William Gibson got some of it right

"Neuromancer's" technology still isn't here, but the dystopia is.

“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.

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  • Michael

    The option where hacker groups proliferate in the net seems much more fun. Hey, I’d still use it, and maybe even revel in it. It’s like a cyberpunk’s dream come true, right? ;)

  • malcolm

    considering he wrote it on a typewriter and had never used a computer when he did it, you might want to cut him a bit of slack… he never made himself out to be be either a technology expert or a futurist. people remade him into that later, after they recognized things in his stories that might be true.

    we should not be disappointed when his characters run around the corner to find a pay phone, missing entirely the imminent but still under the radar wireless boom that was to come. we should instead use that moment of ‘seriously?’ to contemplate how blind we all were to that future in that moment and reflect on just how much has changed since…

    which implies that the choice you pose above is far from the mark and the future, from the vantage point of now, is lying under the surface, and completely different, from everything you think you know…

  • This was a fun read.

    Note: Citizen’s United (2010) did not determine that “corporations were people too”. You might be thinking of Dartmouth v Woolard (1819) if not the 14th amendment.

  • good read. great reminder. actually laughed out loud at your well posited ‘perils of SOPA’.

    payphones still rake in huge cake and there’s still one right around the corner somewhere – maybe in case your battery dies and you actually still need something that dials numbers.

    it would be cooler if you could send paytexts about the carnage to those average people.


  • Dave

    Science Fiction that isn’t dystopian seems naive to your average, jaded 21st Century planet-dweller.

    But we might suppose that such dystopian visions begin percolating up from the collective unconsciousness as precursor waves urging mass migration to new ecological niches.

  • george

    Remember Gibson was writing fiction based on his own times, 1970s-80s. Relative decline of US, rise of japan, new technologies hitting mainstream markets, hints of a world wide web, movements deconstructionalism and post modernism. I could drone on ;o)

    He was also re-writing neo-noir techno thrillers, spy vs spy in the shadows etc… He cherry picked some of the tropes that fit what he was trying to write so of course he was going to “miss badly” in his prediticions as most writers do because predicting the future was not their goal.

    No one predicted how open (relative to mainframes of the past) and democratizing computer systems would be (twitter and other social media, camera phones). Everyone was betting on an Orwellian hell which may still come about but not in the way we might expect.

    I cannot expect William Gibson to predict the future, though I can expect great stories from him.

    • “Remember Gibson was writing fiction based on his own times, 1970s-80s.”

      I saw an interview where he said most kids would identify more with a can of Coke than they would identify as American.

  • Guest

    Great post, James. Thank you for sharing.

  • Pavel

    Yes, very good post, James!

  • Bob

    Why does everyone describe “Neuromancer” as a “dystopia”. Discuss.

  • I think you’ve over simplified the battle-lines argument. I mean, ask companies like RSA (hackers stole information leading to the complete failure of the SecurID authentication system which was used against gov’t and military vendors) and Google (who was hacked by the Chinese gov’t) what scares them the most: script kiddies or highly skilled adversaries who are penetrating their networks.

    Right now you mostly see mundane things like credit cards being stolen because there is a huge market for that kind of thing so they’re very liquid and in general they are poorly guarded. Trade secrets are less liquid on the black market and tend to be better guarded, but far more valuable to the right company/gov’t.