Future Tense

William Gibson Sees the Future

But he’s not trying to predict it.

William Gibson
U.S. author William Gibson on May 26, 2007.

Photo by Elisabetta A. Villa/WireImage

“The thing to keep in mind,” William Gibson tells me when we meet in the quiet lounge of a Victorian-style hotel in Chicago, “is that I’m not actually predicting the future. I’m generating scenarios.” The setting is appropriate: The acclaimed science fiction writer often uses the vanished Victorian culture in his novels to illustrate a tension that’s been present in his work from the beginning—the past vs. the future. His newest novel, The Peripheral, explores this connection more deeply than ever before by imbuing two newly imagined futures with Victoriana.

For most of his career, Gibson has denied being a prophet or seer. He’s never been deeply involved in the technical aspects of technology; he famously wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter. His talent lies in projecting what humanity will do with new technology, not how that technology necessarily works. “Because I’m a fiction writer and not really a futurist in the way that someone generating scenarios for Royal Dutch Shell is a futurist, I’m not actually saying this is what we’re going to look like,” he says. “In some weird way, I’m performing a parallel function that may mean something, but I can’t defend it on the basis of statistics the way one might be able to defend a planning scenario for a large corporation or government.”

Gibson spent the last 14 years writing “speculative novels of the very recent past,” collectively known as the Bigend Trilogy. The Peripheral, as many reviewers point out, is his return “back to the future.” The result is his most daring and genre-breaking novel since Neuromancer, which was published in 1984. The Peripheral’s two futures are set some 70 years apart. The first is a decade from now in the rural South. Drugs are made on 3-D printers, and everyone is poor and works for a handful of corporations. It’s Winter’s Bone by way of Gibson’s unique vision of hypercapitalism.

The second future takes place in a 22nd-century post-singularity London, where a recently disgraced publicist navigates a surveillance state ruled by a kleptocracy. Today, the singularity is a theoretical point at which artificial intelligence becomes smarter than us and lies outside our control. According to singularity devotees, we cannot predict what happens at this juncture, but some ideas include mankind uploading our consciousness into computers or causing our own end by runaway nanotechnology. Gibson’s vision of the singularity is a “nerd rapture,” and it’s different and more human than any other singularity depiction I’ve encountered.

“I’ve been making fun of the singularity since I first encountered the idea,” he says. “What you get in The Peripheral is a really fucked-up singularity. It’s like a half-assed singularity coupled with that kind of neoreactionary, dark enlightenment shit. It’s the singularity as experienced by Joseph Heller. We’re people, and we fuck up. We do a singularity, we’re going to fuck it up.”

Indeed, in the novel, we do. An apocalypse Gibson refers to only as “the Jackpot” devastates Earth’s population, and Gibson’s “half-assed singularity” comes along in time to save only the moneyed elite. Gibson’s vision is a multicausal apocalypse, one that refutes the idea of the single-trigger apocalypses (an epidemic, a nuclear holocaust, an asteroid) that have preoccupied man since before the Bible. I asked him why the people with money survived. His response: “Why wouldn’t they?

In The Peripheral, while those with money survive “the Jackpot,” they have no more control over that technology than the poor do. They merely have more access to it. As he has said before, “The future is here. It just isn’t evenly distributed.” Gibson does not believe we are in control of our technology, but that our technology creates the world we live in, often accidentally. He says:

We can attempt to legislate technology after the fact, but it keeps on coming. Its nature is to be completely out of control. Nobody legislates technology into being. They don’t legislate the birth of the Internet or cellphones or anything. They’re called forth into the market, and the people who call them forth often have absolutely no idea how these things they’ve thought of will most change society. It’s impossible to tell until people have the things, and they’re using them.

This conjures up another one of Gibson’s most oft-quoted phrases: “The street finds its own uses for things.” Gibson strongly believes that technology cannot be accurately augured. It’s an odd notion coming from a man with so many accurate “predictions”—3-D printing in 1999’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, the Internet in 1984’s Neuromancer, and the explosion of reality TV in 1996’s Idoru.

Though Gibson got a surprising amount about today’s technology right, he had many misses—Neuromancer is notable not just for foreseeing the Internet but in its failure to see cellular telephony. He’s also the first to admit the dystopia in The Peripheral might be avoidable. Still, in talking about an Anthropocene—human caused— sixth extinction, he becomes uncharacteristically impassioned. “[The apocalypse] is exclusively androgenic. Androgenic forces are about to—nothing to be done about it—bring about the next great extinction. We’re not going to turn that around. We’re going to lose most of the animals, and that’s us. There’s nobody else to blame, and we understand how it happened.”

The Peripheral maps out what happens during and after this extinction—particularly uses for 3-D printers, drones, and nanotechnology. In the novel, 3-D printing is used to make almost everything. The people put out of work by these printers use them to manufacture “funny” or illegal objects such as brand-name knockoffs and even methamphetamine. Likewise, drones have become so ubiquitous they are called paparazzi. They deliver your local fast food and also guard your house from intruders. In Gibson’s 22nd-century London, people routinely use drone bodies called “Peripherals” to visit places remotely.

If we are locked inside our mobile devices today, the people of Gibson’s futures are fully, inexorably entangled in “cyberspace.” I use quotes because Gibson said “reality” and “cyberspace” are both legacy terms. Children being born today won’t understand how we saw any difference. He terms this “cyberspace everting”—the point at which the Internet of things makes the barrier between what we used to think of as the real world and cyberspace an arbitrary distinction. As he spoke, he gestured at the lobby full of people on mobile devices, as if to say that it already had.

The evolution of this idea finds its reification in his 22nd-century London, where nanotechnology makes all matter malleable. With what he calls nanotech “assemblers,” Gibson again embraces a satirical though all-too-possible world. In this future, genetic modifications make people inhuman, London has literally been remade molecule by molecule, and guns don’t inflict wounds but deconstruct a person atom by atom. On the upside, small devices called Medici serve as doctors, able to fix things that would kill us today.

In many ways, Gibson’s “futures” are already here. Kanye West rants about drones, 3-D printers assist in facial transplants, and, perhaps in a final irony, the term “cyberspace” has become as antiquated to him as “electro” is to the modern world. Simply put, everything is cyber now. Maybe Gibson doesn’t predict the future, but he certainly makes the rest of us see it in ways we hadn’t before. That is why we keep coming back to his words and his imagined tomorrows.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.