Legendary sci-fi novelist William Gibson talks to Matt Rosoff of Business Insider about Silicon Valley, social media, and his next novel. Gibson is famous for coining the term “cyberspace” in his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome,” and designers of Facebook’s Oculus Rift virtual reality headset have cited his 2011 book Ready Player One as inspiration. [Edit: Apologies, Ready Player One was actually written by Ernest Cline.] So Gibson is in the strange position of assessing the real-world manifestations of technologies he once imagined in his fiction. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
Rosoff: You’re very active on Twitter. I follow your stream and you talk a lot about politics and some other things. What do you like about Twitter? People in tech are kind of down on the company and service right now.
Gibson: I probably like it for a lot of the reasons I suspect people in tech wouldn’t. It’s the only brand of social media that I have ever taken to at all … I like the feeling of having my perception of the world expanded daily, 24/7, by being able to monitor the reactions of 100-and-some people throughout the world that I personally follow so I have some sense of who they are.
There has never really been anything like that before, at least in terms of the digestible 140-character bandwidth that Twitter is based on. I am able to wake up, open Twitter, and sort of glance across the psychic state of the planet.
It’s limited to some degree. I’m in a consensus bubble because I have tailored my feed to be people who I think are interesting or likable. There are other universes of stuff on Twitter that I never even look at. I find it too compelling actually. I keep thinking I’m wasting too much time doing this.
But on the other hand, I am used to spending $300 or so on piles of mostly foreign magazines that I would sit leafing through, thinking all the while that I am actually working in a sense, but it left no evidence in the world. If I didn’t tell you that, no one would know that I had been doing that instead of writing. So people can now spend 6 solid hours on Twitter in 2016.
Rosoff: You are a novelist, a profession where you disappear to write for a couple years and you’re really focusing on one thing. Twitter seems to be almost the exact opposite of that. It’s quick bursts.
Gibson: Yeah, but as a novelist, I have never been focusing on only one thing. I have found that it doesn’t change my level of concentration on my work.
The scary thing about it is that it provides almost too much material. Magazines in the traditional sense were aggregators of novelty.
A good magazine was a lot of novelty, stuff you’ve never heard of before, clearly aggregated by people who have been able to travel further and dig deeper than you have been able to do. And that used to be really an important source of stuff for me. And now it is less important because the Internet has eaten it all up. But my Twitter feed as an aggregator of novelty is like … I don’t know what I would do if it became any more powerful, I would have to start reining it in somehow…
Rosoff: I have to ask: What do you think of the sort of newest crop of virtual reality headsets, the VR that Facebook and others are doing, versus what Magic Leap and Microsoft are doing with so-called augmented reality? Have you tried them?
Gibson: I have tried bits and pieces of it. I have yet to try Magic Leap, but I have spoken with actual humans. Even the ones that I assumed wouldn’t be that cowed by the NDA were sort of like, “Yeah it’s far out, next.” They have a certain look in their eye and it probably was fairly far out.
VR has had a very funny course, at least how I happen to see it. When I first experienced VR, pixels were the size of a human head. I looked at Jaron Lanier’s and I think that was the most advanced I had seen at that point, and gradually over the years people brought them around.
It didn’t work at all until smartphone technology developed all on its own, purely to be smartphones, and then provided the bits and pieces you can use to make a pretty good VR system, when really you’re just looking at a smartphone being held in front of your eyes.
I only know Pokemon Go from watching people do it. I think, “Hmm, this AR maybe really does have some legs,” because you can get 20 people out running around a statue in the middle of the night chasing something that doesn’t exist.
Image of William Gibson via Wikipedia.