Illustrations by Gareth Damian Martin
William Gibson predicted the internet. That’s how the line usually goes. The word “prophet” is often liberally assigned, and his coining of the phrase “cyberspace” is elevated to a moment of Nostradamus-like clarity, arrived at while Gibson was hunched over a typewriter in the far-off Vancouver of 1982. It’s a tempting line to repeat, to reinscribe into the history of digital culture. Those pre-networked days are now distant enough that it almost works, it almost scans as an origin myth. Over the years, through interviews, book tours and back-of-the-book blurbs, this image of Gibson, the “noir prophet,” has been inextricably woven into his work, so that reading his debut sprawl trilogy—Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)—is like bible study, the aim being to find the pieces of esoteric prose that might relate to the way we experience life today. It’s a role that Gibson has adamantly sought to evade, calling futurists “charlatans,” and choosing instead to see his role as “asking questions” rather than predicting the future. Despite this, his early work has been yoked to the advent of the internet and network societies, and, like much of the cyberpunk genre, shelved as a retro-futurist curio, a holy text of science fiction.
But if we go back to his texts with an open mind, if we read them for what they are, we find something quite different to the myth. Take his debut novel Neuromancer, the story of a burnt-out hacker who gets the chance to return to his work if he accepts a mysterious and ornately difficult job. Case, the “console cowboy” in question, is an addict, not just to the speed and amphetamines he self-medicates his two-bit life with, but the plane of cyberspace that a botched job has left him unable to access. When the book opens he is in a deep pit of withdrawal, a spiral of self-destruction caused by his inability to touch the “colorless void.” The technological heart of the story is not the idea of a world-spanning network—that is little more than a given in Gibson’s future—but the interface that grants access. This interface is a complete “human sensorium” wired directly into the user’s mind through “dermatrodes.” In Neuromancer, Case uses his “deck” not just to access cyberspace, but also to receive a direct “Simstim” feed of sensory input from another human being, an experience, that in Gibson’s world, has become the replacement for television. Gibson’s internet stand-in, “the Matrix,” is just a carrier for this signal, a universal vector along which sensory data travels. It is sensory simulation on which his future hinges.
For those who have had the chance to “jack-in” to high-grade virtual reality hardware during its developmental phase, the idea of sensory simulation might not seem like such a fictional concept. From an outside view, new VR technologies might seem like little more than screens taped to our faces, an obvious development of the cornucopia of screens already in use, but the reality is something else. Current VR is not analogous to the cinema screen or the TV set; it is a crude attempt at Gibson’s sensory simulation, his “simstim.” Headsets are designed not to simply “give” us images, but to simulate optical input. Binaural sound mixes are not there to be immersive soundscapes, but to directly take control of our hearing. The proximity of these inputs (screens and headphones) to our receivers (eyes and ears) is just a stopgap. Imagine a diagram of a human wearing a VR headset. Now imagine those inputs moving closer and closer, passing through the lines that make up the face, the skull, and eventually coming to rest on a single center, the brain. This is the progression of VR, and this is why it is something altogether different to screen-based media. The screens in your VR headset are only there until we can find something better.
My entire body in cold sweats, my hands trembling
For some people the above might be an obvious statement, for others a revelation. But what is important about understanding the distinction between these mediums, is also understanding how they affect us. Gibson’s image of Case, with his dreams that “come on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo,” his hands grasping, “trying to reach the console that wasn’t there,” might seem like an extreme reaction to the virtual worlds we know now, but in the context of sensory simulation, they become distinctly more real. As others have noted, and I have experienced firsthand, coming up out of a long session in a VR headset is something of a sensory shock. It might resemble the fatigue that follows a videogame binge, but in reality it feels closer to the feeling of waking from a dream, albeit one encased in chemical-smelling foam and matte plastic. I have undergone badly configured VR experiences that have left my entire body in cold sweats, my hands trembling and created the illusion that I was moving at speed so effectively that I had to tear the headset off my face. I don’t list these experiences as a kind of scaremongering—I underwent these experiences willingly, as part of an inadvisable process of experimentation—but as evidence of the distinct capacity of VR.
No matter how glitch-ridden and chaotic the games I have experienced on a traditional screen are, none has ever driven me to the same extremes. The only comparison I can make is with a period when, as a game tester, I was tasked with repeatedly playing through a game that supported every kind of stereoscopy known to man, from red/blue and blue/yellow anaglyphic imagery to LCD shutter systems. The result was an intense sensitivity to light and a stye in one eye. When reaching for the language to try to describe these encounters with dysfunctional sensory simulation, it can be difficult to find a vocabulary. Yet again and again I have found myself falling back on similar phrases, comparing these physiological reactions to technological stimulus as “hangovers,” “highs” and, in the most extreme cases, “bad trips.”
Back in the early 1980s, Gibson didn’t know that much about technology. His work had made him an avid student of the vocabulary of the rapidly developing personal computer revolution, but he has since admitted that he’d “never so much as touched a PC” when he wrote Neuromancer. That seminal cyberspace novel was instead written on typewriter, a fact often employed to further advocate Gibson’s identity as a mystical prophet. In reality this is a fairly benign observation—Gibson was not an early adopter, nor an advocate. He was an observer. His understanding of computers was stolen from the Bulletin Board System obsessed science fiction writers he met through his work, their conversations fascinating Gibson not because of the subject but because of the “poetry of the jargon.” Gibson was not on the frontline of those who first experienced the technology, instead he mixed with that frontline, observing them, noting their behaviour, their addictions, their obsessions. This focus on how people interface with technology, not technology itself, is part of what would come to define Gibson’s work among a coming wave of computer obsessed sci-fi writing. But that isn’t the whole story. There was another group that Gibson’s observations of would fill the pages of Neuromancer.
In the 1960s, Gibson wasn’t a writer; in fact, Gibson wasn’t much of anything. Washed up in the infamous hippie neighbourhood of Yorkville, Toronto, along with a subculture of similar, Vietnam draft-dodging Americans, he floated through the blossoming psychedelic scene on a cloud of imported weed and tabs of acid. After two weeks of homelessness, he found his feet as the manager of the city’s first head shop, Gandalf’s, which engaged in the entirely legal practice of selling drug-taking equipment without selling the drugs. Surrounded by addicts, hustlers and dealers, he built up both a vocabulary of the downtrodden and the rebellious as well as plenty of firsthand research of addiction. His experimentation with drugs was in part fuelled by an intellectual curiosity which he picked up from eager readings of the previous generation’s greatest chronicler of subculture, William S. Burroughs. It was a process of altering sensory perception in search of something, not as an end itself. Not that this was the same sharp-minded, cold-eyed observer that Gibson would become in the 80s, as evidenced by his improbable appearance in this 1967 CBC piece where a then-“Bill” Gibson rambles on about disunity in the Yorkville hippie scene, clearly under the influence. This appearance earned Gibson $500, and a ticket out of a scene that, to his eyes, had soured. As he left at the end of that summer of love, Yorkville was a darker place, having moved onto harder drugs, with the inevitable government crackdowns chasing out the dealers and the hustlers for good.
“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” This first line of Neuromancer has achieved something of a legendary status. Perfectly emblematic for Gibson’s worldview, it places the entire world within a vast sensory simulation, burnt-out, filled with white-noise. This line has become so legendary, in fact, that I doubt many remember the lines that follow: “`It’s not like I’m using,’ Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. `It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.’ It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke.” It’s difficult not to think of this as a Yorkville voice and a Yorkville joke, too, gleaned from the memories of “Bill” Gibson, by an older, wiser and more cynical William Gibson over a decade later. Following directly after Gibson’s iconic image of a sky of white noise, it sits as a statement of intent for the novel that follows. Simulation and stimulation, chemical and technological games played on the chessboard of the human body and mind. When Gibson heard those science fiction authors discussing BBS, their language fizzing with esoteric terms, it must have clicked with something in his head. He must have seen the burgeoning relationship between man and technology mapped out like a circuitboard, his own psychotropic past returning under a new regime. Gibson saw the addicts from a mile away, before they even saw themselves. His moment of vision—the realization that the use of new technologies would be governed by their relationship to addiction, memory and self wasn’t a clairvoyant leap but an act of bridging, between his own personal past and the world he saw growing around him.
The first story Gibson ever published didn’t feature the internet (or “the Matrix”) at all. Fragments of a Hologram Rose, published in 1977, is an elegant, fractured piece of writing, a work of science fiction entirely distinct from the the 1970s standards, which traded on grand vistas and big utopian ideas. It is intimate, dark and esoteric, refusing to explain itself or its context. But, perhaps most importantly, it makes a powerful connection between virtual reality, memory and the sensory impacts of technology. Its shattered pieces come together to form a portrait of Parker, a continuity writer for ASP—Apparent Sensory Perception, or Gibson’s version of VR—who spends sleepless nights trying to understand his piecemeal life. A failed romance, a history of deprivation and an America coming apart all crowd in at the boundaries of this image but Parker and his experiments with ASP remain at its centre. To combat his insomnia he uses an ASP tape of a young yogi exercising on a private Barbados beach, the boy’s self-willed relaxation designed to overwrite Parker’s anxiety. In a summer of power cuts and brownouts he configures it to turn on automatically, to replace the sleep inducer he has hooked himself up to. This tape is a crutch, one not unlike the recreational drug use that some insomniacs use to make it through the night. It is technology as self-abuse, technology as self-denial, technology as a series of complex ways in which we escape but ultimately return to ourselves. Its prescience, its power, comes it the deeply personal atmosphere it emanates, seeming to emerge from dark nights spent as “Bill” Gibson is search of something other.
“The first three quarters of the cassette had been erased; you punch yourself fast-forward through a static haze of of wiped tape, where taste and scent blur into a single channel. The audio input is white sound—the no-sound of the first dark sea… (prolonged input from wiped tape can induce hypnagogic hallucination.)” It is this short passage of Fragments of a Hologram Rose that I keep returning to. It seems so precisely to connect to those broken VR experiences I have had over the past year, those unexpected sensations that arose out of crudely forged code. It may be built on the textures of the now-dead media of a cassette, but there is something unavoidably familiar about its ideas. I don’t believe that this is because Gibson had some window into the future inaccessible to the rest of his peers. I believe it is because there is something almost eternal, universal about the experience of a mediated self. During those Yorkville experimentations, Gibson was mediating reality through substances, using them to access what might have been called at the time “separate planes of existence.” Parker, in Fragments of a Hologram Rose, is doing something similar, but with VR. And in Gibson’s exploration of this process as technological rather than narcotic, comes an acknowledgement of both its futility and its power. Parker is frozen, immobile. Even when his ASP deck takes him to that Barbados beach he finds himself frustrated, distracted “by his loathing for the perfect body he woke in if the juice dropped.” Gibson acknowledges the tedium of psychotropic escape and the limitations it exposes. These momentary escapes, these sensory overloads, only remind us of the restrictions that everyday reality imposes on us.
We are exposing ourselves to disjunction
Flicking back through Fragments of a Hologram Rose, reading and re-reading it, I find it hard not imagine Parkers all over the world. Those who in VR have and will find a crutch for reality, a way of softening the harshness of fragmented lives. There’s something that happens to technology as it gets closer to us, as it softens our boundaries. It starts to take on the aspects of human thought, of memory, cognition and perception. Often we perceive moments of great technological change as innately altering us as a species. As we stand here, at the advent of new VR, there will be some that make that claim, that will tell us how our society, our identities and our minds will be eroded by the new. But what if this process of change is happening in reverse? What if it is us that remain unchanged through all of these watersheds, and it is the technology which is irreparably transformed? As those inputs and outputs close the gaps, as the screens disappear, are we not simply shaping technology in our own image?
In Fragments of a Hologram Rose, memory and technology are so close they touch. One becomes an analog for the other, to the point where it becomes unclear which Gibson is talking about. In truth he is talking about both, and the occasional schisms that split the two. He is talking about those sensory shocks, those cold sweats and shaking hands that we get both when we remember and when we escape. In accessing those two virtual planes, the plane of VR and the plane of memory, we are exposing ourselves to disjunction, fragmentation and mediation. We are engaging in sensory simulation of many forms. Faced with these processes the lessons we can glean from Gibson are clear. Rather than look for direction from the early adopters, the advocates, the evangelists, we should turn instead to the observers, those uniquely attuned to human nature. We shouldn’t be looking for prophets, but for fellow travellers. And as Gibson did in Fragments of a Hologram Rose, perhaps we should seek the future by first looking at ourselves.