William Gibson heads for 'Spook Country'

The science fiction author talks about his backward-looking new book, the "Google-ability of the text" and how Second Life meshes with the real world.

Science fiction novelist William Gibson has been exploring the relationship between technology and society ever since he burst onto the literary scene with his cyberpunk classic Neuromancer in 1984.

He invented the word "cyberspace" and his influential works predicted many of the changes technology has brought about. Silicon.com's Steve Ranger caught up with him in the run-up to the .

Q: You've written much about the way people react to technology. What's your own attitude toward technology?
Gibson: I'm not an early adopter at all. I'm always quite behind the curve but I think that's actually necessary--by not taking that role as a consumer I can be a little more dispassionate about it.

Most societal change now is technologically driven, so there's no way to look at where the human universe is going without looking at the effect of emergent technology. There's not really anything else driving change in the world, I believe.

Has the impact of technology been positive or negative?
Gibson: I'm absolutely agnostic about it, and if I was either a Luddite or a technophile I couldn't possibly function in my job. I think that, generally speaking, technologies are morally neutral until humans beings pick them up and use them for something.

It's a positive thing depending on what happens when we use it. Nothing that I can see other than the market drives the emergence of new technologies. The technologies that change society most profoundly aren't legislated into existence.

There's a blue plaque in London that says, in effect, "Broadcast television was invented here." Nobody in that room above the shop was filled with a kind of eldritch horror and a vision of a world of closed-circuit surveillance--it was the last thing they were thinking.

All of the big changes that emergent technologies bring us are, for the most part, completely unanticipated by the people that introduce those technologies. It's out of control by its very nature and if you could control it, it wouldn't work.

Unlike many of your novels, which are set in the future, Spook Country is in the near past. What's different about writing about the past rather than the future?
Gibson: I'm writing speculative fiction about the year before last (rather than) speculative fiction about the year after next Tuesday, which is what I was doing for a while.

I'm not an early adopter at all. I'm always quite behind the curve but I think that's actually necessary--by not taking that role as a consumer I can be a little more dispassionate about it.

There's not a lot of clever, made-up, semi-imaginary new technology cluttering the thing up but all the pressures in these books the characters are feeling are ultimately technologically driven, so I'm using the same tools to look at the same things but without the conceit that one is viewing this in some imaginary future.

So what's the difference?
Gibson: It's much harder to just make s*** up to get oneself out of a tight plot spot. When I'm writing about the future, if I get really stuck I can just go back and reinvent some other aspect of the amazing whatsit machine that makes it possible to drive the truck past the checkpoint, or whatever it is.

For me it's harder work to irradiate the content of a shipping container (in Spook Country) in a way that at least convinces me, than it is to dream up some gizmo from Chiba city that will crawl in there and do it all by itself.

So why not write about the future?
Gibson: The trouble is there are enough crazy factors and wild cards on the table now that I can't convince myself of where a future might be in 10 to 15 years. I think we've been in a very long, century-long period of increasingly exponential technologically driven change.

We hit a point somewhere in the mid-18th century where we started doing what we think of (as) technology today and it started changing things for us, changing society. Since World War II it's going literally exponential and what we are experiencing now is the real vertigo of that--we have no idea at all now where we are going.

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