William Gibson’s new book of essays, Distrust that Particular Flavor – and an upcoming Motherboard interview – prompted us to look back at a little chat we had with him way back in 2010. Here’s a neat excerpt that we animated about an early memory about a utility pole, way before he dreamed up cyberspace.
What was your earliest encounter with technology or science as a child? Was there some gadget or something that you learned that sticks with you?
I can remember my father having to do something, maybe it was having to turn on or off the main power switch for the entire farm that we were renting at the time and I remember him putting a rubber shower mat on the ground. Putting a wooden box on the rubber shower mat and putting on rubber rain boots and enormous black rubber gloves and explaining he was doing this to absolutely insulate himself in case he received a shock from what I imagine was extremely primitive wiring that he was about to shut down.
I don’t actually know whether he was crazy being overly worried or whether he was being perfectly sensible, but it’s one of my very earliest memories. I can’t remember what I thought about it. I don’t remember being frightened, but the idea that there was power in this weird gray box bolted on a telephone pole is one the earliest things I can remember.
That’s an amazing memory in terms of thinking about technology as power and that we need to handle it with care. Switching gears – Wikipedia says you were talking with Bruce Sterling who said to you, “You and I get paid to be charletans. We write stuff and people believe it.” Obviously ‘Neuromancer’ had a huge impact on a generation of people that were then working on creating what we know now as the web, and of course there are a lot of important people in Silicon Valley who read that book when they were younger. Can you talk about your role as a writer predicting a future, and how that then becomes a little more real as a consequence of your work.
WG: The feedback I’ve had on Neuromancer’s impact over the years that I think probably most accurately describes it is feedback from people who became quite successful later. Silicon Valley people—what they tend to say is that when they were starting out they had these ideas. They didn’t get from me. These ideas were floating around. They got them from the same place I got them.
But when they found ‘Neuromancer,’ they realized that they had a tool in ‘Neuromancer,’ a sort of brochure, because they had been going into people’s offices for a while and saying I want to do this thing and the guy would be like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So when they got ‘Neuromancer,’ and the guy would say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” they would say, “read this.” And they said it really worked because it sort of transferred this whole holistic if cartoon-y idea of a digital world really quickly. And the guy would go home and read it overnight and the next time they talked to him the guy would be… “yes, cyberspace!” And I think it worked that way. It sort of greased the wheels for some stuff.
One last question: intellectual property rights—a very contentious issue right now. A lot of people are trying to control them. Do you have a sense or a personal stance on the issue, if limiting our ability to reference other works is limiting our ability to evolve as a culture?
WG: I haven’t yet been able to give that the sort of attention that it would need. I mean I’m leaning counter over-control, but I don’t actually know where I am with that one and it’s too bad in a way because it should be my topic but I’m still trying to work out where I might be with that.