Transcript for William Gibson on Cyberspace

Jim Fleming: William Gibson has been described as the "noir prophet" of cyberpunk science fiction, he actually coined the word 'cyberspace' in his 1982 short story, "Burning Chrome." He took it even further in his most famous novel, "Neuromancer," the first winner of science fiction's Triple Crown, The Nebula Award, The Phillip K. Dick Award, and The Hugo Award, but why, did Gibson coin the word 'Cyberspace'?

William Gibson: What I needed in 1981 was an evocative and essentially meaningless word, which would substitute for me in a work of science fiction for space, and the spaceship, because space and the spaceship were the arena in which science fiction had predominately had played out in my lifetime, and neither of those worked for me in 1981 as a place i could set fiction, I wanted something completely new, and through a rather roundabout process I found myself one day sitting with a yellow legal pad and a red Sharpie, printing imaginary words in black capitals, and I think I had 'Infospace' and 'dataspace,' neither of which worked poetically for me, neither of which would have really had any legs in the English language if I had chosen them instead, I think if I chose either 'infospace' or 'dataspace' we wouldn't be talking now.

Jim Fleming: (LAUGHS)

William Gibson: When I got to 'cyberspace,' it rolled off the tongue, and sat there in red Sharpie on the yellow legal pad looking as though it had always been there, and I thought 'I'll go with that.'  It was a hollow signifiar when I coined it, it meant nothing, it was absolutely devoid of meaning, and that was also what I had wanted so then I could then begin to fill it in fiction, with meaning, to I hoped, the pleasure of the reader. 

Jim Fleming: Well then it meant that you had a chance then to not be Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asamov, you had a place that you could write a distinctly William Gibson universe

William Gibson: Yes.  And I don't know if I would have put it that way at the time, but that was actually what I was looking for and what drove me to coin it, is the subsequent but understandable confusion as to whether or not I invented cyberspace, and I didn't, what happened was I coined a word, came up with a number of completely imaginary definitions, and descriptions, of something called that, but the word somehow escaped from my text into the language at large and began to be used to describe what we were doing and what we still, by and large, call cyberspace if indeed we have to call it anything, I think if its not already slightly archaic, I think it eventually will be, if only because the distinction between that which is cyberspace and that which isn't is vanishing. ---- Jim

Fleming: I'm really curious cause you said you had a couple of definitions of it at the time, how would you have described cyberspace in 1981? ---- William Gibson: If I had a copy of 'Neuromancer' with me, which I don't, I could find you the paragraph in 'Neuromancer' which does exactly that.

CLIP (GIBSON READING FROM "NEUROMANCER"):

"Cyberspace, a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts, a graphic representation of data extracted from the banks of every computer in the human system, unthinkable complexity, lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind, clusters, and constellations of data.  Like city lights, receding."

Gibson: In 1991 when people would ask me to define it, I'd tell them it's where the bank keeps there money, which it literally is, its where the stock market is transacted, it increasingly where your medical records are, its increasingly where we do anything of any informational importance, and simultaneously it has no geographical location, and is global, and now I think over into another era of cyberspace in which cyberspace is colonizing the physical world in ways that most of us aren't entirely conscious of. '

Jim Fleming: It's interesting, isn't it? That something that was entirely imaginary when you started, has evolved and taken on, if not a reality of its own, an existence of its own.

William Gibson: I knew in 1981 that there was an internet, to the extent that there was an internet in 1981 which wasn't very much. I had actually had friends who after, like, a really gruelling ham radio, like, learning curve, where sometimes it will connect there computers to the computers of friends and I foreign country's and exchange messages and I thought 'Thats going to be exponentially easier one day' and that was one of the observations that led to my the creation of my first imaginary cyberspace in my early fiction.

Jim Fleming: A lot of your non fiction focuses on cities, you've written about Tokyo, you've written about New York City. Is there something particuraly about cities that you find compelling?

William Gibson: Cities are engines for the generation of emerging technologies, once cities were in place, relatively few technologies emerged directly from rural situations. I think that cities are in themselves, are sort of made of technology. Its impossible to have a city without a deep and paramagal sub straight of technologies, the very bottom line being that hunter gatherers can't do cities. You can't do a city until your society has technologies in place that allow it reliably attain and store food, thats the bottom line, and usually there would be serials of something like that, you need a agricultural base and a way to store, you know, long term storage of cereals or rice which enables you then to keep a large population in one place, and keep them working on your city project, beyond a certain number, and I think its actually a very specific number, your city will die of disease and overpopulation unless you've been able to master sewage technology, and that nearly did for London a couple of times with the cholera.

Jim Fleming: Things have changed these days, technology, the emerging technologies that your so excited about that you believe are moving social change, have come up with a lot of things. What do you think about social media sites like Facebook and Twitter?

Willam Gibson: Well, I think that the internet is something in the broadest sense, on the order of a city. I think the internet is the next thing we've done as a species after cities. Its a sort of plateau and on that plateau it seems only natural to me that we would evolve means of social interaction, there would be places to go and places to be with other people, it would be interesting to know whether in 50 years say, social media resembled anything at all these social media that we have today, I think thats probably unknowable.

Jim Fleming: In your collection, 'Distrust, That Particular Flavor,' the last piece is called 'Googling the Cyborg.'  It's a transcript of a talk you gave for the Vancouver Institute, in there, you describe the internet as your cybernetic organism, can you explain what you meant by that?

William Gibson: In that talk, I describe the advent of our myth of the cyborg, of the quasar robot human, the guy with the chip in his head and various other accessories, and thats being a big 20th century piece of mythology for us, it pops up everywhere, its very familiar, little children will get it if you showed them a drawing of that kind of cyborg, but what I wind up saying in that talk is that I don't think were going there, but that that is a sort of cultural symbol, that we had of where we actually are going, and where we actually are going, I imagine judging where we've already gone in my lifetime, is somewhere where we are all to some extent interconnected almost all of the time to an unprecedented degree, and that mass of constantly interconnected human beings accessing all sorts of artificial prosthetic memory, constitutes a new stage of the human experience and probably indicates some further direction which I would assume is quite unimaginable to us today.

Jim Fleming: I know you just said that a future in a way, is unimaginable, but do you see technology evolving? Do you have any ideas about how its going to evolve? How it will affect us?

William Gibson: I think technology does evolve, but its important to remember that culturally, we often use the word 'evolve', or 'evolution' in ways that are completely counter to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to which I am very much a subscriber and I think that technology evolves very much the way organisms evolve, which is to say, randomly, meaninglessly, and endlessly, we are not the crown of creation, were just the result of a lot of accidents, that was Darwin's take, you know, thats the core of Darwin's theory of evolution and I think our technology is like that, I think our technology is actually random, completely off the largely completely random and new technologies are called into emergence often as not by someones high hopes for the marketplace and they the arrive and they either take off or they don't but when they do take off, by no means do they go in those directions imagined by there inventors or manufactures, they change things radically in human society in ways that no one ever anticipated. The biggest changes that technology brings to us are by and large entirely unanticipated, and then were left trying to legislate after the fact to try and come to terms with rampant social change in one sphere or another, but almost never are technologies legislated into existence.

Jim Fleming: William Gibson is the author of 'Neuromancer,' 'Zero History,' and many other novels. His non-fiction works include 'Distrust That Particular Flavor.'

Comments for this interview

Ho hum (RT, 09/22/2013 - 5:50am)

It's a relief to hear Gibson (no fool) identify the crass meaninglessness of this stupid word. Beyond a sort of auto-alliteration (and I guess it's a dactyl?), the term suggests "remote-controlled vacuum". It's ideal culture medium for sophomoric, know-nothing journalistical blather.