts of data online.

Wrong: getting online requires the user to be ‘jacked in’

Jacking into cyberspace means attaching electrodes to your temples and plugging your consciousness into a cyberspace deck. The user rests unconscious whilst their mind is transported to whatever coordinates they’ve dialed in. Whilst setting coordinates could be comparable to visiting a URL, the black and white between the real world and Neuromancer’s cyberspace are replaced by shades of grey when connecting to cyberspace today.

Whipping out your phone to send a tweet or googling the quickest route are frequent gentle brushes with cyberspace. In contrast, using Neuromancer’s cyberspace is like diving head-first from 50 feet into the depths below.

Interfacing with technology using your body is by no means ridiculous. Augmented and virtual reality require the participation of our bodies to work. However with their basis on gestures, today’s cyberspace is still some way from working with our minds directly.

Gibson was never really interested in making accurate predictions. He was simply “looking for images that supply a certain atmosphere” and it was “the language of computers” that helped to achieve this, not “the technicalities of how they really operate.” As Gibson stated in an interview for Mississippi Review in 1986, “On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply a metaphor for human memory.” An approach that echoes Marshall McLuhan’s explanation of media as extensions of man.

Right: Biohacking is here

Many attribute the ‘punk’ aspect of cyberpunk to the rebellious behaviour of the hackers and criminals at the story’s core. But punk’s modification culture could arguably be the real justification for the ‘punk’ in cyberpunk. Where punks would cut their clothes and pierce their skin, body modification, aided by tech, is rife in the Neuromancer trilogy.

Molly Millions is one of Gibson’s best-loved characters. Sporting razor blades attached to her fingers, she foreshadows a body modification sub-culture called biohackers. Also known as grinders, their goal is to enhance their bodies with technology.

Ridiculous: Neuromancer’s cyberspace is a world of voodoo gods.

Neuromancer’s central plot point is one sentient AI’s quest to break free from its confines and merge with another. It’s suggested later that the result of this merging is that cyberspace is inhabited by voodoo gods. These AI gods are extremely powerful and can interfere with a user’s trip through cyberspace.

The incredible similarities between Neuromancer’s cyberspace and today’s internet allow us to view Gibson’s prophecies with rose-tinted glasses. But there’s no getting past just how bizarre an internet riddled with voodoo gods would be. Thankfully this particular part of Gibson’s vision remains pure fiction.

Posted 06 - 04 - 20

Notes

  1. Gibson, W., 1984 Neuromancer РThe first novel in the Sprawl trilogy
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