Pioneering Sci-Fi Author William Gibson Predicts in 1997 How the Internet Will Change Our World

"What's the one thing that all great works of science fiction have in common?" asks a 1997 episode of The Net, the BBC's television series about the possibilities of this much-talked-about new thing called the internet. "They all tried to see into the future, and they all got it wrong. Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: all, to some extent or other, wrong. And there's another name to add to this list: William Gibson." But then on strolls Gibson himself, fresh off the writing of Idoru, a novel involving a human who wants to marry a digitally generated Japanese pop star, to grant the interview above.

In it Gibson admits that computers hadn't gone quite the way he'd imagined thirteen years earlier in his debut novel Neuromancer — but in which he also offers prescient advice about how we should regard new technology even today. "The thing that Neuromancer predicts as being actually like the internet isn't actually like the internet at all!" Gibson says in a more recent interview with Wired. "I didn't get it right but I said there was going to be something." Back in the mid-1980s, as he tells the BBC, "there was effectively no internet to extrapolate from. The cyberspace I made up isn't being used in Neuromancer the way we're using the internet today."

Gibson had envisioned a corporate-dominated network infested with "cybernetic car thieves skulking through it attempting to steal tidbits of information." By the mid-1990s, though, the internet had become a place where "a really talented and determined fifteen-year-old" could create something more compelling than "a multinational entertainment conglomerate might come up with." He tells the BBC that "what the internet has become is as much a surprise to me as the collapse of the Soviet Union was," but at that point he had begun to perceive the shape of things to come. "I can't see why it won't become completely ubiquitous," he says, envisioning its evolution "into something like television to the extent that it penetrates every level of society."

At the same time, "it doesn't matter how fast your modem is if you're being shelled by ethnic separatists" — still very much a concern in certain parts of the world — and even the most promising technologies don't merit our uncritical embrace. "I think we should respect the power of technology and try to fear it in a rational way," he says. "The only appropriate response" is to give in to neither technophobia nor technophilia, but "to teach ourselves to be absolutely ambivalent about them and imagine their most inadvertent side effects," the side effects "that tend to get us" — not to mention the ones that make the best plot elements. Seeing as how we now live in a world where marriage to synthetic Japanese idols has become a possibility, among other developments seemingly pulled from the pages of Gibson's novels, we would do well to heed even these decades-old words of advice about his main subject.

via Big Think

Related Content:

Take a Road Trip with Cyberspace Visionary William Gibson, Watch No Maps for These Territories (2000)

How Chris Marker’s Radical SciFi Film La Jetée Changed the Life of Cyberpunk Prophet William Gibson

Cyberpunk: 1990 Documentary Featuring William Gibson & Timothy Leary Introduces the Cyberpunk Culture

Sci-Fi Author J.G. Ballard Predicts the Rise of Social Media (1977)

Mark Twain Predicts the Internet in 1898: Read His Sci-Fi Crime Story, “From The ‘London Times’ in 1904”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • Shaun says:

    Nice, but the presenter is mistaken in his assumption. Science fiction authors do not through works of make-believe intend to accurately predict every detail of the future. In fact science fiction is almost always about the time in which it is written and the works are meant to parody or criticise or warn or give hope to the readers of the present.

    Name me a single science fiction author who, if you sat him or her down and asked “Do you think this vision of the future will come true verbatim as you have set it down?” would have said, “yes, this is exactly how it will go.”

    Not one of them would have confirmed this because pretty much all of them made incompatible versions of the future in different science fiction novels. The presenter would have been able to distinguish the difference between futurists and fantasists by taking a 1A English class.

    Unless you subscribe to the infinite parallel universes theory in which case all of the science fiction authors are right.

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