William Gibson: The Zero History of waiting for the Great Dismal

[Originally posted on the DCRC website: http://www.dcrc.org.uk/blogs/william-gibson-zero-history-waiting-great-dismal]

Last night I attended William Gibson’s Bristol Festival Ideas talk.  This blog post represents some reflections on Gibson’s relationship with futurity as it came through in the question and answer session.

William Gibson’s appearance at his Bristol Festival of Ideas talk was delayed by an unanticipated train incident, an apparent ‘anomoly’, as Gibson quipped, for trains are ‘never’ delayed in the UK. This was a fittingly unanticipated eventuality – for the evening proved to focus on the characterisation of the future. Launching straight into a reading of an entire chapter from Zero History. In an unexpectedly high pitched and quite raspy voice, Gibson recounts a section of the character Milgrim’s story. Expressing his witty and insightful eye for detail, in the world crafted by Gibson for Zero History, Cafe Nero is ‘a tasty alternate reality Starbucks’. Gibson’s protagonist is investigating military fashion on behalf of global marketing company, ‘Blue Ant’, not least because ‘military contracting is essentially recession proof’. Indeed, the author proclaimed, the bulk of the 21st century street fashion for men is the fashion of the middle of previous century’s military. This forms a part of the basis for the book’s narrative.

After a peculiar introduction to the only ‘paid’ character he feels he has written, a female US ‘Federal Special Agent’, Gibson launches into questions. The first questioner raises Gibson’s move from blogging to Twitter as a form of discipline that Gibson suggests he actually shirks, although he suggests that he has developed a skill for writing in less than 140 characters not least because of the necessity of retweeting.

In response to a rambling question, Gibson suggests that the social web is only as stupid as you want it to be – the reader has a choice: Only select those people who are smarter than you – it makes you ‘smarter’! For Gibson, in a minor swipe at Jaron Lanier, people who think that the discourse of the internet is dumber than any previous discourse have never really ‘hung out’ – they have never been exposed to, what the author revelled in calling, the ‘quotidian dumb f*ck’.

When revisiting this theme slightly later, Gibson offers the pithy observation that crowdsourcing can be useful, but probably more so with writers of fiction than people working in more factual realms. In response to any question posed to ‘the crowd’, Gibson suggests, inevitably, one receives ten dramatically different and contradictory answers. After a reflective pause, and with an incisive dry wit, Gibson offered the twitter anecdote: “Can you import unpasteurised cheese into Canada? Opinions vary…”

The rest of the evening’s questions circled around Gibson’s association with descriptions of the future that have stretched far beyond the discourse of fiction. The author calmly addressed somewhat gushing questions concerning his characterisation as a ‘predictor of the future’. One questioner asked Gibson if there is a pressure to be ‘accurate’ in prognostication. With the hint of a wry smile the continually threatened to break out on his gaunt face but never quite arrives, Gibson offered responses with a reasoned confidence that clearly come from the rehearsed practice of many dates on a book tour.  From the outset of his fictional engagements with futurity, Gibson argued he has been trying to dispell the cultural delusion that science fiction should in anyway be a means of predicting the future. The author stated that he learnt the history of the 20th century by deconstructing past visions of the future from the 1940s onwards. Gibson alludes to the fact that future-oriented fiction says far ore about the present in which it is written than any form of prognostication. As a reader, Gibson suggests that when he sits down to read a future-oriented science fiction book he gives into the conceit of that future prediction, but he argues this is only a suspension of disbelief. When you put the book down, he argued, you must re-engage that disbelief:

“I think we all live today in a weirder future than anything I posted in the 20th century. It may not be as clearly or simply plotted but it is certainly more complex.”

When asked to reflect upon the value of imagining the future for thinking about the present, Gibson calmly observed that professional futurists have got the same limitations as science fiction authors. the author suggested that both authors and futurists have to make the same decisions based on the same array of information. Gibson dryly observed: “Our grandchildren will continue to look back on us with contempt”. The present, Gibson argues, used to be ‘long’. As a youth, he believes, the present provided the ground on which you could produce grand extrapolatory structures to create futures. The author argued that whereas great science fiction authors such as Heinlein and Wells had the luxury of a ‘long now’, we are now faced with the reality of a rolling 24 hour news agenda, such that the space to extrapolate has been dramatically reduced.

Prompted by further questions around his relation to anticipating particular types of future, Gibson observed that if you were going to accurately to predict the future you’d have to be accuately assess where we are in the present. Gibson doesn’t think he’s alone in not being capable of doing so – in fact he argued we’re culturally incapable of doing so. The author asked the audience to reflect on what the brightest Victorians thought of themselves, how they imagined themselves to be – he argued that how we see them now is profoundly different. The future will look on us in profoundly strange way, Gibson argued, and he hoped we are seen with the same compassion with which we should look on the Victorians.

A very accomplished performer, producing highly quotable soundbites (as evidenced above), Gibson’s unassuming manner belies an incisive ability to observe contemporary life with the eye of a ‘foreigner’. In a poetic flourish, that seems to sum up the ongoing negotiation at the heart of his writing, Gibson argued that:

“Science fiction has been part of the dream time of industrial civilisation… which has definitely shaped the future, but societal change isn’t very much driven by science fiction… it is almost exclusively driven by emerging technologies.”

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