Cyberpunk author William Gibson is often quoted as saying “The future’s here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
I always considered him wrong about the first part and right about the second.
Yesterday I watched an (old) interview with Gibson done by fellow author Robert J. Sawyer at the Toronto Public Library in which Gibson dropped a pretty stark message. “The only people who can view Neuromancer as a dystopia,” Gibson stated, “are people living in a condition of extraordinary privilege.” Now it’s important to remember that Neuromancer is largely about a crippled, suicidal drug addict being scraped off a predatory street, having his brain rewired and being tasked to complete an equally suicidal hacking mission. Refusal results in him becoming re-crippled, failure likely results in his death or incarceration as well. This in the context of a world where some corporations have become so established as to be colonial powers in their own right.
As part of the internet’s countertechno culture I see at least weekly someone utter the lament, “Where’s my fucking jetpack?” The sad old refrain, accusatory and rightly perceived and being full of privilege in itself. Science Fiction promised us so much and the world delivered so little.
In thinking about this tonight I stumbled on a new indignation, insult to the injury. The only part of modern life really approaching Jetpack Space, really approaching that glory, is the NSA. The technological capabilites of the National Security Agency goes far beyond even most hackers. Their sheer ballsyness, the testicular fortitude it takes to dream up some of these hacks no less package them in a catalog to be pulled out at whim harkens back to pure science fiction. A society in which technology and imagination don’t follow each other but are rather intertwined, symbiotic.
With that symbiosis leading to a rate of societal change that can only be described as exponential.
It’s not a warp drive, or first contact, or zero point energy. In fact it’s the antithesis of these long-sought advances. NSA technology takes us nowhere. It’s turned inward and facilitates no bridge between nations no less extraterrestrial species. And it requires an astounding amount of energy produced in some of the most archaic of ways.
Yet it’s quickly clear that the NSA has brought us further into the future than any existing body so far.
In our privilege, the only part of the future we dared tread towards is the part we were warned most vehemently about.