What is cyberspace?
is a metaphor that allows us to grasp this place where since about the time
of the second world war we've increasingly done so many of the things that
we think of as civilization. Cyberspace is where we do our banking, it's actually
where the bank keeps your money these days because it's all direct electronic
transfer. It's where the stock market actually takes place, it doesn't occur
so much any more on the floor of the exchange but in the electronic communication
between the worlds stock-exchanges.
So I think that since so much of what we do is happening digitally and electronically, it's useful to have an expression that allows that all to be part of the territory. I think it makes it easier for us to visualize what we're doing with this stuff.
The Internet is one way to communicate with lots of people without using the body, you just use your mind. Is cyberspace a better place to be than this physical world?
Well, I don't think so. There is an tendency in our culture, in a broader sense the western civilization, to reject the body in favor of an idea of the spirit or the soul. I have never been entirely sure that that's such a good thing, and in an interesting way this technology is pointing in that direction. One could imagine a very ascetic sort of life growing out of this, where the body is ignored. This is something I've played with in my books, where people hate to be reminded sometimes that they have bodies, they find it very slow and tedious. But I've never presented that as an desirable state, always as something almost pathological growing out of this technology.
In your books you often describe big, multinational companies that are in control of almost everything. But today it's more and more easy for ordinary people to get access to the Internet and the companies are not really in control at all. Do you think this will change, will the companies get control of the Internet?
hope not. I sincerely hope not. The advent, evolution and growth of the Internet
is, I think, one of the most fascinating and unprecedented human achievements
of the century. I sometimes suspect that we're seeing something in the Internet
as significant as the birth of cities. It's something that profound and with
that sort of infinite possibilities. It's really something new, it's a new
kind of civilization. And of course the thing I love about it is that it's
transnational, non profit - it isn't owned by anyone - and it's shape is completely
user driven. What it is, is determined by the needs of millions and millions
of users. So cyberspace is evolving to meet the needs of individuals all over
the world. The American so called "Information Highway", or the
"Infobahn" (laughs) which I have always liked very much, is an attempt
to create a commercial version. I think that very, very large interests are
looking at the Internet, not really understanding what it is, but thinking
"We can make a fortune if we have one of those!". You know, they
want to get in there, it'll be broadcast television again.
But of course that's not going to be it, and I think that the highway metaphor is particularly suspect. A highway is something you can go two ways on, it implies real traffic. Really what they're offering you is a mall. They want to give you an infomall where you pay for every bit of information you download, and you'll download from a menu that some corporation has assembled. It's like they talk in the states about the "five hundred channel universe", and how we're all are going to have so much cable, but what are they going to put on it? In Los Angeles you can have a hundred channels of cable on your television today and you can flip through all of them and there's no content! It's amazingly content-free.
So I have great hopes for the Internet, very little hope for commercial versions, and I profoundly hope that the Internet will continue to be the basis of this sort of growth.
I'm going to ask an other question which is being discussed on the net: Are you using the Internet? Do you have an e-mail address?
No, no, I don't. I don't have an e-mail address, I don't even have a modem. As much as I admire the Internet I suffer literally agoraphobia, which in it's original sense means a fear of the marketplace. I do not want to receive three hundred e-mail messages per week from strangers wanting to communicate with me. If only because I'd be tempted to open them all and look at them. And there goes, you know, half the time that I have to write. I mean, the amount of physical mail and other communications I get these days is already swamping me.
Do you see the net as becoming more corporate?
It hasn't seemed to me like the romantic idea of "anything goes" on the net has made much sense for quite a while. What I see more is an attempt to find a way to make money on the net. No one's managed to catch up with the pornographers yet!
In other interviews, you've talked about the nature of the book industry. Do pressures from the industry affect what you write or how you write it?
No, I almost wish they could. I just don't have enough conscious control over what I do. I mean, I'd like to be able to make sound commercial decisions, but really the part of me that's talking to you right now has almost nothing to do with the actual generation of one of these texts. They're products of the unconscious, to the extent that they work at all. To the extent that they don't work--that's the part that I'm consciously responsible for! [Laughs.]
The computer age is the age of the nerd. How does it feel to be a member of the last generation of nerds that failed to inherit the earth?
My expectations in terms of inheriting the earth were astonishing low, twenty years ago. I still suffer to a certain degree from Impostor Syndrome: is this my beautiful house? I feel like I've been very fortunate in that I've stuck like a burr to the dog-leg of the next generation of nerdism. I've been carried into the XXIth century on Bill Gates' pants-cuff.
Our culture is being profoundly transformed by technology in ways most people are only dimly starting to realize. Maybe that's why the American public is so fascinated with SF imagery and vocabulary- even people who don't even know what SF stands for are responding to this stuff subliminally, in ads and so on.
Yeah, like Escape from New York never made it big, but it's been redone a billion times as a rock video. I saw that movie, by the way, when I was starting "Burning Chrome" and it had a real influence on Neuromancer. I was intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake: "You flew the wing-five over Leningrad, didn't you?" It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF, where a casual reference can imply a lot.
What many readers first notice in Neuromancer are all the cyberpunk elements- exotic lingoes, drugs, cyber-realities, clothes, and so on. In many ways, though, the plot is very traditional: the down-and-out gangster who's been jerked around and wants to get even by pulling the big heist. Did you make a conscious decision to attach this punked-out cyber-reality to the framework of an established plot?
When I said earlier that a lot of what went into Neuromancer was the result of desperation, I wasn't exaggerating. I knew I was so inexperienced that I would need a traditional plot armature that had proven its potential for narrative traction. I had these different things I wanted to use, but since I didn't have a preset notion of where I was going, the plot had to be something I already felt comfortable with. Also, since I wrote Neuromancer very much under the influence of Robert Stone- who's a master of a certain kind of paranoid fiction- it's not surprising that what I wound up with was something like a Howard Hawkes film.
LM: What was the inspiration for your cyberspace idea?
I was walking down Granville Street, Vancouver's version of "The Strip," and I was looking into one of the video arcades. I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt the kids inside were. It was like one of those closed systems out of a Pynchon novel: a feedback loop with photons coming off the screens into the kids' eyes, neurons moving through their bodies, and electrons moving through the video game. These kids clearly believed in the space games projected. Everyone I know who works with computers seems to develop a belief that there's some kind of actual space behind the screen, someplace you can't see but you know is there.
Back in the '60s and early '70s, most of the important New Wave SF took a pessimistic stance toward technology and progress. Although your work has sometimes been described as glorifying technology. I'd say it offers a more ambivalent view.
My feelings about technology are totally ambivalent- which seems to me to be the only way to relate to what's happening today. When I write about technology, I write about how it has already affected our lives; I don't extrapolate in the way I was taught an SF writer should. You'll notice in Neuromancer that there's obviously been a war, but I don't explain what caused it or even who was fighting it. I've never had the patience or the desire to work out the details of who's doing what to whom, or exactly when something is taking place, or what's become of the United States. That kind of literalism has always seemed silly to me; it detracts from the reading pleasure I get from SF. My aim isn't to provide specific predictions or judgments so much as to find a suitable fictional context in which to examine the very mixed blessings of technology.
Does this mean that you are in favour of VR and of, say, a world where VR is the norm/has taken over our lives?
I want to counter the kind of wacky Utopian tendency of some of these VR guys, who appear on TV and say, "Yes, virtual reality will cure all human ills!" I think some people do live in virtual reality now. We're already in a relatively virtual environment but we're not aware of it because we've grown up in it.
What do you mean by that?
We're surrounded by VR - when you turn on the TV and can watch a bomb exploding on the other side of the world. That's what I call "CNN moment", when you get lost for a minute with the dread and ecstasy of what you're seeing. And that's what I'm trying to give people in my novels.
Would you describe your novels as SF then?
Making distinctions between genres is very inelegant. Most writers I know delight in blurring the borders. Look at Martin Amis, look at J.G. Ballard, the great saint of blurring boundaries.
More Gibson interviews in the following links