A chat with William Gibson

William Gibson in 2007. Image taken by Frédéric Poirot.

The Guardian has called William Gibson “the most important writer of the past two decades.” Gibson has penned such classics as Neuromancer, Pattern Recognition and Zero History, and is releasing his new novel The Peripheral, at the end of the month.

He has had a major influence on our culture surrounding technology. He coined the term “cyberspace,” and predicted several technologies. Count Zero and Neuromancer inspired The Matrix and several others. He has been credited with predicting the Internet and giving us terminology such as “jacking in,” “netsurfing,” “neural implants” and “the matrix.”

Neuromancer, released in 1984, is his most famous work. It depicts a world where corporations have few restrictions, and computer hackers interface with computers by plugging cables into directly into their heads. Could this be metaphorical to the way everyone stares down at their smartphones today?

“Well, we didn’t need the plugs … but I needed the plugs in 1984, in order to go there. We didn’t really need the goggles-and-gloves kind of virtual reality, to totally go there. People got complete immersive virtual experiences off flat screen video games, once the graphics software and physics engines were sufficiently evolved. I’m slightly devious as to the Oculus Rift type of virtual reality. I’m kind of devious as to whether or not that will be a big thing,” he said.

“I think I was anticipating the possibility of a heads-down generation,” Gibson said, considering the metaphor required to make the book more interesting. “If I could have somehow known what it would be, I don’t think anyone would have paid any attention to it, if I had depicted it that way. But if you describe someone jacking a plug into the back of their head, directly accessing some sort of virtual experience, it would have worked for 1984.

“If somebody had somehow known about our smartphone culture in the early ’80s, it would have been an unimaginably weird book. It wouldn’t have been possible to get it published. They all have little, cigarette pack sized radio-televisions, which they use to access this global computer system, and they walk around talking to proprietary [artificial intelligence],” he said, referring to Siri and Google voice search. “It would be interesting, but it would be a very hard sell.

“If you look at the history of imagining television, it was imagined for a long time, before it became an emergent technology. It was depicted as something other than what it eventually became. In fact, it’s taken smartphone technology and the internet to give us something that’s closer to the way people in the 1920s envisioned television: this little thing you could keep in your purse and talk to your boyfriend on. We finally got that, but by the time we got it, it wasn’t even a big deal. Once we got it, this little pocket gizmo that you can Skype on, no one jumps up and down. That’s how the real technological future arrives. But, it’s not how we culturally depict it.”

“When I was writing Neuromancer, I remember being slightly concious of that. I was doing these very jazzed up, almost pulpy depictions of imaginary technology. It was one that I thought would be coming around eventually. But when I was doing it, I thought that people wouldn’t be doing jazzy, exciting things with these technologies. They’ll be really boring things.”

Gibson is fascinated by our advanced technology being used to do very boring things. “Your grandmother will be swapping recipes with other grandmothers.” He also had some thoughts on newer technologies like Google Glass and smart watches like the Moto 360 and the Apple iWatch. These technologies are available, but haven’t caught on yet.

“I don’t think they’ve fully arrived, I think that what we’re seeing is the intermediate stages of something else. It’s coming very slow.” He says. “When I look at something like Google Glass, which I’ve only had the opportunity to try for like 15 seconds, once, I kinda put it on and got some sense of it. I can imagine that being something a lot slicker. I can also imagine it being something that would look like a regular pair of glasses. As long as other people can see that you’re walking around with a head-up display, and maybe recording them, it’s not really going to be happening. But it’s an option that you could select at the optometrist. And when it doesn’t cost much, then we’ll see what people want to do with it.

“I think the most interesting thing about emerging technology is that we don’t know what people are going to do with it, most passionately, until enough people get a hold of it. And what most people end up using it for, is not what the developers expected them to do with it.”

While Gibson hails from South Carolina in the U.S., he has been living in Vancouver since the early 1970s. Despite many of his novels taking place in the classic major cities such as London, New York and Tokyo, he seldom writes about Vancouver.

“If you can’t weld a motorcycle frame on the sidewalk without the police stopping you … it’s over,” Gibson says, referring to Berlin and other cities with vibrant subcultures.

“Vancouver is losing that really, really quickly. So is London. Manhattan already has. When a city is doing its capitalist real estate thing, it’s not off-track to be a very creative city, it’s just cooked. It’s there and it’s for sale. Young people who want to build something won’t go there in the requisite numbers. You really need to have something interesting going on. I kinda watch it … I’ve seen it happen in New York and in London, and I’m kinda watching it happen in Vancouver … and it doesn’t look really good. It doesn’t look too great for the future.”

Still, Gibson enjoys his life in Vancouver.

“I really love living here. It’s my favourite place in North America in most ways, but, like Manhattan, there is a limited amount of real estate that’s legally ‘Vancouver.’ There’s less where young people can go. When I was here in the early 70s, there was a lot of that, it was a really easy place to live. It didn’t have, to my way of thinking, a lot going on, for all of that, but it was very agreeable and it had its subcultures. I don’t know what the solution is, but I’ve sometimes imagined 1900s, one-story storefronts knocked down to build large block-long condos with very expensive, large retail spaces for rent at street level. I sometimes wonder if it we could build the same types of buildings where retail space could go but you could install something like a shipping container and pay relatively little rent for the time you’re there. Maybe that would do it.

“It would be better for the rich folks upstairs, because they’d be guaranteed their changing diet of great ethnic food and little super smart fashion startups and businesses, what we expected from the original 1900s storefront.”

On his new book:

“I think The Peripheral is a pretty feminist book, at least given that it’s written by a man, and it has a very strong, female protagonist, and a remarkably weak male one.” He laughs. “That combination isn’t that new for me. When I started trying to write science fiction in the very late ’70s, I had a list of things I wanted to try to deal with, one was that I didn’t want to write science fiction in which the future seemed to exist entirely of different versions of the United States. Another was that I didn’t want to write science fiction in which the future seemed to have somehow held on to the same inter-gender status quo.

“I try not to be a very politically didactic writers, because I don’t think I would be much of a novelist really. It wouldn’t occur to me to consciously write something to prove whatever my political position is. But there’s some natural language where that thing comes out anyway.”

He doesn’t necessarily think that technological advancement and social change goes together.

“We kinda think of technology as something you stand in line for at the Apple store,” he said, noting that a hammer is also technology. “In my work, I try to be agnostic about given new technology. I try to assume that it’s morally neutral, until somebody does something with it. It depends on what they did with it, rather than what it is. I don’t think that it’s possible for us to know where emergent technologies go until we’ve lived with it for a while.”

Tristan Johnston

Tristan Johnston is interested in language, geopolitics and getting the city to work properly.

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