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Watch William Gibson predict internet culture way back in 1997
The famed science fiction author coined the term "cyberspace" before it existed.
- In 1984, science fiction author William Gibson coined the term "cyberspace" in his debut novel Neuromancer (which he wrote on a typewriter).
- In a 1997 interview with the BBC, he said we should respond to new technologies with "profound ambivalence."
- While he doesn't think his original vision of the internet has come to life, he might have been premature given the centralization of power of the digital world.
In 1996, William Gibson published the second book of his Bridge trilogy. Idoru tells the story of Colin Laney, who has the uncanny ability of quickly sorting through massive amounts of data in order to recognize "nodal points"—a skill Gibson claims requires a "non-rational process" of identifying "bits of the literal future right here." Here, biography and fiction clash, as the author wrote a bit of himself into the character.
When Gibson was interviewed for the BBC program, The Net—the network's five-year exploration of emerging technologies—host Benjamin Woolley claims most futurists get numerous details wrong, citing 1984, 2001, and Brave New World as examples.
Woolley's claim could have just been premature. The late media theorist, Neil Postman, wrote the prophetic Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. In it he claims that everyone thought we were going to see an Orewellian future, but it turned out to be much more Huxleyan. The basis of his work is that we have not been imprisoned by the state so much as our own ceaseless drive for constant distraction and pleasure. As his son, Andrew, writes about his father's work:
"An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan," my father wrote. "Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?"
Maybe Woolley couldn't have foreseen the widespread dispersal of smart phones and the pleasure addicts they would create. He qualifies his above statement, however, claiming that these authors weren't writing about the future, but the present—a sentiment that segues to Gibson.
Credit: Fred Armitage, 2007.
During the interview, Gibson comments on celebrity culture, an essential aspect of Idoru. In the book, SlitScan is the infotainment organization that exists to destroy media personalities; Colin Laney is a former employee. Who could possibly imagine a society in which massive amounts of data are mined to discover pain points to expose celebrities, politicians, and other public figures?
Gibson was informed by his own minor celebrity when penning Idoru, which he called "homeopathic doses" when compared to "rock stars." Still, he observed a massive shift in what we term "celebrity" on the horizon.
The digitalization of media will change the nature of celebrity in the future. I wouldn't hazard a guess as to how exactly that would happen. I think the most important difference with the internet and world wide web is that they're not top-down hierarchical structures on the order of broadcast television.
Even then Gibson recognized a power shift occurring in who would thrive in the emerging digital landscape.
A really talented and determined fifteen-year-old can create a website in his bedroom that's a more entertaining environment than something a multinational entertainment conglomerate might come up with, and in fact that happens rather consistently. The good ones tend to be put together by kids and the ones put together by major corporations are rather dull and behind the curve.
The heart of this interview revolves around Gibson's coining of the term "cyberspace," from his breakaway 1984 debut, Neuromancer. Turns out he wrote that book on a typewriter, envisioning what the awesome power of computers would become. It just so happens that his book was published the same year the first Macintosh personal computer was made available to the public.
Gibson claims that he got it wrong in that Orwellian year. He had envisioned the world wide web as a corporatized prison, not a vehicle for exchanging recipes with relatives in West Germany or other seemingly benign personal uses. In 1996, true decentralization of information seemed right around the corner.
When I wrote Neuromancer, there was effectively no internet to extrapolate from. The cyberspace I made up isn't being used in Neuromancer the way we're using the internet today. In Neuromancer, it's all corporate, effuse cybernetic car thieves skulking through it attempting to steal tidbits of information. In my later work, I've had to deal with what the internet has become.
William Gibson: Technology, Science Fiction & the Apocalypse
Yet again: too soon. Tear down one corporate structure another comes rushing in. Net neutrality remains a serious threat to the democratization of information and power online. Our data is being shared and sold in increasingly troublesome ways. We can still share recipes with German relatives, yet those ingredient lists are its own cottage industry. Mention spätzle within earshot of Alexa and expect an assault of pasta ads to dominate your browser.
Hoarding information in hopes of discovering "nodal points" has become a lucrative occupation for corporations. Gibson was certainly not wrong in his assessment, it just took a little longer than he expected. As he notes in 1997:
We're still in the phase where computation is still a sort of middle class pastime. Given the market forces driving the computer industry, we'll see it spread through the whole society. It should fairly soon, I think it would evolve into something like television to the extent that it penetrates every level of society.
Gibson claims all of his work centers on uncovering the "unintended consequences of new technologies." He does not believe fear to be the appropriate course of action, however, an interesting observation given how information is used to drive political fearmongering today. His suggestion is more nuanced, requiring foresight that many don't seem equipped to offer given where we've ended up.
Technophobia or technophilia are not appropriate responses to new technology. The only appropriate response is the most profound ambivalence. That's what we owe new technologies—we have to teach ourselves to be absolutely ambivalent about them and imagine their most inadvertent side effects. The most inadvertent side effects are the side effects that tend to get us.
How social networks shaped 500 years of revolutionary progress
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.