Neuromancer at 25: What It Got Right, What It Got Wrong

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Not Gonna Happen Soon

On the other hand, some of Neuromancer’s ideas are unlikely to happen for a long, long time, if they happen at all. Here are a few that fall into the don't-hold-your-breath column.

Simstim

Again riffing on the human/computer integration theme, Gibson identifies the major form of entertainment in the world of Neuromancer as simstim (Simulation/Stimulation). Simstim is a recording (or live broadcast) of the sensory experience of one person that, with the help of a simstim deck, can be re-created exactly in the brain of another. To the person experiencing the simstim, it’s like viewing the world through another person's eyes, hearing with their ears, feeling with their skin, smelling with their nose. It’s the full sensory stimulation of another person.

In Neuromancer (and later, more thoroughly, in Mona Lisa Overdrive), simstim conjures up the way we think of popular recording artists or film stars today. In Neuromancer, the simstim star of the day is a young girl named Tally Isham. Kids line up and wait for hours just to catch a glimpse of her. She’s the Britney Spears of simstim. “The commercial stuff was edited, of course, so that if Tally Isham got a headache in the course of a segment, you didn't feel it,” Gibson explains.

Neuromancer’s main character, Case, can jump inside the body of his partner in crime, ninja girl Molly, by running her live simstim feed through the electrodes attached to his head. Here’s Gibson describing the sensation: "Then he keyed the new switch. The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and colour...She was moving through a crowded street, past stalls vending discount software, prices feltpenned on sheets of plastic, fragments of music from countless speakers. Smells of urine, free monomers, perfume, patties of frying krill. For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes.”

Far-fetched, far out, and far off, but pretty damn cool.

Rogue AIs

If there is a “bad guy” in Neuromancer it is an AI called Wintermute. The collective intelligence of a massive network of computers, Wintermute has the ability to think, learn, communicate, and control the actions of any piece of technology connected to it. Wintermute, we find out, has been craftily controlling the characters in Neuromancer to do its bidding, to free it from real-world limitations on its ability to learn more and grow stronger.

As far as I know, we are still a long, long way from facing this sort of entity. Sure we use massive computer systems to manage huge amounts of data. And we have even used that data, in some instances, to target and do harm to specific individuals of groups. Moreover, to some extent, our computer systems can think and reason.

But existing computer systems are not self-aware and self-determined like the ones in Neuromancer. That could change. Some people in the AI community believe that once we succeed in building a machine smart enough to build still smarter machines without human assistance, the machines will quickly grow smarter and more powerful by orders of magnitude. Check out the first segment of the Animatrix series for a poignant anime speculation/dramatization of how this might happen.

Constructs

Neuromancer tells of famous hacker, McCoy Pauley, who originally taught Case how to hack and later died of heart failure during an especially dangerous assault in cyberspace. But before Pauley died (in the clinical sense), some people hooked his brain up to a computer and dumped the contents--his hacking expertise, memories, habits, idiosyncrasies, everything--out onto a ROM cassette, creating a “construct” of the former hacker. Long after the flesh-and-bone Pauley’s death, Case and Molly steal the construct, which can think and talk, so that Pauley can help them complete their mission.

The conversations between Case and “the flatline” as he calls the construct, are priceless. The construct isn’t quite sure whether he’s alive or dead, and when he learns that he is just data on a disk he isn’t very happy about the situation. Pauley eventually asks Case to erase the ROM, effectively putting his mind to rest for good.

Can a person’s consciousness--the whole neurological operating system--be recorded and preserved even as the physical body expires? This prospect raises a lot of messy ethical, philosophical, spiritual, and legal questions that neither I nor my children will likely have to wrestle with.

Very good reading, for sure, but very future-tense technology.

Neuromancer is important because of its astounding predictive power. Gibson’s core idea in the novel is the direct integration of man and computer, with all the possibilities (and horrors) that such a union entails. The book eventually sold more than 160 million copies, but bringing the book to popular attention took a long time and a lot of word-of-mouth. The sci-fi, community, however, was acutely aware of the novel’s importance when it came out: Neuromancer ran the table on sci-fi’s big three awards in 1984, winning the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, and the Nebula Award.

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