Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Tuned to a dead channel

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
—William Gibson, Neuromancer

Why the cyberpunk future isn't.

Cyberpunk suffers from the peak-and-trough effect. I.e.: technological change tends to come in punctuated waves.

SF writers see the next wave coming, though they almost never get the particulars right. The future eventually catches up with their predictions: Jules Verne’s submarines, the “atomics” of the 1930s, etc. When the future gets too close or actually arrives, the SF predictions seem lame or boring. I.e.: Lester Del Ray’s Nerves postulating a nuclear meltdown seems pedestrian compared to the actual Chernobyl.

The current incarnation of the internet is babyshit. The future hasn’t caught up with cyberpunk yet; we’re still in the trough. Unfortunately, our current wave of tech is particularly good when it comes to simulations. I.e.: Hollywood (and TV commercials) are insanely great at simulating the future before it happened. So, in the 1990s, people got hit with the images of Johnny Mnemonic and Ghost in the Shell — not to mention a slew of schlock cyberpunk knockoffs (like William Shattner’s godawful, ghost-written Tek War series) where, as Bruce Sterling likes to say, rip-off artists filed off the serial numbers. And let’s not forget that series of gee-whiz AT&T commercials promising “You will” to everything from VR glasses to self-driving cars. It all seemed very convincing — to the point it seemed like a cliché.

To the point cyberpunk became a fashion statement and folks forgot this shit hadn’t actually mainstreamed yet. Cyberpunk became a style before it became a reality; then the style got old. Which, coincidentally, is right around the time the tech bubble burst and George W. Bush built a bridge back to the 19th century.

That being said, the next wave is coming. As folks have pointed out, avatar-based games like World of Warcraft, though resembling ren fairs, aren’t that far from Neal Stephenson’s predictions in Snowcrash. The internet, as somebody else said, is where we go to work. The military, as we speak, is researching strength enhancing exoskeletons. Medical researchers are opening all those man-machine doors man wasn’t meant to open, mostly in the name of rehabilitating the paralyzed and the brain-damaged.

Faster, stronger, better.
More human than human.
You will.

It’ll happen.

About the only cyberpunk prediction that hasn’t happened and probably won’t is William Gibson’s original vision of cyberspace. Which, if you think about it, was a graphic user interface creating a contextual/consensual space around given proprietary sites. I.e.: if Gibson’s prediction had come true, YouTube would be a giant TV set with a location in a seemingly physical landscape. Google would be a multi-tentacled cyber octopus ripping data left right and center out of other entities. Gibson’s cyberspace was literally a media — a space between the other spaces — a consensual, hallucinatory landscape which physicalizes abstractions into concrete representations to allow users to interact with them. The implication: the internet was a place, you could move around in it and see what was going on. Jesuschrist, those Russian spammers are hacking email sites — you’d see an army of steel rats coming down the Cartesian grid, a giant steel cat chasing them.

Instead, what They’ve given us is a black corridor. We go from here to there with no context, no space in between. Each web site is its own pocket universe with links to other sites. But there is nothing representing the web itself. Or the relationships between what’s going on in the web.

You can’t see what’s going on.

If I wanted to be a Pynchonian paranoid, I might speculate that Neuromancer tipped Them off and They made sure it didn’t happen. The Web encourages certain kinds of crime, discourages others. The House wins. The House always wins.

Be seeing you.

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