This is my last post for the month, and so I’ll be wrapping up my original thoughts on William Gibson’s non-fiction theories and responses to cultural phenomenon outside of his novels, primarily those thoughts encapsulated in Distrust That Particular Flavor, an anthology of Gibson’s non-fiction.
Generally, the most influential idea to me that comes from these writings is the idea which is a primary theme of Gibson’s more recent novels since his cyberpunk trilogy, the idea that the “cyborg” is not as simple as a literal man-machine hybrid, but that we as modern men and women have already integrated technology into our beings so closely that we have become what he predicted in the 80s without so much as a single shard of implanted silicon. But there’s another aspect to this idea which is very useful for writing purpose which I want to cover.
My thoughts (and Gibson’s) today come mostly from his piece “Googling the Cyborg,” a talk he gave to the Vancouver Institute in 2008 which is included in Distrust.
Why We Didn’t See Computers Coming
If you look at traditional science fiction, especially in TV in the 30s and 40s, there are a lot of rocketships. Rocketships and flying cars and jetpacks. Do we have any of those today? Not really, at least not as they were envisioned. It’s fascinating to see how so many writers were trying very hard to predict what the future would look like and settled on technologies that just didn’t create the sort of renaissance they expected. Nothing really about the computer, which at that time was already beginning to exist.There are robots in these films and stories, but they’re pretty much exclusively the snappy-clamp-handed stainless steel variety that have sparks and glass vacuum tubes coming out everywhere. But Gibson describes one thing that did come up: the “electronic brain” which was almost like a computer, but never quite bridged that conceptual gap.
This is because of something Gibson describes as “Steam Engine Time:”
The observable fact that steam, contained, exerts force, has been around since the first lid rattled as the soup came to a boil. The ancient Greeks built toy steam engines that whirled bronze globes. But you won’t get a locomotive till it’s Steam Engine Time. What you wouldn’t do, in 1940, with an electronic brain, would be to stick it on your desk, connect it somehow to a type-writer, and, if you had one, a television… (247).
What do we know about, use, or dream about today that will become our future, without our even noticing? Is it nanotechnology? Stem cells? Aliens? There’s not necessarily any way we could identify it (we can’t know the future until we get to it, really), but I believe that after computer technology broadsided humanity with its unexpected revolution of our daily lives, we’ve been on the lookout. That helps to explain why we have such broad and varied foci for our speculative fiction nowadays, but that’s another conversation.
So what of the electronic brain? Did it stop being important after we decided to stick it on a desk and hook a TV to it? Gibson sees it in something we’ve come to completely take for granted: Google. The internet, a massive network of invisible connections that bring information of almost any subject to the extended memory of every user, is just another aspect of our becoming cybernetic organisms. We don’t need cranial jacks when all we have to do is type in what we want to know, and the great electronic brain does the thinking for us.
Maybe our future visions of artificial intelligence, the electronic brain’s shiny new iteration, will become just as quaint and silly as previous generations’ rocketship dreams seem to us today. Maybe while we look forward to the next big thing, we’re missing the little thing that will actually change our lives, much like the computer did almost without anyone noticing it. Until Steam Engine Time hits again, it’s likely we won’t know.
That’s it for this week! We’ve got Halloween coming up on Thursday, and with that our All Hallows Eve edition of The Gallery of Worlds! Sign up for our newsletter to get a free download code!