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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