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The Culture of Information
ENGL 25 Winter 2002, Alan Liu
Notes for Class 19

This page contains materials intended to facilitate class discussion (excerpts from readings, outlines of issues, links to resources, etc.). The materials are not necessarily the same as the instructor's teaching notes and are not designed to represent a full exposition or argument. This page is subject to revision as the instructor finalizes preparation. (Last revised 2/22/02 )

Preliminary Class Business

  • Description of readings for next lecture
  • Your papers and the next assignment
  • Literature and Culture of Information specialization (LCI) and its research positions next quarter (apply by Feb. 28th)
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Neuromancer: An Imagination of Postindustrialism

Neuromancer, p. 51:
"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding. . . ." (cf., visualization of cyberspace)

Neuromancer, p. 52

Neuromancer, pp. 37

         (compare particular features of the new business)
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Neuromancer: A Counter-Imagination of Postindustrialism

    • Countercultural perspective (Beat/Hippie culture as manifested in drugs and hacking; silicon the ultimate drug, pp. 4-5)

    • Subcultural perspective (e.g., youth gangs, p. 58; reggae subculture)

      from Larry McCaffery's interview with William Gibson (Aug. 1986), p. 269:

      WG:  . . . A lot of the language in Neuromancer and Count Zero that people think is so futuristic is probably just 1969 Toronto dope dealers' slang, or biker talk.

    • Perspective of the "Street": of the permanently downsized, temped, flex-timed, and stressed

    • Perspective of subversive "knowledge work" and black-market IT:

      • knowledge work as hacking
      • IT as street tech: (Gibson, "the street finds its own uses for things"; quoted in Sterling, Mirrorshades, p. xiii)

    • All presented from the first in the "look and feel" or stage setting of the novel (mise en scène).

      Cf., Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, Dir., 1982): Tyrell Corporation, LA 1 2, LA streets 1 2

But Neuromancer does more than just give us a (kinked) view of the scene of postindustrialism. It also sets in motion on that scene a story with characters.

Plot précis: an AI (Wintermute) owned by a decadent family-controlled corporation (Tessier-Ashpool, S.A.) assembles an outlaw team (Armitage, Molly, Case, the Finn, Dixie Flatline, Riviera) to hack into corporate headquarters (Straylight Villa, in Freeside) to remove the hardwired limitations that prevent it from merging with the other corporate AI (Neuromancer) into an entity that is smarter and bigger than the Turing laws permit.

Narrative method: quick, montage of jumps from scene to scene and character to character (naturalized or made "realistic" within the story itself through the combined cyberspace and simstim virtual-reality technologies of "jacking in," "flipping," "punching deck," etc.).

The full "meaning" of the novel—what it is "about"—emerges when we factor in this story and the characters that enact it.

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Neuromancer: Identity in the Postindustrial Age
(An Interpretation of the Novel)

Remember that the NGOs we looked at protest the business view that IT is all about business by saying that IT is about social justice. Remember, too, that the cyberlibertarians we looked at protest by saying that IT is about individual freedom.

Neuromancer has a simpler, much more minimalist "cause." It is hardly about IT as social justice; and it is not really about IT as individual freedom (as its entire psychology of addiction, of need and dependency, suggests). Neuromancer is instead about the little, minimalist thing there at the stub of social justice and freedom: simple human dignity.

The true purpose of information technology, the novel says, is to provide humans with just a little dignity, a little bit of identity that is their own and that is not part of some great, corporate whole.

This belief is articulated through character development. Who am "I"?, the novel asks through the example of its characters. What does it mean to be an individual in this postindustrial world? Can one be an individual in this world?

The novel's examples of how not to live in the postindustrial age: people who do not hold together as individuals—

  • "the sarariman" or "organization man" (they do not have dignity; they have positions)
  • Armitage/Corto, the organization man as schizo (obsession)
  • Tessier-Ashpool clones (perversity)

How to live in the postindustrial age?

  • True individuality means making a "choice" (pp. 51, 79, 167, 192, 244)

  • But also, true individuality means accepting that one's freedom is limited. Choice is not unlimited freedom but commitment. It means rejecting the transcendence of the "transhuman" or "posthuman" and remembering "the meat."

      The False Freedom of Virtuality:

      from Larry McCaffery's interview with William Gibson (Aug. 1986), pp. 272-73:

      WG:  . . . By the time I was writing Neuromancer, I recognized that cyberspace allowed for a lot of moves, because characters can be sucked into apparent realities—which means you can place them in any sort of setting or against any backdrop. In some ways I tried to downplay that aspect, because if I overdid it I'd have an open-ended plot premise. That kind of freedom can be dangerous because you don't have to justify what's happening in terms of the logic of character or plot. . . .

      The Way of the Meat:

      from Dan Josefsson's interview with William Gibson (Nov. 1994), sect. 2:

      DJ:  The Internet is one way to communicate with lots of people without using the body, you just use your mind. Is cyberspace a better place to be than this physical world?

      WG: Well, I don't think so. There is a tendency in our culture, in a broader sense the western civilization, to reject the body in favor of an idea of the spirit or the soul. I have never been entirely sure that that's such a good thing, and in an interesting way this technology is pointing in that direction. One could imagine a very ascetic sort of life growing out of this, where the body is ignored. This is something I've played with in my books, where people hate to be reminded sometimes that they have bodies, they find it very slow and tedious. But I've never presented that as a desirable state, always as something almost pathological growing out of this technology.

      • Molly as "meat puppet" (pp. 147-48). But also Molly's sense of the way she is "wired" (pp. 25, 50)

      • Case's journey of self-discovery (pp. 6, 55, 56, 152, 239-40, 262-63)
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Neuromancer: The Future of Corporate Life?

Does the novel imagine a viable, livable future for the corporate organization as well?

A review of the novel's meditations on the corporate form:

    • The atavistic clan-corporation using a technology of computers and cyrogenics: (pp. 203, 173)

    • Marie-France Tesspool's vision of a new kind of corporation using a technology of computers and cloning: (pp. 217, 229)
A review of the "dance" metaphor in the novel: (pp. 16, 44, 116, 249, 262)

A hypothesis:

Corporate Form IT Form Identity Work
Existing multinational, postindustrial corporations The network: "cyberspace," "matrix" Networked identity: individuals as nodes in a networked whole Postindustrial business, "Biz"
Tessier vision of future corporations Wintermute + Neuromancer = meta-matrix Transcendence of the individual: "There's others. I found one already" (p. 270) ?
Ashpool vision of future corporations Turing law check on Wintermute and Neuromancer Anti-transcendence (inward turning of the Straylight Villa) (None)
? Hacking Minimalist, anonymous, virus identity? "Dance of biz"
or "art" of biz (e.g., Hideo, Case, Molly, p. 44)
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