But, it isn’t just the Internet that Gibson saw coming. In Neuromancer, the Internet has become dominated by huge multinational corporations fighting off hackers. The main character is a washed-up criminal hacker who goes to work for an ex-military officer to regain his glory. And get this: The ex-military guy is deeply involved in cyber-espionage between the U.S. and Russia.
Gibson says he didn’t need to try a computer or see the Internet to imagine this future. “The first people to embrace a technology are the first to lose the ability to see it objectively,” he says.
He says he’s more interested in how people behave around new technologies. He likes to tell a story about how TV changed New York City neighborhoods in the 1940s.
“Fewer people sat out on the stoops at night and talked to their neighbors, and it was because everyone was inside watching television,” he says. “No one really noticed it at the time as a kind of epochal event, which I think it was.”
William Gibson: “I Didn’t Know That People’s Mothers Would Be On It”
After years of covering Silicon Valley and speaking with brilliant inventors, I found Gibson’s point a revelation. Our tech entrepreneurs are focused almost exclusively on how their devices will be used by individuals — not how those devices will change society. They want to make things that are addictive and entertaining. That is why I’ve started to take science fiction more seriously.
Among the sci-fi artists looking at today’s latest technologies is Charlie Brooker, the creator and writer of the Netflix show Black Mirror.
Brooker has a certain amount of frustration with the leaders in tech. “It’s felt like tech companies have for years just put this stuff out there,” he says. “And they distance themselves from the effects of their product effectively by saying, ‘Oh, we’re just offering a service.’ ”
Brooker sees each new technology more like an untested drug waiting to launch us on a very bad trip. Each episode of Black Mirror is like its own laboratory testing a technology that is already out, but pushing it by mixing in common human behaviors and desires.
Charlie Brooker: “We Use Technology In The Way Shows Like The ‘Twilight Zone’ Would Use The Supernatural”
In one episode, everyone ranks one another on how well they interact socially in real time. It’s like Yelp on steroids. The result is a nightmare society — every smile is forced; it’s impossible to be honest with anyone.
In another episode, a grieving women hires a service that scans social media and other accounts of her deceased lover. It uses the information to bring him back as a humanoid robot. He speaks and responds almost exactly like the man she lost. And in case you’re wondering: Such technology is already in the works.
Brooker says he does admire inventors. He knows he could never be one.
“I could scarcely have invented the shoe,” Brooker says. “I’d be worrying that that would restrict your feet.”
There is a kind of optimism that it takes to be an inventor. But the father of the Internet thinks inventors need the artists.
“It’s the mind-stretching practice of trying to think what the implications of technology will be that makes me enjoy science fiction,” Cerf says. “It teaches me that when you’re inventing something you should try to think about what the consequences might be.”
The artists are the ones who recognize a fundamental truth: Human nature hasn’t changed much since Shakespeare’s time, no matter what fancy new tools you give us.