Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Maybe the web is a consensual hallucination.

I recently finished rereading the Sprawl series by William Gibson (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive). It is the series that is credited with single handedly creating the cyberpunk genre in science fiction. I enjoyed them as much this time as the first time. Reading these makes me nostalgic for an internet and future that never was. As prescient as William Gibson was, writing about the future is a risky thing.

In spite of how good these books are I want to use them to point out some things predicted in the novels that didn't or haven't happened yet. Gibson describes, and perhaps defines the term, cyberspace, but it is not the cyberspace that we have now. His is described as a consensual hallucination that all of humanity shares. The key feature being that data and files are all represented as three-dimensional structures in what we would now call virtual reality. The current day truth is both more mundane and more exciting. A lot of the web is just hyperlinked text, lots of it. In recent years we have added all of the pictures, sound files and digital video, but we certainly aren't all flying through it in 3-d.

Hacking computer systems like the cowboys in Gibson's novels sounds almost fun although extremely dangerous. Hacking in our real world sounds boring to me. I would guess that hackers sit at their desks waiting for the cracking programs they downloaded to do their stuff on the sites they are attacking or waiting for the worms they've written to e-mail back the passwords of the computers they infected. No VR goggles and waving hands in the air to get through security ice to grab files.

I also noted almost subliminally that every character in the novels that wants to get into cyberspace needs to jack in with an actual wire plugged into something, no wi-fi and no prediction of it here. This is similar to every old science fiction movie looking a little strange because nobody has a cell phone, when today everyone has one and uses it all the time.

One feature of his novels is that there was a World War III with the US against the Soviet Union, how quaint. I think the unexpected fall of the Soviet Union has obsoleted more science fiction of the twentieth century than any other event. My favorite obsolete novel is Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy. List your favorite novel obsoleted by the fall of the Soviet Union in the comments if you have one.

In one of the novels there is the attempted extraction of a top researcher from one zaibatsu, or mega-corporation, to another. In Gibson's future the corporations take care of their top people and their families to the extent that they build whole towns and arcologies for them. I guess I am not a top researcher because no one is treating me that way. And one glance at companies like Enron, United Airlines, and GM will show you that cradle to grave employment (or a pension, or the continued existence of your company) is now the exception rather than the norm in the corporate world today. I guess I am glad that this last prediction hasn't come true. Gibson's distopia sounds very claustrophobic.

By the way, the Japanese and Asian financial crisis of recent years took the wind out of the sails of everyone that assumed that zaibatsus would take over the world and obsoleted another whole section of the science fiction library.

The Sprawl series by Gibson are great books, both for the groundbreaking ideas in them as for the comparison to present times.


jipzeecab said...

I haven't read any Gibson but I am under the impression from recent technological predictions that the cyber world you describe in paragraph 2 will partially be available to us within 25 years..not as a consensual hallucination but breakthroughs where the 3D visualization becomes available and the ability of ones mind to "think its own imput to ones own cyber portal"is practical.
Supposedly the threshhold for this only requires processers about 60 times faster than currently widely in use. I'll believe it if I live to see it..
As far as the obsolescence of sci-fi novels is concerned I can't put my finger on any particular one except to say that computerwise I don't believe that any Sci-fi writer prior to the TV series Star Trek the Next Generation predicted a cyber world as technologically advanced as we have achieved in reality in the last five years (excluding "Bones" healing someone with his medical phaser in the original Star Trek).

whirdly said...

Currently reading Accelerando by Charles Stross -
I think he has an accurate rendering of what we are likely to see in 25 years. Not immersion in a 3D virtual reality, but semi-transparent displays only you can see produced by special goggles. Each person has access to the same information and just views in in whatever way they prefer. Basically, your computer screen is floating in front of your eyes, fingers flying on virtual keyboards, and everyone is wireless. It seems to me that technology is closer to reaching that reality then any other.

Richard Koehler said...

jipzeecab - go read some Gibson, it's well worth it for the historical importance or how much cyberpunk science fiction has influenced modern thought and pop culture. Thanks to you and whirdly for your comments. Two whole readers of my blog, woo-hoo!