Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


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 in Hawaii, and I remember the transition. The personal computer with its IBM clones was becoming popular, and the Apple Macintosh held most of the public’s tech attention with their associated meanings of personal empowerment and creativity.

Computers were emerging as artifacts for the masses and becoming more powerful each year. Information technologies (IT) were going through dramatic changes and needed new languages and modes of understanding. This post discusses how the cyberpunk genre began to contribute new forms of understanding to the “codes” that had linguistically determined “IT.”

Concurrently, telecommunications went through a conceptual transformation. Long the linguistic domain of electrical engineers and Washington DC lawyers, the dramatic technical advances required new language and forms of understanding. Terms like telematics and informatics emerged. Both words recognized that digital technologies were changing the electronic environment, but telecommunications people preferred the former while computer people used the latter.

Artificial intelligence (AI) was also beginning to be popularized through movies like Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984). The TerminatorAI became a policy issue with the revelation that the Japanese were investing heavily in the “Fifth Generation” AI project. Also, it was recognized that advanced AI technologies would be needed for “Star Wars,” President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to defend the US against nuclear attack. The US response was the NSFNET, connecting supercomputers around the country. Initially, an obscure research network, increased investment through the National Science Foundation, and the concurrent mandate to use TCP/IP protocols transformed the connecting fibers of the ARPANET into the Internet.

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 digital 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. It was a time before the World Wide Web, and people were unsure how interactions would occur in this new electronic environment. Cyberspace suggested at least a disruption of the traditional telecommunications environment – voice calls, emails, and television.

These simulated environments gained subcultural attention, mainly through the works of one author. In his novels, William Gibson created and coined the term to describe the electronic “consensual hallucination” which the characters in his award-winning novel Neuromancer (1984) used in his fictional narrative that 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 rocketed the author to special 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 electronic networks’ cultural and political dimensions seemed to have entered a discursive void where engineers and technocrats had dominated the only language able to talk about computers and telecommunications. 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, as a term, 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,” a type of money that moved and found its way into discussions about IT and telecommunications. In doing so, it shined a new light on the problems and possibilities of IT. 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.

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 and the RBOCs) companies and Washington lawyers. The Internet presented a new domain for cyberspace – global e-commerce. Business discourse and particularly the “” phenomenon that emerged with the WWW dominated the narrative. Cyberspace went further into the crevices of academic talk, arts, and political discourse. But it also migrated to the military. Cyberspace became a domain of international security.


[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.



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


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