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Cyberspace ’90

William Gibson

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Re-Released by The Eastern Seaboard Liberation Front (ESLF)

Copied to ASCII from: COMPUTERWORLD October 15, 199O pp. 1O7-1O8

Sci-fi writer William Gibson explores the final frontier: Information

I was born in 1948, in the late dawn of the Information Age. I knew environments in which there were no televisions. My childhood was strongly colored by rampant technological optimism and a concomitant undertone of abiding dread. The two poles of the mass imagination were a glittering futuropolis, slick as Johnson’s Wax, and the shadows of the nuclear wasteland. I was constantly told by various authorities that the atom would change everything. (Somewhat later, if less officially, I was told the same thing about LSD.)

I saw the world then—much as I see it now—as the ultimate science-fiction scenario. But the science fiction I grew up with was about technology as its makers would have had us receive it. The future would arrive on a stainless platter, probably of Scandinavian design, to be instantly and obediently taken up by Americans of my generation to be, it went without saying, applied to the purpose for which its manufacturers had intended it.

The science fiction I grew up with was seldom about garbage. Nor was it often about the messy and fascinating uses the human animal finds for the things that arrive daily from the uncounted factories of a world that sometimes fancies itself post-industrial. But the stainless platter is gone, replaced by a stream of cardboard-backed bubble-packs. There is no particular end in sight, and the street, home to the messy human animal, persists in finding its own uses for things. (We have it on reliable authority that Colombia’s cocaine barons employ expert systems to route the global flood of their product.)

My own science fiction has tended to be about garbage, the refuse of industrial society. We swim, after all (and sometimes sink) in a sea of stuff. We also swim, some of us, in largely uncharted seas of information, sustaining the very monsters of my bread and butter: the outlaw hacker and the great big corporation. When I wrote ‘Neuromancer’ in 1983, “hacker” had not yet acquired its current freight of negative value. Hackers were obsessive, superbright boffins who delighted in worming their way as far into the texture of the emerging data matrix as possible. In fact, they were sometimes the very same techie folk heroes who brainstormed the personal computer into being, and a few of them even managed to become Great (or at least Pretty) Big Corporations in the process. To hack, in the original sense, was not bad; to hack was to ‘be there.’

Be where? Cyberspace. Not the neural-jacked fantasy purveyed in those paperbacks of mine. Rather, in the altogether more crucial version of the concept as currently championed by John Perry Barlow, Mitch Kapor and the Electronic Frontier Foundation: The totality of information existing in the matrix ‘right now.’ Because cyberspace, as I've been muttering for years, is already here. Or rather, we are already there and have been for some time.

This is difficult for some of us to see, likely because we’re more used to technologies that open pre-existing territories. Cyberspace, in Barlow’s sense, is a territory ‘generated’ by technology. As such, the “territory” itself is subject to constant growth and permutation—a cybernetic Wyoming concept and silicon. Yet this territory is certainly real because we can be rousted by the Secret Service for crimes alleged to have been committed there.

The Electronic Frontier

And now, teetering on the brink of a new world order/chaos theory, apparently having arrived just in time to describe the global political situation, we are told that virtual reality technology is about to change everything. The video helmets and data gloves of virtual reality are our hot tickets for the future.

But the future has junkyards, where one day even the hottest machines must be left out in the rain to rust. All technology eventually gathers dust. What matters is territory, and in its generation of territory, the advanced technology of information is unique. The territory is there now, awaiting partition. Fascinating as the potentials of virtual reality may be, I'm more impressed by Kapor’s metaphor of the electronic frontier.

Cyberspace today seems just that, a virtual frontier sparsely inhabited by technical pioneers—loners, visionaries and even outlaws—all of whom are willing to live off the land. Both the hacker and the corporation (let us include governments and military entities) have been aware of the territory, in some sense, from the beginning—the hacker, by virtue of his being, and the coperation, by virtue of its need to define itself.

The first hackers were—in many instances and quite literally—creators of the territory they explored, and as such, they had a certain edge. But the railroad is no doubt on its way, in the form of the Great Big Corporation, and with it will come what my colleague Bruce Sterling has called the planned development of hyperreal estate. The proto-hackers of the 197Os may one day be remembered as cybernetic mountain men, the earliest settlers in a landscape long since dominated by data malls and information megamarts.

Or perhaps I'm merely being romantic; perhaps the mall, the dominant structure of our economy, is already firmly in place. In the data mall, the majority of users go about their business in the most ordinary way. Most, in fact, are as yet unaware of the mall itself and see only their own specific destinations and the functions they must perform there.

Amid these good and ordinary folk of Cyberia, however, there may sometimes be found exceptions: spies, vandals, voyeurs, terrorists, artists and combinations thereof.

But these others have one thing in common, if nothing else: They are aware that there ‘is’ a mall. (Though our data mall currently differs from the concrete and glass model in one minor but perhaps crucial specific: Scattered amid the chain stores and fast-food franchises are meeting places of an almost European intimacy, nonprofit hangouts of hair-down boho splendor. These are bulletin boards, and our “other users” are prone to spend a good bit of time there.

Myself, I'll stick with garbage because my real business has less to do with predicting technological change than making evident its excesses. I'll stick with the poetry inherent in reels of magnetic wire recordings, rusting under a sun-faded card table at a California swap meet. We may not actually recall the machines required to summon voices from these brittle yards of steel, but there’s an appealing melancholy in the fact that the vendor is unaware that these ‘are’ recordings. All those voices. Other days, other days.

And one day our floppies will lie there by the millions, warping and gathering dust, not to mention that svelte laptop you've just decided on.

But meanwhile, I'd advise those of you so inclined to definitely go West. It’s either El Dorado or a shopping mall—same as it ever was, somehow.

 
        William Gibson
        Linz, Austria/Vancouver, B.C.
        September 1990

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