Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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.


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