Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Neuromancer Thoughts: Both More and Less Than People

Hangars Liquides
Location: Scarlet Tiers of The Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority

Image credit: "Hangars Liquides" by Ka Rasmuson at Flickr

Finishing Neuromancer for perhaps the fifth or sixth time, I am still stuck with a question that I put to my class earlier today:

What would motivate you to merge with a machine? To put in a neural  implant so you could interface with data as surely as Case?

Gibson projected doing that with electrodes glued to our scalps, something that seems as quaint to me today as all of his mentions of magnetic tape in what may be the year 2030.  We won't need electrodes if we ever do develop a brain-hardware interface: we know a great deal more today about neuroscience than we did in 1984. Over at New World Notes, Wagner James Au occasionally reports on interfaces that permit the blind or paralyzed to manipulate data.  In a silly way, his recent post on a novel use of Xbox Kinect shows that the drive to merge meat and mind online hasn't abated.

I suspect we will make the technological, neurological, and moral leap one day to do far more. On a bad day, when I'm very tired, I think "well, I'm glad I won't live that long." On better days, I hope to try something like that, if only as a "tourist."

On the other hand, there's a danger with any sufficiently advanced technology: it might make us think we are gods who work magic. That's the dark corollary of the third of Clarke's Laws for you.

I don't know if my students, many of them having had their heads spun round by this important and very confusing book, understand that this novel reaches for a big theme. Gibson wants us to ponder a few things it seems:
  • What is "human"? 
  • What do we lose as we gain power through cybernetic prostheses?
  • Would we take the chance to become immortal if we could? Would we dare NOT take it?
Near the end of the novel, Case refuses Neuromancer's offer of immortality, a space where Linda Lee still lives, or thinks she lives, in what amounts to an event horizon inside the AI's self.

We may all live to know if such an offer awaits us. Before writing this post, I never realized that Arthur C. Clarke postulated three laws. The second is worth noting here:

"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."

Gibson's fiction, always venturing past those limits, will retain its cultural significance as the rest of us follow in his wake.


Miso Susanowa said...

Do you take your students through the other two books of the trilogy also?

Iggy O said...

Miso, if we were doing a seminar, I might. But the class provides an overview of the idea and use of cyberspace for first-years.

I think Gibson's first novel does enough damage :) I was even tempted to substitute Snow Crash.

The best moment so far came during a screening of a clip from the documentary Cyberpunk, when Gibson notes that folks may identify more with their brands than with their nation. One student had the courage to agree.

On a campus where co-eds carry around $500 purses, a quarter of the cars in student lots seem to be BWMs or similar, and every student it seems has an expensive phone paid for by their parents, one does wonder. But then, in my students' defense, I'd say we are all snared by the nets of consumerism. Even men I meet at farm-equipment shops call themselves "John Deere men" or "Chevy Truck men."

We are what we buy? I do not recall that from my thoroughly lower-middle-class, row-house childhood when no family I knew owned more than one car.