Cybernauts in Cyberspace: William Gibson's Neuromancer
The human being acts as the ideal decoder.
-- Claude E. Shannon1
The mechanism-vitalism duality has been banished to the limbo of badly posed questions.
-- Norbert Wiener2
One of Descartes' students asked the master how he would know when an automaton had become a true man.
"When he tells me so himself," Descartes replied.
Both Descartes and his student assumed, however, that when a truly intelligent artificial intelligence is born, it would be indistinguishable from us. This rivalry has fueled centuries of speculation and fears about the ever-narrowing gap between man and machine. Yet some recent fiction offers a new view of the rivalry: when the automaton achieves selfhood, there will be no question of it being a true man, for it will be so totally unlike us as to have achieved alienness, not humanity.
This essay addresses two intertwined ideas. Both take William Gibson's superior novel, Neuromancer ( 1984),3 as a point of departure, since Gibson illustrates these ideas in great detail and with remarkable subtlety. The first is the theme of the artificial- intelligence alien and his relationship -- as nemesis, twin, foil, and soul child -- to humans who are themselves busy learning to live as cybernauts. The second is the question of the positive feedback loop between our technologies and science fiction like Gibson's, and the impulses that I believe lie behind them. In fact, I believe that there is one single impulse which lies behind both speculative fiction and our