William Gibson's novel follows the tribulations of an anti-hero wrapped up in an investigation between the real and the virtual, an adventure between Earth and space, a struggle between humanity and artificial intelligence. While this novel may initially seem commonplace to a 21st-century reader, the work holds a special place in the history of science fiction and our relationship with technology.

This place may not seem obvious today, given that cybernetics, virtual reality and AI are now recurring themes in SF, whether in literature, cinema, comics or video games. Never mind that the present tends to catch up with the fiction! But William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, is often credited with inventing the term and concept of cyberspace. His work is also said to have pioneered the cyberpunk artistic movement. However, all these references would be in vain if we failed to mention that the novel was published in 1984.

Remember, at this time cell phones didn’t exist — the Radiocom 2000, the ancestor of modern mobiles, came onto the market in 1986. Interconnected computer networks (the word “Internet” had yet to enter common speech) exchanged data at 56 kilobits per second: we would have to wait until 1989 to reach 1.5 megabits. The first website was created in 1991 and in 1993 the World Wide Web left the realm of scientists and the military to enter the public domain. So yes, William Gibson’s Neuromancer was prescient when it described what has become our everyday lives.

Without giving away the plot, let’s dive into Gibson’s work to (re)discover his powerful intuition in a novel that evokes cyber-espionage, cyberspace, data processing, human-machine interfaces and artificial intelligence.

Data: the true measure of wealth in the digital era

In his novel, Gibson begins by showing how a digital world’s wealth lies in data. While our societies’ wealth originally came from access to resources (raw materials), in the Industrial Revolution this wealth shifted to knowledge and production capacity. Today, knowledge of the market and its players, manufacturers and customers, and the ability to network has replaced this in turn. For example, Amazon’s power lies in nothing tangible, just its network of suppliers and customers of all sizes: data, ourselves.

The shift to human-interfacing virtual worlds

The other field that Gibson explores is data processing in a global network. Multiple authors and works have tried to tackle this exercise—there is nothing less figurative than an infinity of zeros and ones. The 1982 movie Tron serves as one such example, offering us a first glimpse of this albeit without Gibson’s subversive aspect that would be passed on to posterity. Here, humanlike figures act as representations of data and programs. More recently, Ready Player One (2018) leaned on nerd culture, gamers who relish their freedom of taste and expression, and procedural world-generation systems that are undoubtedly doped up on AI. What Gibson offers is more psychedelic — or perhaps just subjective — in that the connecting user’s psychology is represented in what that individual perceives. The systems that manage the global network and generate representations have access to users’ psyches, using this knowledge to depict individuals’ intimate memories.

This leads us to another aspect of Gibson’s intuition: human-machine interfaces. This is perhaps the aspect where the author remains ahead of our time. When we look at virtual worlds, metaverses or other augmented realities, clearly the interfaces still require much work. Whether we are enthusiastic about the technology or not, we must admit that the current interfaces — including the Oculus Rift and Apple Vision — are neither light, intuitive nor immersive. We can add all the controllers we want, but we are still far from the experience Gibson describes in Neuromancer.

Neuromancer by William Gibson, French edition published by Diable Vauvert on October 1, 2020

In the novel, the human-machine interface is handled through a neural connection, and this connection ability helps to drive the initial plot. The description of the interface evokes total immersion, with the operator and user losing awareness of their physical bodies. What Gibson illustrates is the outcome of the reduced physical and psychological distance that Marshall McLuhan examines in his essay Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The goal here is not to discuss the simplistic shortcuts used when talking about the Canadian sociologist’s work. The aim is to see the digital tools for the “electromechanical extensions of the human body” that they are, using the same term as McLuhan to study media.

Virtual worlds brought closer to humans

Written in 1968, Understanding Media takes no account of the computerized forms that data processing would take in the future. The most “technological” form of media McLuhan describes is television, but he can already sense the reduced physical and psychological distance between the medium and the user. Messages, information and media are verbal, written then encoded (to remain confidential, or made binary to remove material contingencies, never mind quantum capabilities, the implications of which remain to be seen). These are carried by animal power, mechanics, electricity, radio then computers. The latest developments in digital tools continue to reduce the distance between users and media, with “persistent virtual worlds” increasingly the trend.

While haptic combinations that turn virtual sensations into sensory inputs such resistance, heat or pain (see Ready Player One) appear as the most obvious next step, Gibson’s neural interface is not far from what exists already. One just needs to look at all the work into the connection between organic humans and digital worlds.

Elon Musk is one of this technology’s main proponents: in February 2024 the US administration authorized his company Neuralink to carry out a first clinical test on a human being. For now, the motivation is medical: Neuralink’s implant could help to overcome certain neurological deficiencies. But Musk makes no secret that the human-machine interface is waiting in the wings. William Gibson could very well see his wildest intuitions become reality while he still lives — he turns 76 in 2024.

Opportunities. . .and pitfalls

Finally (setting aside the issue of AI, which I regularly discuss in my editorials), the novel tackles one last topic: drugs. When it comes to the use of the addictive substances in Neuromancer, we could take a shortcut and say that Gibson’s discussion of this issue was heavy-handed. We are not all junkies in 2024! However, if we were honest, we might see these compulsive chemical practices as a metaphor for our current addictions to screens and applications that lead us into similarly compulsive behaviors. Today, captology studies the digital tools and technologies that application developers use to persuade and influence individuals. Who has never wondered how much time they spend swiping on some application? Who has never wondered how these applications might be impacting our behavior? Once again, William Gibson strikes a chord. Giving this novel a fresh read would force ourselves to look at our world more critically. It may not seem all that innovative, except that a science fiction author managed to describe our current world forty years ago.

Everyone should read or reread Neuromancer. Since Hollywood has yet to turn the novel into a movie, you will need to use the old technology of books, a stunning medium that still maintains an objective, physical and psychological distance between the user and the medium. So, what do you say? Ready to give it a go?

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