Tag Archives: William Gibson

Enhance! Ugly Websites, Flip Phones, and the Trouble With Technology in Storytelling.

The plot of Scream is impossible without cordless phones.

The plot of Scream is impossible without cordless phones.

In Children of Men Clive Owen’s character Theo is trying to secure “transfer papers” from his cousin Nigel who seems to be one of the few rich people left in the no-one-can-make-babies-anymore-dystopia. The two older men are sitting at a dining table with a younger boy, presumably Nigel’s son, who seems to be inflicted in some way. He’s pale and stares vacantly at somewhere just past his left hand which is eerily still in between the twitches of fingers that are adorned by delicate wires. He doesn’t respond to others in the room and isn’t eating the food in front of him. After Nigel yells at him to take his pill we notice that they boy isn’t really sick or particularly disturbed, he’s playing a game attached to his hand. (more…)

The Crown of Being: Full Essay (parts I & II)

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve put together a two part essay/review-like object that explores how one particular work of science fiction speaks directly to certain ideas of what cyborgs are and what it means to be them, with an eye toward a broader appreciation for how fiction allows for a richer understanding of theory. The full piece is below.

Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.  –Donna Haraway

Inanna cast down Tammuz and stamped upon him and put out his name like an eye. And because Tammuz was not strong enough, she cut him into pieces and said: half of you will die, and that is the half called Thought, and half of you will live, and that is the half called Body, and that half will labor for me all of its days, mutely and obediently and without being King of Anything, and never again will you sit on my chair or wear my beautiful clothes or bear my crown of being.

You might be surprised, but this is a story about me.  –Catherynne M. Valente

Speculative fiction and this blog are not strangers to each other; it’s been written about here before,  as a means to understanding how the present has come to look the way it does, and as a means for the imagining of potential futures (also zombies). Indeed, the term cyborg always brings with it a host of connotations firmly rooted within SF, however much it may also describe a current and very real state of being. The important thing to pay attention to here is the power of stories – the ways in which they can serve as a way to do theory in a kind of experimental setting that would otherwise be impossible. In SF – and in fiction in general – we can take the implications of theory and watch them play out, see what they would look like, solidify them in words and images, pick parts of them up and move them around. We can tweak settings and watch other worlds unfold in response.

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The Crown of Being (a review) – Part I: The Embodied Virtual

Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.  –Donna Haraway

Inanna cast down Tammuz and stamped upon him and put out his name like an eye. And because Tammuz was not strong enough, she cut him into pieces and said: half of you will die, and that is the half called Thought, and half of you will live, and that is the half called Body, and that half will labor for me all of its days, mutely and obediently and without being King of Anything, and never again will you sit on my chair or wear my beautiful clothes or bear my crown of being.

You might be surprised, but this is a story about me.  –Catherynne M. Valente

Speculative fiction and this blog are not strangers to each other; it’s been written about here before,  as a means to understanding how the present has come to look the way it does, and as a means for the imagining of potential futures (also zombies). Indeed, the term cyborg always brings with it a host of connotations firmly rooted within SF, however much it may also describe a current and very real state of being. The important thing to pay attention to here is the power of stories – the ways in which they can serve as a way to do theory in a kind of experimental setting that would otherwise be impossible. In SF – and in fiction in general – we can take the implications of theory and watch them play out, see what they would look like, solidify them in words and images, pick parts of them up and move them around. We can tweak settings and watch other worlds unfold in response.

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Between Reality & Cyberspace

Reposted from Peasant Muse.

Photo by aagius

What does the term ‘cyberspace’ mean?  Does this Gibsonian construct adequately fulfill the task, currently asked of it by many, of defining the digital/physical realm interaction in terms of its scope and function?

Attempts to frame new social interactions spurred by digital innovations in communication, documentation and self-actualization (just to name a few) generally encounter problems of word choice when describing the effects these advancements bring to our growing conceptions of reality.  Literary terminology, often built upon antiquated notions reconfigured to suggest a potential or future state of being, sometimes suits the purpose of analogy when looking at these phenomena.  Yet there always comes a time when our understanding of an event or construction of reality demands that we re-evaluate our word choice, lest our future analytical efforts be hindered by its, perhaps, outmoded or misleading operation.  PJ Rey and the internet persona known as Mr. Teacup produced just this sort of re-evalutation of the term mentioned above, cyberspace, through two excellent pieces titled ‘There is no Cyberspace‘ and ‘There is Only Cyberspace’, respectively written.

PJ Rey argued that the term cyberspace, first coined by William Gibson in the short story ‘Burning Chrome’ and defined as a ‘consensual hallucination’, is deeply problematic in describing our contemporary social web because the web is neither consensual nor a hallucination.  Thanks to the ubiquity of smart phones, pervasive documentary practices (something Nathan Jurgenson calls the ‘Facebook Eye‘) mean that even if someone does not participate in the social web their actions are nonetheless captured by it to some degree, thus shaping our actions on the individual and societal level.  Many of us cannot control the degree to which this ‘Facebook Eye’ documents our actions (Could you stop every friend from making comments or posting pictures of your embarrassing moment from last week’s party?  What about last year’s party?) making the web far from a consensual space.  In many ways, because the web is not consensual it is also not a fantastical or a hallucinatory space either.  It is a part of reality- the web is as real as reality itself.  Actions taken offline impact online relations and vice-versa, allowing Rey to state that, “causality is bi-directional.  We are all part of the same human-computer system.” (more…)

Google and the Production of Curiosity

The Google Matrix

Originally posted on PopMatters.

On Twitter, PJ Rey resurrected this August 2010 op-ed by William Gibson that has new currency given the hullaballoo about Google’s privacy-policy changes. Gibson argues that Google is an unanticipated form of artificial intelligence, “a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products.” But this description sounds less like artificial intelligence and more like Marx’s notion of the general intellect. Anticipating the intensification of technology, Marx claimed that machines would eventually subsume “the process of social life” and integrate it as a form of productivity.

The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.

This is pretty obscure even by Marx’s standards, but autonomist Marxists (Negri, Lazzaurato, Virno) have extrapolated from this a definition of general intellect that embraces, as Virno puts it, “formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and ‘language games’.” Because of the membranous nature of the general intellect, when harnessed and integrated with capital, it can recuperate all social behavior as “immaterial” production — enriching the valence of signs, producing affects, etc. — it means that “even the greater ‘power to enjoy’ is always on the verge of being turned into labouring task.” That is, our consumption, especially of information, is a mode of production. The general intellect is the sum of all that information circulation. (more…)

On The Flow of Tweets: Private Interests and Public Speech


I took the liberty of making a new meme: "Censorship Sandworm". http://memegenerator.net/Censorship-Sandworm

“I must rule with eye and claw — as the hawk among lesser birds.”

-Duke Leo Atreides in Book 1: Dune

Over a week ago, Twitter announced a new censorship policy, stating that it would comply with any “valid and applicable legal request” to take down tweets. The announcement came just as we were still digesting Google’s unified privacy policy and were still debating the (now confirmed) rumors that Facebook was releasing an IPO. Twitter has since been applauded, denounced, and dissected by a variety of scholars, media critics, and business leaders. In this post I will give a brief summary of the controversy, briefly weigh in with a commentary of my own, and conclude with a discussion of what all this means for theorizing online social activity.

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There is No “Cyberspace”

The words and ideas we use to make sense of the Web owe as much to science fiction (particularly, the cyberpunk genre) as they do to the work of technicians or to rigorous scientific inquiry. This by no means a bad thing; the most powerful of such literary works call upon our collective imagination and use it to direct society to prepare for major transformations looming on the horizon. William Gibson’s (1984) Neuromancer was, no doubt, one such work. Neuromancer features  the exploits of a “console cowboy” (i.e., a computer hacker) named Case, who travels across a dystopian world serving a mysterious employer. The work is notable for popularizing the term “cyberspace,” which Gibson coined a couple years earlier in a short story called “Burning Chrome.”

In Neuromancer, Gibson described cyberspace as a”consensual hallucination” and more specifically: “A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. [...] Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.” Rather than just staring into a computer screen, hackers “jack in” directly interfacing with these visual representations of data in their minds. The images described here are reminiscent of those portrayed in movies such as Tron (1982),  Hackers (1995), and, to a lesser extent, The Matrix (1999). (more…)

How Cyberpunk Warned against Apple’s Consumer Revolution

It’s a notable coincidence that Steve Job died exactly two decades after Neil Stephenson completed Snowcrash, arguably, the last great Cyberpunk novel. Stephenson and Jobs’ work exemplified two alternative visions of humans’ relationship with technology in the Digital Age. Snowcrash offers a gritty, dystopian vision of a world where technology works against human progress as much as it works on behalf of it. Strong individuals must assert themselves against technological slavery, though ironically, they rely on technology and their technological prowess to do so.

Apple, on the other hand, tells us that the future is now, offering lifestyle devices that are slick (some might say, sterile). Despite being mass produced, these devices are supposed to bolster our individuality by communicating our superior aesthetic standards. Above all, Apple offers a world where technology is user-friendly and requires little technical competency. We need not liberate ourselves from technology; there’s an app for that.

YouTube Preview Image

Values and style are inextricably linked (as Marshal McLuhan famously preached). So, unsurprisingly, the differences between Apple’s view of the future and that of Cyberpunk authors such as Stephenson run far deeper. The Cyberpunk genre has a critical mood that is antithetical to Apple’s mission of pushing its products into the hands of as many consumers as possible. The clean, minimalist styling of Apple devices makes a superficial statement about the progressive nature of the company, while the intuitive interface makes us feel that Apple had us in mind when designing the product—that human experience is valued, that they care. Of course, this is all a gimmick. Apple invokes style to “enchant” its products with an aura of mystery and wonderment while simultaneously deflecting questions about how the thing actually works (as discussed in Nathan Jurgenson & Zeynep Tufekci’s recent “Digital Dialogue” presentation on the iPad). Apple isn’t selling a product, it’s selling an illusion. And to enjoy it (as I described in a recent essay), we must suspend disbelief and simply trust in the”Mac Geniuses”—just as we must allow ourselves to believe in an illusionist if we hope to enjoy a magic show. Thus, the values coded into Apple products are passivity and consumerism; it is at this level where it is most distinct from the Cyberpunk movement. (more…)

Speculative Fiction, Atemporality, and Augmented Reality

“The future is there,” Cayce hears herself say, “looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become. And from where they are, the past behind us will look nothing at all like the past we imagine behind us now.”
–William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

“This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”
–Bruce Sterling, “Slipstream”, SF Eye #5, July 1989

I first read William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition almost a year ago, after a long hiatus from his work. I’ve long loved his books, but went through the kind of distance that time and life just sometimes put between a reader and an author. Pattern Recognition was the return, and I went into it cold, knowing nothing about it except for the author–an experience that I always find somewhat refreshingly like exploring a dark, richly appointed room with a small flashlight.

And then something rather interesting happened. The book contains a description of the memories that the protagonist retains of the events of September 11, 2001, and as I read, I experienced a curious kind of vertigo–something that I have since come to understand as the mirror-hallway perception of reading a fictionalized account of a real event in my own memory, remembered as past in a near-future context. In that moment, what I experienced as vertigo was the collapsing of a number of categories–past, present, and future, fiction and non-fiction, myself and other. It should be noted that Pattern Recognition is not actually set in the future; nevertheless, I processed it that way at the time because of how I’m used to reading Gibson. But that’s not the only reason for the vertigo. It was an intense case, but in fact this implosion of metaphysical categories is one of the things that speculative fiction (SF) essentially does.

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