Ben Smithgall

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Interactive News Developer at the New York Times. Previously with Spotify, U.S. Digital Service, and Code for America.





The Sprawl Trilogy

By William Gibson

Finished reading on December 28, 2019

I was inspired to re-read Neuromancer after reading this absolutely bonkers profile of Gibson in the New Yorker a few weeks ago. I was reading it while this series about surveillance that I helped work on came out, which made me think about the incongruities between the cyberpunk world imagined by Gibson here and by Neil Stephenson in Snow Crash.

Gibson anticipates this complete collapse of privacy: the story in Neuromancer kicks off when Molly is easily able to find Case. They retreat into a back room in the “Sprawl” to discuss Armitage in the room with the best privacy that she can afford.

There are ways, though, in which the worlds of Neuromancer and Snow Crash are very different from where we find ourselves now. Aside from the obvious dystopian elements, I think the biggest differences are in the ways that cyberspace manifests itself. For both Gibson and Stephenson, both writing long before the real rise of the World Wide Web, entering cyberspace is a physical and visceral experience. Case “jacks into the matrix” through a “cranial jack.” Hiro Protagnoist’s digital realm is avatar-centric, in the model that would eventually be realized in games like Second Life. In both of these cases, the act of going online involves a physical separation between the operator and their physical “meat space.” In Neuromancer, Case physically jacks in and attaches ‘trodes’ to himself and surfs around the ice, which is represented by colorful blocks in a separate world.

In the real world, though, this infrastructure is much more banal. Our phones are constantly pinging servers, cell towers, Bluetooth beacons, and WiFi routers, but we never see or sense that. We don’t jack into the Matrix or attach electrodes to our faces to go online. With the possible exception of some fully immersive VR, we maintain our normal senses. It’s impossible for us to know that things are being lost or taken from us when we go online. Even the downsides that are outlined in these pieces about private surveillance are physically removed from us: how can we understand ourselves as rows in a database table? All of these systems are completely hidden from us; we can’t see or understand their effects. In the world of Neuromancer, Case experiences brain-death a handful of times: there are real risks associated with being a console cowboy: the AI Wintermute fries his brain to the point of death.

This is a major point raised by the piece: why is it legal for companies to collect this data? Why are there no laws regulating them or protecting people? I think a large part of it is this gap between these worlds that were imagined from 20 years ago and how they ended up panning out. Though the internet truly has penetrated into every corner of life (see, for example this tremendously reported piece about all the ways Amazon is a part of daily life in Baltimore), we don’t really feel or understand it in the same way that we might if things were closer to the worlds of Neuromancer or Snow Crash.

In any case Neuromancer is a fun book, and still applicable to our world despite its differences. I’m looking forward to reading Gibson’s newest series after reading that profile of him, and seeing how he has shaped the world around us still.

After finishing Neuromancer, I took the time over the break to re-read the two other books in the so-called Sprawl Trilogy, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. There are interesting bits cast throughout these books. One of the most interesting concepts in Count Zero is the notion that extreme wealth is has its own sovereignty and even confers its own citizenship to the small army of lawyers and managers who look after it. This is another point where Gibson seems to anticipate or even bring around reality: Josef Virek attempts to escape death; his consciousness is uploaded into a giant set of vats in Sweden, and he has many corporeal forms in the “simstim” VR-like entertainment. This doesn’t match fully but surely rhymes with the way that Google’s executives are looking to “cure death” as they age.