Neuromancer's Predictions, 21 Years Later

by Ted Wallingford

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If you’re a geek who graduated high school before about 1994, then you’re probably familiar with the very first mainstream sci-fi novel about the future of the Internet. The novel, Neuromancer, is William Gibson’s culty book about hacking against a machine-encrusted world of binary social injustice. In this best-selling 1984 book, the main character, Case, uses the international computer matrix (a concept that resembles and somewhat predates today’s Internet) to fight through a campy conspiracy plot while having a soulless affair with a bionic woman (she has mirrored, electronic eyes). Molly, an easy, streetwise operative, wants to take down an artificially intelligent being that is making trouble for her employer, and Case is the guy for the job.

The book is not an easy read; the narrative is stumpy and Hemmingway-ish. It’s not even a particularly original plotline, though its plot devices and setting are ingenious, if even prophetic. Many of the book’s technological predictions have either been fully or partially realized today. Indeed, Gibson probably did as much for the nascent cultural impact of the Internet as DARPA and the Free Software Foundation combined. In Neuromancer, Gibson invented the word Cyberspace and envisioned a globally-accessible network called PAX, equal in many respects to the World Wide Web. While some may suggest that the book’s ideas are dated, I think that the book’s prophecies are closer and closer to reality as the years go by.

In Neuromancer, the global computer matrix, i.e. the Internet, isn’t just a network that computers connect to, like our real-world Internet. Instead, Gibson’s matrix is a bio-interfaced network that humans can literally plug their brains into using electrodes and neural interfaces called “decks”. When they “jack in”, their minds enter a realm named after a word we now take for granted, Cyberspace. Gibson describes Cyberspace as the “consensual hallucination” of the global computer matrix. Beyond site and sound, this experience isn’t really a hallucination at all--it’s the user interface that allows the characters to navigate the novels’s techno-mental equivalent of the Web.

So, hacking is a bit different to a fictional Cyberspace cowboy than it is to a real-world hacker today. Instead of a keyboard to type in C programs that exploit security holes, a Cyberspace cowboy cybernetically applies his own brain power to duel it out with artificial intelligences and other software which’ve been charged with defending key systems online. And unlike real-life hacking, where you might get thrown in jail for attacking a system, Neuromancer’s Cyberspace adversaries can overwhelm your brain with information attacks--vollies of data that can render you brain-damaged or even kill you if you don’t escape the neural battle soon enough.

Something I once found intriguing about Neuromancer was Gibson’s depiction of life inside the computer matrix. In some ways, his descriptions bear a similarity to other works of fiction that have visualized the electronic realm of the purely logical. On one hand, Neuromancer paints a picture of Cyberspace that reminds us of the film Tron, where video game warriors fight on endless plains of neon-colored graph paper or in rooms that have glowing, disco-like walls and floors. Gibson’s matrix has features that look like endless translucent chessboards or glowing, spiral constellations. I can’t help but think of these very simple spatial concepts in the primitive terms of Tron. (This isn’t an endorsement of Tron, but it could easily be a knock on Neuromancer. Perhaps the book is just dating itself.)

But since the book’s heyday, I’ve wondered why Gibson used an abstract visualization instead of using an experience readers could immediately identify with--like a world that resembles our own? This is what was done in the film The Matrix, where the global computer network’s consensual user interface is an experience that is a mirror of the human condition. That is, when users are “jacked in”, they see a world just like the one they see when they are off line. The software agents they encounter inside the network look like people--men in black suits, women in red dresses, etc. So, Gibson’s early portrayals of a meta-neural global network are primitive, a la Tron, while the Matrix portrays the global network as appearing just like its users physical reality. One could guess that Gibson couldn’t have envisioned a Cyberspace world any less abstract than the one depicted in Tron, a film that hit theaters while he was writing Neuromancer.

Yet today’s microcomputers are capable of depicting, if only on screen, elaborate, realtime graphical environments. Since the birth of Cyberspace in the early eighties, graphics ware has grown to create immersive, life-like 3D environments. Skeptics of the realism of today’s graphics systems need only turn off the lights and play the first level or two of Doom 3 to be convinced. This grotesque, horror-filled game is proof of the immersive, emotionally deep nature of today’s video games. Perhaps that’s why Doom 3 has been hailed as the scariest game of all time. Now, to apply Neuromancer’s fictitious human interface technology: the “consensual hallucination”. Imagine that the creepy sounds, dark 3d enclaves, and physical trauma of combat with Doom’s horrific, gut-sucking demons was transmitted directly into the player’s nervous system using electrodes rather than using a color monitor and speakers. The experience would be not just immersive, but downright terrifying.

This is how I envision the agents of Cyberspace when I expand on Gibson’s metaphors. They aren’t hovering yellow globes surrounded by rings of glowing ice, floating in an endless sea of neon constellations and transparent checkerboards. Hell, that sounds like a description of the Strip in Las Vegas. No, in my Cyberspace, the defenders of high-value systems are like the monsters of Doom 3--marauding demons that you do not want to mess with. These guys can rip you limb from limb, just like they do in the video game, but Gibson’s idea of a neurological interface means that monstrous anti-intruders can actually kill you, the hacker. This is far and away scarier than just watching your character’s health-o-meter dribble down to zero. Take enough damage, and you enter a state Gibson calls “flatline”--that’s when the system you’re doing battle with defeats you. In laymen's terms, death. Could hacking enemy systems ever be so deeply--so biologically--risky?

Enough of Gibson’s ideas have come to fruition to tempt the imagination. In Neuromancer, Gibson used prosthetics and medical sci-fi to promote the idea of natural, organic and manufactured cybertnetic body parts playing almost equal roles in the human condition. He also used the concept of servitude to the electronic lifestyle prominently. Today, electronic dependency is the norm. Just think about how much you surf the web, how many people you know who’ve had pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, laser vision correction, or intra-ocular lenses, and how much time you’ve spent synchronizing your Palm or reloading your corrupted hard drives over the years--do you ever feel like a slave to all your gadgets? It’s ironic that Neuromancer, written exclusively on a typewriter in the early eighties, used all of these paradigms, not merely as flashy sci-fi predictions, but as essential plot devices.

In another twenty years, more of the book’s ideas could come to light. Is it really a stretch to think you could control a Cyberspace alter-ego with your mind, when you can already control applications using natural motions? I recently read an article on Better Humans (see the blog link) about a technique that allowed human participants to draw on-screen graphics using thoughts and thoughts alone as their mechanism for manipulating a cursor. This could be the seed of the nervous system interface Gibson envisioned: a device which allows humans to interact with virtual electronic worlds using only their brains. Chuck the LCD display, keyboard and mouse, baby--we’re going neural.

In Part 2 of this blog, I’ll ramble about how advances in social networking and visualization could create the ultimate playground for industrial espianoge--a la Neuromancer. Give me a few weeks to write it up.

Do you think Neuromancer has dated itself?


2005-03-22 20:35:10
although William Gibson isn't actually the first "cyberpunk" writer published, he is the best known.

I have thought for many years how strange it is that scifi is followed by reality. Witness Jules Verne and 20,000 Leagues, followed 50 years later by a functional submarine with similar capabilities. The gap between imagination, writing, publication and finally easy access to such discoveries is growing shorter and shorter, too.

Did you happen to notice the mention of "foam beds" in Gibson's novels? Tempurpedic by another name sleeps just as sweet.
2005-03-23 01:17:46
The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel
The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel

Europeans read sky as SKY TV.

2005-03-23 08:52:04
Thanks for reminding me about this...
I read Neuromancer in high school and loved it. The prose wasn't great, but I was sucked in by the style. Then I read every cyberpunk book that I could get my hands on followed by every real-world hacker-ish book (Cuckoo's Egg, The Hacker Crackdown).

Some of my favorites include :

Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson - I like his envisioning of the Network better and the concept of neurolinguistic hacking is pretty nifty.

Shockwave Rider by John Brunner - predates most cyberpunk in many ways. Very cool concepts. Definitely worth the read.

The Long Run by Daniel Keys Moran - the first in a series that will probably never be finished because the author keeps getting dumped by publishers (Oreilly should pick him up). These books are amazing (though the Dancer book left a little to be desired). Throw time-travel and alternate realities with cloned mutants into the mix of cyberpunk and you get some fun stuff. This is the second, I think, in the series... after Emerald Eyes. I read it first and then backtracked... everyone that I have given it too, agreed that this was the order in which to read it (Emerald Eyes is then sort of a flashback). Very good stuff.

2005-03-29 01:36:50
For me, one of the important themes in Neuromancer is that of disorientation, the dislocation of individuals from each other and from themselves, to such an extent that they no longer know with any certainty who or where they are in time or space.

As our techno-dependency deepens, this concept is likely to become increasingly relevant.

2005-07-13 20:09:46
"One could guess that Gibson couldn’t have envisioned a Cyberspace world any less abstract than the one depicted in Tron..."

One could guess that, if one hadn't read the book.