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It’s all cyber-real

Sci-fi writer William Gibson on digital life and identity

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The man on the couch to the right side of the stage coined the term cyberspace in 1982. He’s credited with birthing the cyberpunk literary genre and imagining the semantics of the information age before the internet became popular. The Canadian American sci-fi novelist William Gibson sat in conversation with Concordia professor Fenwick McKelvey on February 5, on the stage of the D.B. Clarke Theatre to discuss the internet, fiction, and the future, as per the description on the Facebook event page.

We’re talking about digital life and digital identity here. Globe and Mail journalist Erin Anderssen moderated the conversation; apt as this was the first in a series of four conversations this year co-presented by Concordia and the Globe and Mail, called Thinking Out Loud. Before setting my mind free to project conceptions of why anyone would attend a talk about digital life (other than that William Gibson was there), let me qualify my position: to me, digital life is real life.

Generally, I’m never really sure what people are talking about when they bring up the word reality. I didn’t know you could experience non-reality. Aren’t mediated forms of exchange such as Tumblr, Instagram, et cetera, reality? If I remember a scene from a film, isn’t that a part of my reality? My memory?

Gibson offered the model of a cyborg to help us understand our relationship to technology. Think of “your phone [as] a complex prosthesis,” suggested Gibson. That is, think of technology as extensions of human capability, as a way of increasing productivity and displacing mundane administrative tasks such as remembering phone numbers, dates, historical facts onto our technological apparatus. It’s all about the order of the mind. Supposedly, with more technology and cognitive streamlining, humans will get to work less, and play more.

“When we take on a new technology, we become it,” said Gibson. He also said that we’re going to “lose previous modes of existence.” For example, I can’t imagine an existence without my smartphone — not to say that life is contingent on the existence of functioning smartphones — but rather I can’t un-know what I know. I also can’t rid my mind of the multi-screen view I have of the world, so sure, I agree with Gibson.

We’re seeing a reorganization of our sense perceptions with the onset of the digital age. Before, people had to go to the cinema to see a film, but we now have Netflix. The difference there, other than the on-demand factor, is that we don’t have to go sit in a room full of stranger humans in silent collectivity to see the moving image on the big screen. We can just sit at home imagining that all these other humans are doing it at the same time, if we even imagine that.

It’s like a Twitter revolution. No leaders, just hashtags. Now, our journalism is more politically leaning. Our media is increasingly participatory, but the kind of participatory where there are certain necessary conditions. At a distance, without having to physically interact with another human, we can raise our collective voices to air public grievances. We have democratized media! We feel agency!

There is a fine line between a self-defined meaningful engagement with the world, and the feeling of participating in social justice movements without experiencing physiological movement. “While we are being couch potatoes, we imagine that we are being active,” said Gibson. Curiously enough, he himself is a self-declared Twitter addict.

McKelvey raised a question, asking what a true interruption looks like in a constant stream of interrupting feed. Media never stops, and the only calamity is that there is always a new one. Why is being a well-informed citizen – who may very well choose not to take action – considered positive?

Gibson’s latest book called The Peripheral – which was available for purchase after the talk along with a book signing – is described by him as a sort of sci-fi realism, in which the characters from the future are using technology that we would consider incredibly magical, yet they treat it as totally banal.

Even in our contemporary world, we are able to do previously unimagined things – access the collective vault of human knowledge through a handheld phone – that we have come to take for granted. You even have the ability to “rewind your entire life,” as McKelvey put it. More and more human abilities are being placed onto our technological extensions, and we treat these developments as complete banalities. Regardless, we support the drive for technological development, the push for progress.

In a technologically mediated world, our sense of self is spread out through all the devices and applications we use. We divide our identities into little bits of information to be traded publicly on the internet, and select a multitude of hashtags and causes to like on Facebook to demonstrate some sort of individuality. We make digital records of all that we do, and relegate the burden of remembering to our digital spheres. Like McKelvey said, nowadays, “we’re all basically cyborgs.”