computers: William Gibson and brain interfaces

Slashdot breathlessly summarizes a rather weak project combining virtual reality headset and a brainwave reading device with the editorial. Consumer level brain computer interfaces are still primitive these days, but it doesn’t seem too far off that we’ll have virtual reality similar to what William Gibson envisioned in his novels.

But Gibson never really envisioned what the experiments are developing. He imagined all kinds of VR  (cyberspace, simstim, holoporn), and he wrote about all kinds of brain control of things in the real world. But he never envisioned mind control in Virtual Reality itself. You jacked in to cyberspace, a consensual hallucination of a graphic representation of data (which never took off, there’s no “representation” of the net at all when you jump from Slashdot to YouTube), but Gibson explicitly had his hackers typing commands while jacked in: “distant fingers caressing the deck”, “whip moves on those keyboards faster than you could follow”, etc.

Gibson’s Neuromancer follow-up Count Zero is stuffed with profoundly prescient ideas like fully-immersive telepresence and one of the first descriptions of hanging out with people’s avatars in cyberspace, but the closest he comes to a “brain-computer interface” is slotting in a piece of microsoft behind your ear which gives you the knowledge to fly a real plane in physical reality. Similarly, in Spads & Fokkers (his short story with Michael Swanwick) players use a brain interface to control a holographic plane in a videogame: “He fitted the Batang behind his ear after coating the inductor surface with paste, jacked its fiberoptic ribbon into the programmer, … when it was done, a sky-blue Spad darted restlessly through the air a few inches from his face. It almost glowed, it was so real. It had the strange inner life that fanatically detailed museum-grade models often have, but it took all of his concentration to keep it in existence. If his attention wavered at all, it lost focus, fuzzing into a pathetic blur.”

In another comment on the story undefinedreference says You could play a video game or work in a virtual environment while your body is essentially at the gym. Gibson foresaw that too, but “The street finds its own uses for things,” and so Rikki in Burning Chrome is “working three-hour shifts in an approximation of REM sleep, while her body and a bundle of conditioned reflexes took care of business. The customers never got to complain that she was faking it, because those were real orgasms. But she felt them, if she felt them at all, as faint silver flares somewhere out on the edge of sleep.”

Gibson’s ideas are masterful poetic riffs on the future, but they aren’t its operating manual.

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