Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Imagining the past-Paris Review Interview with William Gibson (Sum. 2011)

In keeping with the "disruptive technologies" theme, I came across a William Gibson interview from Summer 2011 via the Paris Review. While I've not read any of Gibson's fiction, though it's on the ever-growing book list, I have read some of his non-fiction esp. the op-eds that show up periodically in the NYT. What's particularly excellent about this interview is Gibson's wide-ranging discussion of his writing habits, a short history of sf writing and the interconnection of his thinking about the future/tech, etc.
There are particularly quotable bits from this interview that are definitely worth sharing. (Any emphasis added is mine.)

"It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone....
It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak. We don’t think about that when we’re driving somewhere and turn on the radio. We take it for granted."

"The strongest impacts of an emergent technology are always unanticipated. You can’t know what people are going to do until they get their hands on it and start using it on a daily basis, using it to make a buck and u­sing it for criminal purposes and all the different things that people do.We’re increasingly aware that our society is driven by these unpredictable uses we find for the products of our imagination."

"I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing t­echnoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while."

"In the postwar era, aside from anxiety over nuclear war, we assumed that we were steering technology. Today, we’re more likely to feel that technology is driving us, driving change, and that it’s out of control. Technology was previously seen as linear and progressive—evolutionary in that way our culture has always preferred to misunderstand Darwin."

In the first quote, the idea of "trying to imagine the past that went away" is applicable on several levels to better understanding technological determinism and the view of upgrading as positive/moving forward. The future seems better because anything can be read into the future as a possibility; this is a practice we as humans regularly engage in. The upcoming elections are an excellent example of individuals attempting to claim the future by suggesting the most vote-able versions of it. To imagine the past in a "pure"fashion is to attempt to re-view the emergence of "disruptive technologies". Because, to a large extent, disruptive technologies are what make the past, the past. That is one way to read history is to mark points of change based on the disruptive technology, that more often than not, is accused or credited with "moving technology forward". To the point of the quote, it may not be possible to remember the past because the present technology drives the past out of our collective memory making it impossible to think  past, if you will, what is presently at hand as the present technology requires an investment of time to master.

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