Wednesday, May 27, 2009

computers: William Gibson nailed avatars and online worlds, missed with cyberspace

I just set up a Mii and wandered into PlayStation Home (and quickly out again).

It reminds me how prescient William Gibson was about avatars in an online social space. In an almost throwaway passage in his masterpiece Count Zero
A square of cyberspace directly in front of him flipped sickeningly and he found himself in a pale blue graphic that seemed to represent a very spacious apartment, low shapes of furniture sketched in hair-fine lines of blue neon. A woman stood in front of him, a sort of glowing cartoon squiggle of a woman, the face a brown smudge.

“I'm Slide,” the figure said, hands on its hips, “Jaylene. You don't fuck with me. Nobody in L.A.” she gestured, a window suddenly snapping into existence behind her “fucks with me. You got that?”

“Right,” Bobby said. “What is this? I mean, if you could sort of explain.” He still couldn't move. The "window" showed a blue-gray video view of palm trees and old buildings.

“How do you mean?”

“This sort of drawing. And you. And that old picture.”

“Hey, man, I paid a designer an arm and a leg to punch this up for me. This is my space, my construct. This is L.A., boy. People here don't do anything without jacking. This is where I entertain!”
This was from 1986, a year before the Habitat video game and a decade before Neal Stephenson got all the credit with Snowcrash. Wow.

Instead Gibson gets infinite credit for cyberspace, but that article's "Visionary influence and prescience" section doesn't seem to admit that Gibson's cyberspace isn't remotely how it has turned out. We don't fly between geometric representations of data hubs by frantically tapping access code on a hot-rod deck, we simply type in a URL or click a link. We don't see any representation of cyberspace during navigation at all. We don't jack in at all, we watch a conventional screen. Even when we use Virtual reality, it is something that takes place within a URL or site. Here is Bobby the wannabe's understanding of the matrix from Count Zero a few pages earlier:
He'd used decks in school, toys that shuttled you through the infinite reaches of that space that wasn't space, mankind's unthinkably complex consensual hallucination, the matrix, cyberspace, where the great corporate hotcores burned like neon novas, data so dense you suffered sensory overload if you tried to apprehend more than the merest outline.
To give you an idea of how different navigating the internet is from the mechanisms of Gibson's matrix, here is someone guiding Bobby to hack into the Yakuza via a back door
“When you punch out past the Basketball,” Jammer said to Bobby, “you wanna dive right three clicks and go for the floor, I mean straight down.”
“Past the what?”
“Basketball. That's the Dallas-Fort Worth Sunbelt Co-Prosperity Sphere, you wanna get your ass down fast, all the way, then you run how I told you, for about twenty clicks. It's all used-car lots and tax accountants down there, but just stand on that mother, okay?”
Bobby jacked.
He followed Jammer's instructions, secretly grateful that he could feel Jackie beside him as they plunged down into the workaday depths of cyberspace, the glowing Basketball dwindling above them. The deck was quick, superslick, and it made him feel fast and strong.
(these "clicks" seem to be distances, not buttons).

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  • Why did no one leave a comment here yet? This is some great stuff you have posted. You have hit a key point, a critical observation that has been the mega-elephant in the living room of the world wide web. Where is our cyberspace? What have these software developers been doing for the past 25 years? We don't need to be jacked in, as you noted - graphics screens are a suitable surrogate. Surprising that both Gibson and Vinge (True Names) thought we would be jacking in via 'trodes rather than using the same computer screens that were sitting right on their desks.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at October 08, 2009 9:37 PM  

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