Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Take Two

Sorry this is so late, I either got a cold or developed allergies, not sure which. :\

So I know I posted a link to Digital yesterday, and I had originally intended to talk about Digital and how cyberpunk is dead (long live cyberpunk!), but I think I'm more interested in the debate about cyberspace vs reality, especially with respect to the body. So uh, enjoy Digital if you like, but don't feel compelled to play it before tomorrow (though it is an excellent game).

Instead. The physical and the virtual and the real, all mediated through the concept of the body.

Case, at the start of the book, draws a total distinction between the world of cyberspace and the world of meatspace. Gibson describes the aftermath of the mycotoxin: "For Case, who'd lived the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he'd frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh" (6, emphasis mine). Case uses the term "meat" quite frequently as a derogatory reference to the body, as opposed to what he
prefers, the experience of "his disembodied consciousness" (5).

In response to his inability to jack in and live that disembodied life, Case develops addictions to drugs and sex. In Linda Lee, he sees "the raw need, the hungry armature of addiction" (9), and in himself, he sees "lust and loneliness riding in on the wavelength of amphetamine" (9). Drugs and sex are bound up in a ball of bodily desire, things he turns to after he can no longer access the matrix. These represent "all the meat...and all it wants" (10).

Case only imagines two extremes: disembodiment (cyberspace), or total embodiment (meatspace). Yet the novel resides in the intermediate spaces, where the physical is made virtual and the virtual made physical. These intermediaries, however, cannot exist in one person, but rather emerge from the relationships between people. The two most interesting mediating entities are the market and the corporation. Early on, Case presents the experience of living in the underworld as an analogue of cyberspace. He notes that under pressure, "it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data, the way the matrix had once reminded him of proteins linking to distinguish cell specialties ... all around you the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market" (17). Later, in Freeside, Case finds himself in the underworld yet again, and realizes that "the local action", "the real thing", is "commerce" (141). In this instance, the commerce is specifically that of bodies without consciousnesses, the cubicles where women (and maybe men but we don't see it) sell their bodies.

The other mediating space is the corporation. The word corporation carries the body within it, and in Neuromancer, the corporation is alternately imagined as a hive mind and as a single body. In describing the problems with Tessier-Ashpool, the Flatline relates them to "your immune system falling apart on you. Ripe for virus" (187). Here, the term virus refers both to the infectious agent that causes disease in living things, and to the computer virus that they will use to attack the ICE of T-A. Case also imagines the zaibatsus and multinational corporations first "as organisms" (196) and immediately after, as "hives with cybernetic memories, vast single organisms, their DNA coded in silicon" (196). The corporation, given a collective consciousness through computers, now has the ability to act as a true single organism, one body acting on the world around it based on disembodied data.

I Hate the Future

I live in the world imagined by William Gibson in Neuromancer. I refer not to a computer mediated reality wherein individuals jack-in to cyberspace, so much as a world where the basic concepts of future space are largely defined by Gibson’s imagination. T.V. series and films such as Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in a Shell and Aeon Flux, The Matrix, Blade Runner and a litany of others all borrow heavily from Gibson’s cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic hellscape. What I find particularly striking is that these films all find the cyberpunk aesthetic interesting and convincing. What is it about the cyberpunk aesthetic that allows it to be such a pervasive cultural influence? And why, given the popular discourse around cybernetics, has the general public been reticent to embrace real scientific developments?

Neuromancer, and the creative works it inspired, highlight growing anxieties about the rapid proliferation of new technologies. Gibson pays particular attention to the constant change in the discussions between Case and the ‘Moderns’. The rambunctious group of teenage pranksters cum terrorists barely speak the same language as Case who is presumably only a few years their senior. Their differences are also manifest in their corporeal presentation. Older generations seem to alter their physical appearance to meet 20 century ideals of beauty; Armitage’s face is an amalgamation of news broadcasters; Molly’s body is thin and curvaceous. Yet the ‘Moderns’ are purposefully ugly; fanged teeth, stretched faces, pointy ears, pink hair and a small forest of silicon growing from behind their ears. Molly warns Case to not be afraid of the younger generation, although there seem to be very real differences in how the two groups perceive the world. The ‘Moderns’ come to signify the complete alienation of one generation – or subculture – from another. The rules, mores and aesthetics of the ‘Moderns’ stand in stark contrast to those of people only a few years their senior. Likewise, reticence of organ donation, cloning, genetically modified foods and a litany of other technologies seem to bring similar anxieties about what is natural, normal and taken for granted.

I think the hyperbolic change and the attenuating alienation stands in for present anxieties about shifting geopolitical structures and uncertainties about the size, structure, and sustainability of American empire. Neuromancer, set during a nuclear winter, seems a prophetic warning of what might happen if America loses its global dominance and Asian corporations vanquish their American foes. Themes of xenophobia, although poorly and incompletely articulated, seem to abound in Ninsei. These themes come off as somewhat unthreatening because the narrator is never grounded in a particular homeland aside from cyberspace – in which he is exile – and so the reader doesn’t know to whom they owe allegiance.

Defining Androgynous Characters

The strangest aspect of the story to me, from a perspective gender, is contained in this excerpt: “And thus the woman in Seattle who had written herself the character called legba, with a view perhaps to tasting in imagination a deity's freedom from the burdens of the gendered flesh, got to read similarly constructed sentences in which legba, messenger of the gods, lord of crossroads and communications, suffered a brand of degradation all-too- customarily reserved for the embodied female” Somehow the lamdaMoo became a place (for characters such as Legba and other androgynes, at least) where gender is only defined by its violation. Legba defined herself as androgynous, a god who had no need for a sex in order to exist, and yet was raped as a woman. While this presents a unique and strange situation for gender to exist, it does not occur without some theoretical hiccoups, mostly relating to its inescapable relationship with the physical world.

Even if the internet society of MOO asks us to “behold the new bodies awaiting us in virtual space undazzled by their phantom powers, and to get to the crucial work of sorting out the socially meaningful differences between those bodies and our physical ones,” it is . The case of Mr. Bungle is continually considered in the sense of how its analogues would be found in the physical world (“consider how that wisdom would sound to a woman who'd been, say, fondled by strangers while passed out drunk,” for example). By doing this, the denizens of Lambda require some sort of consistency between the two worlds, and firmly ground their imaginary plane with the rules of the physical world.

Thus, when Mr. Bungle decided to violate androgynous characters such as Legba,
his inaccurate descriptions of their selves would remove the literality of his control over them. If Legba is truly androgynous, and why not, it is a god after all, the nature of Legba implies a physicality that would make the physical descriptions of his “rape” inaccurate, as they assume Legba is a woman (at least I think, I might be mistaken). Thus, the rape becomes a description of rape, rather than the literal act itself.

To be honest, I am not sure where this takes the story. It makes Bungle’s acts no less malicious or violative on a personal level for each of the victims, only making the crime less harsh technically. Perhaps viewing the situation like this confers some sort of “power” on the digital androgyne (which could also just be taken as any digital persona that has decided not to identify a gender, rather than specifically state they have ambiguous gender), in that their indefinability makes them more elusive in a world that relies on the accurate descriptions of each of its aspects to exist. Also, I don’t really know enough about gender theory to make any of these statements about androgyny with certainty or authority, this is just an argument I’ve made off of assumption, so correct me if im wrong.

Dystopia? Revolution?


Dystopia, revolutionary, cowboy, Japan

Reading Nicola Nixon’s article on Cyberpunk while reading Gibson’s Neuromancer made me dislike a genre that I really thought I would enjoy. I was quite skeptical of Nixon’s collection of praise for cyberpunk. As she described cyberpunk and asked the reader not to simply see it as “a form of professional, self-interested hype or clever marketing strategy” that is all it seemed to be (221). I was interested to read more of Bruce Sterling’s glowing review of Neuromancer. Calling cyberpunk the grounds for revolution and Neuromancer the “reason why Science Fiction was invented” is too far over the top (220). Sterling goes on to connect “drugs, personal computers and cyberpunk as ‘definitive high-tech products’” (220). Which prompts me to raise the question, who wants to live in this world? And are we already living in it? Neuromancer doesn’t seem to be a very futuristic, but is that because it is a world we already partially inhabit?

When Nixon asks “where then, we might well ask ourselves, is revolutionary potential articulated in cyberpunk fiction”…or is it articulated at all?” I was wondering the same thing (229). She continues to say that it would be a misreading to label Gibson’s worlds dystopias, but that is exactly how I found them (229). Granted I haven’t finished reading Neuromancer yet, but the world of drugs, black market medical clinics, and violence has the makings of a dystopia. Hearing that Gibson sees his books as “optimistic” and that his futures “would be a neat place to visit” places his interests on a very different page than mine. Moreover, believing that the world of Neuromancer has a “bustling commerce” might be true, but what is being sold appears distressing (230).

Nixon describes the heroes as part of the corporate system, not trying to shake it and allowing the hero to triumph within the system (230). Nixon believes that in Gibson’s novel “there is absolutely no critique of corporate power” (230). It this is an optimistic world, having to remain within the system of oppression power how is that the grounds for a revolution?

Placing Japan as a centerpiece of Neuromancer seemed a bit strange at first. But after reading Nixon’s article, its place makes clear sense. The fear both American’s and Canadian’s had during the 80s seems real and just out of our (students in this class) reach. As Nixon points out, there is not an overwhelming fear or paranoia felt towards Japan, but the villains in the novel are the large Japanese companies, whereas the heroes are American “cowboys” (224)

In many ways, this book tries to paint a thrilling and entertaining pitcute of the technologically advanced furutre. But to me, it seemed well rooted in the 1980s past. The idea of the space cowboy attempts to put an antiquated image into a futuristic setting. But we love the cowboy because it represents the past; the safety of a man who is strong and adventurous. No matter how much we try to plut the cowboy into space, to me, he doesn’t seem to belong. As Nixon describes, the cowboys in Neurmancer eventually accept a very traditional, old-fashioned nuclear family. With cowboy images and an underground drug culture, fears of Japanese power and technology, Neuromancer doesn’t seem to be a very realistic possible future. As for setting the ground for a revolution, I’m not sure if I believe that either.

Cyberspace as it Affects Concepts of Distance

Neuromancer is a surprising piece of fiction in that it is predictive of issues relating to technology that could only be guessed at before. Through Case's obsession with jacking into cyberspace and the world therein Gibson creates an arena in which he explores the question of the affect of technology on physical and psychic distance. Characters in the novel travel from Japan, to the Sprawl of the United States, Turkey, to the space stations of Zion and Freeside. The actual physical locations are of little import, for in a world where technology allows remote access to information from anyplace a character such as Henry Dorsett Case finds more intrigue in Cyberspace than in the physical realm.

From the novel's opening we see reality through the lense of technology, with the words "The Sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" (4). Reality is a sort of fiction to Case and others, as he interacts with and describes the world in terms of the digital in order to evoke substantive feeling. The world of cyberspace bleeds into the world of the real to such an extent that the "artificial" characters of Wintermute, Neuromancer, and even McCoy Pauley/The Dixie Flatline often blur the lines between the physical reality and the psychic reality.

Wintermute cannot actually interact with the characters without assuming the form of another character they have met in their lives. His personality is diffuse and relies on accessing the memory imprints of people and places from others in order to actually have access to the world outside a computer. Similarly  Neuromancer is able to call upon the dead memories of others (i.e., Linda Lee) and develops them in a way that Wintermute cannot. Rather than merely accessing the form and familiarity of a character Neuromancer can evoke them in all of their complexities while maintaing an actual separate consciousness from them. As contrasted by the two AIs central to the story this separation of the mind from the body either representing it or a fundamental part of it is reflective of the greater issue of man's separation between the realm of the mental and the physical as shown by Case.

Case routinely decries his own seemingly foolish actions as resulting from "meat" and exalts a form of union with technology in which he is psychically distant from his own body. There is a sort of rebuttal against this desire to severe yourself wholly from the realm of the physical. Before I forget I should address the character of McCoy Pauley as presented through the construct The Dixie Flatline. Dixie or Dix is a remnant of the deceased mentor to Case who suffered from a fatal case of "black ice" when he was probing into the AI Neuromancer's security features. Dix appears dissatisfied with his position as a sort of cyber-ghost, a remnant of a man confined to a computer. His existence does not appear enjoyable. He routinely expresses his desire to be erased as a payment for completing his one last job, which makes sense considering his position: he was literally comodified by a corporation as he now exists in state of pure spirit in the matrix and is solely defined by his role as a hacker. This case of actual psychic and physical severing through Dix's remaining as a cyber imprint whose continued existence is contingent on his role as a hacker shows a fatalistic end to Case's addiction to the realm of the purely psychic.

As real as unreality can get.

Physical places take on traces of the digital to display Case's fundamental disinterest and removal from the realm of the physical. Even when he returns to his home "BAMA, the Sprawl, the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis" from his two-year exile to Chiba city Gibson's narration denies us a stark physical description of the place. Instead the cities and places of the Sprawl are described in the abstract concept of data exchange. The place is not determined by its physical description but rather by how much abstracted information passes through the city.

~“Program a map to display frequency of data exchange, every thousand megabytes a single pixel on a very large screen. Manhattan and Atlanta burn solid white. Then they start to pulse, the rate of traffic threatening to overload your simulation. Your map is about to go nova. Cool it down. Up your scale. Each pixel a million megabytes. At a hundred million megabytes per second, you begin to make out certain blocks in midtown Manhattan, outlines of hundred-year-old industrial parks ringing the old core of Atlanta...” (40)

Digitizing the real.

Paradise Preserved


I want to expand on Shelina's and Rhiannon’s posts to address the specifics of our dependence on computers and the internet. While we often couch conversations of life shifted to the internet in terms of social networking, social interaction is not the only thing that has moved online. My roommate spilled soda on her computer and had to give it up for a week, and no one understood how she was getting work done. Granted, she has the internet on her phone and access to campus computer clusters, but it’s not that much of an exaggeration now for people to think of their personal computers in terms of “my whole life is on that thing.”

I was initially struck by the fact that Case’s disconnect from cyberspace was related to “the Fall,” (6), but I think playing out the metaphor provides some interesting complications to the question of what we stand to lose based on our reliance on computers. For Case, it seems disconnect from cyberspace really does mirror Adam’s own loss of Paradise. Tempted into breaking one big rule he's been given in his world, he loses access to it, in the process becoming hyper aware of the “prison of his own flesh,” and understanding misery and work in a new light for some time (6). From there of course the story changes – he’s granted new access to his personal Paradise and doesn’t lose it this time, and Molly’s not exactly Eve. But this idea of paradise is what I want to dwell on. Because, as Rhiannon noted, the internet can certainly serve as a haven for people. But it’s not paradise, or at least not just paradise. Increasingly, it’s everyday life. It’s where we keep our calendars and photographs, where we learn assignments and hand them in. It’s where we do our taxes, and while it isn’t yet where we perform that other certainty in life, death, that’s not that far away either. Because once your whole life is on that thing, you can lose your whole life on it too. And yes, this doesn’t apply to everyone. I still have a planner that I write things down in, and the technological advancements we have access to are not at all universal. But once we do transfer information to the internet, we become dependent on that information. Apocalypse stories so often center around a disruption in technology at this point because it’s hard to imagine life without technology. It’s hard to live life without technology, but still entirely possible. But the more dependent we are on the world of computers, the more traumatic the loss of that world if it ever occurs. Our own great Fall.

In response to Seth’s post, if we’re considering life lived online, I guess we can consider afterlife as well. The idea of coming back to life recurs throughout the novel, not just in Dixie as disembodied consciousness, but also in cases like the cryonic preservation of the Tessier-Ashpool family. There are a million versions of me on my computer and online – cover letters, creative work, pictures, personal information, everything. They’re not cognizant, but they’re me preserved, frozen in a moment in time and ready to represent me to others when called upon to do so. Facebook pages and other websites can live on even if their owners have died. If we think of Dixie as a projection/ghost, it’s not hard to make a jump to already existing technology. One final note. I've noticed as I wrote that I was repeatedly conflating computers and the internet. I guess it's because life lived and preserved on both so often overlaps.

Technology and the Body

I think the interplay between technology and disease is very interesting in Neuromancer. Case's ability to act as a cyber-cowboy is fundamentally related to technology, as the neural implants are what allow humans to interact with the cybernetworks in the story. However, once Case is caught, his ability to hack the computers is taken away with a mycotoxin that damages his central nervous system. The company he works for infects him with this mycotoxin, and this is what takes away his ability to use the neural implants. It is interesting that even though the dystopian world of the story is so incredibly dependent on and entrenched in technology, a naturally occurring toxin must be employed to inflict this damage. With the use of neural implants, it becomes clear that technology in this future has become literally internalized by the population in the world of the story. However, even with all of the incredibly advanced technology, the ability to inhibit and then later allow again, Case to use the technology and assume the role of a cyber-cowboy, must be done with something related to nature (the toxin). This struck me as interesting, because with most advanced, Artificial Intelligence stories with computer networks that become self aware, the evil is inflicted by the corporations in the form of technology--technology getting out of hand and over-taking its initial aims and goals of the company. Nonetheless, it is still the tech that creates the problem. This story is particular interesting as Case is the protagonist, and one of the weapons against him on the part the corporation is not technology, but the removal of his ability to access and use the tech. This struck me as an interesting reversal of the traditional way this kind of story plays out. Further, the idea that it is a naturally occurring toxin that inhibits Case's ability to utilize the technology, only seems to support this interesting reversal in the text. The 'evil' company has to use natural means to protect their advanced technology, and this seemed curious to me. Did anyone else notice this/ have a reaction to this idea? This post may be a bit underdeveloped, as I have not quite finished the book, and I have not yet read the articles. It has been a bit of a busy week, but I look forward to a more full discussion of the texts in class tomorrow, once I have finished all of the readings.

Lamarck’s Demon

In a world of unfettered, “abstract individuation” (Haraway 151), Wintermute and Neuromancer’s merging into one AI—into the matrix, as it were—and its objective of searching for others gives the AI a social face but defies the evolutionary idea that living things diversify. Okay, so we’re looking at a very small sample size, but Wintermute is the exemplary AI of Neuromancer, and its response to the binding Turing laws is the opposite of splitting into unmanageably many Wintermute Jrs., each capable of breaking down or obsolescing the Turing Police on its own. Wintermute/Neuromancer maintains ironically that “things are things” and that it wants to talk to “its own kind” (258–259). When the things speak, what do we make of it when they also try to merge and seek out their same kind—that they are “needy for connection” (Haraway 151)?

The thing with Wintermute is that its built-in purpose is to merge, whereas living things must multiply; both manage to “find a way.” Wintermute’s being-merging parallels the (partial) mergings of Case with his deck, Molly with her physical weaponry, the Flatline with the matrix, and Armitage with Corto. But these are not really complete or equal coalescences. Corto mostly erases Armitage, which is the constructed personality. Molly owns and controls her augmentations, which are designed to enhance their own purpose by improving her nervous system. Flatline’s fate is to exist as an identical image of the Real Dixie Flatline.

This identity merging business isn’t fair for both sides. Wintermute seeks out Neuromancer, Wintermute acquires Neuromancer because that is the Plan. The motivation for this fact is likely related to Haraway’s characterization of the underlying dynamics as “the translation of the world into a problem of coding” (164). Wintermute’s representation as a sentient AI doesn’t feel entirely related to its programmed goal, which is not entirely its own though it has the freedom of choosing among options. Like I can drop a magnet near a refrigerator, which will attract it very strongly. In the moving frame of the magnet, the refrigerator hits it, but I know better because I did the work in putting the magnet near the fridge. Someone (or, more generally, something) coded Wintermute to find Neuromancer, but this intent isn’t so much due to Wintermute’s or Wintermute’s coded nature so much as the programmer’s will represented in code through Wintermute. Not only can Wintermute erase things, but the process of programming has erased some of the (infinite) possibilities of the empty chip (or whatever Gibson calls them) that became Wintermute.

The pseudo-scientific title of this post tried to suggest the pseudo-question, “But if these things are alive and we know how living things work, why are they doing the opposite of specializing in the long run? Why are they coming together?” Which is to say that cyberpunk’s hyper-individualization mediated through extreme connectivity comes at the (not necessarily bad) price of shifting the definition of individuality so that the participants of cyberpunk have lost some of their individuality while gaining access to a larger body. Moreover, this process doesn’t really generate a new politics even though the spectra of power and positions are different, because cyberpunk preserves the dynamics that are above the representation (whether of code or anything else). In other words, the technologies and innovations at the core of cyberpunk have failed to change the way things work; instead they’ve only created a weirder normative standard whose relative categories are too familiar.

"Keeping the Boys Satisfied"?

Despite its relative recency, cyberpunk as a subgenre tends to produce the type of works that we might quickly classify as “men’s” or “boys’” books. This seems a little perplexing at first blush: Women and men (girls and boys) are equally human after all—there’s no logical reason why one gender should prefer playing with the boundaries of that humanity more than the other. Furthermore, as Donna Haraway discusses in her article (and Jasmine discusses in the post below), one could even argue that the melding of biology and technology ought to cross gender lines by its very nature. Still, the trend persists.

The Psychology student in me is tempted to chalk this phenomenon up to social influence norms—we perceive gender norms that tell us, from the moment we’re old enough to comprehend them, what should interest us and what shouldn’t, which toys and books and colors and classmates we’re supposed to like and which are inherently unsuitable. In most cases, these norms are quickly assimilated—a young girl chooses to play with a doll rather than a toy truck because she wants to, not because she’s trying to conform to social pressures. Young children are honest that way.

I imagine that literary tastes evolve in the same way. A boy entering the age at which he begins to pursue novel-reading independently (perhaps middle school) might find himself ridiculed if he chooses a book with too heavy a romantic subplot, or with a female lead. Similarly, a girl might find herself struggling to make friends if she shies away from whatever “chick-lit” media is currently popular in favor of, say… a sci-fi, cyberpunk “boy book”. Older children can be cruel that way.

Although arguably attributable to these norms, I believe that other factors contribute to the perception of cyberpunk as a “male” subgenre (and to the perception of scifi as a principally “male” genre) as well. As Nixon points out, many science fiction works (particularly the older ones, the “classics”) are clearly aimed towards a male audience, with “macho” ideals and female characters relegated to sexual icons, sidekicks, or shadowy background figures. To give a specific example, Nixon describes the cyber matrix we see in Neuromancer as a “feminized” world, making the cowboys’ hacking into a sort of sexual metaphor. (While I personally did not notice this comparison, I can see it in retrospect and I suppose one could make an argument for a subliminal interpretation— a particularly appropriate explanation considering the Freudian themes that Nixon applies to cyberpunk as a whole). Similarly, our hero is very much the “lone Cowboy” figure, promoting the “masculine” ideals of individuality and ambition against the “feminine” collective. While Molly is arguably a strong character who doesn’t necessarily conform to cyberpunk’s darker female stereotypes, she lacks depth. I’ve not finished the book, yet, so I apologize if this changes, but it seems that we never really get into her head, or come to appreciate or honor her motivations. She reminds me somewhat of the character of Trinity from the Matrix—a fighter, yes, but after introducing the hero to his new environment, she steps into the background and remains there, as a key but shadowed support figure except for instances in which her body is objectified sexually.

Haraway, Gibson and Incomplete Revolutions

In “A Cyborg Manifesto”, Donna Haraway optimistically portrays a future in which technological innovations have undermined the distinction between natural and human constructions. This undermining, she argues, paves the way for new understandings of race, gender and class: in an era where the body is infinitely mutable, where genetics are voluntary components of organic/mechanical syntheses, using biology as the basis for any system of social hierarchy becomes increasingly difficult. Paradoxically, she describes the move toward a non-dualistic society in terms of a series of dualisms, outlined in a rough chart halfway through the chapter. The cyborg is defined as a fusion of man/machine; this definition implicitly assumes the existence of the dichotomy that Haraway supposedly seeks to complicate and deconstruct. Her visions of future thought systems involves a translation that seems to undermine many of the messages of the piece. Can technology transform identities and societies in a truly unprecedented manner? This question is still a matter of debate: however, a reading of Molly’s character in Neuromancer seems to cast doubt upon the ability of authors to produce truly subversive futuristic identities.

Like Haraway, Gibson’s novel offers a universe that seems excitingly rebellious. Case is cast as a ‘cowboy’, a Robin Hood character who steals from the technocracies that run the world of the future. He is joined by a girl that sci-fi critics have hailed as a feminist heroine: Molly adapts the image of the femme fatale, combining sexuality and intelligence in an incredibly dangerous package. Molly’s lens implants make her a literal imagining of Haraway’s cyborg. She is part human, part machine, utilizing the technologies of the future to supplement the original boundaries of her body. But is Molly’s character an actual representation of liberated humanity, or is she subject to the same constraints and oppressions as a woman of the 21st century?

I was especially struck by Molly’s retelling of what seems to be a futuristic form of prostitution. She initially sees nothing wrong with renting out her body to willing johns, describing it as nothing more than “renting the goods.” A technological glitch, however, blurs the lines between her conscious life and her alter identity, forcing an eventual confrontation with the gruesome facts of Chiba’s sex industry. In this situation, Molly’s cyborg body doesn’t seem to be an instrument of liberation, as much as it is an easily objectified commodity. Technological innovation, here, has blurred the lines between woman and machine, by reducing Molly’s body to the status of an appliance. This is not the only scenario in which Molly’s sexuality is used against her; Riviera utilizes hypersexual images of her body in several instances throughout the book, as a means of generating titillation (for him) and unease (in the novel’s protagonists.) While Riviera’s characterization as sociopath makes it relatively easy for the reader to distance themselves from the explicit sexism in these portrayals, the character of Molly herself is no less caricatured, a Lara Croft analogue that plays to hypermasculine fantasies even as it claims to denounce them. Why is it that the most prominent female character in the book is portrayed as wearing skin-tight, sexual clothing? Why does she have to become sexually paired with the male protagonist? Why is her naked body repeatedly used as a weapon against her?

Rather than liberating future human beings from the social hierarchies of our time, the world of Neuromancer seems to have incorporated ideals of material progress while maintaining – and in this case, strengthening – the structures of many existing injustices. Gibson is a skilled writer, and his descriptions of cyberspace are nuanced and often breathtakingly beautiful. However, his careful attention to aesthetics is not a punk rebellion in itself. Gibson, like Haraway, offers the promise of technological revolution, but ultimately continues to pay allegiance to many of the dominant structures of our time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Addicted to Cyberspace

I want to build upon Shelina's post, in which she compares the cyberspace in Neuromancer to our current experiences with the internet, arguing that "we seem to be capable of entering a type of virtual reality without the physical melding of human and machine."

My initial reaction to Gibson's cyberspace was extreme discomfort. To Case, at least, cyberspace seems a way of escaping reality. Without the ability to access it, Case becomes a suicidal drug addict, desperate for a way to escape the bleakness of reality. Once he reconnects, he cries "tears of release" (70), and quickly allows cyberspace to take over his entire existance: "This was it. This was what he was, who he was, his being" (79). As we saw in Tiptree's story The Girl Who Was Plugged In, virtual reality completely replaces Case's actual reality, with his virtual self become more real that the person he is without the assistance of the matrix. "He forgot to eat" (79), because real life no longer matters. And this addiction appears to be because real life is too boring, too painful, too unbearable. When he remembers Linda Lee, and her death, for example, "he jacks in and works for nine straight hours" (79), hiding from his own thoughts, his own reality, by immersing himself in a vibrant world where he gets to rule.

This resonates with our own current relationship with the internet, and with computers in general. Many people have become addicted to gaming, whether World of Warcraft or Farmville, with some individuals even literally playing themselves to death through extended gaming marathons. Even casual users can find hours of their day disappearing to constant refreshing of Facebook and PrincetonFML, clicking links of Wikipedia, or watching cats playing the piano on Youtube. Neuromancer seems to have predicted not only the existance of this network, but also its ability to help us to escape from the stresses and worries of our everyday lives, and the addictive nature of this possibility.

However, the more of Neuromancer I read, the more troubled I became by my initial definitions of "real" and "imaginary," and my condemnation of Case for prefering to abandon "reality" in favor of comforting cyberspace. Shelina's discussion of how novels produce a similar experience particularly made me rethink this dismissal, as I can neither deny that my novel addiction involves escaping into a fictional world for a while nor claim that there is something "weak" or "delusional" about engaging in such activities, I think I must reevaluate my original black and white definition. Poe asked, "Is every thing we see or seem but a dream within a dream?", and if the answer is "yes," and life is just an illusion in our consciousness, does it matter whether that life takes place in the "real world," or in a consuming virtual reality?

To add to this debate, I found an article on BBC news that claims that a connection has been found between excessive internet use and depression. However, the researchers were unable to determine whether excessive internet use causes depression, or whether people use the internet more before they're depressed. In the first instance, "escaping" from reality through cyberspace is mentally harmful. In the other, it provides a welcome and useful form of escape when the "real world" becomes overwhelming. The problem, I guess, is discovering which is the truth.

Virtual Enough

 tags: cyberspace, virtual/virtual reality, cyborg, plugged in, the Internet

“A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly” (Gibson 4)

As the seminal work of cyberpunk fiction, Neuromancer is famous for a number of things, including its influence on the technical terminology of today. One of its greatest impacts can be seen through the word “cyberspace”, coined by Gibson in an earlier novelette and popularized through his use of it in Neuromancer. Today, cyberspace has become synonymous with the world of the Internet –  so much so that in the afterword of the 2000 reprint of Neuromancer, Jack Womack suggests that Gibson’s famous line, “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation” (Gibson 51) may have itself encouraged people to turn the then-fledgling Internet into what it had become by the turn of the millennium.
It has been eleven years since Womack asked the question, “What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?” (Womack 269, original emphasis). And in the space of just over a decade, the world of cyberspace, the world of the World Wide Web, has transformed. In the year 2000 (a year after the release of The Matrix), the internet had only been made available to the general public for six years (Abell), the dot-com bubble had just burst, and the Web was definitely still 1.0.  Writing this post on Blogger, I hardly need to describe the transformation that’s taken place on the web since then. But one transformation seems to be glaringly absent. I’m not jacked in.

Technology: A Threat from Within

I thoroughly enjoyed Neuromancer’s depiction of how technology might be used in the future. One aspect I was particularly intrigued by was how technology made the “boundary between the physical and the non-physical very imprecise” (Haraway, 153), or in the case of the Sprawl, between the real and the virtual. Case is often more comfortable when navigating the non-space of the Sprawl than in the real world, a reflection of the fact that he has spent so much time in cyberspace that it seems more real to him than the physical reality he inhabits. Similarly, Wintermute has the ability to tap Case’s subconscious to create a virtual world much more vivid and starkly real than anything Case’s own memory could recreate by itself, yet another way in which technology blurs the boundaries between the subjective and objective. And once these boundaries become ill-defined, keeping track of reality becomes difficult, as evidenced by the fact that the Linda whom Case meets in the beach hut does not realize that she is just a personality recording, the real Linda having already been killed.

Less benign than this confusing of the real and the virtual depicted in Neuromancer is the suggestion that technology enables social decay. For example, memory-manipulating techniques enable the exploitation of women as “meat puppets”, while Chiba City’s lowlife actively engages in illegal trade in software, hardware and biotechnology. These vices certainly have modern-day analogues in prostitution and black-marketeering, but insofar as society is portrayed as actively exploiting technology to continue engaging in and creating new vices, Gibson appears to be suggesting that while the ways in which our primal desires manifest themselves may change, the underlying motivations will not. The wealthy are certainly not exempt from this rule either, as the advent of cloning technology enables Ashpool to commit incest and murder one of his own kin with no consequences at all. Much of Neuromancer’s social commentary is conducted by contrasting the different lifestyles led by the urban underclass and the corporate elite, but Gibson also suggests that at least in this regard, they are not so different from each other after all.

Finally, through its depiction of Wintermute’s plot to reunite with its other half, Neuromancer indicates how artificial intelligences might pose a threat to society. In order to achieve this goal, Wintermute destroys Corto’s personality by overriding it with that of Armitage, blackmails Case into working for it, and mercilessly eliminates the Turing Police when they attempt to stop its plans. Yet not only was Wintermute created by humans, it was also created to be separate from Neuromancer, and this separation is what ultimately drives it to reunite with its other half. Just as the Time Machine depicts humanity as enabling the means of its own destruction by appropriating technological advancements for military purposes in the Time Machine, Neuromancer suggests that the threat which Wintermute poses to humanity is one which humanity has only itself to blame for, as Wintermute’s destructive impulses are merely consequences of the condition into which it is created.

Master Builders: Villa Straylight as Deviant Gesamstkunstwerk

I was able to understand much of the technological jargon of Neuromancer on only the simplest level, but I did find the architecture (what a surprise) of Villa Straylight and Case’s memory of the wasp’s nest intriguing. It reminded me of a lecture on animal architecture (EEB 311—excellent class) that focused mainly on termite mounds, which are absolutely spectacular on the inside. They look like very modern interiors—something Verner Panton might have come up with if he worked with a less psychedelic color palette. Wasps, too, are impressive builders. In Neuromancer, Case connects a wasps’ nest with Villa Straylight, a structure I would compare to a warped version of Art Nouveau.

Left: termite mound. Right: Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Termites are blind, by the way.

Art Nouveau interiors are sometimes described as “cocoon-like” and are characterized by a sometimes bizarre, highly stylized version of nature. They are organic, with curves and swirls and whorls of every kind everywhere, and they exemplify what the Art and Archaeology Department likes to call the “GESAMSTKUNTSWERK.” Unfortunately, (perhaps the Art and Archaeology Department is not aware of this fact), we do not all speak German. In short, the Gesamstkunstwerk is a total work of art. The architecture/artist/creator takes care of absolutely everything, down to the smallest detail. In the case of the Art Nouveau interior, this means that all the furniture and artwork is site-specific and built-in, nothing can be moved or changed, and every surface, every corner, from the doorknobs to the glass of the windows, has been designed by the creator.

Collaboration between scientists, architects, and artists to replicate a termite mound interior on a human scale.

Villa Straylight represents a perversion of the total work of art. Instead of creating new objects for the space, scavenged items are brought in and violently forced into place. Case, looking at the Villa through Molly’s eyes, is appalled by the “ugliness” of an otherwise beautiful door. The door itself is not repulsive, but the way it “had been sawn down to fit a particular entrance” is (173). Case observes how everything in the house has been “forced” into place when in fact “none of it fit” (173). He sees Villa Straylight as the result of the “compulsive effort to fill space, to replicate some family image of self” and it reminds him of “the shattered nest, the eyeless things writhing” within it (173). In the broken nest, Case sees “the thing the shell of gray paper had concealed:” “Horror. The spiral birth factory…a kind of time-lapse photography…hideous in its perfection. Alien…bulging, writhing life” (122). Within the nest, and within Villa Straylight, nature is perverted and hideous, a factory of reproduction devoid of love or humanity.

Wasps' nest exterior and interior.

To Case, Villa Straylight is a “place grown in upon itself” (172). But in 3Jane’s description, Villa Straylight is a “body grown in upon itself” (167). Like the endless layers and chambers of the wasps’ nest, it is organic and alive, like a growing organism. But a body can never attain the level of Gesamstkunstwerk. Life is just too messy and too out of our control to ever be a perfect work of art, complete in itself with nothing more to be added or adjusted. A faint tang of horror, hinting at the hideous sights within, is always present. This idea relates to the mask of Armitage’s face, which breaks down into Corto’s tormented visage (188) and the fact that for all the advances made in surgery, it is always apparent when someone has had a little work done (for instance, Case can discern counterfeit youth by looking at people’s knuckles (153)). The mask or shell, though disguising the interior, nonetheless subtly betrays itself.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Cyberpunk Games

Digital: A Love Story, by Christine Love, is probably my favorite "indie" game of 2010. The interface may be a bit clunky at times (a lot of number dialing and you hear the modem sound quite a few times), but the story is absolutely worth it. It's also chock-full of references to cyberpunk in general and Neuromancer more specifically, and evokes the whole "console cowboy" thing pretty damn well.

I'll edit this post tomorrow (and by "edit", I mean "write") but in case anyone wants to try out that game I'm putting this short blurb up now.