The speech at the “Letterature” festival in Rome by William Ford Gibson “…If you wish to know an era, study its most lucid nightmares. In the mirrors of our darkest fears, much will be revealed…”
by William Ford Gibson
Thank you for welcoming me to 21st-century Rome, a place I haven’t previously had the pleasure of visiting, though I did visit it, once, as a younger man, in one of its countless earlier iterations. Rome: this ancient and utterly contemporary human settlement.That we know what we do of the history of Rome, or of any other place, singles us out from every other species on this planet.
Time moves in one direction, memory in another, and we are that which constructs artifacts to counter the flow of forgetting. We counter the flow of silence, really. We erect stones; the stones speak, all these centuries later. Against the pressure of silence, of forgetting, against the absence of memory, we impose pixels of various kinds.
The first pixels, perhaps, were particles of ochre clay, the bison rendered in just the resolution required. Cave-drawings still function perfectly, all these millennia later, and what screen in the world today shall we say that of in a decade?
And those bison will be there for us, on whatever platform, whatever media we come to have. Carried against the silence, out of the primal dark on some impulse we each have felt, as children, drawing. Carried in this thing we have always been creating, this vast unlikely mechanism that preserves information in its interstices; a global, communal, prosthetic memory that we have been constructing since before we learned to build in wood, stone, steel or genetic material.
That this mechanism has grown more subtle, more powerful, nearer all-encompassing, in my own lifetime, I have no doubt. I know this because when I was a child the flow of forgetting, the potential of silence, was less thoroughly impeded.
I know this because the dead were less a constant presence then. Because there was once no REVERSE button. Because the soldiers dying in Flanders fields died in black and white, and did not run as the living run. Because the world’s attic was still untidy. Because there were old men in the mountain valleys of my Virginia childhood who remembered a time before recorded music.
When we hear Elvis sing “Heartbreak Hotel”, we are seldom struck by this basic enormity: that a dead man sings.
But in the context of the longer life of the species, this is something that only just became possible moments ago. Something our forebears might well have regarded as monstrous — as did certain Victorians, upon first experiencing the gramophone.
The gramophone, in retrospect, and the camera as well, were fractures, convulsive breaks with some previous way of knowing “now” from “then”. Fracturing silence, fracturing forgetting, in new ways. And whatever previous way of knowing preceded that is closed to us. Occluded. Sealed over, in the moment of fracture.
Today our “now” has become at once unforgivingly brief and virtually eternal, and all as a function of the REVERSE button.
As the capacity for recall grows ever more universal, history itself is seen to be even more obviously a construct, subject to revision. If it has been our business, as a species, to dam the flow of time through the creation and maintenance of mechanisms of external memory, what will we become when all these mechanisms, ultimately, as it seems to me to be their nature to do, merge?
The omega-point of all human existence may be a single moment of effectively endless duration, an infinite Now.
We may have little choice in the matter, as the modes of prosthetic memory we’ve generated throughout our evolutionary journey have been autonomous, evolving under their own direction. We have never planned where we are going, technologically, and where we go technologically, I believe, is where we go culturally. The inventors of the technologies enabling agriculture, which led to the technologies of mass food storage, didn’t envision the cities that those technologies would eventually enable. We don’t plan these things. We go along. But we go along remembering. We do not go in internal silence.
The most profound changes resulting from technological innovation are often entirely unintentional.
We are not legislating our way toward that one digital Now, that one digital Here. We are not heading there after due consideration. We are simply heading there. Social change is technologically driven. We don’t often legislate new technologies into being. They simply emerge. Into markets. And markets find their own uses for things.
We are mapping literally everything, now, from the human genome to the last surviving unworn examples of 1950’s American work clothing, and our search engines grind increasingly fine.
Our history is changing, through this. Emerging technologies reveal an evolving past. The one we have today, the best we’ve been able to assemble, is terribly, or mercifully, fragmentary. With an exponential increase in computing power, and an equally exponential decrease in its cost, that will change. The blind earth will give up its mysteries as never before, and new ancestors will stand before us, in that same digital Now.
I imagine that, in that Now, art will be increasingly seen as the act not of creation but of curation. That that may be the only art possible, in that Now. In the realm of atemporal media, gesture may prove impossible, or, rather, the only possible gestures may prove to be those of accumulation, display, recontextualization.
The century receding behind us was one of –isms, my colleague Bruce Sterling has said. They were based, he believes, on a fundamental and fatal misunderstanding, that philosophy trumps engineering. It doesn’t. In a world fully competent to command its material basis, he has said, ideology is inherently flimsy. Technology in its broad sense: the ability to transform resources, the speed at which new possibilities can be opened and exploited, the multiple and various forms of command-and-control — technology, not ideology, will be our previous century’s lasting legacy.
Driven by the acceleration of computing power and connectivity and the simultaneous development of surveillance systems and tracking technologies, we are approaching a theoretical state of absolute informational transparency, one in which “Orwellian” scrutiny is no longer a hierarchical, top-down activity but a newly democratized one. As individuals steadily lose degrees privacy, so too, eventually, do corporations and states. This may be intrinsic to the nature of information technology itself.
Certain goals of any government’s information awareness initiatives will eventually be realized simply by ongoing evolution of the global information system — but not necessarily or exclusively for the benefit any government. This outcome of the emergent system seems an inevitable result of the migration, to what we once called cyberspace (but now call “here”) of almost everything that we do with information.
Had George Orwell known of Bletchley Park, and of the pioneering work done there by Alan Turing and other wartime code-breakers, and had he had some inkling of where that could lead, perhaps he would have imagined his Ministry of Truth empowered by punch-cards and vacuum-tubes, to better winnow the last vestiges of freedom from a wretched populace. Though we might also try to imagine East Germany’s Stasi empowered by computers, so that their system wouldn’t have silted up, under the sheer weight of paper files. But somehow that won’t work, the East German system belonging irrevocably to that previous, broadcast paradigm, the one Orwell understood so well.
No extrapolation from information’s broadcast era can yield anything like our current situation, nor can it yield imaginary scenarios of any real likelihood. Had Orwell given Big Brother the tools of pattern recognition through artificial intelligence, the result would still have not described our situation, or where we may be going.
That our own biggish brothers, for the sake of national security, winnow ever-wider and increasingly transparent seas of data, may disturb us, but this is something that corporations and individuals have already been about, and will continue increasingly to be about. The collection and management of information, at every level, will be exponentially empowered by the very nature of the system itself, and that system is global, transnational, and, in some newly intrinsic way, non-hierarchical.
Transparency is the absence of silence, of forgetting.
It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret.
In the age of the leak and the blog entry, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed, later if not sooner. This is something I would bring to the attention of every statesman, political leader, and corporate head: the future, eventually, will find you out. Your secrets won’t be kept. The future, wielding utterly unimaginable tools of transparency, will have its way with you.
In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did.
I say “truths”, however, and not “truth”, as the other side of information’s new ubiquity looks not so much transparent as crazy. Regardless of the number and power of the tools used to extract patterns from information, any sense of meaning depends on context, with interpretation coming along in support of one or another agenda. A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and a quotidian degree of madness. We may be able to more clearly see what’s going on, but that doesn’t mean we’ll agree about it any more readily.
Orwell did the job he set out to do, did it forcefully and brilliantly, in the painstaking creation of our best-known dystopia. I’ve seen it said that because he chose to go there, as rigorously and fearlessly as he did, we don’t have to. I like to think there’s some truth in that. But the ground of history has a way of shifting the most basic of assumptions from beneath the most scrupulously imagined scenarios. Dystopias are no more an aspect of realism than are utopias. None of us ever really inhabits either — except, in the case of dystopias, in the relative and ordinarily tragic sense of life in some extremely unfortunate place.
This is not to say that Orwell failed in any way, but rather that he succeeded. Nineteen Eighty Four remains one of the quickest and most succinct routes to the core realities of…1948, the year in which it was written. If you wish to know an era, study its most lucid nightmares. In the mirrors of our darkest fears, much will be revealed.
But don’t mistake those mirrors for roadmaps to the future, or even to the present.
My single and unending digital moment, for instance, in which nothing is forgotten, in which no information is silenced, may not be our future. It requires wealth, and energy, and a planet capable still of supporting us. And the dreams of science fiction writers travel at strange angles to the great work of time, always.
But my own best dreams have always been of transparency, of memory held, and of an end to silence.