The Man Who Named Cyberspace

An interview with William Gibson

August 4, 1994

By Scott Rosenberg

A decade ago -- long before people began talking about infobahns and information superhighways -- science fiction writer William Gibson dreamed of cyberspace.

He coined the word in his 1984 novel "Neuromancer," the prototypical cyberpunk text. In that disorienting fever-dream of a 21st-century future, "interface cowboys" could "jack in" to a virtual dimension via decks that plugged right into their nervous systems.

Cyberspace as we now know it, the rapidly evolving and mutating digital communications web, is both more tangible and more mundane than the quasi-psychedelic matrix Gibson imagined in "Neuromancer" -- a 3-D space filled with polygons representing nexuses of corporate, governmental and military power.

When people ask Gibson about cyberspace today, he often tells them, "It's where the bank keeps your money."

"Increasingly, a lot of what we do that passes for textbook civilization is taking place in cyberspace," the author says. "Cyberspace is where the market happens. It's also the place where telephone conversations occur. When people ask me about 'virtual sex,' I always say there are billions of people doing it every day already - because the phone sex industry is happening in cyberspace."

It's rare for a writer of fiction to make something up and then watch it gradually turn real, materializing in our world like some object assembling its molecules in the "Star Trek" transporter. But in Gibson's case you couldn't call it a coincidence.

While the general public tends to view science fiction as an effort to predict the future, writers in the field often describe their work as an exercise in exploring the present from odd angles. Gibson says he likes to create "something that feels like the world today -- or, in the case of 'Neuromancer,' the world of, say, 1982 -- but with the volume turned up, with all the knobs turned up.

"The world is really so surreal these days that it's necessary for us to blunt it somehow in order to stay sane. But I think it then becomes one of the artist's functions to short-circuit the buffering mechanism, so that people can occasionally perceive the weirdness of things as they are.

"We have these moments spontaneously - I think of them as CNN moments. The last one I had, probably most people had, was watching that weirdly Ballardian slow-motion freeway pursuit (of O.J. Simpson). Which was on every channel. That's as strange as it gets."

Expect that strangeness to inform the novel Gibson is now working on, "Idoru." The story of a marriage between an aging rock star and a Japanese pop idol who's actually an "information construct," this sequel to last year's best-selling "Virtual Light" will explore "the ecology of celebrity" in the near future.

There's a Gibson movie heading our way this winter, too - a film of his story "Johnny Mnemonic," from his own screenplay, directed by artist Robert Longo and starring Keanu Reeves.

The novelist has had some typically alienating experiences working in Hollywood, where he wrote an early draft of the screenplay for "Alien 3." But "optimal" is how he describes his involvement with "Johnny Mnemonic," which may pick up another name on its way to the theater: "I think there's some concern over pronounceability. 'Johnny Demonic' has appeared a few times in the press. Also 'Johnny Pneumonic.' "

Meanwhile, "Neuromancer" has just been reissued in a 10th-anniversary edition, its first hardcover (Ace, $21.95). That's what has brought the tall, narrow-framed, 46-year-old author, who lives with his family in Vancouver, B.C., back to San Francisco, where "Virtual Light" was set - in a post-quake version of the city where squatters have built a shantytown on a disused Bay Bridge.

Ten years is eons in technology time, but "Neuromancer" has dated surprisingly well. Though there are a few references to the Soviet Union, the chaotic world Gibson created in the novel and its sequels -- "Count Zero" and "Mona Lisa Overdrive" -- remains a credible refraction of our own. Partly, that's because today's digital subculture has thoroughly raided Gibson's universe for its slang. And partly it's an ironic result of the author's own relative ignorance of the nitty-gritty details of the state of computing at the time he wrote.

When I ask him why the technology in his novels always works -- the cyberspace decks never freeze up, the net never goes down -- he laughs. "I never thought of that. I was a total innocent; it didn't occur to me that stuff might not work. When I wrote 'Neuromancer,' I don't think I even knew anyone who owned a PC. Of course, there weren't that many personal computers knocking around then, at least not among the people in my economic plateau, which was not very high."

Today, Gibson is more clued in, but he still keeps his distance from the techno-culture that has borrowed its aura of hipness from his work. "A lot of the exclusivity, the sexiness of personal computation in its current state is simply a function of awkward interface design. When user interfaces evolve to transparency -- I think 'Star Trek' probably got it right: We'll talk to it and it'll talk back -- then everyone will be able to do it. It won't have this elitist edge, which I actually find kind of annoying."

And yes, although "Neuromancer" was written on an old manual typewriter, Gibson does use a computer today. But he says he doesn't lust after faster and faster machines: "Every time I buy a new computer, I feel like I'm buying ice, sculpted ice that's melting all the way home, obsolescing in the trunk of the car."

As for the current state of cyberspace, Gibson winces at the term "information superhighway" ("a nasty piece of buzzword engineering"), but has good things to say about the Internet: "I'm not a user, but I'm a big fan. I like the idea that it's extra-national, and no one particularly owns it. My concern now is whether it can be dismantled by corporate interests who want something more structured so they can sell us stuff - or whether there's some innate urge toward freedom inherent in the technology that will keep it evolving."

Some of Gibson's readers embrace his portrait of a violent, jacked-in future clad in leather and mirror shades; others have read it as a classic dystopian nightmare. How does he see it?

"I'm no Luddite. Whenever anyone comes along and starts telling you some new technology is going to fix everything, though, it brings out all the cynicism I'm capable of. But dystopia's a relative thing. It's so easy to forget that there are lots of people living under the most unspeakably wretched conditions, who would find the world of 'Neuromancer' a raging utopia."

"I think that the correct reaction to the perpetual exponential advance of technology is a deep ambivalence. Being dubious is the only healthy response."

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