Ace Frehley’s guitar pick? Kylie Jenner’s toothbrush? Paul McCartney’s used handkerchief? When Britney Spears shaved her head, her hairs were sold for $16 each. A hotel plumber once showed up on 4chan offering to sell Selena Gomez’s used bathwater for $35 a pint.
If you’re a fan of “noir prophet of the cyberpunk subgenre” (Wikipedia’s words, not mine) William Gibson, here’s your chance to own No Maps For These Territories, a documentary that simulates a long and boring car ride with Gibson in the back seat.
“On an overcast morning in 1999, William Gibson, father of cyberpunk and author of the cult-classic novel Neuromancer, stepped into a limousine and set off on a road trip around North America. The limo was rigged with digital cameras, a computer, a television, a stereo, and a cell phone. Generated entirely by this four-wheeled media machine, No Maps for These Territories is both an account of Gibson’s life and work and a commentary on the world outside the car windows. Here, the man who coined the word “cyberspace” offers a unique perspective on Western culture at the edge of the new millennium, and in the throes of convulsive, tech – driven change.”
The point of this, I suppose, is insight porn. Just get this reclusive genius in front of a camera, and let him regale us with his genius. The problems with this documentary are twofold.
First sin (venal), William Gibson just isn’t that compelling as a speaker. He stutters. He drifts off. He sounds unsure of his own words. This is one of those times when you want a narcissistic egomaniac who loves the sound of his own voice. Harlan Ellison or Bruce Sterling would have been great in the back seat of that car, pardon my Freud.
I have friends who’ve met Gibson in person, and they concur: he’s not equipped to be the spokesperson of a movement, and furthermore, he never even wanted to play that role. he wrote a book, it blew up, and he had the role foisted on him. I keep thinking back to Dylan Avery’s 9/11 conspiracy film. All he wanted was a directorial credit, instead he became Sauron’s Mouthpiece for a movement of crazies who think the collapsing buildings were holographic projections (and ironically, this poisoned his chances of actually becoming a serious director).
But the second sin (mortal) is this:
If you want to celebrate the power of change, the 90s-2010s are an extremely underwhelming time to do it in.
In the 50s and 60s, you could feel optimism. We were roaring ahead. Lasers. Jet engines. The double helix. Man born of the Earth, stepping down a ladder to stand upon the cold regolith of the moon.
Then, it all seemed to stop. The Concorde was retired. Our technological brief is now “rebuild the things of the 50s and 60s so they’re a bit smaller and fit in your pocket”. You no longer need even a single percentage point to write NASA’s share of the budget. And we started to learn more about the environment, and our planet, which forced a shift of perspective: progress at any cost is not always a possible or worthwhile goal. Resource-wise, we’re definitely now coming down on the wrong side of the Hubbert’s bell curve. Worse than Peak Oil, we’ve also hit Peak Ideas – it seems all the $20 bills are finally gone from the sidewalk, along with the $10s, the $5s, and all but a few of the coins. Any further technological progress is likely to be slow and expensive.
The past twenty years has given us mass user adoption of the internet – a toy which was first invented in the 60s and 70s. It’s a little like picking up a jacket at the start of winter and finding that you left money in the pocket at the end of winter last year – it’s the past generation we have to thank.
How does this relate to Gibson talking in a conspicuously non-flying car?
It’s easy to be underwhelmed by prophets of the future, whether it’s cyberpunk or transhumanism or anything else. In the words of a CS Lewis character, “your wallet’s empty, your eggs addled, your fish uncaught, your promises broken. Stand aside then and let others work.”
Just look at the vernacular thrown around in the 1990s, and see how dated it seems now. Strangely, language that attempts to evoke the future ages much faster than the rest of our vocabulary. “Smooth” and “fun” sound timeless and contemporary, despite their old age. “Electrolux” and “Spectravision” sound tacky and old, like appliances you’d see around Grandma’s house.
Then you have “cyberspace,” which is supposed to sound cutting edge but is now exclusively used by politicians trying to scare old people. The cutting edge stops cutting damned quickly. If it’s a knife, it’s a knife bevelled at an extreme angle that quickly snaps, leaving bluntness behind.
Cyberpunk came, and went, and the world kept turning. It had the rise of home computing and the internet to fuel it, but mostly, I just think it was a brief fashion. Like how for a few months every white girl had a bindi on her forehead because of Gwen Stefani in the “Just A Girl” music video. Did I mention that Gibson wears dark sunglasses through much of the car trip, even when it’s overcast?
Gibson’s prognostications are interesting, but we’re still not living in the world he imagined, and I doubt we ever will. This documentary is interesting, but mostly you feel like you’re watching someone wander up a blind cul’de’sac while pronouncing he’s discovered the route to India.