Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cyberspace Saturates Reality

William Gibson, when he described cyberspace in Neuromancer, envisioned it as "tactile lattices of data and logic" and Case, his data cowboy, soared through it like a superhero. Cyberspace was a consensual hallucination. A visualization of the data landscape. It sounded like a total blast. But cyberspace has not turned out to be anything like that. I'm in cyberspace typing this, you're in cyberspace reading it. William Gibson made a far scarier observation when he said that cyberspace was where you go when you are on the telephone.

It's true, when we talk on the telephone, we're together, at least in some way that my brain recognizes as together.

But more interesting to me is that Cyberspace was initially envisioned as a place you went into. It turns out it's not that at all. Cyberspace is the organization of your experience when you are using a linked interface. So when you're in your car, using your GPS, you're in cyberspace, right there on the freeway. Using you smartphone to check Twitter, you're in cyberspace. We don't go to cyberspace, it comes to us. It overlays our world and our experience. It changes our perception of space and time.

There's only going to be more of it.


Blogger Unknown said...

I remember back in the heady days of 300 baud modems and BBSes we were having an online discussion about what it would be like when we finally have cyberspace like Gibson described. Someone posted how cool it would be to fly around all those glowing geometric constructs and wade in the data stream. I said it would probably be filled with advertising and you'd be dodging giant flying Pepsi logos.

Except for the 3D part, I wasn't too far off.

April 14, 2009 11:32 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

You make it sound like Gibson was making a prediction when he described cyberspace in Neuromancer, but he wasn't. He was offering a literalized metaphor for the mental space we enter when we're on the phone.

So when you say that "it turns out that it's not [a place you went into] at all," it's a bit like saying, "it turns out that traveling salesmen don't wake up to find themselves transformed into giant beetles at all."

April 15, 2009 7:36 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I'm sorry if it sounds as if I am implying Gibson was making a prediction. That's not my intent. What's interesting to me isn't the predictive aspects. What's interesting is what cyberspace turned out to be in our lives. When Case entered cyberspace, or even when we call someone on the phone, we 'enter' cyberspace. But when I use my GPS in my car, I am far less aware of 'entering' anything. And yet, I suspect that for a generation that grows up with GPS's in cars, navigation and spatial relationships could be very different than they are for people like me. Maybe I just need a longer post.

April 15, 2009 11:34 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

I guess I don't understand why you mention Case entering cyberspace at all. It seems to me that the relevant difference to be identified is between using the phone and using GPS or Twitter. I'm not sure that there is a big difference, but if you're arguing that there is, the reference to Neuromancer seems out of place.

April 16, 2009 2:09 PM  
Blogger Addison Lande said...

"MmmfmfmamafFMMmmmm." I was drooling, I'm not sure if it was the drugs or that secretary dancing around taking instant x-rays of herself, fluttering to the floor like leaves, maybe both. Kyle was laughing, Korenby was pleading.

"Get me out of here. Please. I just want to work with my hands again. I just-

Crackling sounds, the sound of a ball-bearing getting loose from a high-speed hard drive and flying around the computer like pinball. Fans whirring out of control.


April 19, 2009 8:26 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Not sure what that last comment was about.

Ted, if you happen to come by, do you think it's unfair to say that Gibson's Cyberspace helped shape our expectations of the future?

April 19, 2009 11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Have you read Halting State by Charlie Stross? It's the first novel I've read that explicitly uses the idea of cyberspace as an overlay on the real world as a plot device.

The movie Tron from 1982 occured in a cyberspace that the protagonist entered into in a much more literal way than in Gibson's novel. It was the first movie with the majority of scenery generated by computer graphics. The glowing geometric constructs and synthesized voices are all there. I suspect Tron had more influence on popular culture than Neuromancer did.

I've always been amused by the fact that science fiction writers have been much more drawn to the software side of technology than the hardware side. Programming seems, from the outside, like the writers wet dream of the written word as power over the world. There are almost no science fiction stories about electronic hardware. Hardware is just too much work and too little magic.

Cyberpunk convieniently glosses over the fact that programming is tedious hard work and darned little magic.

April 20, 2009 12:31 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

do you think it's unfair to say that Gibson's Cyberspace helped shape our expectations of the future?That's hard to say. I've always felt that Stephenson's Snow Crash had a bigger impact, because the computer programmers I knew were far more excited about that than they were about Neuromancer. Stephenson's Metaverse was something that they could actually aspire to implementing, whereas cyberspace seemed vague and pointless by comparison. (In my experience, most programmers aren't big on metaphor.) And while it's true that goggle-based VR never became popular in the way that Stephenson imagined, I'll bet that every MMORPG developer has read Snow Crash. Even Google Earth's UI was inspired by it.

April 22, 2009 2:34 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

A follow-up comment: I think that modern tools like Google and dashboard GPS actually resemble much older SFnal ideas about a vast supercomputer that acted like a public utility. The difference is that we used to think that some form of AI would be necessary for computers to be so useful; you'd ask Multivac (or whoever) a question and it would give you an answer. With Google, we've seen that you can find almost anything you want using an amped-up version of full-text search. Likewise, turn-by-turn directions are available without conversing with some omniscient central computer.

April 22, 2009 3:27 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Neuromancer came out in 1984, and Snow Crash in 1992. I guess I'd say that for me, Snow Crash's Metaverse did seem more literal, and a loss less compelling than cyberspace. It's hard for me to point to a specific now, but I remember, back in 1991, when I first started getting on BBs, it was Cyberspace that people aspired to.

Literalized metaphor or not, I think for a time, Cyberspace shaped people's thinking about using computers. We didn't ask Metavac, which would be in our world, we went online. (A very cyberspace concept--that we went on or in to something.)

I just got a smart phone a couple of months ago, and of course, I work in a tiny corner of the technology universe on some thing sometimes called multi media platforms. When I text message, or check twitter on my iPhone, I don't really feel exactly as if I have gone online or entered cyberspace. And five years ago, I sat down in front of my computer and it was, visually, a window onto the internet.

I don't think Gibson was predicting, so much as I think he conceptualized, in a compelling manor, cyberspace in a way that shaped our expectations and experience of computing. I wasn't even aware that I thought of it that way. But now, my experience doesn't map onto that experience in the same way. Perhaps it is idiosyncratic of me to have experienced it that way--it seems as if you might not have.

And I think your comparison--that "it turns out that traveling salesmen don't wake up to find themselves transformed into giant beetles at all" is a bit disingenuous, since while Kafka was brilliant and interesting, his portrait of Gregor Samsa didn't create, for a popular audience, a new concept--traveling salesmen. However, I do think it's possible to say Death of a Salesmen established the convention that a lot of salesmen are desperate, hollow men, a trope that has influence even today, in the show Mad Men for example.

On the other hand, I was hanging out with English majors, not programmers, so my mileage may have varied.

April 22, 2009 10:29 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

And I think that I set some sort of landspeed record for weird homonym-like typos in that post.

April 22, 2009 10:30 PM  
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September 07, 2011 12:59 PM  
Anonymous drugstore said...

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