Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Neuromancing the Code: When IT Changed

Posted on | December 27, 2010 | No Comments

During the 1980s, a different sort of conversation about computers and data networking emerged. I was an undergraduate at the time doing an internship about Asian computerization at the East-West Center and I remember the personal computer with its IBM clones and the Apple Macintosh held most of the public’s tech attention with their associated meanings of personal empowerment and creativity. Also, telecommunications seemed to be the linguistic domain of engineers and Washington DC lawyers. Artificial intelligence (AI) was beginning The Terminatorto be popularized through movies like The Terminator (1984) but the Internet was still an obscure research network. By the decade’s later years, the notion of “cyberspace” began circulating. Its meaning varied, but it was spurred on by the continuing developments in digital network technologies as well as the megacomputing abilities of the new electronic microprocessors. Cyberspace was mostly connected with the “virtual reality” technologies that combined high resolution goggles with various gloves, pressure suits, and other physical equipment to simulate the visual world and the haptic experiences associated with interacting with it.

These simulated environments gained subcultural attention, particularly through the works of one author. William Gibson created and coined the term in his novels to describe the electronic “consensual hallucination” which the characters in his award-winning novel Neuromancer (1984) used in his fictional narrative which posited a near-future scenario in which the new electronic spaces become dominant. In it, “console cowboys” connect to the network by “jacking in,” linking into the electronic telecommunications “matrix” via electronic velcro-held “trodes” attached to their heads. Somewhat like a flight simulator, the cowboy experiences a vast simulated space scattered with geometric shapes representing institutional databanks such as the “green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America.”[2] Their objective is to participate in the “biz,” the combination of cyberspace and street economies of Gibson’s future scenario.

The third book of the cyberspace trilogyKnown posthumously as the “cyberspace trilogy,” Neuromancer and two consecutive novels, Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), captured the imagination of many of the young and technology-minded. Their popularity has rocketed the author to an extraordinary cult status as evidenced in a cameo performance in the Oliver Stone mini-series Wild Palms (1993), a story roughly about the near-future use of virtual reality in the broadcast industry for political purposes. William Gibson was introduced, by none other than Sex in the City‘s Kim Cattrall, as the man who coined the term cyberspace, to which he replied, “And they won’t let me forget it.” [3]

As he alluded in one of his short stories published in Cyberspace. First Steps by Michael (Ed). Benedikt (1993) :

    Assembled the word cyberspace from small and readily available components of language. Neologic spasm: the primal act of pop poetics. Preceding any concept whatever. Slick and hollow–awaiting received meaning.
    All I did: folded words as taught. Now other words accrete in the interstices. [4]

In retrospect, Gibson’s articulation of the cultural and political dimensions of electronic networks seemed to have entered a discursive void where the only language able to talk about computers and telecommunications had been dominated by engineers and technocrats. Cyberspace, as a term, became a new way of conceiving the telecommunications network, one with cultural, literary, and political dimensions. It soon rocketed to the status of a currency.

Cyberspace was a term that was elevated to a unique socio-economic position. As the commercial, entertainment, financial, and productive realms of diverse countries and regions began being woven together through the world’s new telecommunications grid, the term circulated as a “symbolic third,” moving and finding its way into discussions about IT and telecommunications. In doing so it shined a new light on the possibilities of IT.

Although its value deflated significantly after the Internet and its World Wide Web became popularly used, it helped change the perception of a technological infrastructure that had been the domain of staid telecommunications (AT&T) companies and Washington lawyers. However, cyberspace went further, into the interstices of academic talk, arts, and political discourse. No longer just the domain of gigantic computer centers run by lab-coated technocrats, cyberspace suggested the possibilities of a new economy, a new democracy, and new ways for people to connect and maintain relationships.

Notes

[1] Quote from Cyberscribe. (1991) Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Production. By Producer/Director Frances-Mary Morrison, Editor Jacques Milette.
[2] Part of a quote from William Gibson’s (1984) Neuromancer. (New York: Ace Books) p. 52. “Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.”

[3] Wild Palms was a Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. production which was aired in the US as a 6 hour mini-series the week of May 16-22, 1993. It was adapted from a long-running adult comic strip in the magazine Details.

[4] As part of William Gibson’s short story “Academy Leader,” in Benedikt, M. (1991) Cyberspace: First Steps. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) pp. 27-29.

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Anthony

Anthony J. Pennings, PhD has been on the NYU faculty since 2001 teaching digital media, information systems management, and global communications.

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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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