128 John Sutherland, 1998 From: John Sutherland (1998) Where was Rebecca Shot? Puzzles, Curiosities and Conundrums in Modern Fiction. London: Phoenix. William Gibson — Neuromancer Who Invented Cyberspace? There is innocent pleasure in looking back, from the standpoint of the past’s fu- ture, at the forecasts of the ‘futurologists’, so revered in the 1960s and 1970s. The most intellectually respectable was Herman Kahn (immortalized as Dr Strangelove). The most commercially successful practitioner of the new clairvoyant science was Alvin Tofﬂer with Future Shock. A ‘runaway bestseller’ of 1970, Tofﬂer’s por- tentous gaze into the future was taken very seriously by politicians and pundits. It was, C. P. Snow opined, a ‘remarkable’ work: ‘No one ought to have the nerve to pontiﬁcate on our present worries without reading it’ (I like ‘ought’). Tofﬂer made a heap of money from Future Shock, and good luck to him. But his predictions about the world of 2000 and after are so off-base that, frankly, Mystic Meg has him beat every time. With hindsight and a hollow laugh, we can see Tofﬂer as one in a long series of Utopian optimists—and, above all, a booster for American consumerism. Gazing into his crystal ball, Tofﬂer foresaw large portions of the world’s popula- tion at the turn of the century (i.e. now) living on the ocean ﬂoor, or on pontoon cities, grazing contentedly on the harvests of ‘aquaculture’ (ﬁshburgers?). Global climate would, he prophesied, be micro-controlled. One would be able turn sun- shine on and off, like a set of patio lights. Rifﬂing through one’s yellowed 1970 paperback, it is what Tofﬂer did not foresee that strikes one most forcefully. To wit: global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, AIDS, downsizing, women’s liberation. Most strikingly, in his 600 pages, Tofﬂer makes no more than a dozen passing references to the Where was Rebecca Shot? 129 computer. When he does parenthetically turn his attention to it, Tofﬂer sees the computer as (1) nothing more than a superior calculating machine or abacus; (2) a kind of futuristic butler-cum-secretary; something, that is, to help the busy man with his busy schedule. Take, for instance, the following hilarious prediction: A case in point is the so-called OLIVER [On-line Interactive Vicari- ous Expediter and Responder] that some computer experts are striv- ing to develop to help us deal with decision overload. In its simplest form, OLIVER would merely be a personal computer programmed to provide the individual with information and to make minor decisions for him. At this level, it could store information about his friends’ preferences for Manhattans or martinis, data about trafﬁc routes, the weather, stock prices, etc. The device could be set to remind him of his wife’s birthday—or to order ﬂowers automatically. It could renew his magazine subscriptions, pay the rent on time, order razor blades and the like.1 Razor blades? What they? His wife’s birthday? Flowers! The Internet and the World Wide Web are, as we come into the third millennium, the focus of our ‘future shock’ forecasts. Doubtless they will be as myopic as those of Alvin Tofﬂer thirty years ago. None the less, all experts seem to agree, ‘cyberspace’ is the new frontier. As regards the question in the title of this chapter, the preﬁx ‘cyber’ (as in ‘cybernetics’ and ‘cyborg’) is attributed by the OED to Norbert Wiener, a precursor of Marshal McCluhan in the ﬁeld of media studies.2 The root word seems to be ‘cybernetics’ which, literally, denotes a feed-back mechanism, in which information is not inertly stored but dynamically used to reassemble what is already known. ‘Cyber’ has since ﬂown free, to attach itself parasitically to any number of host words and concepts. All over the capital cities of the world, for example, ‘Cyber-caf\’es’ are to the 1990s what coffee bars were in the 1950s and discos were in the 1970s. The use of ‘cyberspace’ is applied speciﬁcally to the ‘Net’ and the ‘Web’. Cy- berspace is that notional (or ‘virtual’) 1 Alvin Tofﬂer, Future Shock (1970, repr. New York, 1971), p.434. 2 SeeNorbert Wiener, Cybernetics: or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (New York, 1948). 130 John Sutherland, 1998 information ‘ether’, in which huge quanta of information circulate in random but immediately accessible and rearrangeable form. The Internet was not, of course, invented for the civilian population who now ‘surf’ it. It was invented as a military communication system to enable America to win a nuclear war. ‘ARPA-net’, father of Internet, was assembled in the early 1970s by the American Defense Department as a network which would still function if large sections (even the Pentagon) were knocked out by a sneaky Soviet missile attack. Much US military research is done on American campuses, and out of ARPA-net and its derivatives sprang university ‘Local Area Networks’, connected by eth- ernet, or telnet programs, using UNIX, a complicated operating system, capable of communicating, via hub-computers, with other universities. In the early 1990s, ‘email’—electronic correspondence via these UNIX-based networks—spread like wildﬁre among the academic community. An ‘email address’ was, at this period, for professors what the cellular phone was for their students: a sign that they were ahead of the curve. The World Wide Web, son of Internet, was another purpose built and essen- tially non-commercial system. It was originated at CERN, the European Parti- cle Physics Laboratory, in the early 1990s and was initially intended to allow the world-wide community of scientists to work collaboratively and creatively on big- science problems. Whereas the Internet could conveniently carry only words and text—typically in stripped ‘Ascii’ form—the Web used ‘hypertext’ to incorporate imagery, icons and ‘browsing’, or lateral links. The Web introduced a new, non- linear architecture. Duck did not have to collocate with green peas, it could also go alongside cricket, eider-ﬁlled duvets and any number of other links. Lateral jumps could be made at instantaneous speed simply by clicking on a pictorial icon, or using a ‘search engine’, such as Yahoo, Lycos, Alta-Vista or InfoSeek. Where was Rebecca Shot? 131 Everyone agrees that the future of the Net and the Web are vast and central. They began as military and academic systems. Now they are infrastructural elements in the modern cultural environment. There are, as I write, some 40 million on- line users. Five per cent of British households are ‘Web households’. The ﬁgure is large, but what is more signiﬁcant is the phenomenal rate of expansion. It is expected that, as with radio and television, the whole population will, within a few years, come on-line. There is a problem in this smooth pattern of growth. Children are the most avid users of computer systems. Conditioned by arcade and video games, they gradu- ate seamlessly into keyboard-operating adults. But the problem with children as customers for computers is that: (1) they have little or no money and (2) comput- ers are extremely expensive. Computer literacy comes at a much higher cost than print literacy. The current start-up outlay is about £1,200 for apparatus and pe- ripherals, and several hundred a year for operating costs, with expensive upgrades every couple of years. Pocket money won’t do it. The generation who can afford the equipment grew up, like Alvin Tofﬂer, in a computerless environment. They are electronic illiterates. How can you get them to buy, to make the necessary ﬁnancial investment to become ‘Web households’? To lay out, that is to say, as much on a computer as they might pay for a second- hand car. High-pressure advertising is the answer, and the selling of the Web—to a generation of thirty-something computer illiterates—has been an extraordinary triumph for modern capitalism. It is, of course, no use trying to explain the software mysteries of hypertext, or even expecting middle-aged users (especially males, who tend to be richer) to have keyboard skills (something they associate with lowly secretaries). Hence ‘icons’—one-ﬁnger keyboarding—and a kind of computer baby-talk, glossed as ‘user-friendliness’. The selling of the Internet/Web has been facilitated, made 132 John Sutherland, 1998 possible one might say, by—of all things—a novel and the school of ﬁction (‘Cy- berpunk’) spun off from it. In 1984 (ominous year) William Gibson published his sf fantasy, Neuromancer. By a nice symmetry, Gibson was born in 1948—the year in which Orwell wrote his futurological novel. As Gibson’s title suggests, his novel is a ‘new romance’, crossed with the new neuromancy—computer magic. In technique it draws heavily on noir hardboiled crime ﬁction of the 1950s, crossed—provocatively—with 1980s arcadegame slam- bang violence. The novel is set in the twenty-ﬁrst century after a devastating nuclear war. Japan, through its dominance in electronics, is now the global su- perpower. There is no ‘natural environment’, as such. The animal kingdom has largely been wiped out in postwar pandemics and humanity lives in huge, continental-sized geodesic domes. Planet earth has been paved over and plastic- wrapped. Gibson’s hero, Case, is a ‘console cowboy’, or electronic ‘rustler’ (a ‘hacker’, as the genus would later be called; hackers worship Gibson). Case lives by stealing proprietary software programs on the open ranges of cyberspace. The narrative twists itself into bafﬂing complexities. But what proved to be most inﬂuential in the novel (published, remember, in 1984: some six years before the ‘Web’ came into being) was William Gibson’s vision of the ‘Matrix’ (the global totality of databases) and of ‘Cyberspace’. A potted history is given by ‘voice-over’: ‘The Matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games, in early graph- ics programs, and military experimentation with cranial jacks . . . Cy- berspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathe- matical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable com- plexity Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights receding. . . ’ (p. 67; my italics)3 Gibson is, by general agreement and his own admission, 3 References are to Neuromancer (1984, repr. London, 1995). Where was Rebecca Shot? 133 no ‘techno-nerd’. What he offered in Neuromancer was a poet’s predeﬁnition of the technology which would arrive a few years later. What he describes in the above passage is, of course, the World Wide Web avant la lettre. With some grandiose over-statement it is, I think, an uncannily accurate prediction of what the Web would be—or, at least, what we think it is. More to the point, Gibson passed on (free—he should have ‘trademarked’ the word) to the merchandisers a means of packaging and glamorising the Web, so that it could be sold to the middle-class, middle-aged masses. The merchandisers were not slow to catch on. Literature, by its power of metaphoric concretisation, frequently serves to facil- itate the absorption of technology by a scientiﬁcally sub-literate population in this way. One of the more remarkable examples is a throwaway remark of Mar- shal McCluhan’s in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), where he grandiloquently as- serts, in passing, that ‘Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as tri- umphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave’.4 The Gutenberg Galaxy was published in the early 1960s. These were the glory days of Californian beach cul- ture, and their musical laureates the Beach Boys with their ‘Surﬁn’ USA’ image. The image, as it was originally thrown off, was no more signiﬁcant than thousands of ﬂashy coinages in McCluhan’s anthem to ‘typographic man’. But the notion of ‘surﬁng the electronic wave’ caught on. It was adapted, by some salesman one suspects, into the idea of ‘surﬁng the Web’. It was as ﬂattering an image as that of the intrepid cybernaut exploring cyberspace (which is how we see ourselves in laying out our £1,200 for a new computer). The image of ‘surﬁng’ enabled computer semiliterates to understand what they were doing. Courtesy of the im- age, they could represent themselves to themselves as, somehow, glamorously in charge of machineries which were, in fact, in charge of them. Who, then, invented ‘cyberspace’? The scientists at CERN, or William Gibson? It all depends what you mean by ‘invent’. 4 Marshall McCluhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962, repr. New York, 1969), p.295.