‘This is my cybernetic organism: the Internet’

I just finished reading William Gibson’s Distrust that Particular Flavor. Gibson is the man who gave us the notion of ‘cyberspace’ in his 1982 story “Burning Chrome” and popularized by his 1984 novel Neuromancer.
Here is his formulation of “cyberspace” in Neuromancer:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in het human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

To be precise, it’s not necessarily Gibson who says this. It’s a voice-over in the device the protagonist is using, calling it “kid’s show”.

For those who never read any of  Gibson’s books, do not fear, he explains some of his key ideas in the last chapter, such as the ‘cybernetic organism’:

There’s my cybernetic organism: the Internet. If you accept that “physical” isn’t only the things we can touch, it’s the largest man-made object on the planet, or will be, soon: It’s outstripping the telephone system, or ingesting it, as I speak. And we who participate in it are physically part of it. The Borg we are becoming.’

The interface evolves toward transparency, so he explains. The one you have to devote the least conscious effort to, survives.
So the sci-fi cyborg with brain inserts and bolts in the neck already looks slightly quaint. It’s a kind of steampunk version of what actually develops. Even Vannevar Bush, the author of the 1945 article As We May Think in The Atlantic Monthly, did not see this coming: that we would create libraries in common by linking up what Bush called “memex” and what we called later on “personal computer”.
The real cyborg is a global organism and it’s so invasive that the bolts in the neck look medieval.

The real-deal cyborg will be deeper and more subtle and exist increasingly at the particle level, in a humanity where unaugmented reality will eventually be a hypothetical construct, something we can only try, with great difficulty, to imagine – as we might try, today, to imagine a world without electronic media.

Which reminds me of the other book I’ve been reading, Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation by Beth Coleman, in which she explains her notion of “pervasive computing”:

(…) I use the term pervasive media to describe a global culture that engages a spectrum of networked technologies. I am speaking of technical affordances of platforms such as virtual worlds, voice-over-Internet protocol, mobile rich-media and texting, and microblogging formats such as Twitter.

She goes on mentioning YouTube, Facebook and blogs. Her assessment is that networked media, as a whole, simulates presence.

If a medium has a message, as McLuhan famously pronounced, then the message of the increasingly real-time, visual and locative media we engage is: “I am here”‘

She is not saying that a lived, bodily experience is the same as our experience of being filtered through an avatar (who are not just virtual world phenomena, but “our networked proxies”). Coleman is arguing for recognition of porous spheres of engagement that meet across a continuum of the actual.
And here is what Gibson says when he discusses the meaning of “the physical”:

The physical union of human and machine, long dreaded and long anticipated, has been an accomplished fact for decades, though we tend not to see it. We tend not to see it because we are it, and because we still employ Newtonian paradigms that tell us that “physical” has only to do with what we can see, or touch. Which of course is not the case. The electrons streaming into a child’s eye from the screen of the wooden television (RL: he refers to television sets of the fifties) are as physical as anything else. As physical as the neurons subsequently moving along that child’s optic nerves. As physical as the structures and chemicals those neurons will encounter in the human brain. We are implicit, here, all of us, in a vast physical construct of artificially linked nervous systems. Invisible. We cannot touch it.

Watch Gibson reading from his new book:

Now let’s switch to co-presence in yet another sci-fi masterpiece,  Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge.. One of the most fascinating appearances in this book is the Rabbit, a person (or an AI entity) taking part in a conversation in Barcelona in the form of a rabbit. Others can see him – as a rabbit – and he (she?) can look around. Also featuring in this quote is effortless instant messaging:

The rabbit sipped its tea. Its gaze slid in a very un-rabbity way to take in the noisy crowds that swept past the tables, to
scan the costumes and body-plans of tourists and locals. “Ah, is it that Barcelona is a place for the beautiful and the
bizarre, one of the few great cities of the twentieth century whose charm survives in the modern world? (…) ” He stared at Braun and at Keiko Mitsuri. Mitsuri was frankly masked. She looked a bit like Marcel Duchamp’s
nude, built from a shifting complex of crystal planes. The rabbit shrugged, “But then again, maybe you two are
thousands of kilometers away.”
Keiko laughed. “Oh, don’t be so indecisive,” she said, speaking with a completely synthetic accent and syntax. “I’m quite
happy to be in Parc Güell right now, feeling reality with my very own real hands.”
Mitsuri –> Braun, Vaz: In fact, I’m in my office, admiring the moonlight on Tokyo bay.
The rabbit continued, ignorant of the silent messaging byplay: “Whatever. In any case, the real reasons for meeting
here: Barcelona has very direct connections to wherever you’re really from, and modern security to disguise what we
say. Best of all, it has laws banning popular and police snooping … unless of course you are the EU Intelligence Board.”
Mitsuri –> Braun, Vaz: Well, that’s one third of a correct guess.
Braun –> Mitsuri, Vaz: Mr. Rabbit himself is calling from some distance. An EU real-time estimate hung in the
air above the little creature’s head: 75 percent probability that the mind behind the rabbit image was in North America.

Now connect this with a non-fiction setting, the GigaOM Roadmap conference. Om Malik reports on GigaOm:

Mathew Ingram. The thread I was most interested in that came out of RoadMap was what Jack Dorsey called “the arc where technology meets humanness.” The Twitter and Square founder talked about using technology to help us connect more with what makes us human, Tony Fadell of Nest talked about making devices that respond more intuitively, and Mark Rolston from frog design was really passionate about getting the computer out of the way, to the point where we barely even realize there is a computer at all. Put together, all those make for a very powerful message that I wish more technology companies would pay attention to.

In Natural Born Cyborgs professor Andy Clark the author says:

Understanding what is distinctive about human reason thus involves understanding the complementary contributions of both biology and (broadly speaking) technology, as well as the dense, reciprocal patterns of causal and co-evolutionary influence that run between them. We cannot see ourselves aright until we see ourselves as nature’s very own cyborgs: cognitive hybrids who repeatedly occupy regions of design space radically different from those of our biological forbears. The hard task, of course, is now to transform all this from (mere) impressionistic sketch into a balanced scientific account of the extended mind.

So the computer becoming human-like is not something external, which happens “out there” and involves just one of the many tools we humans use. It actually is another evolution of our extended mind, our becoming increasingly cyborg-like.

Of course, we generally don’t like being assimilated by the Borg. But then again, this is not what seems to be happening. The connectedness of our extended minds does not lead to an organism which obeys one set of rules and follows one single common belief system. As one of the participants at a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) said on Twitter, MOOCs are communities with smaller communities within. We do connect beyond geographical limitations of course, and it seems we respond to affinities. Beth Coleman in Hello Avatar:

The Pew Internet study tells us that affinity groups are thriving, but the connections are configured along new lines that often defy the demarcation of territory or blood. We find the dissolution of traditional frames of community and society, even as we relocate ourselves across networks of affiliation. The critical aspect to grasp is the value of networked engagement in moving toward a better understanding of society in the twenty-first century.

Fandom culture is a very interesting topic to study in order to understand this “networked engagement”. I’m reading Fandom Unbound now (see my previous post) and Lawrence Eng, in his contribution about Anime and Manga Fandom as Networked Culture, explains about radical fandom (“otaku” in Japanese):

Contrary to the stereotypical image of the otaku as socially isolated, anime fan communities are highly social and networked, relying on a combination of online and offline connections.

Just consider the possibility of amplifying the concept of “otaku” to the curation practices we talks so much about these days, and one can easily understand these studies are relevant for web culture as a whole, while web culture studies are not just about “the web”, but about where humanity is going.

Also read Pagan Kennedy in The New York Times: William Gibson’s Future is Now, and one of my earlier posts about this subject: What Aristotle teaches us about our being cyborgs

Learning about globalization, terror, and media by reading near-future sci-fi

How will the future look like, for media and for society in general? It’s impossible to predict, but what we can do is work with plausible scenarios. One of my sources of inspiration is literature, more specifically near-future science fiction which seems to extrapolate trends we already see happening today. These are books I’ve read recently or which I’m reading now:

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. There is lots of augmented reality in the book, and the world has to deal with major security issues. Among the many fascinating characters: an anthropomorphic virtual rabbit. What about media? There are still paparazzi (maybe more than ever) and Vinge dedicates the novel to the internet-based cognitive tools that are changing our lives such as Wikipedia and Google. There are still physical books, but in danger of extinction. Laptops are still being used – by those who are resistant to change. I think it’s possible to use this book as a starting point for a meditation on the radicalization of instant messaging, online networks and gaming and online cognitive tools, discussing the challenges and opportunities of these developments.

Halting State by Charles Stross is a thriller set in the software houses that write multiplayer games. Once again it’s about security issues but also about finance as the software house is a public company. If you don’t have first-hand experience with Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) or Alternate Reality Games (ARG), chances are that this book will make you want to try it out.

Super Sad True Love Story by Shteyngart, Gary. What I like particularly in this book is the fact that the state of the economy plays an important role here. Things look bleak with China (and even Europe) in a very strong position while the US suffers a terrible crisis with massive social implications. Streaming media are a big hit – but do not necessarily contribute to the quality of public debate. Wearable devices double as tools for the security services. Physical books are still around, but they are considered weird.

For the Win by Cory Doctorow also deals extensively massively multiplayer online role-playing games. It’s about globalization, economics, virtual goods and labor. Independent news media production (in China!) is another important element here.

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald is set in 2027 Istanbul. Once again trade, security, economics, globalization and (nano)technology are prominent elements in the story. There are not only paparazzi in the future, but also investigative journalists using stealthy, secretive surveillers – as does the state.

Online social networks, effortless and pervasive instant messaging, the menace of mass destruction or of Big Brother, the transformation of reality in a mixture of the physical world (manipulated on nano level), virtual reality, gaming and augmented reality, the globalization and its geo-political and social consequences are themes in which you can immerse yourself by reading those books.

My project: organizing some meetings about these books, discussing what they tell us about different possible futures. My personal interest would be the future of the media, but others would be more than welcome to look at these and other books from other angles.

We would meet (of course) in a virtual world, most probably in the virtual town of Chilbo in Second Life. If you have suggestions for other books (or games, or videos… ) about the near-future, please let me know.