PRINT December 2014

William Gibson

MC10 Biostamp, biomonitoring patch under development by Ericsson.

IF IT WEREN’T FOR WILLIAM GIBSON, we would hardly know ourselves. The science-fiction writer’s works have perpetually revealed and predicted our condition: what it is and what it will become. From Neuromancer (1984) to his new novel, The Peripheral, Gibson has extravagantly captured the way our bodies interface with screens and networks and brilliantly limned our intensifying world of posts, hacks, drugs, and leaks. Artforum editor Michelle Kuo talks to Gibson about his perspective on the year in information—a moment of vast yet little-understood shifts in perceptual and communicative experience.

MICHELLE KUO: The title of your new book, The Peripheral, refers to perimeters in urban and virtual space but also alludes to hardware peripherals—cables, flash drives, keyboards, mice, monitors, phone chargers, headphones—the frame or edge of technological devices, which are literally marginal yet completely central to computer interfaces: That’s how you get the information out or put it in. How do you envision interfaces now—how are they treated in your book, and how do you think they are changing with mobile devices and social media?

WILLIAM GIBSON: The peripherals in the book’s narrative are of the latter sort, but they are peripheral, synthetic human bodies the user operates telepresently, the body as remote-controlled drone. The particular one that the title refers to is a bespoke Hermès example, female, beautiful, and haunting, in that it was obviously constructed to exactly resemble someone, but no one knows who, as it was purchased from a dealer who acquired it in an estate sale. It’s about the presentation of self via personal media, postgeographicality, commodification, locale of personhood. . . .

Interfaces are problematic for me, because fully depicting the experience of a really novel interface is inherently distracting for the reader. For instance, in The Peripheral, I had carefully worked out what I take to be the end stage of smartphone interfaces: a surgically embedded unit that provides a user-transparent experience akin to how we might imagine mutual telepathic communication, complete with consensual group dreaming. But I quickly found that it overwhelmed the narrative and was so weird as to be completely distracting, not to mention confusing. So, as much as I’d wanted to present my twenty-second-century characters as using that interface, I had to gear back and equip them with a more primitive version. And even that will initially disorient readers who aren’t much at ease with technological science fiction.

I find it interesting to try to envision a writer of the 1960s who managed to perfectly envision our smartphone culture in every detail. Would she have been able to tell her story without constantly annoying the reader with the intrusion of calls, e-mail, various notifications, videos?

MK: Your main characters are seen as quintessential loners—addicts, drifters—but at the same time your magnificent coinage of cyberspace seems to have predicted the social network, the massive shift in communication and connectivity of our time.

WG: I don’t think the cyberspace of my first three novels is very predictive of social media at all. By the time I wrote Virtual Light [1993] and its two sequels, social media were an emergent technology. Virtual Light actually anticipated celebrity on the surreal order of the Kardashians, extrapolating from Cops, the first reality TV that I was aware of. I’m prouder of that than of the whole cyberspace thing, really.

The most obvious difference in how we communicate now is the frequency with which we do it. Its constancy, rather. I wonder how the relatively high level of solitude of characters in novels written before 1990 will strike future readers. When those characters are alone, they are utterly out of touch with everyone.

MK: What do you think has changed about the way we produce and disseminate information, particularly as seen in the response to events like Ferguson, in which many relied on Twitter reports and Instagram posts and aggregators (rather than traditional news outlets) to let them know what was happening and even use those platforms to actively respond or participate in protests?

WG: We’ve lost the hierarchy of “official” news. We’ve lost the editor. But while we may justifiably have suspected the editor of unreliable narration, we’ve gained a great deal of random noise. So we begin to know to wait, before retweeting, for confirmation from something akin to the old hierarch.

MK: How do you see language changing within new networks of communication?

WG: I’m fascinated watching the birth of new idioms on social media. There’s a certain edge of social literacy that requires the very latest in idiomatic fluency. This has always been the case, I imagine, but now we’ve automated the process, gotten it up to almost neurological speeds.

MK: Your description and prediction of the aesthetics—both the primitiveness and the hyperrealism—of video gaming and other immersive experiences stand as one of the most trenchant observations of the past several decades. What kinds of emergent aesthetics do you see in digital culture?

WG: I don’t look for “emergent” aesthetics so much as currently novel aesthetics that may prove to have legs. Not all of the latter will become the former, and I’m just as happy, if not happier, to present the latter as though they will become the former. I’m not afraid of “getting the future wrong,” as I almost invariably will. I’m actually intent on exploring our very mysterious and unknown present moment.

MK: In Pattern Recognition [2003], you described legions of Internet obsessives congregating in a Web forum to pick apart “the footage”—an image that remains eerily familiar. In fact, since the book was published, those kinds of anonymous online communities have, of course, gone mainstream, shaping news coverage and impacting global discussions in unprecedented ways.

But the more information we are able to obtain—from GPS, surveillance, opt-in social media, data mining—the more astonishing holes there are as well: The disappearance of flight MH370 last March was one of the strangest and most terrifying lapses in information gathering in recent memory. On the other hand, the violent destruction of flight MH17 in the Ukraine was marked by unprecedented accuracy of and access to information, leading almost immediately to the location of the plane.

WG: MH370 seemed to me to underline the extent to which geography still dominates. We are not yet the postgeographic entities we can so readily feel ourselves to be, and the reality of that is singularly horrifying. That the ocean is so vast, so deep, seems a violation, and yet, we are reminded, it is.

Access to knowledge increases exponentially; access to understanding, apparently, not so much.

MK: You’ve spoken of needing to have a “yardstick of contemporary weirdness” in order to be able to write—how do you take that measure?

WG: It’s intuitive for me, but somehow essential. When I encounter something bizarre that I nonetheless recognize as being utterly of the moment, it becomes part of my current metric.

MK: In Pattern Recognition and other texts, you’ve posed realms of dissent or counterculture in the “postgeographic” world of the Internet. Do you think that new media have stifled, made obsolete, or, on the contrary, given rise to new forms of critique? What do you think is the relationship between your own work and critique?

WG: The modes of dissent and counterculture I pay most attention to are probably of less interest to those who approach critique as a formal methodology. I’m more interested, for instance, in concepts that might be conveyed without recourse to much in the way of formal terminology.

MK: You’ve eloquently compared your work to a Cornell box, and indeed it is a kind of incredible articulation of detritus. In many ways, the Internet is the biggest archive of them all. How has it changed memory, history, and their material and immaterial artifacts?

WG: Profoundly, I’m sure, but so broadly as to defy categorization. I’d note the way in which certain kinds of deeply esoteric knowledge about specific classes of artifacts may now be acquired more easily and thoroughly via the Internet than ever before, by any previous means.

I think the big shift has been from regarding the Internet as a space apart, somewhere else, to one of regarding the Internet as the world.

MK: Your incredibly prescient notion of hacking—and the viral, after Burroughs—has become, perhaps, a dominant model of activity today: one of the the only ways in which individuals might change, resist, or even augment the technologies of surveillance and organization used most broadly by banks and states. Do you think the massive information leaks (whether Snowden’s revelations or hackers obtaining millions of users’ bank information) in the recent past have actually altered the course of information control? Or are such leaks simply absorbed back into the system?

WG: There are more secrets than ever before, but they seem, individually, exponentially harder to keep. I couldn’t imagine what Snowden revealed not having happened. Why wouldn’t the NSA have done exactly that, exactly when they did? Yet why would they not have imagined that there would invariably be a Snowden to reveal it? Both are equally inevitable.

MK: Is the world moving faster or slower? Is either acceleration or stagnation an apt characterization of current conditions?

WG: I can feel either in the course of a given day. Though a sense of stagnation can often seem something of a luxury now, so perhaps I’d opt for acceleration!

MK: Some have even revived a model of “accelerationism” as an active form of overturning financial, technological, and governmental structures—pushing existing technologies or consumption to their limit rather than simply opposing them—a strategy that seems both foretold and perhaps dismissed in your works.

WG: Revolutionaries do seem to imagine end points, forms of agreeable stasis, though often unconsciously, but I’m inclined to think reality simply doesn’t work that way.

MK: Drones, avatars—The Peripheral explores a future that seems to inhabit only these kinds of posthuman modes of experience, paralleling the apparently inevitable incursion of technology into every aspect of daily life in the present. Can we only submit, or at best interrupt or repurpose that merger?

WG: I don’t really have anything very prescriptive for that, though I think we’re all at ever-increasing risk of inhabiting our own seamless consensus bubbles. I recommend the ongoing attempt to communicate meaningfully with those we disagree with, however ideologically or fundamentally. Or, failing that, use the Internet to eavesdrop on them. Take time, periodically, to try to doubt whatever you most centrally seem to believe. Be an anthropologist of the self.