William Gibson in Real Life

Talking with Gibson about his massive, multi-platform legacy.

Apr 4 2012, 4:44pm

William Gibson’s foray into television included an X-Files episode that aired in 1998, called “Kill Switch,” and it’s one of my favorites. In it, Mulder and Scully must pursue a killer computer that lives in an RV and drives around killing people through the Internet. I know how it sounds. But compared with aliens and monsters, and alongside cartoonish cyberspace euphorias like Hackers and The Net, “Kill Switch,” with its arrogant computer geniuses, dispirited hackers, A.I. and brain-uploading, still feels right at home in 2012.

This was only a tiny sliver of Gibson’s work, but it said a lot about his influence: the science-fiction-writer-for-people-who-do-not-read-science-fiction has left his mark in a dozen books, a handful of films (including a forthcoming, long-time-coming rendition of Neuromancer), and across the cultural map. That’s because he imagined what an increasingly giant part of that map looks like; “cyberspace,” the term he coined in 1983, is now considered by the Pentagon to be the fifth domain of warfare, and the imagery in his books added a kind of faded screen glow to an era’s paranoia about the digital future. Other things he may have given us, according to his Wikipedia page, include virtual sex, “the explosive growth of virtual environments in video games,” digital cities, fake Internet personalities, reality television, and the term “matrix.” All this at a time in the ‘90s when Gibson, eager for a distraction-less writing environment at home in Vancouver, didn’t own a computer.

Not that the Wikipedia page is to be believed, and that’s kind of the point. Gibson’s newer writing edges right up against a present where everything feels manufactured and piped into us at speeds faster than it can be processed. His recent work might be seen as an index of his own attention span, from the near-future speculations of Pattern Recognition to his steady stream of Tweets (his handle is @GreatDismal) to a new book of essays about contemporary culture, copied and pasted from the past two decades. When we sat down with the mild-mannered Gibson at his publisher’s office, in a conference room that might have been ripped from Zero History, we ranged across other non-fiction topics tangential to his fiction: activism, giant Internet companies, cities, the influence of psychedelic drugs. (Also via the Internet: in 1968, Gibson was the manager of Toronto’s first head shop.)

For the demonstrators and cyberpunks of the Occupy movement, Gibson offers a counterfactual scenario. “If it had been a book I’d been writing, I’d probably would have had everyone go away all at once,” rather than waiting until a police raid. ‘Thanks for all the fish.’ To leave the narrative open ended in the public space, rather than to leave the narrative in a way for the corporate world to present it as a defeat or a failure."

He sees hope for activists, even in an age of “universal information transparency,” when everything and everyone is under surveillance. Technology cuts both ways, and Gibson is confident it will keep giving individuals the ability to question and fight the status quo.

The essays in the new book are laconically and self-effacingly annotated, lined with typical modesty about his writing (like “being paid to solo on some instrument vaguely related to one I actually knew how to play”) and his role in interpreting the onset of the future. In one postscript, about an essay he wrote for Rolling Stone in 1989 on the topic of the Internet, Gibson admits to “pretending to know what ‘the Net’ might be…. Was it something to do with this ‘email’ a few people seemed to know how to send between distant computers?” He’s no prophet; he’s still learning a lot about the odd future the present became. And with some help from fanciful, weird imaginations like his, so are we.