William Gibson: Today's Internet Is 'Utterly Banal' Gibson's latest is Agency — set in a future where climate change has mostly wiped out humanity. The cyberpunk godfather says today's online world is "utterly banal" compared to his original vision.
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William Gibson Says Today's Internet Is Nothing Like What He Envisioned

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William Gibson Says Today's Internet Is Nothing Like What He Envisioned

William Gibson Says Today's Internet Is Nothing Like What He Envisioned

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The author William Gibson writes visionary stories. In his early work, he imagined an information highway long before the World Wide Web actually existed. But in a dozen novels over the last 35 years, Gibson has stalked closer and closer to the present. In his latest called "Agency," the 70-year-old author splits his focus between the distant future and the immediate present. Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: William Gibson says his favorite type of science fiction requires time and effort to understand.

WILLIAM GIBSON: My greatest pleasure in reading books by other people is to be dropped into a completely baffling scenario and to experience something very genuinely akin to culture shock of first visiting a new culture.

VITALE: Gibson imagined that sort of culture shock back in 1982 when he coined the term cyberspace in a short story. Two years later, he popularized the term in his first novel "Neuromancer," about a washed-up computer hacker hired for one last job.

GIBSON: (Reading) A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he'd taken and the corners he'd cut in Night City and still he'd see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void.

VITALE: "Neuromancer" was the first novel to win three of the top science fiction prizes - the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. The book launched the genre that became known as cyberpunk. It was a major influence on the 1999 film "The Matrix."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MATRIX")

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Morpheus) The pill you took is part of a trace program. It's designed to disrupt your input-output carrier signal so we can pinpoint your location.

KEANU REEVES: (As Neo) What does that mean?

JOE PANTOLIANO: (As Cypher) It means buckle your seat belt, Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER)

LEV GROSSMAN: He said once that he was wrong about cyberspace and the Internet when he first conceived it; he thought it was a place that we would all leave the world and go to, whereas, in fact, it came here.

VITALE: Lev Grossman is a former book critic for Time magazine and author of the fantasy bestseller "The Magicians."

GROSSMAN: You have an artificial intelligence that is everywhere. It's in all your devices. You're looking through it as a lens to see the rest of the world. It's an extraordinary vision of how computers will become aware and become the thing that mediates between us and reality.

VITALE: But William Gibson thinks the future of artificial intelligence will require a human sensibility to take it to the next level.

GIBSON: Over the past few years, I've more and more frequently encountered people saying that the real change-bringer might not be an intelligence that we build from the ground up, but something like an uploaded human consciousness that we then augment with the sort of artificial intelligence we already have.

VITALE: Gibson says when he started working on "Agency," he saw it as a kind of "Thelma & Louise" story in which an app whisperer named Verity absconds with a pair of eyeglasses containing a powerful new artificial intelligence named Eunice. When he was writing the novel, Gibson assumed that Hillary Clinton would be elected president.

GIBSON: And then I woke up the morning after the election and looked at my computer and realized that the manuscript I'd been working on was actually set in 2017, but it had become a 2017 that no longer existed. And it was so organic and so fractally complete a change that it just crushed me. I thought, you know, that's dead, that whole thing I'm working on.

VITALE: Then it struck Gibson that he could save his manuscript by creating a future world in the year 2136 in which 80% of the population has been wiped out by climate change, but also a world where characters time travel to create an alternate past in which Clinton won the election.

GIBSON: After having giving it only a few hours' thought, I realized that the world in which Hillary won wouldn't be a happy world, either, because all of the drivers of the stress we feel today, minus one, would still very much be present.

VITALE: And when it comes to his own predictions for the future, William Gibson says he was wrong about something else. He thought the Internet would be a mysterious and sexy place.

GIBSON: Cyberspace as described in "Neuromancer" is nothing at all like the Internet that we live with, which consists mostly of utterly banal and silly stuff.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAGON INN 3'S "BAD BOY")

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