Magazine article Artforum International

Nervous System: Michelle Kuo Talks with William Gibson

Magazine article Artforum International

Nervous System: Michelle Kuo Talks with William Gibson

Article excerpt

IF IT WEREN'T FOR WILLIAM GIBSON, we would hardly know ourselves. The science-fiction writer's works have perpetually revealed and predicted our condition: what it is and what it will become. From Neuromancer (1984) to his new novel, The Peripheral, Gibson has extravagantly captured the way our bodies interface with screens and networks and brilliantly limned our intensifying world of posts, hacks, drugs, and leaks. Artforum editor Michelle Kuo talks to Gibson about his perspective on the year in information--a moment of vast yet little-understood shifts in perceptual and communicative experience.

MICHELLE KUO: The title of your new book, The Peripheral, refers to perimeters in urban and virtual space but also alludes to hardware peripherals--cables, flash drives, keyboards, mice, monitors, phone chargers, headphones--the frame or edge of technological devices, which are literally marginal yet completely central to computer interfaces: That's how you get the information out or put it in. How do you envision interfaces now--how are they treated in your book, and how do you think they are changing with mobile devices and social media? WILLIAM GIBSON: The peripherals in the book's narrative are of the latter sort, but they are peripheral, synthetic human bodies the user operates telepresently, the body as remote-controlled drone. The particular one that the title refers to is a bespoke Hermes example, female, beautiful, and haunting, in that it was obviously constructed to exactly resemble someone, but no one knows who, as it was purchased from a dealer who acquired it in an estate sale. It's about the presentation of self via personal media, postgeographicality, commodification, locale of personhood.. . .

Interfaces are problematic for me, because fully depicting the experience of a really novel interface is inherently distracting for the reader. For instance, in The Peripheral, I had carefully worked out what I take to be the end stage of smart-phone interfaces: a surgically embedded unit that provides a user-transparent experience akin to how we might imagine mutual telepathic communication, complete with consensual group dreaming. But I quickly found that it overwhelmed the narrative and was so weird as to be completely distracting, not to mention confusing. So, as much as I'd wanted to present my twenty-second-century characters as using that interface, I had to gear back and equip them with a more primitive version. And even that will initially disorient readers who aren't much at ease with technological science fiction.

I find it interesting to try to envision a writer of the 1960s who managed to perfectly envision our smartphone culture in every detail. Would she have been able to tell her story without constantly annoying the reader with the intrusion of calls, e-mail, various notifications, videos?

MK: Your main characters are seen as quintessential loners--addicts, drifters--but at the same time your magnificent coinage of cyberspace seems to have predicted the social network, the massive shift in communication and connectivity of our time.

WG: I don't think the cyberspace of my first three novels is very predictive of social media at all. By the time I wrote Virtual Light119931and its two sequels, social media were an emergent technology. Virtual Light actually anticipated celebrity on the surreal order of the Kardashians, extrapolating from Cops, the first reality TV that I was aware of. I'm prouder of that than of the whole cyberspace thing, really.

The most obvious difference in how we communicate now is the frequency with which we do it. Its constancy, rather. I wonder how the relatively high level of solitude of characters in novels written before 1990 will strike future readers. When those characters are alone, they are utterly out of touch with everyone.

MK: What do you think has changed about the way we produce and disseminate information, particularly as seen in the response to events like Ferguson, in which many relied on Twitter reports and Instagram posts and aggregators (rather than traditional news outlets) to let them know what was happening and even use those platforms to actively respond or participate in protests? …

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