Inventor of cyberspace steps back to the present

Irish Times, 25/04/2003

TECHNOLOGY: Karlin Lillington talks to William Gibson, whose writing has influenced filmmakers, novelists, technologists, academics, and thousands of ordinary people.


I am sitting talking to the writer William Gibson - the epitome of gritty tech street cred; a kind of cyber-literary Lou Reed in his hard-bitten coolness - and the conversation has turned to his belief that emerging technologies are what shape future history, not politics, not wars, not philosophies.

The man who famously coined the term cyberspace has just noted that new technologies are used, and thus change society, in ways their original developers never envisage.

In agreement, I throw out a phrase I often use because it is so versatile, an utterly concise comment on the dynamics of the technology industry: "The street finds its own uses for things." And mortified, I realise that I have just quoted William Gibson to William Gibson.

Mr Gibson shows a flicker of a smile and probably thinks the comment was deliberate, a small gesture of homage. Homage, yes; but an unintentional genuflection, signifying just how hardwired he is to tech culture, how thoroughly what he writes ends up influencing the way countless others think, work, dream and speak technology - and how adept he is at boiling a complex truth down into a perfect, technohip phrase.

Even a single, Gibson-crafted word can elegantly capture vast concepts: "cyberspace", for example - which in his famed 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, he also calls "the matrix". Ring a bell? The film is pure post-Gibson sci-fi.

Mr Gibson's writings run deep, forming cyberculture's bedrock, influencing filmmakers, novelists, technologists, academics, and thousands of ordinary people who stumble into one of his novels and find they start thinking about technology, about computers and their uses, about the present and the future, in new ways.

The Guardian has described him as "probably the most important novelist of the past two decades". Certainly, he is one of the most influential - his iconic, novelistic source code borrowed and reused and reverse-engineered by others until it's easy to forget that he is the one that did it all first.

Yet he is surprisingly modest and soft-spoken, and not at all what some of the dustcover photographs - all dark glasses, leather jackets and world-weary expressions - would lead you to expect.

In person, he is less Lou Reed and more your favourite science teacher, spectacled, polite, slender and exceedingly tall, in khaki jeans and sneakers and a perfectly ironic button-down shirt of tiny navy and white checks. If he is bored stiff by the zillionth question about his writing, he betrays none of it, answering in slow, considered, often self-deprecating sentences.

His new novel, Pattern Recognition, is a major shift for him, stepping into the present, not the future, and incorporating the immediate past, including the disturbing psychic reverberations of September 11th. The novel is full of the technologies and the cyberlife of now: cryptography, Apple Mac computers (Gibson is a Mac devotee), digital watermarking, obsessive Net bulletin board communities and Google.

Does he write with a techie readership in mind? "No, not at all. I'm actually frightened of those people because they'll see through my thin skin of techie stuff," he laughs. "The tech stuff is actually easier to do if you know less about what's going on."

He sees the technology bits as "the shabbier parts of the narrative because the technology is bullshit. I write it as elegantly as possible so that the reader gets the sense that they're in the hands of an author that knows. But I actually know little." He chortles. "Enough though, that I can see the forest for the trees."

He recalls a favourite anecdote of how, in the early 1980s, he showed the Neuromancer manuscript to someone he knew in the computer industry: "He said: 'This is impossible.' I asked why and he said: 'Because there couldn't possibly be enough bandwidth for this to exist.' Well, I didn't know what bandwidth was, so I thought, I'm doing it anyway."

However, he does acknowledge that he likes to gratify the technolust of a certain kind of reader.

"Bits of it are for a certain techie person. Bits of Pattern Recognition are almost. . . pornographic. Actually, they're suggestive, highly suggestive. But you never really know what's going on."

He is referring to the ways in which he teases the reader by planting bits of cyber-spy lore into the plot - for example, the washed-up crypto expert Hobbs Baranov who might, or might not, have been the main architect of Echelon, the once-mythic British-American internet surveillance system.

The novel is curiously gentle, almost affectionate towards US espionage networks and organisations like the CIA and National Security Agency. His protagonist, Cayce Pollard (who is allergic to brand names and logos), is the daughter of a former spy and the plot is helped, rather than hindered, by illegal net surveillance.

Maybe it's part of his pragmatic take on things, where his characters have to just deal with what is. His futures tend to be, if not outright dystopian, then bleak places in which faceless corporations and manipulative media organisations rule. His characters inhabit sprawling, melting-pot cities. Street culture is where it's happening; his protagonists always street-smart and slightly shopworn.

He rejects the term "dystopian", however. "I see the present as being vaguely dystopian and vaguely utopian and the future as being much like that but with the volume turned up. I think utopia and dystopia are historical concepts at this point, but we just haven't realised it. Somewhere, we crossed the line, and now we're in this disoriented point of dystopia and utopia. But there are aspects of 20th century life that are phenomenal, and we just take it for granted."

He mentions air travel, which features large in Pattern Recognition. There, he offers a poetic description of jet lag, voiced by Cayce after a flight to London: "Her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage."

He says: "The travelling and sense of cities are probably both directly the result of my having grown up in a tiny village in West Virginia at a time when a place like that was seriously time lagged. The 1960s there were like the 1940s."

His father died when he was six, and he has written that he only began to come into his own, and emerge from his collection of sci-fi books on their plywood shelves, when he was sent to boarding school.

A further jolt came when his mother died while he was a teenager. Out of such shocks are writers born, he says.

He is a writer of shocks, of devastating events that shift histories. His last novel centred on a character that can read history's "nodal points", moments of striking change. September 11th was such a point, he says, and, therefore, had to go into Pattern Recognition.

"Every instinct I have in those directions responded to it as if it was a breakshot in a game of pool. There were balls that had been sitting in that triangle as long as I've been alive. Everything moved, and then stopped again in new positions. I don't know where the game is going. In a way, it put the lie to my nodal points theory in earlier books because the present nodal points were unknown. They were behind a screen and could only be seen after. I was buying into the death of history. But that's not the case anymore. We're now doing history, big time."

September 11th also changed the way science fiction writers must write. "Something's very different. Something's changed. I was saying to a friend who writes science fiction recently, 'That high-pitched tinkling you hear coming from the library at night is the sound of futures obsoleting'."

He left the US to avoid the Vietnam draft, and has lived in Vancouver ever since. He rather likes the cultural displacement.

"I don't understand what it would be like to be fully of one culture or another. The interesting people end up between the various bits and become omnicultural."

He's about ready to start thinking of his next novel - but in order to do so, he says he'll have to give up his weblog (or 'blog'), a highly popular website diary of sorts in which he's written almost daily since January.

"I do know from doing it that it's not something I can do when I'm actually working. Somehow the ecology of writing novels wouldn't be able to exist if I'm in daily contact. If I expose things that interest or obsess me as I go along, there'd be no need to write the book. The sinews of narrative would never grow."

That will disappoint many fans but he is fiercely protective of his privacy - the public weblog from the reclusive writer came as a surprise to many. Once he finishes the final, British leg of his book tour, the weblog will be wound up, he says - and, tethered soul in tow, he'll return to Vancouver to dream for us the next instalment of our hypercool future.

© The Irish Times

Postscript, 28/4/03: I'm glad to note that has my story up now on Gibson's decision to end his blog. Also, a Canadian reader sent me a great link to some 1967 CBC footage of a 19 year old draft dodger named... William Gibson, talking about free love and LSD. You can find both links here.