“The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.”
Thus begins “Neuromancer,” one of the most influential works of science fiction ever written. William Gibson’s vision of a dystopic future, where corporations have become the new governments and freelance hackers jack into the net with immersive computer systems, set the tone for the cyberpunk movement. Unfortunately, we still don’t have our “deck” to jack into the net, we’re still using the same (if highly upgraded) flat displays, keyboards and mice that we did in the ’80s.
What we do have are the negative aspects of the novel. For a while, it looked like cyberwarfare was going to be mostly theoretical, and that the largest threats to network security were going to come from individual black-hat hackers. But then groups such as the Russian mafia got into the game, and then nation-states started using cyberwarfare as a tool of sabotage and espionage, and now corporations are resorting to reprisal attacks against entities that attack them. The net is now an active war zone, where hardware comes pre-installed with spook-authored malware designed to destroy centrifuges.
The other half of the Gibson dystopia, the rise of corporations as pseudo-governments, has occurred as well. SOPA, ACTA, PIPA, DMCA, and friends are all legislation directly authored or highly influenced by powerful industry lobbies, with the goal of making governments the enforcement arms of businesses. The FBI spends significant amounts of its time enforcing copyright and trademark violations. The recent Supreme Court ruling, that corporations are people too, could have come right out of the pages of “Neuromancer.”
The fact that the technological future of “Neuromancer” has failed to come to pass speaks to the evolutionary nature of computer innovation. A direct brain interface is probably still decades (if not generations) away. But the fact that the societal and political future forecast in “Neuromancer” struck so close to home is a sad commentary on human nature. If you assume the worst, you stand a good chance of being right.
What’s most interesting is that he totally blew the call on where the battle-lines would be drawn. In Gibson’s universe, corporations are fighting each other for trade secrets, with highly skilled software assassins dancing elegant battles against elaborately constructed firewalls. In the real world, the defenders are hopelessly outgunned, fighting a battle standing on fragile software platforms while illiterate script-kiddies fire off salvo after salvo of brute-force attack. And rather than priceless technology blueprints, the booty that companies are trying to protect is the mundane: credit card numbers, music and movies.
Also, in “Neuromancer,” the battle is largely invisible, with the average person on the street unaware of the carnage occurring electronically around them. By contrast, the general public is painfully aware of how vulnerable modern computer systems are to abuse, and pretty much anyone who uses the net regularly can tell you about DMCA takedowns and the perils of SOPA. In short, Gibson may have been right about the net becoming an online warzone, but he failed badly to identify the what and why of the war.
The real question is, where does our version of dystopic web-life go from here? There appear to be two diverging paths, neither one very palatable. At one extreme, groups such as Anonymous can make the web so unsafe to use that no one dares to use it for anything. On the other, governments and corporations make it safe for themselves, at the cost of our personal liberties and privacies. Or, we could continue to muddle along somewhere in the middle, which may be the best outcome we can hope for.