Neuromancer at 25: What it got right and wrong

Neuromancer tells the story of Case, once a hot and high-paid cyberspace cowboy who could infiltrate and rip off corporate databases

The tantalizing question about William Gibson's ideas in his novel Neuromancer involves their relationship with the course that the Web took and continues to take as Neuromancer's publication date--July 1, 1984, 25 years ago today--recedes farther into the past. In his afterword to the 2000 re-release of the book, novelist Jack Womack suggests that Neuromancer may have directly influenced the way the Web developed--that it may have provided a blueprint that developers who grew up with the book consciously or subconsciously followed. Womack asks "what if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?"

I'll take a stab at discussing Neuromancer's major tech inventions, including the ones that are already coming true, as well as some that seem unlikely to happen anytime soon.

First, a little background. Neuromancer tells the story of Case, once a hot and high-paid cyberspace cowboy who could infiltrate and rip off corporate databases. But he stole from his employer, who took revenge by crippling Case's nervous system with a mycotoxin, rendering him unable to hack. Alone and suicidal, Case is scooped off the street and given a second chance by a shadowy group of people who have big (and scary) plans. In exchange for curing Case's nervous system, they want him to help them infiltrate the core of a huge and powerful AI (artificial intelligence) called Wintermute.

If you haven't already read Neuromancer, consult the (nicely done) plot summary on the Neuromancer Wiki page, which includes a handy character index and a glossary of terms. The novel is widely credited with popularizing the term "Cyberspace," with presenting a thoroughly developed idea of virtual reality, and with introducing the idea of the World Wide Web. Neuromancer also gave rise to a whole new genre in literature: cyberpunk.

The World Wide Web

The prognostication in Neuromancer that rings most true today is the novel's idea of a World Wide Web. The concept of an Internet already existed when Gibson wrote Neuromancer in 1984: In the early eighties, several universities had strung together various systems of servers via a telecom link. What Gibson introduced was the idea of a global network of millions of computers, which he described in astonishing detail--though the World Wide Web, as we know it today, was still more than a decade away. Imagine the novelty of that idea in 1984 when the personal computer was still a fairly new idea. Of course, things start getting really interesting only in the nineties, when technology linked all of those computers together.

Cyberspace/Virtual Reality

But Gibson took the World Wide Web much further. By introducing the concept of cyberspace, he made the Web a habitable place, with all the world's data stores represented as visual, even palpable, structures arranged in an endless matrix.

Gibson's cyberspace also turned computing into an experience that involved all of the senses. Instead of interacting with the network visually by using a computer monitor, Gibson's characters "jack in" and navigate an enveloping 3D world. Each user is "connected" to the computer via a system of electrodes and neural interfaces emerging from a laptop-type thing called a "deck." Once hooked up and inside cyberspace, the user can experience intense beauty, such as the sight of the huge, shining cities of data that Gibson describes.

Here's how Gibson describes it in the early pages of 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 banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding."

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Mark Sullivan

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