William Gibson and the Future of the Future

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Michael O'Shea

Compared to the AI entities and digitally-enhanced hackers of his debut novel, Neuromancer, William Gibson's current cast of characters is remarkably dialed-down. But their quest is the same—to gain an edge by identifying critical, emerging patterns of data among the noise. In his new novel, Zero History, global marketing genius Hubertus Bigend and his team find themselves in less virtual though equally dangerous realms of military contracting and fashion, chasing the holy grail of post-modern marketing—the secret brand.

Like Bigend, Gibson's ability to discern codes among the background noise of our culture has made him a larger-than-life figure in both science fiction and information technology. Gibson talked with The Atlantic from his home in Vancouver about why, since coining the term cyberspace, he's become interested in the comparatively low-tech pursuit of marketing, and whether it's possible to find the cool in a post-geographic age. He also explained why he thinks we need the science fiction toolkit to handle the complexities of the present.

In your first novel, Neuromancer, you paint a very internal, hermetic vision of the future, which was at odds with the grand, "space opera" version of science fiction. That is the future we're getting, though. With the US space program being downsized and unmanned—the narratives of our future seem to be far less "out there" than they are earth-bound, and increasingly internal.

I think that our future has lost that capital F we used to spell it with. The science fiction future of my childhood has had a capital F—it was assumed to be an American Future because America was the future. The Future was assumed to be inherently heroic, and a lot of other things, as well. When I wrote Neuromancer, I had a list in my head of all the things the future was assumed to be which it would not be in the book I was about to write. In a sense I intended Neuromancer, among other things, to be a critique of all the aspects of science fiction that no longer satisfied me.

As I was writing it, when I really got to a fork in the path—should I do this or do that?—my guide was to just do the opposite to what I assumed traditional science fiction would do. I stuck with that, thereafter, and eventually brought it back to the present. I think I'm actually still doing the same thing.

How do you think younger people today think about the future? Do they think about the future at all? Is there a disappointment among those who once thought in a big way about the future?

I'm not going all Sex Pistols, shouting No Future!—I'm suggesting that we're becoming more like Europeans, who have always retrofitted their ruins, who've always known that everyone lives in someone else's future and someone else's past. It's the American aspect of futurism that, as I understand it, was for a very long time to assume that there was more space over the next rise where you could go and build an entirely new future. That was America's experience as a growing country. If things didn't work out, you moved West. There was a seemingly infinite amount of unsettled land that we had. People supposedly moved West out of their inevitable discontent with how things were going where they happened to be living.

Whether or not that was historically true I don't know, but we carried that idea into our vision of the future, and it acquired its capital F around the beginning of the 20th century and held onto it until maybe sometime in the '70s. It was still very capital F in the '60s. At some point the blush went off it a bit, and we've been entertaining a different sort of future since then.

Zero History revolves around post-modern fashion marketing. People now seem more invested in technology than clothing styles, however. Is technology in a sense replacing fashion?

For me fashion is like Oscar Wilde's dictum, that "Fashion is something so ugly that we're compelled to change it every six months." I've never been very interested in that kind fashion. I'm interested in how people all over the world array themselves and go forth in the morning to do whatever they have to do to make a living. The kinds of codes of information inevitably involved in that—what passes for fashion—is, for me, more anthropological.

I agree with you in the sense that the old, annoying, Oscar-Wildeian sense of fashion has been to a large degree overtaken by technology. That's not to say that technology isn't to a very large degree about fashion and marketing—it obviously is. But I don't think there's any wearable designer product in the world that could get the sort of overnight-standing-in-lines-a-mile-long consumer turnout that you could get for a new iPhone, say. That's an intense response. Prada is not likely to get that kind of line.

But certainly, we live in an age when people are as invested in appearance as I've ever seen them to be. People still have to cover themselves in something when they get up in the morning, and there's still competing with one another with clothing, and making declarations of self with clothing, and disguising themselves with that which they aren't—with clothing. It's just a fantastically basic thing that we do. I think that it's always a bit dangerous to write about codes of apparel and the sociology of dress—there's something about our culture that demands that we think of it as inherently lightweight. I was a bit concerned about that but I thought ah, you know, I can afford to be seen to have gone a bit lightweight here, particularly if I don't think I'm going lightweight with it.

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Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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