Future shocks past and present: William Gibson on fiction's fear of tech
The Neuromancer author is known for conjuring dark and dystopian sci-fi. But why is technology always evil in movies?
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Sure, from Neuromancer onward, Gibson's best-selling science fiction novels often depict a future of horrifying inequality and dark, manipulative forces. Yes, his latest books, The Peripheral and Agency, are set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the majority of the population has died. And in discussions of his work, the word "dystopia" is never far away.
But Gibson is amused by suggestions that his books are dark. "When I started to write Neuromancer in 1981," he tells me on the phone from his home in Canada, "I actually didn't assume the world was going anywhere good at all. It was the darkest part of the Cold War, and everyone I considered intelligent assumed it would all end in smoking nuclear rubble. So when I made up the 21st century of Neuromancer I remember thinking this is really quite optimistic..."
"In my early teens, I assumed science fiction was about the future," Gibson says of his days reading writers like Robert Heinlein. "But it was about how the future looked to Robert Heinlein in 1942, which was very different to how the future looked to him in 1960. By the time I began to write science fiction, I took it for granted that what I was doing was writing about the present."
I called Gibson to talk about the 25th anniversary of Johnny Mnemonic, a bold but troubled 1995 sci-fi action movie he adapted from his own short story. The World Wide Web came to our homes in the early 1990s, and in 1995 (the year CNET was born) there was a wave of Web-obsessed films like Hackers and The Net exploring our fears of the dawning information age. The real 21st century has turned out differently than they imagined, but it's too literal to say the predictions or fears of these or any sci-fi stories turned out to be wrong. We might not jack into virtual reality datascapes like the heroes of Johnny Mnemonic, Neuromancer and Hackers, but we have a lot of the same worries. The haircuts may look dated, but the fears around surveillance, corporate greed and the abuse of technology remain scarily relevant.
Working out fears in fiction is important. Each new generation of technology provides a fresh update for fiction, but it's more than just an excuse to reboot old stories with a zeitgeisty high-tech sheen. Speculative fiction is a powerful way of exploring new ways of thinking, says Naomi Jacobs, researcher and author of Living in Digital Worlds. "By using fiction to look at the scary 'worst case' scenarios," Jacobs explains, "we can start to think about not only what we want to achieve with technology but also what we want to avoid."
Imagining the worst case scenario is more than just scaremongering. People inventing, selling and using technology rarely anticipate how their innovations will shape society, interact with other technologies, and potentially send us spiraling in worrying directions. As an example, Gibson recalls playing with cheap injection-molded plastic toys in his youth. "It was almost like exotic material, it was still sort of futuristic," the 72-year-old author remembers. "But we never realized that we'd be killing off coral reef. Who knew? So much of it is simply a lack of the ability to anticipate side effects."
Things to come
Before the internet revolution of the 1990s, the personal computer revolution of the 1980s inspired Gibson and other cyberpunk authors like Neal Stevenson and Bruce Sterling, as well as fevered Hollywood speculations such as Blade Runner, Tron and The Terminator. Before that, you had 1970s paranoia thrillers The Conversation and The Anderson Tapes. Go back to the 1920s and '30s, and films like Metropolis, Modern Times and Things to Come all challenge the growth of technology.
In other words, fears around automation, free will and surveillance have always been with us.
"Since the industrial revolution, the lines between machine and human have been increasingly blurred," explains Fiona Moore, an author and professor of business anthropology at Royal Holloway University of London. "Since the 1990s, IT and AI have become the focus as they start to sound and act more human, even literally taking people's jobs." This explains why even older stories can be rebooted, like Westworld or NBC's updating of the 1932 dystopia Brave New World.
But it's not all doom and gloom. There are many positive depictions of technology across fiction, points out Elinor Carmi, author of the book Media Distortions. "Cars have been glorified throughout the years (metaphorically and literally) as a vehicle for change, movement and journey," she explains. "We just don't always notice because we take it for granted."
Cinema itself is a technological medium, lest we forget. And other fantastical inventions are often taken for granted within their story worlds, such as Star Trek transporters, Star Wars robots or Iron Man suits. "Then there's Batman," says Carmi, "whose only superpower is being rich enough to afford sophisticated technology with a cool goth vibe."
In other words, it's the people pushing the buttons who define whether a technology is used for good or evil. As Gibson points out, "Technologies are generally quite neutral until you give them to people. It depends on what the street does with it."
When it comes to how technology is portrayed in fiction, it's also worth noting that Hollywood movies may be our society's most dominant storytelling force, but they're only one lens for looking at the future. Carmi notes that "Hollywood's limited ability to go far beyond the narrative of good versus bad leaves us with films that prioritize action and fighting -- which I love, don't get me wrong -- over scripts dealing with these topics in a nuanced and deep way." She points to literature, comics, anime and games that open a more imaginative discussion, as well as thoughtful television shows like Halt and Catch Fire, Black Mirror and Years and Years.
And even stories that raise concerns also present hope. Hackers, for example, still shines with an infectious idealism as the young heroes use the democratic new medium of the internet to catch the crooks. The Net introduces Sandra Bullock's character as a lonely nerd, but her computer skills and supportive online friends defeat a corporate conspiracy. And hope is where you find it. "I tend to view Ex Machina as having a happy ending," says Moore, "but I'm not sure I'm supposed to."
Or to give William Gibson the final word: "Technology: It's a mixed bag," he says. "When it comes to how we use technology, I think we're just all too human."
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