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Why William Gibson Invented Cyberspace

It turns out that the father of virtual reality just wanted a new setting for his science fictions.
Image: Flickr

The man who invented cyberspace knew nothing about computers at the time. William Gibson, author of the seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer and the man perhaps most responsible for getting an entire generation amped on the idea of virtual reality, says that he originally conceived of the digital environment purely as a narrative device.

The Awl's Brent Cox transcribed part of a recent talk Gibson gave in New York, which turned out to be filled with fascinating anecdotes about the germs that eventually shaped the modern world. Read the whole piece for all of them (and Gibson's thoughts on William S. Burroughs and writing Neuromancer on a typewriter), but I'm most taken with the story about the genesis of cyberspace. It turns out that a young Gibson wanted to write sci-fi, but space travel was out of vogue, and the post-apocalyptic nuclear wastelands weren't doing it for him, either. So he fixated on the nascent medium of video games—which at that point consisted of Pong, and not much else.


Here's how he explains his thought process:

The science fiction arena of my childhood was space travel, and the vehicle was the rocket ship, the space ship. And in the late 70s early 80s, that wasn’t resonant to me. I knew I didn’t want to do that. I knew I didn’t want to to do the post-apocalyptic wasteland. I knew I wanted to try to write science fiction, but I didn’t have an arena. And I arrived at cyberspace …

I wanted that sense of another realm, and I wanted a sense of agency for the characters, and particularly for the protagonist. She drives her (hmmm) through (hmmm). But I didn’t know what she was driving, and I didn’t know what she was driving itthrough. So in some odd way I think I began to mull over that and keep my eyes open while walking around in my daily life. Bits and pieces of reality, bits and pieces of something that could be cobbled into the arena I need this character to have, some sort of agency. And the pieces I came up with were just the sight of kids playing very early huge plywood-sided arcade games, and the body language of just intense longing and concentration and when I glanced into these arcades that I was probably afraid to go into myself, it seemed to me that like they wanted to go right through the glass, they wanted to be right there with the Pong, or whatever …

I think I could also see that they were very likely to get more complicated games than Pong pretty quick. Which indeed they did. I had that, I had the big bus stop posters of the actual computer part of the Apple IIc, which was smaller than most briefcases. It was a very crisp-suited businessman arm, holding this thing, and it didn’t show you that there was this big clunky monitor that you had to have. He was just holding this thing with a keyboard on it. I knew people who were starting to buy Sinclairs and kits, building kits, like these incredibly primitive little computers that, you built it, and you had to keystroke all of the programs into it, and if you made a single mistake, the whole thing wouldn’t work. But I knew that people did that. I started hearing about people that connected home computers distantly via telephone, and because, fortunately, I knew absolutely nothing about computers, I was able to smoosh that all together and get this vague vision of my arena, which I then need a really hot name for.

Dataspace didn’t work, and infospace didn’t work. Cyberspace. It sounded like it meant something, or it might mean something, but as I stared at it in red Sharpie on a yellow legal pad, my whole delight was that I knew that it meant absolutely nothing.

This is pretty amazing. Ever since Neuromancer, we have been fixed with an unrelenting fascination with pluggin in, uploading, or otherwise transporting our minds into a virtual space built out of pure data. First-person video games, global cinema mythologies like the Matrix, that whole conception we have that we can dive into a stream of information and wander around—the very way we instinctively conceive of interacting with the electric world that exists behind our computer screens—was born because one aspiring science fiction writer wanted a new environment in which to set his story.