William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer predicted how technology would shape our future. Some of Gibson's ideas such as the web and cyberspace have become reality, but others were just wide of the mark. As the novel celebrates its silver anniversary this year, we look at just what it got right and what went wrong.
But Gibson took the web much further. By introducing the concept of cyberspace, he made the web a habitable place, with all the world's data stores represented as visual, even palpable, structures arranged in an endless matrix.
Gibson's cyberspace also turned computing into an experience that involved all of the senses. Instead of interacting with the network visually by using a computer monitor, Gibson's characters 'jack in' and navigate an enveloping 3D world.
Each user is 'connected' to the computer via a system of electrodes and neural interfaces emerging from a laptop-type thing called a 'deck'. Once hooked up and inside cyberspace, the user can experience intense beauty, such as the sight of the huge, shining cities of data that Gibson describes.
Here's how Gibson describes it in the early pages of Neuromancer:"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding".
On the other hand, if something goes wrong, as during Case's risky hacks of corporate databases, the user can feel actual pain and even die (or 'flatline', to use Gibson's term).
Think that idea of 'jacking in' is far-fetched? Check out this ScienceDaily news account from way back on March 14, 2002: "Researchers at Brown University have used a tiny array of electrodes to record, interpret, and reconstruct the brain activity that controls hand movement - and they have demonstrated that thoughts alone can move a cursor across a computer screen to hit a target."
The virtual worlds that we have today are a long way from the "consensual hallucination" of cyberspace as imagined by Gibson. But we can see some very promising beginnings.
Linden Lab's Second Life captures many people's imagination because it adds the next layer of experience to the internet. Second Life builds a visual, aural, participatory world on top of - and as an expression of - the dead network of computers that forms the web.
Of course, Second Life involves no direct hookup to the user's frontal lobes, as Gibson's cyberspace does. And Second Life differs in another key way. It seeks to replicate the real world that we're already familiar with.
Though still in rudimentary form, Second Life seems to strive toward the model put forth in The Matrix, in which the virtual world is an exact, full-sensory 'simulation' of what its inhabitants know (or remember) as real life. Gibson's cyberspace similarly engages all of your senses, but it is nothing like the real world and doesn't purport to be.
But whereas in The Matrix technology functions primarily as a means of control, in Neuromancer its role is more complicated. At times technology is benevolent, and at other times it's malevolent. Many of the inhabitants of Neuromancer's near-future world see technology as a liberating force, a way to escape from the ravages of pollution, disease, and war.
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