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

“I prob­a­bly wor­ry less about the real future than the aver­age per­son,” says William Gib­son, the man who coined the term “cyber­space” and wrote books like Neu­ro­mancerIdoru, and Pat­tern Recog­ni­tionThese have become clas­sics of a sci­ence-fic­tion sub­genre brand­ed as “cyber­punk,” a label that seems to pain Gib­son him­self. “A snap­py label and a man­i­festo would have been two of the very last things on my own career want list,” he says to David Wal­lace-Wells in a 2011 Paris Review inter­view. Yet the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the con­cept of cyberspace — and, to a great extent, its hav­ing become a real­i­ty — still aston­ish­es him. “I saw it go from the yel­low legal pad to the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary, but cyber­space is every­where now, hav­ing evert­ed and col­o­nized the world. It starts to sound kind of ridicu­lous to speak of cyber­space as being some­where else.” A dozen years ear­li­er, in Mark Neale’s bio­graph­i­cal doc­u­men­tary No Maps for These Ter­ri­to­ries, the author tells of how he first con­ceived it as “an effec­tive buzz­word,” “evoca­tive and essen­tial­ly mean­ing­less,” and observes that, today, the pre­fix “cyber-” has very near­ly gone the way of “elec­tro-”: just as we’ve long since tak­en elec­tri­fi­ca­tion for grant­ed, so we now take con­nect­ed com­put­er­i­za­tion for grant­ed.

“Now,” of course, means the year 1999, when Neale shot the movie’s footage. He did it almost entire­ly in the back of a lim­ou­sine, tricked out for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and media pro­duc­tion, that car­ried Gib­son on a road trip across North Amer­i­ca. The long ride gives us an extend­ed look into Gib­son’s curi­ous, far-reach­ing mind as he explores issues of the inevitabil­i­ty with which we find our­selves “pen­e­trat­ed and co-opt­ed” by our tech­nol­o­gy; grow­ing up in a time when “the future with a cap­i­tal F was very much a going con­cern in North Amer­i­ca”; the loss of “the non-medi­at­ed world,” a coun­try to which we now “can­not find our way back”; the mod­ern real­i­ty’s com­bi­na­tion of “a per­va­sive sense of loss” and a Christ­mas morn­ing-like “excite­ment about what we could be gain­ing”; his ear­ly go-nowhere pas­tich­es of J.G. Bal­lard and how he then wrote Neu­ro­mancer as an approach to the “viable but essen­tial­ly derelict form” of sci­ence fic­tion; his fas­ci­na­tion with the sheer improb­a­bil­i­ty of those machines known as cities; and his mis­sion not to explain our moment, but to “make it acces­si­ble,” find­ing the vast, near-incom­pre­hen­si­ble struc­ture under­ly­ing the pound­ing waves of thought, trend, and tech­nol­o­gy through which we all move. Watch­ing No Maps for These Ter­ri­to­ries here in cyber­space, I kept for­get­ting that Gib­son said these things a tech-time eter­ni­ty ago, so per­ti­nent do they sound to this moment. And hap­pi­ness, as he puts it in one aside, “is being in the moment.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tim­o­thy Leary Plans a Neu­ro­mancer Video Game, with Art by Kei­th Har­ing, Music by Devo & Cameos by David Byrne

William Gib­son, Father of Cyber­punk, Reads New Nov­el in Sec­ond Life

The Penul­ti­mate Truth About Philip K. Dick: Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Mys­te­ri­ous Uni­verse of PKD

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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