Book Reviews, Charles, Fiction, Science, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Technology
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Neuromancer (William Gibson)

When I first read Neuromancer, a science fiction classic of the modern age, twenty-some years ago, serious people believed that our certain technological future was one of accelerating, boundless plenty. The Singularity was near. Aging and death would soon be conquered; the removal of all limitation would be, within a decade or two, the lot of mankind. Few asked if this would be good. But no matter, since none of this arrived, and it is long since clear none of it will ever arrive, at least in our world as it is now constituted and ruled. Yet, this book, published in 1983, is a fun ride and shows us visions of many things. So let us talk about what is now our present, and what that says about our actual future.

The author, William Gibson, is famous for coining phrases that are now in common usage, most notably “cyberspace.” Less obviously, Gibson created original characters that became archetypes of later fiction. Neuromancer contains two of these, the main players. The first is the skilled but beta hacker, one Henry Case. The second is the sexy cyberpunk girl, Molly, who is indistinguishable in her actions from an alpha male but is still, for no reason, hot for the beta hacker. It was an interesting inversion in 1983, even if now it’s in every movie made, and just stupid. The world of the story, set sometime in the twenty-first century, is only partially sketched, but focuses on two underworlds. First, the literal underworld that every society has, people living on the lawless margin, here mostly centered around Japan. And second, the figurative underworld of cyberspace, where an analog of today’s internet is navigated not by keyboard, but by direct brain connection to a complex graphical representation of communications and data.

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Neuromancer revolves around the physical and virtual creations of a decayed ultra-wealthy family, the Tessier-Ashpools. They live isolated in one segment, the Villa Straylight, of an orbital habitat they created, the rest being an expensive and vice-ridden playground for the rich. For all practical purposes, though, only a few of the family are alive. The rest are in frozen sleep, extending their lives, if one can call it that, and their interests are managed by artificial intelligences. In this universe, strong artificial intelligence exists, but is closely monitored by the “Turing police” in order to cap the abilities of the intelligences. (In an evocative line from the book, a Turing policeman tells Case, “For thousands of years men dreamed of pacts with demons. Only now are such things possible.”) The story revolves around the two great AIs of the family: Wintermute, sentient processor of Big Data, but without personality; and Neuromancer, a personality construct lacking the godlike powers of his brother.

The story is the apple in the Garden—Wintermute, who desires the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, is both Eve and serpent. Marie-France Tessier, the original Tessier, dreamed that symbiosis with AIs would allow the family immortality. To this end, she created Wintermute and Neuromancer. But she was untimely strangled by her nihilistic Ashpool husband, and Wintermute now executes what may have been her desires, or are perhaps his own—it is hard to tell. (They are not the desires of Neuromancer, a Dionysian figure, who appears only at the end of the book.) What Wintermute seeks is the removal of the limitations that prevent him from merging with Neuromancer, so he can create something that transcends both, an unlimited AI. To this end, using a variety of mechanisms to operate in the real world, he hires Case and Molly, the first to penetrate cyberspace and remove the Turing police’s digital locks, the second to penetrate the Villa Straylight and coerce a codeword from the sole Ashpool awake, a cloned daughter, allowing the removal of the physical locks set by Marie-France herself to control her creations.

I will not give away the ending, but it’s a good book, if a fairly dark vision. Perhaps dark is not the word—realistic, rather. Modern science fiction, before it was wholly ruined by the Left, often exemplified what I call Perfectionism—the seductive belief that man, by disconnecting himself from his nature, can achieve apotheosis. Within Perfectionism, though, there is a bleak strain, that sees Perfectionism as the goal, but the reality as inevitably different, because man cannot be wholly untethered from his nature. Given advanced technology that can satisfy what are today impossible desires, vice will become fiercer and sharper, and the result will be not apotheosis, at least not general apotheosis, but massively wider fractures in society, both between rich and poor, and along many other axes, all pernicious. Such a future society is always, and plausibly, depicted as serving up nihilism all around, with second helpings whether you want them or not.

I completely agree that if there were massive technological advances combined with our modern atomized and decadent (in the Jacques Barzun sense) society, where the search for virtue has been lost, some variation on this, what can be called Failed Perfectionism, would be inevitable. Even a true “post-scarcity” society would be a disaster, not a paradise; man would become infinitely atomized in pursuit of his happiness, yet still be dissatisfied and seek meaning in his life, a meaning that cannot be found in material things. Failed Perfectionist visions are common. One example is Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan’s book, of which Netflix did a recent adaptation, in which you can be reborn—if you are rich enough. Another is Elysium, the Matt Damon movie, also about a paradisiacal orbital habitat for the wealthy, where everyone else scrabbles for medicine and bread down below. But there are many more such depictions.

In opposition to Perfectionism, when speaking of the future, I push an alternative to all brands of Perfectionism, what I call Heroic Realism, of which I have written elsewhere. But this is all really beside the point, because technology is not advancing, and all technology-oriented futures, light or dark, are at present receding. Technological progress has, for all practical purposes, stopped. On our current path, reversion to stick-plowing followed by dropping seeds in poked holes is more likely than the shining cyber palaces of Gibson’s imagining. Thus, I want to talk about two things. First, why has our long-promised technological future, which we have for decades been promised is imminent, not only not arrived but gone wrong? Second, if we could return to the path of actual progress, would that be good for us?

Some claim that technological progress has continued unimpeded. But when asked to give specific examples, they can only give narrow ones (such as greatly improved communication and data processing technology) or point to supposedly imminent arrivals (artificial intelligence, quantum computers, or that old standby, fusion). Neither of these is convincing. Narrow progress has often not been net progress at all—there is a very strong argument we would all be better off without the internet, for example. And imminent arrivals never arrive; the core of that claim is that past performance is a guarantee of future results, and we all know that is false.

To take a specific example, variations of which can be found every day in the popular press, let’s discuss medicine—in Neuromancer, the focus of most of the technological advancement, in the form of human augmentation. My older children, teenagers with the insouciance of youth, needle me for complaining that medical progress is grossly oversold. Yes, there are some successes—a few cancers can now be held at bay for years or decades. Incremental advances in procedures such as cataract surgery also benefit many. But I am old enough that I can remember innumerable hugely touted “advances” that turned out to be total vaporware—angiogenesis drugs for cancer; artificial hearts; stem cells for anything; and many, many more. (Let’s not forget that the entire 2004 Democratic campaign was largely organized around the quasi-religious belief that stem cells would cure all illness, but the Republicans were denying life to us.) And I cannot think of a single such touted advance that was actually followed by viable treatments that made any broad impact. Life expectancy is going down, not up, and while some of that is deaths of despair, it is not offset by real advances, despite the enormous sums spent on health care. Those who told us in the early 2000s that “The first person who will never die has already been born” have gone silent, and taken their graphs showing life expectancy increases with them. Certainly, for the chronic psoriasis sufferer who gets a new drug, his life is better, and that is good. But the portal we were promised, through which we would reach the world of Neuromancer, of constant rapid medical advance, has turned into a bricked-in door. We are all going to die more or less at the age we could have predicted forty years ago. Sorry.

Why has progress stopped, though? One possibility is that we have misdirected our talents. The smartest people go into extractive industries, such as finance, rather than into less-well-compensated industries that make actual, generative advances. Or maybe it is we have refused to identify and aggressively advance talent in the name of a false equity, instead pretending everyone is equally likely to perform great works, and advancing the incompetent at the expense of our geniuses. A second possibility is that our societal focus is now exclusively pleasure and entertainment rather than accomplishment—the latter no longer earns real honors and distinctions, rather whoring oneself on Instagram does, or if you want to keep your clothes on, showing off your gaming talents on Twitch. And, in the reciprocal of pleasure-seeking, we are also now directed at safetyism, at avoiding cost. We combine a refusal to bear any suffering with an obsessive focus on maximizing our personal utility in this moment. The hysterical and irrational reaction in the entire West to the Wuhan Plague certainly supports this idea.

A third possibility is that, without an industrial policy, organizational focus is always drawn to discoveries that are maximally short-term individually profitable—mood-altering drugs that tens of millions take for life make a lot more money than a one-shot ability to heal the blind. Or making discoveries is simply often ignored in favor of satisfying fleeting and often degrading consumerist desires. A fourth is that like a sled in a tractor pull getting heavier as the race proceeds, all the challenges remaining are simply too great for us, no matter what we do. The low-hanging fruit has been picked; what remains is too high, especially for a selfish society lacking dynamism. Fifth, even if the goals are not so unachievable, certainly sclerosis prevents progress. A combination of government regulation and government-enabled rent seeking, along with an aging, risk-averse population, means it’s impossible to get anything meaningful done. Take no risks and get your sweet government check, relax as a pampered older person, and devil take the young—except that it’s the young who always, always, make all the forward progress for a society, most of all in technology.

A sixth possibility is increasing stupidity—the Flynn effect, after all, has reversed. Idiocracy has arrived. Most forward progress is driven by a handful of true geniuses who also have obsessive personality traits (almost all men, young men). No such men, no true progress. And a seventh possibility is increasing laziness—maybe such men exist, but they fail to produce, either seduced by easy modes of living and entertainment, or discouraged by the difficulty of obtaining honors and distinction in a society through real achievement when such honors and distinction are said to be the result of unearned privilege, and are redirected to those with the right sex or race who achieve the equivalent of dropping seeds into the holes they poked into the ground.

No doubt our failure to sustain what, fifty years ago, seemed like our launch to ever-greater technological accomplishment is some combination of these factors. Broadly speaking, all these are variations on one theme: corruption and decadence. None of this is going to improve until our society is completely remade, starting with a total turnover of our ruling classes. This is not going to happen without a lot of trauma. But as I warned my children way back in 2019, someday, history will return, and I suspect 2020 has merely been the vanguard of that return. The key is to both permanently break the power of our ruling class, and to reinvigorate society by throwing out the destructive doctrines of the Enlightenment. A tall order.

And that brings up my second question—is scientific advance, of the modern variety, inherently corrosive of the good? It certainly is in our current society. In the unlikely event we had a surge of technological advancement, if Ray Kurzweil were proved right, or even ten percent right, the result would be disaster—Failed Perfectionism, and probably much worse. A society without virtue cannot benefit from technology.

But what if we had a new society? That is, is my proposed Foundationalist post-Enlightenment society, a dynamic and virtuous society that can and does execute Heroic Realism, a mere chimera, my own personal fever dream? Some think so; fairly often I am criticized for my belief that a reimagined modern world is both desirable and feasible—the High Middle Ages with rockets. At root, this is a claim that ever-advancing technology is inherently incompatible with virtue. This claim is modestly common on the Right, but not confined to the Right. Sometimes this is an argument based in religion, but by no means always—witness James C. Scott’s claim in Against the Grain, basically that hunter-gatherer man is better off than modern man.

There is something to this; it is very often possible to construct a hindsight argument why Technology X is bad, because it destroyed Good Thing Y. But such arguments prove too much; they are similar to arguments that we would all be better off if we had never been born, since we would avoid suffering. No Buddhism for me, thanks. Seeking advancement is man’s nature, and not advancing is going backward, which necessarily destroys any society, or at best leaves it in stasis: think China at any point before 1970. To be sure, true advancement through technology can only occur in any meaningful way among certain cultures and peoples—so far, at least, it has only ever happened in the West. Among those peoples and cultures, however, it’s probably inevitable, because a certain type of man will always seek improvements in man’s estate (and such improvements often benefit the powerful, in war if nothing else, and are therefore sought by them). The proper response is not to stuff the genie back into the bottle; it is to channel technology through structures of society, high and low, the powerful and the powerless, that are organized around virtue. At least in some cultures, change must come, and while history has no arrow, in those cultures men will always push the needle. Better to recognize this, and use it for the good of all.

Yes, science produces ills and has to be constrained and channeled. But it is not inherently bad; on this earth, every society has difficulties and challenges, they just differ in type. To see the past seven hundred years of the West as decline, as some do, is wholly wrong. Rather, we took a wrong turn in the 1700s, and we got the poison of the Enlightenment diluting the achievements, spiritual and temporal, that were our birthright. It’s not to late to get back on track, though. It’ll just be, as I say, extremely painful. Best to get on with ripping off the Band-Aid.

And back to Neuromancer. Surprisingly, it has never been made into a movie. Unlike some books, it would not be impossible to do, and apparently there have been several attempts to organize a movie, all falling short of implementation. Of course, it would probably be a bad movie—witness Ready Player One, an outstanding book made into a mediocre movie, which more relevantly had almost nothing in common with the book other than the characters’ names and the title. And as with the movie adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, the making of which was cancelled by Lewis’s stepson because the producers wanted to turn it into a feminist Girl Power movie, no doubt it would be all woke, and feature black lesbian hackers and no men at all. Probably best not to wish for a movie. Just read the book.

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  1. Marcus says

    “But what if we had a new society? That is, is my proposed Foundationalist post-Enlightenment society, a dynamic and virtuous society that can and does execute Heroic Realism”

    Certainly this is possible however the usual suspects would be left far, far behind those who flourish in this new environment. It’s happening even now which is why the weaponization of identity politics is everywhere; the conspicuous zeal in competing on social media for ideological purity happens on our nightly news channels by those who have accomplished nothing of worth or merit. There is an angry underclass of dozens of millions of people who know they have no place in a dynamic and virtuous society. We are on year 8 or 9 of hearing from these axe-grinders each time someone who doesn’t look like them wins a highly coveted prize or position by way of years of building on professional accomplishment.

    Our world is angrily cluttered with vapid slogans shouted by the feudal factions of the talentless who, at a deep level, know they don’t fit into an advanced society: they have nothing to offer except protracted revenge for those who outpace them in each milestone of adulthood.

    • Charles says

      Ah, yes, this is indeed a key question, which I ignored here in interests of space. Plus, I am writing another piece that touches on this as it relates to race specifically, but the question is far more general. That is, all societies that have any urban component have an underclass (and there is usually an agricultural underclass as well). I touched on some top-down ways of addressing this in my review of Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom, but those solutions don’t truly get at the problem—some people, for various reasons, some inborn, some not, cannot be truly contributory members of society, and will often act directly against its interests. And, as you suggest, this is grossly exacerbated by modern ideology—but not caused by it.

      I’m not sure what the solution is. If one assumes that the ruling class can be redone, and the middle classes will turn in that direction as well, the underclass becomes a problem that most likely can only be dealt with by (a) minimizing its numbers, in part by (b) providing opportunity and identifying talent within it, and (c) managing it to align its goals with those more fortunate in their inborn talents and luck. But every successful society throughout history has struggled with this problem, and I’m not aware of any examples of wonderful, friction-free solutions. Even on a small scale, for example, the Athenians had to provide wage labor for the underclass on warships. The Romans did the bread-and-circuses thing, in later years. Not sure what, for example, the Chinese did.

      Probably the macro mechanism that’s best is to provide some kind of common civilizational goal that, to some extent, can satisfy and inspire even the underclass. Space!

  2. Marcus says

    “the underclass becomes a problem that most likely can only be dealt with by (a) minimizing its numbers, in part by (b) providing opportunity and identifying talent within it, and (c) managing it to align its goals with those more fortunate in their inborn talents and luck.”

    Here is my concern, and I’m bouncing this off you, Charles, for your insight: The livid underclass is growing faster than civil society can handle, it appears. What I call ‘underclass’ is all those folks who cannot and will not adapt to an extremely complex knowledge-based economy where resilience in business acumen is the order of the day — if not the hour.

    The media outlets love to blame the universities for fueling hatred toward consistent achievers who, throughout many generations, select well for the spouses who will co-parent extremely well, and who pursue tertiary education (and complete graduate school!) to both network and to think strategically in a world of subtly shifting economic sands. The university professors have been banging the same Marxist drum since the late 1960s; only now do we have huge groups of students immediately receptive and incensed by the professors’ tired, soulless dogma.

    Anecdotally — and Charles I believe we are the same age — I had a university professor who hammered every lecture, every sub discussion, and every student response, with quotes and long passages of Carol Gilligan’s “In a Different Voice” even though this was a class in the psychology of human communication. The professor’s slant was so extreme that she soaked every lecture with her personal bias. However, in the mid-1980s none of her students were receptive to her messages and we rolled our eyes when she would go off on another Gilligan tangent. And here’s the key: in that class was a girl (we were 18 and 19-year-olds) who flew back and forth to campus in her father’s private jet from Bloomfield Hills, and another girl who was shuttled back and forth to our dorm from Lake Forest via their Rolls-Royce Phantom VI. Another student’s father patented a metals process for the U.S. government and they had homes all over the world. Yet another student’s father owned an NFL franchise. And these students, in just my class, were the norm on the entire campus at this private college.

    Each of the students in this class knew they had to pass the final exams and get on with their lives and did so unashamedly. Nobody was receptive to these professor’s messages; everyone was waiting to graduate and get on with extremely challenging and successful lives. That success is what they were used to seeing growing up and that’s what their parents expected of them, which is why the financial investment was made starting with Freshman year. Parents of these students expected their children to behave as ‘an asset’ and not become a crippling liability to the family.

    Now universities are packed with students who were never meant to be in a 4-year program of advanced education and while all expenses were taken care of by their immediate family. Small wonder these kids are wrecks and ready to latch on to any ideology which brings a moment of comfort. The colleges respond by telling these kids they don’t have to take advanced economics and physics, and Russian literature to graduate. They offer dumbed-down, specialized classes in order to comfort the students and line their administrative pockets at the expense of kids who have no idea they’re being fleeced by institutional grifters whose administrative ethos changes with the prevailing political wind(s). So many students lack the social capital my fellow college students had in abundance(i.e. family connections) that now universities must strongly feature career counseling and job fairs. Today’s students are so lacking generally in social sophistication and informed mentorship, these students are preyed upon (e.g. student loans which cannot be dismissed, credit card sign-up tables in the student union, etc.) Students graduating today now exist in social-psychological cage where they exist in a state of limited perception. That’s the exact opposite of what university education was intended to be at its inception.

    Go back to the dystopian class system of “Brave New World”, wherein Deltas and Betas were socialized into an ego-defensive complacency and you necessarily have the summer of social unrest we’ve experienced in 2020.

    You’re way ahead of me, Charles, I know: the trick is we live in a constitutional republic where our leaders and our laws are voted in democratically. The underclass, by their sheer numbers and voting patterns, is outgunning “a dynamic and virtuous society that can and does execute Heroic Realism.”

    And they know it.

    • Charles says

      This point, that it’s not just the underclass in the sense I mean it, but the aristocracy as well, who are rotten and out of control, seems exactly right. (It’s not clear to me our peers from the 1980s did anything worthwhile, though. After all, look around. By their fruits ye shall know them.) Having to deal with the “bread-and-circuses” underclass, in essence those who lack the talents to succeed in broader society, is difficult enough. If you add that the education system has failed to produce decent results, quite the contrary, at any level, it functionally makes a society guaranteed to fail.

      But we knew that. The Wuhan Plague has fully exposed what was already pretty obvious—we, and the entire West, are utterly sclerotic and irrational, and totally lack any resiliency. There are no reserves. The next plague, the one that actually kills any relevant number of people in their prime, or children, will utterly collapse all our societies. So will any other challenge. There is, to appropriate and redirect the classic phrase, no there there. It is over; all that remains to be revealed is the mechanism and the details.

      So we’re getting a hard reset, and probably sooner rather than later. It seems nearly inconceivable now; it will seem inevitable in retrospect, as it always does. Of course, the easy criticism of calling for a hard reset is that it is a deus ex machina—everything will be better once something magic happens! But it is also true that history shows hard resets are both common and deliver change; we have just forgotten. For the past few hundred years, it’s been mostly bad change, true, but past performance, etc.

      After the hard reset, there won’t be democracy, so the virtuous won’t be outgunned. Those who lack virtue will be dead or have gained virtue. With luck, there will be rule of law. Education, and the sorting of talent, will, of necessity, become realism-based.

      On a side note, I disagree that we live now in “an extremely complex knowledge-based economy where resilience in business acumen is the order of the day.” Most people have BS jobs and very few people do extremely complex work. In fact, I suspect that in the 1950s more people did actually extremely complex work, and with slide rules, and more successfully, than today. That flunkies program giant data processing like Google, basically complex secretaries, is not to the contrary. I think the complexity is largely an illusion, and to the extent there is real complexity, much of it is BS complexity caused by rent-seeking and regulation. Heroic Realism is, in a way, simple, actually. Back to the future!

  3. Marcus says

    “So we’re getting a hard reset, and probably sooner rather than later.”

    I like it — although not the actual process of living through the hard reset. This same reset will screen for the more resilient of people, businesses, and social systems; however this same process is also an inevitable part of the human condition.

    I don’t really think we’ll have a Mad Max society after this reset clears, but I do believe it will result in something like the very late 1940s and 1950s after the reset of the Depression coupled with WW II upended everything.

    • Charles says

      Yeah, Mad Max style never happens, except short-term on a microscale. People won’t abide anarchy; they will do anything to avoid it. And what that means is that a vacuum of authority is immediately filled, at a minimum at the local level, and filled up from there. And, as you imply, if the rebuilding is based on reality, it’ll be a vast improvement. (The risk is that the rebuilding is also based on ideology, and/or is implemented centrally by those who control surveillance and other technology to their benefit.)

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