Friday, 22 October 2010

William Gibson Interviewed

William Gibson Talks Zero History, Paranoia and the Awesome Power of Twitter

By Scott Thill
September 7, 2010

From recession-proof military contractors cool-hunting secret, weaponized brands to “gear queers,” viral iPhones and Twitter darknets, William Gibson’s new novel Zero History examines the 21st century’s techno-cultural fetishes with a deceptively simple directive: The future is now.

Gone is the sci-fi pretense of an imagined future, and for good reason.

“All we really have when we pretend to write about the future is the moment in which we are writing,” the 62-year-old godfather of cyberspace told by phone. “That’s why every imagined future obsoletes like an ice cream melting on the way back from the corner store.”

Out Tuesday from publisher Putnam/Penguin, Zero History dissects our paranoid, post-9/11 information overload with an eye for imminent terror and immanent transcendence. Like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Don DeLillo’s White Noise before it, Gibson’s new novel is not as interested in riveting plot points as it is in parsing an everyday life swarming with signifiers.

Its main characters — detail-obsessed Russian translator Milgrim, ex-rocker and taste-making detective Hollis Henry, and postmodern marketing mogul Hubertus Bigend — have been retrieved from the pages of Gibson’s previous novels Pattern Recognition and Spook Country to serve as ciphers through which the author’s hypercritical cultural examinations are executed. spoke with Gibson in a wide-ranging interview about Zero History, social networking, 9/11, fashionable militarism, brainy endeavors like Inception and The Century of the Self, smartphones and the cinematic adaptation of his sci-fi classic Neuromancer. Many of your previous characters have returned in Zero History, but it seems like the ones that steal the show are named Twitter and iPhone.

William Gibson: I hope not literally. It’s naturalism, in terms of the milieu I’m describing, which is a milieu I encounter more often not. The people I hang out with tend to use Macs, not that I think they’re necessarily superior. It’s just the brand they smoke. The next book I may have to depict a Windows cultural universe just for balance. There’s a scene in the book where Milgrim is asked whether he’s running a Mac or a PC. And when he answered “Mac,” I could immediately hear the anti-Apple crusaders on in my head screaming, “This is an outrage!”

Gibson: [Laughs] It’s what I encounter in researching that particular milieu. What people don’t notice is that Garreth’s laptop is another unnamed brand, which is probably some weird, rugged, military unit running stuff we couldn’t imagine. He’s not a vanilla Mac user. But I did give Milgrim and Sleight totally bland, extinct smartphones like the Neo. How about Twitter? More than most authors I’ve checked out, your tweet-happy avatar @GreatDismal seems to be most comfortable messaging and cool-hunting on the service. And in the novel, Twitter’s consistently used as a communication and parenting device, depending on the spook.

Gibson: Well, I discovered Twitter while I was writing the novel, and I immediately saw its odd potential for being a tiny, private darknet that no one else can access. I’m always interested in the spooky repurposing of everyday things. After a few days on Twitter, what was most evident to me is that, if you set it up right, it’s probably the most powerful novelty aggregator that has ever existed. Magazines have always been novelty aggregators, and people who work for them find and assemble new and interesting stuff, and people like me buy them. Or used to buy them, when magazines were the most efficient way to find novel things.

But now with Twitter, after following people who have proven themselves to be extremely adroit and active novelty aggregators, I get more random novelty every day that I can actually use. A lot of it just slides by, but a lot of it is stuff that I used to have to go through considerable trouble to find. And a lot of it is so beyond the stuff I used to be able to find, which is good. It sounds like Twitter has successfully brought the social networker out of you.

Gibson: I guess Twitter is the first thing that has been attractive to me as social media. I never felt the least draw to Facebook or MySpace. I’ve been involved anonymously in some tiny listservs, mainly in my ceaseless quest for random novelty, and sometimes while doing something that more closely resembles research.

But I never wanted to be on Facebook. And to my surprise, I found that Twitter started to bring in new friends and connections. I suspect the difference is that it is less formatted, or not formatted at all. It hasn’t been constructed to provide me an experience in any particular way, which is a function of its minimalist architecture. The deluge of novelty that Twitter provides reminds me of the line in Zero History where Milgrim’s therapist explains that “paranoia is too much information.” Do you think Twitter, as well as the exponentially evolving internet, is turning us all into paranoiacs?

Gibson: We’ve all got infinitely more soil for paranoia than we previously had before. But I don’t think it necessarily means we are more prone to grow it. But if we are prone to grow it, we could grow it more quickly and lavishly than we could when we only had a few newspapers and monthly magazines to act as fertilizer. It seems that after 9/11, which provides the political and cultural backdrop for your last three novels, it’s possible to develop paranoia just by picking up one newspaper, much less a bunch of them.

Gibson: It could, but what I think it mainly intends to induce now is vertigo. The vertigo of flow. Years ago, I was at CNN in Atlanta with Bruce Sterling, and he bought a pair of souvenir shot glasses. He said he was going to put them on top of his television set in his living room, so he and his wife could have a drink the next time there was a “CNN moment.” And when I asked him what a CNN moment was, he said it’s one of those moments when something of enormity has occurred and suddenly the future is right up against your face. You don’t have the lag you usually get to enjoy between some sense of a knowable present and what’s coming in the very next minute. And it seems like 9/11 jammed us into a permanent CNN moment. Is that why your last three novels, unlike Neuromancer and the rest of the Sprawl trilogy, have delivered us not into some sci-fi future but rather our own speculative present?

Gibson: It certainly has been a post-9/11 concept for me. Before I started writing science fiction, my theory was that every fictive, imagined future can only be understood historically within the moment it was written. Because nobody really writes about the future. All we really have when we pretend to write about the future is the moment in which we are writing. That’s why every imagined future obsoletes like an ice cream melting on the way back from the corner store. It’s going to almost immediately acquire a patina of quaintness; that’s just part of what imagining the future in fiction is about. Have you always felt that way?

Gibson: I knew that when I started, but there aren’t that many people who think that way. As an analytic experiment for myself, without making too big a point of it, when I got to the end of the Neuromancer trilogy and began another, I went to a very, very near future that is really more like a freely hallucinated version of the day in which it was written.

That was sufficient proof of theory for me when I got to Pattern Recognition, which was intended to be a novel that examined the day in which it was written with the standard-issue sci-fi tools. By the same token, I’ve always thought of writers like Don DeLillo as being people who use the oven mitts of sci-fi to pick up and examine the red-hot steaming mess that is the present. We’ve got the tools for the job. But the pretense to a future setting, in your work as well as that of DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and others, is gone. Sci-fi has been around for a while now, but the concept that you’re living in the future now rather than envisioning it seems to be fully ascendant in this century.

Gibson: I agree completely. I know there are writers doing really good work today, taking all the trouble to imagine believable futures. But the trouble is I don’t keep up with them because it’s no longer what I am personally compelled to read. I have this post-it note on the windshield: “Read more great contemporary science fiction!” [Laughs] I’m serious. I know it’s there, and I’ve met some of the people that do it. But I’m spinning off into other directions. I look forward to my eventual renaissance as a sci-fi reader, and catching up on all that stuff. One thing that I’ve loved about your last three novels is that they’ve taken advertising, propaganda and identity down the rabbit hole. They remind me of Adam Curtis’ stunning documentary series The Century of the Self, which does the same. Have you seen it?

Gibson: No, but it’s funny you mention it. I was at breakfast with a really good friend of mine recently, and we weren’t talking about my stuff at all. We were talking about 20th-century history, and he brought up The Century of the Self and ran me through its take on the history of psychology. So that’s instantly warranted a more urgent post-it note: “Check out The Century of the Self!” Awesome! Curtis’ documentary is consumed with the idea that people are psychologically and politically empowered through excess consumption. Zero History seems to argue that it’s much harder to do when you’re spiraling through an age of information overload.

Gibson: Yeah, when I wrote Pattern Recognition, we were in a world in which we all hadn’t yet become cool hunters. But since then, it’s been democratized. It’s become a kind of function of the individual. What I notice about advertising lately is how incredibly little attention I pay to most of it, and how relatively little it influences my purchasing patterns. I don’t know what that’s about. I think I’ve tuned into my own universe of advertising and consumption. I just ignore the mainstream, and that may be where we’re all going.

Advertising today seems after the fact; I don’t feel like it’s addressed to me. If I pay attention I can see how it’s structured, and I don’t think I’m at all remarkable in that. I think consumers are generally becoming dangerously sophisticated about advertising, and how it works. Bigend is a fantasy figure I came up with to interrogate that situation, to make fun of it. I think I created him to enjoy the impotence of much of 21st-century marketing. [Laughs] For someone who laughs at 21st-century marketing, you sure know how to serve up the killer buzzwords and phrases in Zero History. I’m partial to “Anaheiming.”

Gibson: That’s the difference between what Anaheim was like in 1950 and what it is like now. I think of Anaheim because I’ve known a couple people who grew up in Orange County in the early ’50s and how they react to it now. It’s kind of like that Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi,” which is about paving paradise and putting up parking lots. It’s a ubiquitous condition for a lot of the world; there’s a certain pathos in making a big deal about it. And yet there is also a certain pathos in seeing people too young to have any idea of what it was once like, walking around lost in a sort of pre-Lapsarian vision. As if someone told them that there were once miles of orange trees, but they can’t quite get their heads around it. How about the new militarized “Mitty demographic” that has gone “gear-queer.” I loved that one.

Gibson: There’s no invention in that one. Get on Google and punch in the term “tactical” and anything else: “Tactical briefcase,” “tactical boots,” “tactical trousers.” Do “tactical ballpoint pen;” that will blow your mind. You’ll find yourself in a whole galaxy of places retailing weaponized ballpoints, which are way post-9/11, appalling consumer artifacts.

I assume people buy them because they think they can probably still carry them on planes? Where maybe they’ll feel safer? I don’t know. But there’s just a big knot of this stuff right in the middle of American culture. I did my best to describe it. I tried very, very hard not to exaggerate that culture, and get it just right. Because a lot of people don’t know it’s there. And a lot of people do know it’s there, but they take it for granted. They can’t see that it’s strange or new in any way at all.

For some people, it’s just the way it is. But it hasn’t always been that way. It’s strange. Perhaps it’s not so much post-9/11 as post-Vietnam. I would’ve been a keen follower of stuff like that when I was 15 years old, so I know it wasn’t around. Doesn’t that kind of fetishized militarism or cultural weaponization concern or bother you?

Gibson: Well, I think it deserves to be noted. I try to keep it under the same anthropological umbrella where I keep my observations on technology. That stuff is a kind of technology; most of what we do is a kind of technology. And I feel like I have to be sort of agnostic about it all, as much as possible. I suspect most technology is morally neutral until we decide to do something with it. Zero History has a bunch of brand, and band, names in it. Hollis’ band was The Curfew; another invented band called The Bollards is mentioned. Do you have any favorite real band names?

Gibson: Nothing springs to mind. It’s been a long time since I’ve been totally impressed by one. It does strike me — as it seems to have struck Hollis — that there has been a long trend of coming up with band names that are deliberately unmemorable. And that may be because all the good ones have been used up. I think it would almost be unfashionable now to have a band name that was singularly striking. The Arcade Fire: I really like the band, and its name, but it’s not like it’s going to make people jump up at its first mention. We’ve been geeking The Beatles, the most iconic brand and band of all time, which settled on its band and brand name 50 years ago before breaking up 40 years ago.

Gibson: I had a funny relationship with The Beatles. I’m pretty sure that by the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in some way I wasn’t quite conscious of, I had come to think of them as mainstream. Or a kind of new mainstream, in 1967, as far as I can remember.

I took it for granted that all of the old stuff was about to be replaced with something new, which I now know is never the case in history. But that’s because I was young, and the world was in a millenerian uproar, and they were not where I was going for the next or different thing. I’m kind of the opposite of a nostalgic person, in a lot of ways. If I hear The Beatles, I don’t go, “Wow! Those were the days.” It feels more to me like the beginning of where we are now. I don’t know, I’m kind of rambling now. I can’t get a handle on The Beatles. I think everyone’s been trying to for about 50 years now.

Gibson: The first Velvet Underground album came out almost at the same time, which was kind of like my Sgt. Pepper’s. The Beatles and The Velvet Underground would seem to be a wet dream of your marketing mogul Hubertus Bigend. One induced mass hysteria wherever it went, and the other influenced unrelenting cool.

Gibson: I was writing about the Velvets a few years ago, and it occurred to me that in 1967 it was possible to listen to those two albums, and think that each of them might have an equal chance of representing where pop culture was going to go. And it didn’t go the Velvets’ way. They sort of disappeared, and then they were sucked back in and their DNA was spread evenly through pop music. So you just never know. But there are these moments where two possibilities arrive, where someone sitting in a historical moment can wonder, “Which is it going to be?” With The Beatles, I think it was preordained that they were going to be iconic in the way that they are today. I believe I’m contractually obligated to ask you about the Neuromancer film, although I believe you could take the Fifth if you wanted to.

Gibson: Well, my experience with people making a film out of Neuromancer is that it hasn’t happened yet. But that said, I’m really interested in the idea of Vincenzo Natali possibly doing it. Beyond that, I kind of have to take the Fifth. Mainly because I never talk about my own work in progress, so I extend that to trying to never talk about others’ works in progress either. If any milestones are met, the internet will know about it. I’ve spoken with Alan Moore a few times about the process of filming the unfilmable. What do you think about taking influential source texts and translating them into film?

Gibson: Somewhere back in my post-grad days in some film-history course I once took, I acquired the idea that adaptations of literary works were not the optimal places for auteur directors to begin. It could work out, or maybe not, but most of the films we think of as really great films began with a director who had his own idea, perhaps wrote his own script and produced his own artifact.

I think adaptations start out behind the curve. But I don’t know. I have enormous respect for Alan Moore as an artist, but I don’t actually get the vehemence of his desire to see his work remain untranslated to other media. I know what it feels like to have things made badly, and it doesn’t feel good. But I don’t care if it doesn’t work. I may be briefly unhappy, but I don’t feel like it damages the original work in any way. Going into it, I’m always intrigued and curious to see what someone will make, particularly if they’re given $90 million to mess around with. Somehow I get the feeling they’re going to need more than that to film Neuromancer.

Gibson: It depends, you know? There are lots of different ways of doing it. My idea of a Neuromancer film at the end of the first decade of the 21st century isn’t about going big. Not that it’s necessarily my call, but it’s not what I would necessarily be thinking of. If it was my product, it probably wouldn’t sell itself on the basis of the huge acid-ness of its depiction of a super-evolved internet.

It would probably be character-driven, as much as anything, and have a lot to do with the close-up texture of the world in which it happening. But I say that with the massive caveat that I am not describing anything else that anybody is planning to do. It’s just my idea of what would be good right now. What about Christopher Nolan’s Inception? I immediately thought of your work when I saw that film, and noticed you were conversing about it on Twitter.

Gibson: Yeah, someone that I can’t remember off-hand, to my embarrassment, who I gathered was one of the main FX guys on Inception, tweeted that the curled-up Paris scene was inspired to some extent by Neuromancer’s space resort Freeside, and that something else was inspired by something from Idoru. And I was really flattered, because I loved the movie.

Although when I saw Inception, I had this whole list of stuff that I thought it was referencing, with maybe a little bit of my work down at the bottom. I thought it dallied way more in Giorgio de Chirico than it did in Neuromancer. But there is a way that those cultural influences flow through all the people who do any kind of serious work anyway. So you can’t really tell: When I get it from J.G. Ballard, does that mean I got it from de Chirico, because Ballard couldn’t have done it without him? If you’ve got it going on, it all flows together.

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