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The father of cyberpunk tells all...in 1994?

By AgentGray in Culture
Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 06:02:35 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

Has technology changed over the last five years or are we stuck in a rut that is just rehashing the same ideas and concepts over and over?

The following article features some excerpts from an interview that William Gibson conducted in 1994 concerning the movie, Johnny Mnemonic, the internet, and the future of technology.

First, I would like to get the legal issues out of the way. The excerpts are taken from a copyrighted Project Gutenberg e-text. You can read the interview in its entirety here. (I know it's an E2 node by me. I didn't want to link to the thousands of ftp mirrors it's on.)

In this interview, William Gibson talks at length about "Johnny Mnemonic", movies, SF, net culture and issues.

What are your initial impressions on how "Johnny Mnemonic" is turning out ?

I have just seen the pre-assembled 10-minute show reel. I think it is fantastic! It felt very good seeing the universe of "Johnny Mnemonic" taking a life on its own. If it had been different, I wouldn't probably be here. But it can be safe to say that ";Johnny Mnemonic" has been the optimal screen experience so far.
Even though this part of the interview may be slightly off topic I wanted to include it because it is interesting to note how Gibson thinks the movie will fly. Of course, by studio standards it was a box office flop. Another thing you have to take into account is that Gibson wrote the short story and collaborated on the screenplay.
You seem very detached from your previous experiences in movies. "Johnny Mnemonic", on the other hand, seems very personal to you. Why is that ?

I wrote the original story in 1980. I think it was perhaps the second piece of fiction I ever wrote in my life. It held up very good after all these years. "Johnny" was a start for many creative processes: it was in fact the root source of "Neuromancer" and "Count Zero". It is only fair that the first script of mine that goes into production should come from that, from my early career. The world of "Johnny Mnemonic" takes for granted the Berlusconi completion process, I mean the media baron becoming one of the Country's leaders. I think the distinction between politicians and media is gonna disappear. It already has, in effect. It is very sad.
Do we see a distinction between the media and politics? I saw an editorial in my local paper a couple of days ago that had this caption: "I heard on talk radio that we should vote for Bush because the media is pushing Al Gore." Think about it.
It's like saying that the theories you imagined in your science fiction stories are becoming real...

Yeah, but people shouldn't look at science fiction like they look at "real" fiction. They shouldn't expect that this is what the future is gonna look like. We science fiction writers are sort of charlatans: we come up with a few ideas and we make a living out of that.

When I wrote "Neuromancer", I would have never imagined AIDS and the collapse of the USSR. We never get the future right. I always thought that USSR was this big winter bear that would always exist. And look at what happened. In 1993 I wrote an afterword for the Hungarian version of "Neuromancer". I wrote that nothing lives forever, and that it's time that the winds of democracy blow over the East. But now, after the arrival of people like Zhirinowsky, I have second thoughts again and I fear for them.
How close was he to the truth?
You and Bruce Sterling are the forefathers of the new science fiction. Isn't it ironical that he is very fascinated by hackers and the new edge, whereas you're not a technical person ?

Bruce practically lives on the Internet. I don't even have a modem or e-mail. My computer is outdated by any standards of criteria. I never was a technical guy and never will be. I'm a writer, and poetry and pop culture are the two things which fascinate me most. I'm not deeply excited by hi-tech. The Edge of the U2 was over here the other day and he was showing me Net stuff. He showed how he could telnet to his Los Angeles computer and he was very excited. I'll never be like that. However, I feel obliged to be ambivalent towards technology. I can't be a "techie", but I can't hate it, either.
I find it very interesting that at the time of this interview (1994) Gibson didn't even have a modem. I wonder if he has changed since then? He says he doesn't hate it, but does he fear it?
You have written "Virtual Light". So, what do you think of Virtual Reality ?

If we take what I consider the "Sunday paper supplement" of VR, I mean Goggles and Gloves, I think that it has become very obvious, very cliche. I think that real VR is gonna come out from the new generation of visual effects in movies. I met Jim Cameron when he was editing "Terminator 2": he showed me the clips of the T-1000 emerging from fire in the L.A. canal. He said they were gonna use the actor for the whole shot, but it was easier for them to do it in digital. This is the future. One day there will be entire virtual replicas of real actors.
He hit this nail right on the head even before George Lucas was predicting it. "Entire virtual replicas." I work for a media corporation that owns a couple of television stations. Virtual newscasters are a big possibility. Heck, you can already have a virtual newsroom and studio. Don't believe everything you see...
You're not fascinated by technology, and yet you come up with ideas on the edge...

When I write my books, my favorite part is always "art direction", not the plot. I admit I like giving people a visual impression of the world I'm creating. Then, I have to remind myself that I have to tell a story, foremost.
This is another almost off topic excerpt. I find it very intersting that Gibson creates an image first and he is still able to see things as what they could be in the future.
Another issue you focus on are Information Superhighways. What actions have you taken ?

Bruce Sterling and I went to the National Academy in Washington to address the Al Gore people. We told them that this is the last chance to give the poorest schools equal chances than the richest. In a few years it will be too late and we won't be able to fill up the gap.

To me, Information Highways are best described by the most interesting image I've seen on TV during the Los Angeles riot. A Radio Shack shop (ED. a chain of shops selling consumer electronics gear) was being looted. Next to that there was an Apple shop, and it was untouched. People wanted to steal portable TVs and CD players, not computers. I think this clearly indicated the gaps of culture, or simply the gaps of chances, in our society. Besides, the Information Highway issue gives the public a false perception. They don't wanna offer you exhaustive accesses to information; they wanna offer you a new shopping mall.
It's all about easibility and portability? Take another look today, William. This was Apple in the early nineties. Also, computers weren't a high commodity to the average Joe at home. What if that same incident happened today? The iMac has this easy-grip handle...The time certainly has changed here. However, I still think he makes a point. The TVs, Walkmans, steros, and such were easy to swipe, easy to carry.
What do you think of the Clipper issue ?

The NSA wants to legislate that every computer manifactured in the U.S. will have a chip built inside that will allow the Government to decrypt the information. The worst thing is that people are not informed of what is at stake here. Who would buy a computer with a spy inside? The Clipper chip is an admission of incompetence. They say they wanna be able to decrypt the information that would jeopardize National Security. But to can prevent the Medellin cartel to buy - say - into a Swiss corporation which comes up with a new encryption system which totally cuts out the Clipper ?

Encryption programs are stronger and stronger. There is a new one called Stego, which is free on Internet. It takes written material and hides it in visual elements. I send a digitized e-postcard from Cannes and there is half a novel hidden in its data. I've seen it work. I haven't understood the half of it yet.
Man, the Clipper chip is fucked anyway. Most of the new edge guys are into computers, and they're coming up with new gear nobody had the slightest clue about five years ago. I saw recently a prototype which looked like a beeper, but it was a virtual telephone. Unfortunately, we have to deal with more paper than before. We are submerged by tons of paper!
Interesting. Does anyone remember Clipper? Stego? You can pretty much watermark information now. Whatever happened to Clipper. If I remember right, it seemed to blow over. Well, that was when the media stopped reporting about it. Was it even technologically possible?
What is in your opinion the most important technological breakthrough of our society in recent years ?

My favorite piece of technology is the Walkman. It forever changed the way we perceive music. The Walkman has given us the opportunity to listen to whatever kind of music we wanted wherever we wanted. The Fax machine is also an amazing thing. We live in a very different world because of that: instantaneous written communication everywhere. It is also a very political technology, as the Tien An Men Square events told us.
I wonder if he would say the Walkman today? I believe that music has gone one step higher: MP3. Digital audio has changed the way we percieve music. Not in just how we listen to music, but in how we distribute it.
What about e-mail ?

E-mail is very glamorous. Way too glamorous.
Curious. It appears that he may have an underlying tone of email being a bad thing. Now that I think about it. Does it make my life more efficient? I seem to spend more time replying and writing. Everyone has that person in the office who sends an email and then calls the person to tell them. Have you been guilty of it?


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Have you read any works by Gibson? If so, tell us your favorite work or part.
o Yes 56%
o No 43%

Votes: 74
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Project Gutenberg
o here
o E2
o Also by AgentGray

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The father of cyberpunk tells all...in 1994? | 18 comments (16 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
He's changed.. (2.66 / 3) (#3)
by slycer on Mon Oct 02, 2000 at 05:32:25 PM EST

Not a bad writeup about Gibson. Note that his thoughts on the future have changed dramatically since then. For example, he no longer sees that people will be sticking "microsoft" into their brains. He forsees it as more of a "goo" that you inhale.. interesting concepts.. lots to do with nano-tech etc..

Of course I can't find a link for the story right now. Was in a Time magazine at my doctor's office.

Gibson and computers (2.50 / 4) (#4)
by Stitch on Mon Oct 02, 2000 at 06:30:47 PM EST

There was an article in the January 1999 issue of Wired Magazine by Gibson himself, where he detailed his obsession with buying watches on eBay. This would seem to indicate that he has gotten himself a modem or NIC or some other net access for his computer.

Re: Gibson and computers (none / 0) (#13)
by guppie on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 08:26:33 AM EST

Well, he also managed to say that "We've lived without computers before, we can do it again", in response to the Y2K scare. That made me wonder if he understands what's going on at all, and if he isn't, how can he write sci-fi with scosiological and technical insight?

What? The land of the free? Whoever told you that is your enemy.
-Zack de la Rocha
[ Parent ]
Gibson is overrated (2.83 / 6) (#5)
by Dacta on Mon Oct 02, 2000 at 07:28:43 PM EST

Gibson is so overrated it is crazy.

All he did was come up with some cool words and wrote some fairly average books with the cool words sprinkled throughout them.

He doesn't respect or understand the culture he writes about, and (the ultimate sin) his books are hard to read. (I said that once on /., and I got told I should read Dr Suess!)

Infact, apart from Neuromancer (which at least had a cool name when it came out), all his books were downright average. Has you read Mona-Lisa Overdrive? Pleeezzzze! (I haven't read The Difference Engine or whatever it was he wrote with Bruce Sterling. I expect it may be better - Sterling is a pretty good author most of the time.)

Anyway, this interview just shows how irrelevent he was, even in 1994. It sounds like it was straight out of a Wired "The future is now" editorial, back when Wired was cool. (Infact, I'm sure I've read this interview before. Where else was it published?)

Re: Gibson is overrated (3.00 / 2) (#6)
by TheLocust on Mon Oct 02, 2000 at 07:43:56 PM EST

Gibson overrated? Well, considering that his fiction had enough sway (coming from obscurity, i might add) to create those words, I wouldn't consider him overrated AS AN AUTHOR. He has a good imagination. He gathered things he saw around him that were just happening (the PC revolution and the concept of massive networking) and blew them up and into the future. Now, I don't rely on him to tell me what the future will be like, but his is a good author.

Hard to read? Ok, i'll give you that, but then again, I didn't quite understand ALL of Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth either upon first reading (Gibson!Shakespeare, but good fiction isn't always the easiest to read)
.......o- thelocust -o.........
ignorant people speak of people
average people speak of events
great people speak of ideas

[ Parent ]

Re: Gibson is overrated (3.00 / 2) (#9)
by delver on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 12:05:24 AM EST

I'm sorry, but I disagree with the statement that Gibson is overrated wholeheartdly. Not only is he one of my favorite authors, he practically invented a genere. Tokien created fantasy as it is today, and gibson helped create whatever you want to call this sort of high-tech sci-fi. But even ignoring that, he is an incredible writer just standing on his own merits. He could be writing about anything and still be incredible. Of course, its just my opinion, and you're entitled to yours.

[ Parent ]
Re: Gibson is overrated (2.00 / 1) (#7)
by mihalis on Mon Oct 02, 2000 at 07:59:53 PM EST

I agree with TheLocust. I don't think Gibson is overrated, I've really enjoyed most of his stuff, and you have to place his novels in the context of when they were released to understand the impact they had and the lasting impression they made.

If I had to quibble with his work I'd say his last book was a "stretch" just the way Mona Lisa Overdrive was. He was quoted as saying that he felt that he had to stretch his material a bit to make a third book length episode in that sequence, and I felt the same with "All Tomorrow's Parties" - it semed a bit gaunt, like a supermodel that shows up after a bit of a gap and has lost just a little bit too much weight. Not only the material , but even the sentences - I'm not allergic to prepositions and don't think starting as many sentences as possibly with "And" is cool.

However this is nitpicking as even if All Tomorrow's Parties is his worst book (and I'm not sure I can say that only having read it once) I still enjoyed it. Also, he seems to be brutally honest about his work and in particular his guru status.

I went to a reading of his once (probably Mona Lisa Overdrive) in Kingston-Upon-Thames. At the end I asked him about his little piece that appeared in a book called "Cyberspace : First Steps" published by MIT Press that I had bought and read. His piece was completely incomprehensible to me, and in answering the question he basically said that he didn't really know that much about the book and had written something impressionistic to make them leave him alone (how can you argue with something that doesn't appear to say anything concrete). So I had to give him points for style there (it was a bad book, mostly, apart from one article which is great, see this).
-- Chris Morgan <see em at mihalis dot net>
[ Parent ]

Re: Gibson is overrated (4.00 / 1) (#10)
by charter on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 01:12:34 AM EST

My problem with Gibson is that he has some serious issues with his female characters (I refuse to generalize and say that he has serious problems with all womankind). All of the women in his books are conniving, cold-hearted, over-ambitious, and/or threatening.

A little of this kind of thing is fine, but we're talking about every single female character! I know I shouldn't take it personally, but after a certain point it's hard not to feel like I'm being put on the defensive every time I pick up a Gibson novel. Or watch a Gibson movie. Or X-Files episode.

Technically I should probably develop this further and post it to the Rants section, but it's exhausting enough being the only girl in my department here at work. I don't really have the strength to act as the poster child for GeekGirls here, too. Maybe another day.

-- Charter

[ Parent ]
You go girl! (none / 0) (#11)
by guppie on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 07:02:28 AM EST

Wow, you really gor me there. Beeing a stupid man as I am, I had totally failed to see this (disturbing) flaw in Gibson's books, but when I read your post, it suddenly dawned on me. His female characters really _are_ one dimesional.

I still think his books are great entertainment, and sometimes though-provoking, but the next time I read one of them, I'll see things a little differently.

What? The land of the free? Whoever told you that is your enemy.
-Zack de la Rocha
[ Parent ]
Re: You go girl! (none / 0) (#12)
by charter on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 08:21:00 AM EST

I certainly don't mean to say "Gibson is evil and you're evil if you like his books." In fact, I enjoyed them quite a bit when I was younger, and they do have quite a lot to recommend them.

I just find his female characters a little... personally distressing, is all. After I re-read some of his stuff earlier this summer I had the overwhelming urge to write him and ask "Is that really how you see me?"

Like I said, I tend to take these things too personally. :)

Of course, it's not like his male characters are such winsome people, either. I think the only real conclusion you can draw is "Nobody's particularly likeable in GibsonFutureWorld."

-- Charter

[ Parent ]
Re: Gibson is overrated (none / 0) (#16)
by billyoblivion on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 04:21:59 PM EST

"All of the women in his books are conniving, cold-hearted, over-ambitious, and/or threatening. "

Don't feel special girlie, the majority of his characters were like that, male or female.

-- billy oblivion, living in the damaged worlds since 1992
[ Parent ]
Re: Gibson is overrated (none / 0) (#17)
by charter on Wed Oct 04, 2000 at 12:16:00 AM EST

Don't feel special girlie, the majority of his characters were like that, male or female.

Thanks, sweetie! I guess I WAS feeling special, but I'm over it now.

-- Charter

[ Parent ]
Re: Gibson is overrated? Pshaw! (none / 0) (#14)
by Prophet on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 11:54:40 AM EST

Gibson is so overrated it is crazy. All he did was come up with some cool words and wrote some fairly average books with the cool words sprinkled throughout them. He doesn't respect or understand the culture he writes about, and (the ultimate sin) his books are hard to read. (I said that once on /., and I got told I should read Dr Suess!)

I have never had any trouble reading any of Gibson's fiction. i've read Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Idoru, Virtual Light and the Burning Chrome stories... I never had even the smallest problem reading, interpreting, understanding, relating to what he's writing. In fact, every time I've read neuromancer over the years, even after many, many re-reads, I still get pissed off when the story ends. (I'm not ready to let it end.)
-The Reverend ={.\')=
[ Parent ]
Re: Gibson is overrated (none / 0) (#18)
by ContactClean on Wed Oct 04, 2000 at 06:05:08 AM EST

"Gibson is so overrated it is crazy." "All he did was come up with some cool words and wrote some fairly average books with the cool words sprinkled throughout them." I dont think the whole cool words thing was a factor or an issue when he wrote and or came up with these words. I think the media and then the public picked up on these words and they then took on a life of their own. Ask your average joe on the street who coined the "cyber" prefix and he probably isnt going to know, or care. "He doesn't respect or understand the culture he writes about" None of his books take place in the actual here and now, so what is there to respect? As far as understanding the culture, these are novels, not history books. His books are for entertainment not to be taken literally, thats why they are in the science FICTION section of the bookstore. He is painting a picture that you may or may not like or enjoy, but it is his.

[ Parent ]
The Clipper Chip (2.00 / 2) (#8)
by Luke Scharf on Mon Oct 02, 2000 at 09:15:07 PM EST

I remember the Clipper Chip went away after just about everybody (the public, businesses, academics) said it was a dumb idea.

I did hear that some of the clipper-enabled devices were installed in US goverment offices (although I don't remember which offices).

Does anyone remember anything more specific?

Re: The Clipper Chip (none / 0) (#15)
by billyoblivion on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 04:02:57 PM EST

The clipper chip went away after Matt Blaze (if you don't recognize the name, hide your head in shame) proved that counterfit clipper chips could enteract seamlessly with "official" chips. A lot of pressure was being put on the legislators on a lot of fronts--from groups like the EFF &etc. But it really looked to me like Blaze was the one who put the stake through the vamipires heart.

Of course, now we have Carnivore...
-- billy oblivion, living in the damaged worlds since 1992
[ Parent ]
The father of cyberpunk tells all...in 1994? | 18 comments (16 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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