Author William Gibson on non-functioning American democracy, the importance of giving computers to the poor, and the elitist appeal of the Internet.
By Dan Josefsson
On November 23, 1994 William Gibson came to Stockholm, Sweden, to promote his new book "Virtual Light". I interviewed him for "Rapport", Sweden's largest TV-news program. We talked for about half an hour, but only a small percent of the interview made it to the TV audience. William Gibson deserves better than that, so I hereby realese a transcript of the entire interview on the Web. Enjoy!
What is cyberspace?
Cyberspace is a metaphor that allows us to grasp this place where since about the time of the second world war we've increasingly done so many of the things that we think of as civilization. Cyberspace is where we do our banking, it's actually where the bank keeps your money these days because it's all direct electronic transfer. It's where the stock market actually takes place, it doesn't occur so much any more on the floor of the exchange but in the electronic communication between the worlds stock-exchanges.
So I think that since so much of what we do is happening digitally and electronically, it's useful to have an expression that allows that all to be part of the territory. I think it makes it easier for us to visualize what we're doing with this stuff.
Is there any situation when people actually enter cyberspace?
Well, you know, I think in a very real sense cyberspace is the place where a long distance telephone call takes place. Actually it's the place where any telephone call takes place and we take that very much for granted. Otherwise I would say that when people use the Internet, that's when they're most obviously navigating in cyberspace. When you use the Internet you enter a realm in which geography no longer exist.
Is that a good thing?
I think it's a fascinating thing and in any case it's not going to go away. I think that technologies are morally neutral until we apply them. It's only when we use them for good or for evil that they become good or evil.
The Internet is one way to communicate with lots of people without using the body, you just use your mind. Is cyberspace a better place to be than this physical world?
Well, I don't think so. There is an tendency in our culture, in a broader sense the western civilization, to reject the body in favor of an idea of the spirit or the soul. I have never been entirely sure that that's such a good thing, and in an interesting way this technology is pointing in that direction. One could imagine a very ascetic sort of life growing out of this, where the body is ignored. This is something I've played with in my books, where people hate to be reminded sometimes that they have bodies, they find it very slow and tedious. But I've never presented that as an desirable state, always as something almost pathological growing out of this technology.
What is your relationship with the cyberpunk-movement. Are they disappointed at you because you don't wear silver colored clothes?
I think perhaps they have been in the past, but I've always made a very consistent effort to warn them in advance. You know, whenever I do interviews or go on television I start by saying that I don't really know that much about computers and I don't use them much myself. I think the expectation at one time was that I would be this leather clothed guy with a mohawk and pins through my cheeks, who used some sort of computer that looked like a stealth bomber with the serial number numbers filed of. But I think now they know that that's not the case, so I think the real disappointment has probably past.
In your books you often describe big, multinational companies that are in control of almost everything. But today it's more and more easy for ordinary people to get access to the Internet and the companies are not really in control at all. Do you think this will change, will the companies get control of the Internet?
Oh, I hope not. I sincerely hope not. The advent, evolution and growth of the Internet is, I think, one of the most fascinating and unprecedented human achievements of the century. I sometimes suspect that we're seeing something in the Internet as significant as the birth of cities. It's something that profound and with that sort of infinite possibilities. It's really something new, it's a new kind of civilization. And of course the thing I love about it is that it's transnational, non profit - it isn't owned by anyone - and it's shape is completely user driven. What it is, is determined by the needs of millions and millions of users.
So cyberspace is evolving to meet the needs of individuals all over the world. The American so called "Information Highway", or the "Infobahn" (laughs) which I have always liked very much, is an attempt to create a commercial version. I think that very, very large interests are looking at the Internet, not really understanding what it is, but thinking "We can make a fortune if we have one of those!". You know, they want to get in there, it'll be broadcast television again.
But of course that's not going to be it, and I think that the highway metaphor is particularly suspect. A highway is something you can go two ways on, it implies real traffic. Really what they're offering you is a mall. They want to give you an infomall where you pay for every bit of information you download, and you'll download from a menu that some corporation has assembled. It's like they talk in the states about the "five hundred channel universe", and how we're all are going to have so much cable, but what are they going to put on it? In Los Angeles you can have a hundred channels of cable on your television today and you can flip through all of them and there's no content! It's amazingly content-free.
So I have great hopes for the Internet, very little hope for commercial versions, and I profoundly hope that the Internet will continue to be the basis of this sort of growth.
Yesterday night I read some of the newsgroups about cyberspace and cyberpunk and your name comes up all the time. There are some things being discussed that I thought I'd ask you about. Some Americans claimed that the Europeans are more afraid of the kind of society that you describe in your books...
That's interesting... I think that the sort of societies I am describing would be more disturbing to someone who lived in a cohesive, functioning social democracy than it would be to someone who lives in the United States. There are large parts of the United States today that must seem, I would think, to a European as dystopian and possibly more dystopian than I describe in my books. There are large parts of many American cities that are absolute social nightmares. America is a country that may already have an enormous permanent underclass. I do not think an enormous permanent underclass is a very good thing to have if you're attempting to operate something that at least pretends sometimes to be a democracy.
By the same token, I think that computers today allow us one last opportunity to provide something like a level playingfield in America. My colleague Bruce Sterling and I were invited to Washington a couple of years ago to address the National Academy of Sciences special meeting on the computerization of American public schools. The idea was that all schools would be put on line totally and that education would start taking place in the Internet. It's fascinating thing you can do, pedagogical talent can be shared regardless of the physical whereabouts, it's got astonishing potential. Plus you're giving the children something that has the tactile appeal of video games, you're not giving them a sort of 19th century education, which is what we are doing now.
Sterling and I appalled everyone by arguing that yes, this is a great idea, but this sort of technology had to immediately go to only to the poorest and most disadvantaged there is. They had to be taken into the ghetto schools.
As it is today they have no chance of getting it...
No, they have no access to computers. I was watching CNN during the riots of Los Angeles a couple of years ago and they were showing video footage of a mob looting a Radio Shack. Running out of the Radio Shack was hi-fis, video cameras and everything they could pick up. But the Radio Shack was right next to a Macintosh dealership which had powerbooks in the window. And it was untouched. So here these incredible valuable portable very, very powerful computers was sitting untouched behind an unbroken shop-window while the poor people steal Sony Walkmans. I felt that was so sad, and so indicative of our real problem. Because this technology, at this point, belongs to the middle classes and up. It's not available to the underclass at all, they're not interested in it.
Will this result in a permanent gap?
Oh, we have that. It's a result of the systematic dismantling during the Reagan era of what past for our welfare system and the disappearance of the middle class. The middle class drains away in either direction becoming either very rich or very poor. It's a tragic situation, one which I had hoped to see reversed somewhat under the Clinton administration, but with the recent advent of a republican senate I'm afraid that in a sense we are back to the Reagan years. If we want to see what we get when we sustain that sort of political activity for a long time - look at England.
I'm going to ask an other question which is being discussed on the net: Are you using the Internet? Do you have an e-mail address?
No, no, I don't. I don't have an e-mail address, I don't even have a modem. As much as I admire the Internet I suffer literally agoraphobia, which in it's original sense means a fear of the marketplace. I do not want to receive three hundred e-mail messages per week from strangers wanting to communicate with me. If only because I'd be tempted to open them all and look at them. And there goes, you know, half the time that I have to write. I mean, the amount of physical mail and other communications I get these days is already swamping me.
Will you ever use the Internet?
When it's evolved a bit more and the interface is very easy and I have a bit more time in my life, I think I will use it because it'll be convenient and I think it will increasingly become the way that we will do anything. One thing I don't like about using the Internet at this point is that it's sufficiently difficult to use that people who've learnt how to use it can feel a certain pride, feel a certain accomplishment. It's apparently a rather steep learning curve at the beginning. So that gives it a sort of elitist appeal. And that's going to disappear as the interface design evolves and becomes sufficiently transparent. Children will be able to use it, everyone will be able to use it, and at that point we'll see some amazing social changes I think. It's limited now by just terrible, primitive interface design and that keeps it in the hands of a dedicated few. A dedicated few millions of millions, but still relatively few people are using it.
I think that's it. Thank you.
This article was originally published on the web in 1995. If you want to see what web pages looked like back then, you'll find the original version here.
More articles by Dan Josefsson can be found at: josefsson.net