William Gibson's 1989 essay on “The Net.”
Image: Joe Haupt / Flickr
When William Gibson wrote his 1989 essay on "The Net" for Rolling Stone, he didn't own a personal computer. "I think it's safe to say that I was pretending to know what 'the Net' might be, when I wrote this," he confesses in a postscript in his new book, Distrust that Particular Flavor. "Was it something to do with this 'email' a few people seemed to know how to send between distant computers, or was it some more abstract expression of the totality of cyberspace? I think I opted for the latter, but phrased things in such a way as might seem I was better acquainted with the former than I actually was." Watch Gibson talk about the present and the future in our Motherboard interview.
The boy crouches beside a fence in Virginia, listening to Chubby Checker on the Rocket Radio. The fence is iron, very old, unpainted, its uprights shaved down by rain and the steady turning of seasons. The Rocket Radio is red plastic, fastened to the fence with an alligator clip. Chubby Checker sings into the boy's ear through a plastic plug. The wires that connect the plug and the clip to the Rocket Radio are the color his model kits call 'flesh.' The Rocket Radio is something he can hide in his palm. His mother says the Rocket Radio is a crystal radio: She says she remembers boys building them before you could buy them, to catch the signals spilling out of the sky.
The Rocket Radio requires no battery at all. Uses a quarter mile of neighbor's rusting fence for an antenna.
Chubby Checker says do the twist.
The boy with the Rocket Radio reads a lot of science fiction— very little of which will help to prepare him for the coming realities of the Net.
He doesn't even know that Chubby Checker and the Rocket Radio are part of the Net.
Once perfected, communication technologies rarely die out entirely; rather, they shrink to fit particular niches in the global info-structure. Crystal radios have been proposed as a means of conveying optimal seed-planting times to isolated agrarian tribes. The mimeograph, one of many recent dinosaurs of the urban office place, still shines with undiminished samizdat potential in the century's backwaters, the late-Victorian answer to desktop publishing. Banks in uncounted third-world villages still crank the day's totals on black Burroughs adding machines, spooling out yards of faint indigo figures on long, oddly festive curls of paper, while the Soviet Union, not yet sold on throwaway new-tech fun, has become the last reliable source of vacuum tubes. The eight-track–tape format survives in the truck stops of the Deep South, as a medium for country music and spoken-word pornography.
The Street finds its own uses for things—uses the manufacturers never imagined. The microcassette recorder, originally intended for on-the-jump executive dictation, becomes the revolutionary medium of magnitizdat, allowing the covert spread of suppressed political speeches in Poland and China. The beeper and the cellular telephone become tools in an increasingly competitive market in illicit drugs. Other technological artifacts unexpectedly become means of communication, either through opportunity or necessity. The aerosol can gives birth to the urban graffiti matrix. Soviet rockers press homemade flexi-discs out of used chest X rays.
The kid with the Rocket Radio gets older. One day he discovers sixty feet of weirdly skinny magnetic tape snarled in roadside Ontario brush. This is toward the end of the Eight-Track Era. He deduces the existence of the new and exotic cassette format: this semi-alien substance, jettisoned in frustration from the smooth hull of some hurtling 'Vette, settling like new-tech angel hair.
I belong to a generation of Americans who dimly recall the world prior to television. Many of us, I suspect, feel vaguely ashamed about this, as though the world before television was not quite, well, the world. The world before television equates with the world before the Net—the mass culture and the mechanisms of Information. And we are of the Net; to recall another mode of being is to admit to having once been something other than human.
The Net, in our lifetime, has propagated itself with viral rapidity, and continues to do so.
In Japan, where so many of the Net's components are developed and manufactured, this frantic evolution of form has been embraced with unequaled enthusiasm. Akihabara, Tokyo's vast retail electronics market, vibrates with a constant hum of biz in a city where antiquated three-year-old Trinitrons regularly find their way into landfill. But even in Tokyo one finds a reassuring degree of Net-induced transitional anxiety, as I learned when I met Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of Akira, a vastly popular multivolume graphic novel. Neither of us spoke the other's language: Our mutual publisher had supplied a translator, and our 'conversation' was relentlessly documented. But Otomo and I were still able to share a moment of universal techno-angst.
His living room was dominated by a vast matte-black media node that would put most Hollywood producers to shame. He pointed to an eight-inch stack of remote-control devices.
'I don't know how to use them,' he said, 'but my children do.'
'I don't know how to use mine, either.'
Today, Otomo's collection of remotes is probably part of some artfully bulldozed gomi plain, landfill for Neo-Tokyo. Gomi: Japanese for 'garbage,' a lot of which consists of outmoded consumer electronics—such as those recently redundant remotes. Wisely assuming a constant source, the Japanese build themselves more island out of it.
The sexiness of newness, and how it wears thin. The metaphysics of consumer desire, in these final years of the twentieth century . . .
Two years ago I was finally shamed into acquiring a decent audio system. A friend had turned up in the new guise of high-end-audio importer, and my old 'system,' so to speak, caused him actual pain. He offered to go wholesale on a total package, provided I let him select the bits and pieces.
It sounds fine.
But I'm not sure I really enjoy the music any more than I did before, on certifiably low-fi junk. The music, when it's really there, is just there. You can hear it coming out of the dented speaker grille of a Datsun B210 with holes in the floor. Sometimes that's the best way to hear it.
I knew a man once whose teen years had been L.A., jazz, the Forties. He spoke of afternoons he'd spent, utterly transported, playing 78-rpm recordings, 'worn down white' with repeated applications of a sharp steel stylus. That is, the shellac that carried the grooves on these originally black records was plain gone: What he must have been listening to could only have been the faintest approximations of the original sound. (Rationing affected steel phonograph needles, he told me, desperate hipsters resorted to the spikes of the larger cactuses.)
That man heard that music.
I first heard the Rolling Stones on a battery-powered, basketball-shaped, pigskin-covered miniature phonograph of French manufacture—a piece of low tech as radical in its day as it is now obscure. Radical in that it enabled the teenage owner to transport LP records and the intoxicant of choice to suitably private locations—the boonies.
This constituted an entirely new way to listen to the music of choice. 'Choice' being the key word. The revolutionary potential of the D-cell record player wasn't substantially bettered until the advent of the Walkman, which allows us to integrate the music of choice with virtually any landscape.
The Walkman changed the way we understand cities.
I first heard Joy Division on a Walkman, and I remain unable to separate the experience of the music's bleak majesty from the first heady discovery of the pleasures of musically encapsulated fast-forward urban motion.
In the Seventies, the Net writhed with growth. Gaps began to close. A paradox became increasingly evident: While artists needed the Net in order to reach a mass audience, it seemed to be the gaps through which the best art emerged, at least initially.
I am, by trade, a science-fiction writer. That is, the fiction I've written so far has arrived at the point of consumption via a marketing mechanism called 'science fiction.' During the past twenty years the Net has closed around mass-market publishing—and science fiction—as smoothly as it closed around the music industry and everything else.
As a science-fiction writer, I'm sometimes asked whether or not I think the Net is a good thing. That's like being asked if being human is a good thing. As for being a human being a good thing or not, I can't say—this has been referred to as the Post-modern Condition.
In any case it sometimes looks to me as though lots of us will eventually have a basis for comparison, by virtue of no longer being quite human at all, thank you.
Meanwhile, in my front room, the family media node is in metastasis, sprouting CDs, joysticks, you name it. My kids, like Mr. Otomo's, cluster like flies.
The other thing they ask you when you're a science-fiction writer is, 'What do you think will happen?'
The day I reply with anything other than a qualified 'I haven't got a clue,' please shoot me. While science fiction is sometimes good at predicting things, it's seldom good at predicting what those things might actually do to us. For example, television, staple window dressing for hundreds of stories from the Twenties through the Forties, was usually presented as a mode of personal communication. Nobody predicted commercials, Hollywood Squares, or heavy-metal music videos.
With that disclaimer firmly in place, I predict the family media node growing into a trickier and more unified lump. The distinction among television, CD player, and computer seems particularly arbitrary these days, a tired scam designed to support the robots who solder circuit boards. But as to what your integrated Net Node will actually be able to do for you one day, my best bet is that the words for it haven't been invented yet.
Example. A BBC executive working on another vision of 'interactive television' offered me a tour of a small research facility in San Francisco. He was interested in having me 'do' something with this new technology: The lab we visited was devoted to . . . well, there weren't verbs. I looked at things, watched consoles as they were poked and prodded, and nobody there, it seemed, could even begin to explain what it was I might be doing if I were to, uh, do one of these projects, whatever it was. It wasn't writing, and it wasn't directing. It was definitely something, though, and they were certainly keen to do it, but they needed those verbs.
Another example. A week later I found myself in an FX compound situated off a quiet back street in North Hollywood, experiencing serious future-shock frisson. My hosts—young, fast, and scientific to the bone—had developed a real-time video puppet, a slack-faced Max Headroom suspended in the imaginary space behind a television screen. Invited to put my hand in a waldo that looked vaguely like a gyroscope, I caused this sleeping golem to twitch and shiver, and my own hair to stand on end. On the way out, I was given a tape of the thing being manipulated by a professional movie puppeteer. It looks a lot more natural than I ever do on television, but what are the verbs for what those young fast fellows were doing?
We hurtle toward an imaginary vortex, the century's end. . . .
He gets up in the morning and watches ten minutes of Much-Music while the water boils for coffee. The kids aren't up yet because it's not quite time for Dinosaurs. MuchMusic is Canada's approximation of MTV. In the morning he usually watches it with the sound off, unless they show a video from Quebec, in which case he listens because he doesn't understand French.
Because he doesn't like the Net to gnaw at the remnants of the night's dreams. Not until he's ready for it to anyway.
This essay was originally published in Rolling Stone. It appears in Gibson's book of essays Distrust that Particular Flavor.
Image: Flickr / nmigo