Living in the Present with Vintage Computers, and Reading the Past as a Netrunner: On Reading William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties

Having just finished William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999) and thus concluding his Bridge Trilogy, I cannot say with anything resembling certainty that I have read or not read these novels before. As I said when I began writing a few notes on my blog about Virtual Light and Idoru, I have a creepy feeling of having been in these novels before, of having read them sometime and some place. If I have encountered these novels directly before, the memory source for those encounters is locked away in some inaccessible part of my memory. Anyways, if I did read them before and there should be some memory, I am hopeful that it is still there and simply inaccessible to my mind’s eye in the present and not eradicated by some biological injury.

Despite my memory’s misgivings and uncertainty, I can certainly say that I enjoyed this vision of the future/present/near past illustrated in the fast and sharp language Gibson lays down in these three novels. In All Tomorrow’s Parties, we experience Laney’s virtuosity as a netrunner who builds alliances/buys alliances that out maneuvers the 0.001%er Harwood. Laney’s ability as a psychopharmacologically enhanced cyborg who can see the flows of data, understands what we have all just recently learned about the power of metadata, and seizes the accreting eddies and currents of information, narrative, and inevitability leading to something bigger, powerful, and otherwise unseen–an undertow of history.

Laney as netrunner seems an analog of what we have all become in one way or another. We manage our flows of information with RSS feed aggregators, news readers, the Facebook wall, the Twitter feed, the timeline, hashtags, tagging, Friend lists, Google+ Circles, subscriptions, etc. Before all of this, there was talk in the magazines about creating intelligent agents–small programs that would scour the Internet for the information and news that we would like to learn more about (perhaps through keywords and other coded instructions)–that helped manage what we read and saw while also managing our precious pre-broadband bandwidth.

It is worth noting that in both cases, watching the firehose of feed data now or harvesting news bits with intelligent agents, all data written by someone for the info consumption of others is a practice of historic preservation, archivization, observing what has come before. Taken one step further, none of us experience the present due to our biological senses and cognition systems that delay our experiencing the world beyond ourselves. Thus, the netrunner (and ourselves as modern netizens) are a further step away–observer experiences, reports multimodally over the Internet, we experience the multimodal report. To go further on this point or digress on the transformation of these experiences by the media and modal channels involved would likely cover several volumes, so I will end the digression here.

There are times when I feel like Laney must have felt in his dank cardboard hovel in the Japanese train station. Surrounded by his own filth and barely holding on to life with a ritual of cough syrup and sugars to keep his body barely operational but well enough that he could remain plugged into the data feed via his VR eye goggles. Trying to keep up what is going on in the world, going on with family and friends, going on professionally via the numerous and multiplying channels of social and broadcast media is daunting. It is a burden–a heavy one at that. Any attempt that I make at streamlining, modulating, organizing, and taming these never ceasing feeds of information makes me feel overwhelmed, lacking control, and otherwise wasted. My own compulsion to try to keep up, to interact, and to communicate in kind leaves me feeling dread over joy more often than not.

At least in Laney’s case in All Tomorrow’s Parties, he is working toward a goal of swinging the nodal point away from Harwood and towards something different, perhaps altruistic and thus the many Rei Toei’s are born of nanotech assemblers in the many Lucky Dragon establishments.

Another interesting image for me and my work as a researcher of our shared digital culture is the Bad Sector shop on the San Francisco side of the bridge. Chevette finds Tessa outside the Bad Sector shop working on her tiny video drone, God’s Little Toy (an increasingly ubiquitous and problematic technology today ranging from privacy violation to public safety in the air and on the ground). Later, Rydell goes to the Bad Sector to obtain two cables for Rei Toei’s holographic projector. Inside the Bad Sector shop, Gibson describes its Jurassic technologies–lingering on audio recording media going back to the beginning and vintage personal computers–particularly those encased in beige. Of course, the shop’s name refers to a bad sector on computer readable magnetic media–a physically unreadable or damaged location on the media platter–floppy or hard disk.

For media archivists, the bad sector is like a burned or rotted page in an ancient manuscript. There is the possibility that the data might exist copied by the manipulations of digital technology far more quickly than that by a human scribe, but if no copy or backup exists, the bad sector–depending on the type of magnetic media, its data density, etc–could leave some information permanently inaccessible. Although, I can imagine a bad sector can, in some very particular circumstances, tell us things about how technology-as-culture was developed and continues to develop (the physicality of drive mechanisms, error correction algorithms, the application of scientific principles to avoid physical destruction of the drive media, the deformities or problems with a given writer’s computer setup, how that writer’s computer influenced the development of cultural works–lost drafts, overwritten work, etc.). So, the bad sector can be seen as a loss on the one hand and potentially a gain for understanding on the other.

My office at City Tech (and the previous labs of vintage computer that I have built up, sold off, donated over the years beginning at my childhood home in Brunswick, GA, my flea market booth at Duke’s Y’all Come Flea Market in Darien, GA, my home in Norcross, GA, the Special Collections of Georgia Tech’s Library Archives, and now my college in Brooklyn, NY) is kind of like the Bad Sector on the bridge. It is cobbled together. It is incomplete. It is bricolage. It is pieced and held together with equal parts ingenuity and duct tape. Unlike the Bad Sector in All Tomorrow’s Parties, it is mine and not something bought and sold by off-bridge investors. Like the bridge in the novel, my vintage/retro computing lab is a community effort–I get and give, others get and give. I work on it and at it to remember where we have come from and to reflect on how our past innovations inform and continue to speak to our current digital culture. I want its archive to provide testimony about who we were and who we have become as human beings and thinking organisms. It is part of my research and pedagogy.

William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy (Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties) is an impressive vision. My deja vu or amnesia–depending on your point of view–about the novels might say more about how much like the present some themes and images in Gibson’s novels speak to the way things were and are in the real world.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in City Tech, Science Fiction, Technology
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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