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Considering Cyberpunk: A Look Back at William Gibson's Neuromancer

On opening Neuromancer, I was immediately reminded of xkcd’s Fictional Rule of Thumb.

Fictional Rule of ThumbPartway into the first chapter, the reader is hit with the following passage:

He stepped out of the way to let a dark-suited sarariman, by spotting the Mitsubishi-Genentech logo tattoed across the back of the man’s right hand … The sarariman had been Japanese, but the Ninsei crowd was a gaijin crowd.

After consulting a dictionary and the internet, it turns out that only two of the four words in bold above are fictional: Genentech and Ninsei. Apparently sarariman is the Japanese origin of the somewhat obscure English word salaryman, and gaijin is Japanese for foreigner. Ninsei is a fictional street in Chiba, a Japanese city near Tokyo, while Genentech is a fictional biotech company which merged with Mistubishi in the hazy past of Neuromancer.

NeuromancerTechnically, the Fictional Rule of Thumb does not truly apply to Neuromancer, but lacking a common Japanese vocabulary does make reading Neuromancer difficult at times. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the book was determining whether a word was fictional, in a language other than English (in Count Zero, Haitian words are used in a similar fashion to the Japanese words used in Neuromancer), or just not in my vocabulary. However, despite my difficulties in comprehension, the language in Neuromancer does an excellent job evoking the image of what has become the definition of cyberpunk: picture the corporation run dystopia of Bladerunner.

In reading the foreword by William Gibson to Mona Lisa Overdrive (the third of the Sprawl series, which Neuromancer begins), I learned that Gibson wrote Neuromancer without ever having touched a computer in his life. Gibson writes, “some readers, evidently, find this odd; I don’t." Gibson further points out that his lack of computer knowledge helped him create new ideas; “a little knowledge is not only a dangerous thing, but the best tool for the job at hand.” Perhaps the two best-known ideas popularized in Neuromancer are the Matrix (Neuromancer’s name for cyberspace), and the Dollhouse (as pointed out to me by my brother). But while these ideas certainly are revolutionary, they only play cursory roles in the book. So what then, is Neuromancer actually about?

Mona Lisa OverdriveThis is a question that, after having read the book, I still have difficulty answering. Gibson states that the entire Sprawl series is about “Industrial Culture” or “what we do with machines, what machines do with us” and “not about computers,” and I think perhaps this is where my core problem with Neuromancer lies. Gibson does explore very specific interactions between machines and computers, but does it from his non-technical viewpoint. One of the main interactions he focuses on is the visualization of data by humans in the Matrix. Hackers or “cyberspace cowboys” interact with data visualizations so connected with their minds that the entrapment of a hacker in the defensive black ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics) of a system can lead to their death. As a matter of fact, Gibson dedicates the bulk of the novel to cyberspace interactions. But why?

Data visualization and interaction is not really an issue today or even back then, but rather the ability of the end user to convey their intent to the computer is the problem. So why would hackers use a potentially deadly interface when they could simply abstract themselves a layer with just a slight penalty to their hacking efficiency? While this question lurked in the back of my mind while reading Neuromancer, I was not particularly troubled until I had finished the book. Yes, Gibson does address other issues of human-machine interaction (i.e. the regulation of AI’s), but he focuses so heavily on data visualization and interaction that he neglects many of the more interesting points raised in the book.

Consequently, I felt that Neuromancer fell short of a science fiction great for me and instead, just achieved mediocrity. Neuromancer laid the groundwork for other cyberpunk novels that I love, for which I am eternally grateful, but just did not excite me like many other novels in the genre. While Neuromancer should be read by any science fiction or even fantasy fan, perhaps enter reading the book with lowered expectations and the experience might be more enjoyable.



Philip, you ask why the hackers do not simply "abstract themselves a layer with just a slight penalty to their hacking efficiency?" I would argue that while one might indeed be able abstract onesself with slight penalty to speed and ability to interact inside the system, this a huge penalty to hacking efficiency: hacking (as portrayed by Neuromancer) is a real-time operation at break-neck speed, where the slightest disadvantage translates to failure.

You also claim that data visualization/interaction is not really a problem nowadays, and with this I mildly disagree. In the past year, I have been doing quite a number of elaborate computer-based mathematical computations, which result in massive amounts of data. When I'm lucky, the data is simple enough for me to grasp its significance, but in the most cases it is not. The big problem is that the kind of data I'm generating isn't something nice you can plot in two or threespace (or higher-dimensional space and the project); instead it consists of numerous infinite series of polynomials in large numbers of variables--you could plot this in a naive manner, but it wouldn't convey any meaningful information to me. I often find myself wishing I could crawl inside my computer to get a better feel for the data I've generated.

Phil, I loved the xkcd cartoon. 

I wasn’t taken by Neuromancer for a number of reasons but I did use it in a talk I once gave on the topic of Knowledge Management.  Knowledge Management is a big thing for hi-tech and professional firms and it relates to the management, retention and commercial re-use of the information gathered by the employees and held, to a great extent, in their heads.

My talk discussed the best approaches to knowledge management.  My time slot was just after lunch.  The morning had been filled with talks on financial performance, systems analysis methods, quality standards, and other really interesting exciting topics.

When I got up and announced I was going to talk about Knowledge Management everyone settled more comfortably in their seats and practiced looking like their eyes were open while the slept.

However, when I announced that the three approaches to Knowledge Management I was going to analyse were the telepathy of the Midwich Cuckoos, the “plugging in” of Neuromancer, and the hive mind of the Borg, they sat up and listened.  Some of them even asked questions.

My conclusion was that the hive mind of the Borg was the best approach to implement and I finished with a full screen image of Locutus the Borg