Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #43: Distrust That Particular Flavour by William Gibson

I’d remembered the review of an essay collection by Douglas Coupland. It had been in the Saturday Guardian book section. Or the Observer; whatever, the placement of the article on the page was fixed in my mind, along with the sensation of attraction and interest. I’d bookmarked it in my head. I could comfortably know it would be there – ‘there’ being wherever I chose to look for it, in a bookshop or library or on record on a catalogue or the Guardian website or Google.

Except it wasn’t. I looked it up a couple of times, trying to get the name right, and it maddeningly refused to show up. I whacked the enter key over and over again: Coupland, nonfiction. I looked at his Wiki page enough to have that now fixed in my mind’s eye. The only nonfiction work he’d produced had been on architecture or something, and the dates were wrong. How could he have done this to me? Was it some sort of postmodern stunt?

Then I was looking for something else at the bookshop, and there it was: a collection of essays from the career of William Gibson.

You and I have a vague idea of how computer memory, or a tape recording, or a video clip, works. But the human memory does things we’ve come to recognise and adapt with, but that are still strange and wondrous things emerging from a far more complex creation. Gibson is a science fiction writer – and bless him for always referring to himself as such – who has a good handle on just how weird our own wiring is.

We live in, have lived through, a strange time. I know this because when I was a child, the flow of forgetting was relatively unimpeded. I know this because the dead were less of a constant presence, then. Because there was once no Rewind button. Because the soldiers dying in the Somme were black and white, and did not run as the living run.

– Dead Man Sings

I read this book out of embarrassment at getting it wrong. Sorry, Gibbo. But I’m very glad I did. Back in the days just beyond cave painting and wax cylinders when I was getting half of a degree in media studies (whatever the hell that is), I had to trudge through all this New Media Theory verbiage that was very big just then. Cyborg theory and the posthuman era and network society and Marshall bleeding McLuhan and his dated aphorisms all got weary glances from me. I’m never very interested in predictions for the future, because I’m mostly a coward and a slothful one. Change is scary and disorientating and I don’t long to know just how unprepared I am for the world of tomorrow.

Gibson is very good at nailing the glazed-eye visions of the future trotted out by professional predictors. While he’s benefited from stumbling over ideas of future technology – he is humble about coining the term ‘cyberspace’ and downplays any hand he had in ‘predicting’ it – as the title says, he distrusts those who claim to see exactly what’s coming.

It’s this critical distance, as well as his sense of irony, and matchless curiosity, that make him so good at writing about technology and society. Not that there’s anything as simple as one theme in this book, though if it is, it’s not that; it’s really about psychology. But it goes to some interesting places

It swings around from Singapore’s totalitarian Disneyland chic to early eBay adventures in the vintage timepiece category, to his Steely Dan fandom, to introductions to some of his foundational ideas – autobiographical sketches snuck in to discussions of tech and lit. A beautifully-designed collection, most of the essays or speeches are a few pages long, but they’re all interesting and I found them compulsive reading. How much of it I’ll remember afterwards will be another adventure.

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