Q&A with William Gibson (Boston Phoenix 1.4.12)

Posted on February 7, 2012


TRYING TO FIND THE NOW: The Randomized Experience of William Gibson

William Gibson — the writer who famously coined the term “cyberspace” and whose classic tech-punk novels like Neuromancer and The Difference Engine helped spawn a couple generations’ worth of bleak, busted fantasies — is now on tour promoting his first collection of nonfiction. Comprising essays, articles, and speeches from the last 30 years, Distrust That Particular Flavor surveys Gibson’s real-life inquiries into far-flung locales (his critical piece on Singapore got Wired magazine banned there in the ’90s) and Internet trends like eBay. I spoke with him recently over the phone from his home in Vancouver about everything from the challenge of non-fiction, the Internet as a tool in social change, the disappearance of the future from our imaginations, and last year’s Stanley Cup riots.

I have memories of seeing some of this in original format and your careful, inquisitive tone still holds up — what do you think? I’m glad — as you can probably tell from the introduction, I wasn’t too sure about the project initially. Prior to that, I was scared to go back and look at all that stuff because I was afraid I wouldn’t think much of it. And it’s not like I fell in love with it, but I came to terms with it. I can see that it’s where I’m from.

With a lot of your commentary throughout the book, there’s sort of an apologetic tone about it, like you’re pulling out old embarrassing clothes from a trunk. I guess so. I mean, to me it would be even creepier if you were pulling the clothes out of the trunk and going, “Damn, this was hot!” That would worry me more. I think the correct response to one’s earlier work is a kind of guarded sort of, “It’s . . . okay. That’s sort of okay.” Otherwise, I’d be totally into myself, which is something that writers can famously do. It’s something I’ve always thought to watch out for.

When you were first getting involved in this kind of writing, were you seeking out assignments like this or were magazines seeking you out? I didn’t do anything actually. It’s funny because it was kind of an inadvertent career. I didn’t have business cards made or network at all. I think probably Rolling Stone was the first real magazine to ask me to do anything, and that brought me to the attention of other magazines. Then Wired magazine, back in the pre-Conde Nast crazy period, really got it going. They were quite successful, so they could afford to do crazy things. They’d call me up and say, “Where would you like to go?” [Laughs.]. I’d say, “Okay. How about Singapore?” That was very interesting that way. I think they sent Neil Stephenson completely around the world following some Internet cable. Like, physically, from continent to continent. You should see the pieces about it. It was a very interesting that way.

What was it like when you first heard that Wired had been banned in Singapore because of your “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” piece? I think I heard it from someone in editorial, and they were like, “Wow, this is cool!” At that time they thought it was cool, but I think they also thought that it probably wouldn’t last very long, which I assume it didn’t. It was more sort of a gesture on the part of the state, which sort of confirmed what I’d written. At first I was like, “Was I too harsh [in my article]?” No, they banned the whole magazine! They more or less proved my point. And I gather from what I read about Singapore that it’s not really quite that heavy anymore, though I shouldn’t comment on that, because I don’t know.

When you first started doing this kind of work, it seemed like you were having issues already with being pigeonholed as a science-fiction writer. Did the non-fiction work seem like a way to get out of that at the time? It seemed like a way to take the tools that I use for writing — and a lot of them were tools that were forged in the very belly of science fiction — and take them out and use them to measure that actual weird world that is the science-fiction world that we live in. Sometimes that gives you a really good take on the world, and sometimes it will show you that the term “science fiction” isn’t that accurate, or really that well-designed for measuring reality. It helped me keep in touch with the world in a way, doing the odd journalism piece. It sort of randomized my experience of the world and that, for a novelist, is always a good thing. It’s human nature to sort of stay in your groove and you start assuming that the world in front of you is the way the world is for everybody.

Do you continue to travel a lot to all these places? All of the cities that pop up in these pieces have gone on to be so important in your later fiction. It shifts around. I’m probably in London more than I’m in Tokyo and I wish there were some wonderful new, lofty magazine that could help me balance that out [laughs]. Give me a bunch more Tokyo and let me decide — I could think about it. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I’m a person that tends to go to the same distant destinations over and over.

How did you experience the earthquake and tsunami disaster last year in Tokyo? I had an intense reaction. I also had a really, really intense and immersive community experience with that one because I happened to be looking at Twitter and someone I know in Tokyo tweeted, “EARTHQUAKE.” All caps, you know — six exclamation points. And that was it. I didn’t retweet it or anything, I just kind of thought, “What’s that?” Then about a minute later, in bad spelling and crazy punctuation, it was like, “Big one! Big one! Getting out of building!” And so, you know, I tweeted something like, “My friends in Tokyo just said there’s a big earthquake.” Then I got this strange wave of people in Tokyo saying “Earthquake!”

I remember sitting there for hours watching people whose cells had gone out but they still had wi-fi. So the people in Tokyo had to figure out what was going on so they were going on Twitter, so I was redirecting people in Tokyo to places where they could find things like subway information. It was such a surreal, strange thing. It was one of the strangest evenings of my life, absolutely. I was up until one in the morning.

Throughout the aftermath of all of that, there was this picture that emerged of a calm, collective Japanese identity, waiting patiently in the face of catastrophe. None of that surprised me. The way that the people in charge of the nuclear plant — how they behaved later — that didn’t surprise me, either. I guess it’s all part of the same culture. But I’m not by any means any sort of authority on Japanese culture at all. I’m just a guy who likes their stuff a lot.

But you’ve worked pretty hard to use it as a cool psychogeographic backdrop to all kinds of ideas that you’re thinking about. When I started writing, there was a certain kind of awareness of Japan in Vancouver and it’s because we do a lot of business with them and Japanese tourism used to be a visibly big deal here, and I suppose it still is but as things have gotten bigger and busier here, it’s harder to notice. But it was a very convenient “other place” to set stories, I think.

Looking back at how you’ve watched the world develop in these pieces, do you feel like we have a more solid grip than ever of what the future holds for us than we did in the past?
I actually think we do, but in the sense that we don’t really have a future culturally in the way that we so very, very much had one in the past. I think that the present has gotten very, very brief indeed. At one time, the present was about a week long [laughs]. Probably many years before that, the present could be a year or a decade. You could say “now” and really know what you meant.

But today, you don’t even know what you mean. If you say “now,” it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what it’s going to be like tomorrow. In that kind of world, we don’t really have the luxury or even the ability to dream up fully articulated fantasy futures the way we once did, because they just get their legs knocked off the very next day by some new emerging technology or some new disease or something that could totally change the whole game.

It makes us less inclined to freak out over things now and that’s a result of this very short present moment, with everything subject to change. It’s really probably how it’s always been, it just didn’t look that way to us. We’re becoming inadvertently more sophisticated about the future.

It’s always seemed like you’ve had William Burroughs and Jorge Luis Borges in mind when crafting your narratives — both in terms of flipping worlds inside out and maintaining a very orderly approach to cataloging strange, routine phenomena. If you digest your influences adequately, you don’t think about them all the time. It just becomes part of who you are. Burroughs, the influence is probably more stylistic than anything else. I mean, whatever Burroughs thought he meant is not what I finally took out of it. What I took out of it were a series of alternative strategies for using language.

Burroughs’s actual concerns in his particular kind of magical universe aren’t anything like the way I see the world. He would never have agreed with me about conspiracy theories. He loved conspiracy theories and had a million of them, as contradictory as they might have been. But I loved all the different things he could do with language, and I loved seeing this totally vernacular streak of American language put to the service of weird, quasi-European art. With Borges, he’s just sort of as close as I ever got to cosmic mysticism.

But even if it’s a deep-down stylistic influence, these two writers seem to be on your mind a lot as a sounding board when working out ideas in the essays and speeches here. Well, that’s true. I noticed that myself — they pop up all the way through, so I guess they’re the influences I’ve been conscious of. I suspect that our artistic influences aren’t all that conscious all the time. We like to tell people which writers we like so the people we’re telling will think those writers are cool [laughs]. I mean, I do it. And then some others, I think, “Eh, I’m not going to mention those guys.”

What’s your take political leaders’ disconnect with so many functions of the Internet, highlighted in the SOPA hearings last month? It’s as though it’s generational but it’s probably not generational in the old sense. Like, it’s not exclusively “old people” who don’t know what the Internet is or how it works. It’s some different kind of split. It’s a cultural split that kind of goes along the same lines as guys who probably never learned to type because that’s what secretaries do. There’s still a lot of that around. The real downside of it isn’t that they’re being misogynist jerks, but that they wind up just not knowing how the Internet works.

There’s still relatively little political attention paid to candidates’ attitudes toward Internet practices. Yeah, it’s very much at the bottom. I think people generally more viscerally believe that “the economy is where we live, man!” And that’s true. But really, in North America, the media is where we live. It’s what we do. It’s not like we’re making a whole lot of stuff in factories or anything. We let people in other countries do that if we can. So the Internet is very important, and if they start messing with it, I think we’re about to find out how important it was!

There’s one point in the book where you wrote about the idea of conspiracies as an orderly fantasy that comforts us. Are you more or less inclined to go along with that attitude these days? Oh, I’m more inclined believe it. There are conspiracies. You know, historically, there have been conspiracies, and some of them have affected the course of history, but they aren’t often where the real meat is. You know, some other species looking at us from like a thousand years in the future might think, “What happened to those guys? What was the real skinny on that?” And the other alien says, “Internal combustion engines.” You know? That’s what did it. It wasn’t some conspiracy. It was internal combustion engines. And there may have been conspiracies around the course of the internal combustion engines doing to humanity, but they’re about money, basically, and keeping the power necessary for certain people to keep the money. But any version of history that somebody can explain to you over the course of two beers is a conspiracy theory.

How do you feel like the use of social networks has contributed to everything from the Arab Spring to Occupy demonstrations over the last year? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s possible to know. It seems like it’s not even possible for us to know what network broadcast television has done to us in my entire lifetime, so guessing what the digital has done to politics is really guessing. Obviously it’s doing something, but I can’t tell. I think reading the Blackberry traffic from those riots in London was really interesting because while you can on one hand see people calling up their friends and arranging to loot the video store, you can also go on Twitter and go back and track the span of completely insane combinations of movements. So everything moves so quickly.

It’s amazing that you can take a movement like that which from the outside can look like a giant ball of dust moving through the city and actually see inside of it and hear what’s being said. There are going to be amazing anthropological papers written out of that data because you’re going to be able to analyze and geo-tag it all. There are so many more ways now to look at stuff, and there are just these extraordinary angles that humanity has to go back and study our own behavior. I think that will really change things, although it may take longer for people to extract the information.

Do you feel like even with other types of riots — the crazy riots in Vancouver after the Stanley Cup finals, for instance, that had nothing to do with any kind of social movement — are those similarly illuminating? Yeah, I actually do, because that kind of riot and riot-like behavior is essentially interesting in itself. It’s such an extraordinary aspect of what we are that we’re not ordinarily in touch with. I just think it’s very interesting to look at what the riot-control specialists have to say about how that works — at least the smarter, less authoritarian riot control specialists. They’re basically saying, “We’ve got to do everything we can to keep these guys in their forebrains where they remember that they have jobs and family and tomorrow and all of those concepts.” Because if the crowd washes back into the rest of the brain, which is by far the majority of the brain, it’s gonna be a riot. That kind of thinking I find really, really interesting just because of what it says about who and what we are.

Original article at the Boston Phoenix here.