William Gibson

Forget the Future; Imagine the Past

William Gibson
William Gibson


I came across an interview by the Paris Review Magazine with William Gibson*, the sci-fi writer who created the neologism, “cyberspace.” His perspective is always so challenging and insightful.

This portion of the interview is making the rounds in cyberspace:

It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.

My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak. We don’t think about that when we’re driving somewhere and turn on the radio. We take it for granted.”

MamawMamaw’s Remembrances

I recall my grandmother telling me about the first time she ever saw an automobile. She always referred to the car as an “automobile.” She was terrified.

She said all of the chickens and the pigs came running down the pig path toward her making a tremendous racket. Behind them was a very loud and very bouncy automobile spitting and sputtering. The sight and noise of it frightened her.

She had to remind me that no roads existed, only dirt trails for the horses and horse-drawn carts (the precursor of the pickup truck) in those days.

Today this area of Alabama has a huge stilted interstate exchange built all atop it. No one living today knows what it was before, before the time of the automobile. No one saw my grandmother running in fear from the coming automobile and all that came with it. Mamaw lived into her 90s; yet, amazingly, she never drove an automobile.

Pensacola AirportI Think Back…

I recall as a young child our driving way out of town to the airport in Pensacola. (It’s in the thick of “town” today.) We drove up to a covered sidewalk and all got out. We walked Diane and John right up to the plane with their luggage. They got on as we stood at the foot of the steps and waved goodbye.

No security. No metal detectors. No surveillance cameras. No computers. No porno scanners. No picture ID. In fact, in those days, not even any names on the tickets.

No fear.

Or, if there was fear, it was the fear of flying. Compare that to today.

William Was Right

I wasn’t paying attention. I can’t remember what this felt like. I wasn’t viewing this time past from the perspective of a post 9/11 surveillance state. When my generation is gone, no one will know what that time was much like at all. It will quietly pass completely un-missed with a generation.

Party Hat on Surveillance Camera for Orwell's Birthday
Party Hat on Surveillance Camera for George Orwell’s Birthday

Pay Attention

What worries me most, and I mean really concerns me deeply: are we paying attention now to the right things? Are we noticing? Are we logging this time?

In another 45 years, the technology of the surveillance state and the military industrial complex combined with the complete collapse of the middle class will have radically changed this rapidly waning present. I don’t know what it will be in the future, but I do know the future will have the same difficulty I have remembering the past, remembering “the good ole days,” remembering today.

I personally think that if we continue on this current trajectory, the future will not be bright unless it’s because the earth is a fire pit of global warming. And, even worse than that, think about the consequences of another quotation from this same interview with William Gibson. Imagine what this actually means for the future:

If things go on the way they’re going, and technology keeps emerging, we’ll eventually have a near-total sorting of humanity’s attic.

I ask again: Are we creating a future in which humanity will really want to live?

* To be such a fan of this man, I can’t believe I’ve never read any of his books. I’ve just never been one to read much fiction, let alone science fiction. I started reading his book, “Pattern Recognition” and was getting into it when a series of distractions diverted my attention. It’s back on my near-future reading list!