William Gibson: He's seen the future

Sci-fi novelist William Gibson foresaw the cyberspace revolution. Now he reveals his latest predictions to Rob Sharp

There is a lesser-known HG Wells novel, 1907's The War in the Air, that describes an allied power engaged in airborne conflict with Germany. Seven years before the Great War, and 33 before the Battle of Britain, in some ways this is chillingly prescient. In others it is comical – the flying machines in question flap their wings like birds.

Present-day science-fiction author William Gibson recounts this story with glee. He says Wells so desperately wanted to be right, he crowed about his successful predictions in the forewords of later editions of the book. Gibson, despite a modicum of false modesty on his part, is a man credited as Wells' equal as a prophet.

Gibson is often referred to as the man who coined the term "cyberspace", in 1982, nine years before Tim Berners-Lee created the internet programming language HTML. Gibson's 2003 novel Pattern Recognition describes a minority population obsessed by online video clips, two years before YouTube started casting visual titillation across the world's computer screens.

Speaking shortly after the UK publication of his latest work, Spook Country, Gibson claims the present provides him with as much fascination as the future. He emphasises that what interests him, like Wells, is the way people use technology, and seek to pervert it. When pressed to predict, he will describe a plastic-free tomorrow; a world in which the computerised and physical worlds become less clear-cut; a place where people's social standing is defined by their "connectivity", or access to communications technology. "It won't be a lack of money that defines you," he continues, describing how in his Canadian home, being "plugged in" is chillingly ubiquitous. And he doesn't just mean that the rich have the gadgets. "In Vancouver sometimes I see homeless people with mobiles. You can go into 7-11 and buy these disposable phones. I always assume they are calling other homeless guys, or their mothers."

Gibson is slight; almost anoraky. He barely fills his denim shirt, Dockers pants and chunky trainers. He seems out of place in his swanky hotel drawing room, which he precisely describes as "a Ralph Lauren virtual reality with British/Scots overtones". His face – aided, not least, by his round specs – is a cross between Bill Gates techno-geek and a more socially acceptable version of Robert Crumb. His awkwardness is heightened by his speech; he leaves words hanging in the air for millennia, pondering his next sentence like a chess master.

Gibson believes that since he coined the term "cyberspace" – which has since made it into the Oxford English Dictionary – what the public thinks of as the internet has changed dramatically. When he first discussed this virtual world in his 1982 novel Burning Chrome, it was clear what the distinction between the "virtual" and the "physical" worlds was. One was defined by technology; the other features in our day-to-day lives. "The computer was where the bank kept o ur money and where the stock market was being conducted," he says. Since then, the boundary between these two spheres has blurred. Technology and computers pervade the world to such as degree that the exception in the future will be places or people who have no "connectivity".

"Now I think cyberspace is 'here' and the opposite of cyberspace, whatever that might be, is 'there'," he adds. "'There' is non-connectivity. 'There' is where we are when we've got no mobile, no Wi-Fi, no television, and it is this space that's becoming the exeption. In a decade or so, that gap will have widened. And it will have widened not through any astonishingly groovy new technology piggy-backing on all this stuff, but simply through the increasing ubiquity of the digital in our lives."

He cites flash-mobbing as an example of how these worlds have fused – a physical activity mediated by digital technology. The protagonists coordinate their efforts using mobiles. Beyond this, the colonisation will continue apace. "We are headed for a world where refrigerators and fountain pens have more RAM than a Mac."

And this futuristic place, he says, will be one in which global warming places constraints on the use of plastic. He points to the huge number of mobiles being thrown away in the US every day. A convenient solution, he says, would be some kind of "smart case" into which the latest digital innards could be placed, creating the latest gadget. This is far from the world he created in his early novels, such as 1984's Neuromancer, which featured everything from plastic jackets, cages and ashtrays."Every six months I could toss out the electronics. Now 'green think' is going to be the driver. Whether that will make the imaginary future of Neuromancer fabulously quaint, I don't know. But oil is not going to last for ever."

Gibson's early writing subverted the classical vision of a pristine future; it was full of junk, plastic detritus, wall-to-wall neon brands. His latest work certainly has the brands, a by-product of Gibson's writing process, which involves sitting at his desk and poring through product catalogues. But, like Pattern Recognition, Spook Country is set in the present day, not the future. It is a world divided on the basis of a paranoiac's nightmare: a GPS-defined grid. It is a place for locative art, a new virtual reality-style media that for those wearing a special helmet, transposes computer-generated images on to physical landmarks.

But while the book has a plot featuring war in Iraq, politics are background white noise. "I've really never wanted to be a didactic novelist. To be a novelist who works out an express political philosophy and then constructs little narratives supposedly to prove his point," he says. "I'm a firm believer in EM Forster's dictum that a novelist who is in control of his or her characters isn't doing his or her job at all. My characters would be looking at the invasion of Iraq and thinking, 'That's some fucked-up shit'. But they would only care to the extent that it affects them, or might recognise it as being part of the mythology from which their world comes."

Gibson's world revolves around novelty, he claims. Once upon a time he would spend hundreds of dollars a month on magazines, or "aggregators of novelty" as he terms them, for ideas. But now he has turned elsewhere. He is very particular about where he goes for inspiration. While he says most modern television is "content-less" he is an evangelist for YouTube, somewhere he can constantly feed his lust for learning. Here, he can indulge his appetite for the profound and the whimsical.

While he rants about the hitherto undiscovered beauty of a 1967 François Hardy, and a 1937 jazzy version of The Mikado at New York's World Fair, he also talks about more jarring images. The first is a wartime dispatch from the front line in Iraq. A soldier is filming from under a bed, and screaming – from either pain or terror – can be heard nearby. "As a piece of cinema it is incomprehensible. But imagining the conditions under which it was filmed rattled me," he says. "It's not any kind of formal horrors-of-war footage, just these little bird's -eye views." The other piece of footage is an "illegal" shot of Ground Zero filmed shortly after 9/11, that was taken down from the web almost as quickly as it was put up.

But while Gibson enjoys the content on YouTube, he is reasonably scathing about the innovative qualities of many other internet sites; many of which he claims are doing nothing new. "Facebook makes me a bit nervous," he says. "It's a place where age may get in the way. But it's a prosthesis for doing something we've always done."

So what's next: hasn't "ecologically aware" science fiction already been done? "I've been asking myself that lately," he continues. "I don't really have any answers yet. [JG] Ballard is prescient in very scary ways. But I'm not as interested in how technology works as I am with what people are doing with it. I might find my way into how people decided that the climate is not going to get better. Or some kind of horribly long, slow apocalypse. Although it doesn't sound much fun."

Like Wells' flying machines, Gibson believes the prescience of his work will melt away over time. And, again with typical modesty, he recounts this with detached amusement. "We have always wanted to appear far-sighted but it's not what it's about. There's too much of a medicine show in science fiction. That's always bullshit. There's nothing quainter than an obsolete future."

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?