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William Gibson Says Today's Internet Is Nothing Like What He Envisioned

Michael O'Shea

William Gibson writes visionary stories — in his early work, he imagined an information superhighway long before the Web existed. But in a dozen novels over the last 35 years, Gibson has stalked closer and closer to the present.

His latest, Agency, has a complicated plot that jumps between the far future and the immediate present; Gibson says his favorite type of science fiction requires time and effort to understand. "My greatest pleasure in reading books by other people is to be dropped into a completely baffling scenario," he says, "and to experience something very genuinely akin to culture shock when first visiting a new culture."

Gibson imagined that sort of culture shock back in 1982 when he coined the word "cyberspace" in a short story. Two years later he popularized the term in his first novel, Neuromancer, about a washed up hacker hired for one last job.

Neuromancer won a trio of major science fiction prizes — the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Philip K. Dick Award — and launched the genre that became known as cyberpunk. It was also a major influence on the 1999 film The Matrix.

"He said once that he was wrong about cyberspace," says author Lev Grossman, "and the internet when he first conceived it, he thought it was a place that we would all leave the world and go to. Whereas in fact, it came here."

Grossman is a former book critic for Time magazine and author of the fantasy bestseller, The Magicians. "You have an artificial intelligence that is everywhere. It's in all your devices. You're looking through it as a lens to see the rest of the world. It's an extraordinary vision of how computers will become aware, and become the thing that mediates between us and reality."

But Gibson himself thinks the future of artificial intelligence will require human sensibility to take it to the next level. "Over the past few years, I've more and more frequently encountered people saying that the real change-bringer might not be something, an intelligence that we build from the ground up, but something like an uploaded healing consciousness that we then augment with the sort of artificial intelligence we already have."

Gibson says when he started writing Agency, he saw it as a kind of Thelma and Louise story — in which an "app whisperer" named Verity absconds with a pair of eyeglasses containing a powerful new artificial intelligence named Eunice. While he was writing it, Gibson says, he assumed that Hillary Clinton would be elected president.

"And then I woke up the morning after the election, looked at my computer, and realized that the manuscript I'd been working on was actually set in 2017, but it had become a 2017 that no longer existed," he says. "And it was so organic, and so fractally complete a change that it just crushed me. I thought 'that's dead, that whole thing I'm working on.'"

Cyberspace, as described in 'Neuromancer,' is nothing at all like the internet which we live with, which consists mostly of utterly banal and silly stuff.

But then it struck Gibson that he could save his manuscript by creating a future world in the year 2136 — a world in which 80 percent of the population has been wiped out by climate change, but also a world where characters time-travel to create an alternate past in which Clinton won the election. "After giving that only a few hours' thought, I realized that the world in which Hillary won wouldn't be a happy world either. Because all of the drivers of the stress we feel today — minus one — would still be very much be present."

And when it comes to his own predictions for the future, William Gibson says he was wrong about something else: He thought the Internet would be a mysterious and sexy place. "Cyberspace, as described in Neuromancer, is nothing at all like the Internet that we live with, which consists mostly of utterly banal and silly stuff."

This story was edited for radio by Tom Cole and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Vitale
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