The CyberPunk writer William Gibson described the Bay Area as a “liminal” place and—having looked up some definitions of the word online—we agree with Mr. Gibson that the Bay Area is indeed a place where a huge chunk of “the future” happens first. TheGold Rush (a model for future flash migrations in search of wealth, opportunity, cutting-edge fun). The accompanying legal whorehouses on the Barbary Coast. The invention of Levis jeans. Isadora Duncan, Imogen Cunningham, Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris, Dashiell Hammett… The rise of the anarchist “Wobblies” and socialist-ideas-inspired labor unions; the San Francisco General Strike of 1933. Oppenheimer’s awesome “deadly discoveries” which he later disavowed; Lawrence Livermore Lab and the Stanford linear accelerator. Dyke- and gay bars. The Beats; City Lights Books. The underground filmmaking movement; electronic and original-instrument music pioneers (like Morton Subotnick; Harry Partch) at Mills College and beyond. The Hippies; the huge Gay Rights movement; the body-piercing-and-tattoo-and-fetish-clothing movement. San Francisco’s own Punk movement; the rise of skateboard culture (first promulgated by Thrasher magazine; the colorful bike-messenger underground; the underground warehouse rave-music scene. And the San Francisco “industrial culture” scene with Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) and noise musicians which helped spawn challenging, border-crossing creativity all over the planet. Then there’s Xerox Parc, the invention of the home computer by the Steves (Wozniak and Jobs), the Internet, the router, the CD industry, CNC systems, the cell phone, and numerous computer-telecom-Internet-related tech start-ups aided and abetted by risk-taking venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road. The Bay Area.
And why? The Bay Area is an international seaport hosting the largest Chinese community outside of China. It boasts Mediterranean weather 365 days a year, interesting topography (the 7 Hills of Frisco), bridges that are engineering marvels, the oldest living trees (Muir Woods), and beautiful architecture and city planning. Although… the aggressive implementation of Manhattan-ugly high-rises and shoddily-constructed, code-circumventing live-work “lofts” and “high-rise condos for the rich” threaten the future beauty of the San Francisco Gay Bay, the Gay Mecca of the West Coast. Couid it be that the extreme tolerance for gays, women, other races, unconventional ideas and lifestyles helps spawn breakthrough ideas, concepts and inventiveness which (gasp) bring us an unexpected future? If the future could be easily predicted, wouldn’t there be a lot more millionaires around? Actually, there ARE a lot of start-up millionaires in the Bay Area—even billionaires…
There are also totalitarian, dystopian, chaotic, and wild-card skeptical futures being predicted by the few prophets alive on the planet. Thanks to the worldwide media network, these prophets can criss-cross the planet supporting themselves by writing books and promoting them in lectures and interviews. Buckminster Fuller said it best: “I’m interested in the future because I’m going to spend the rest of my life there”—but are most people truly interested in the future? Two hundred in San Francisco are, because they turned up for CyberProphet William Gibson at the JCC answering questions by Ken Goldberg and members of the audience. This, more than any other situation, shows the true character and mettle of the artist: answering questions which have not been pre-submitted and vetted, thus forcing the intellect to invent and frame a response on the spot—laugh-provoking, at best… (It should be mentioned that William Gibson was on tour to promote his new book of essays, “Distrust That Particular Flavor” — thanks to our friend V in London, we have the British edition, which has a much more beautiful photographic-portrait cover. Ah, British book covers are usually BETTER than their American counterparts. )
But who are William Gibson and Ken Goldberg? To answer that question, we must provide a surrounding context to the persistently nagging question, “Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Most Prophetic of Them All?”
William Gibson. Long ago, back around 1984, we saw the rise of the so-called CyberPunk writers (William Gibson, John Shirley, Bruce Sterling, Richard Kadrey, Rudy Rucker; who else?). These humans are still alive and penning miles of sentences, but we have to wonder how successfully they have predicted the future, and are they still predicting the future—or maybe it’s enough to simply interrogate what-the-heck is happening NOW—what with the sea-change in our lives brought about by the omniscient, omnivorous, chronos-consuming invention of the Internet and ubiquitous cell-phone technology. Don’t people wonder if there a zeitgeist of now, besides “Things Fall Apart”? Maybe our “now” is stretched out into an almost-eternal “Long Now” where we never have time to reflect upon our rapidly-receding personal histories, or “the future”—say, twenty or fifty years away.
Ken Goldberg. We have long supported Survival Research Laboratories in their noisy machine performances which we felt were divining a rusty, improvised-technological future in the perhaps money-less, state-less, more robotic- and drone-filled world landscape ahead of us. In reviewing the past 20 years, an SRL associate comes to mind who has more or less selflessly curated dozens (maybe hundreds) of futuristic, bursting-with-ideas presentations by the crême-de-la-crême of cutting-edge thinkers, scientists and artists—most of them free; no admission charge—at U.C. Berkeley. That would be Ken Goldberg, who has been studying the future for several decades. Anyone heard of telerobotics? To quote, “Telerobotics is the field of robotics concerned with the remote distance control of robots using wireless connections, tethered connections, or internet connectivity via human input. Ken Goldberg, a pioneer of telerobotic art and his collaborative art installation Memento Mori can be seen as the first telepresent, internet-based earthwork controlled by minute movements of the Hayward Fault in California and transmitted continuously as a seismic data stream to an embedded audio visual display.” [!]
Of course, like everyone, we’re interested in making sense of the bewildering, dazzling scope of contemporary computer-assisted scientific experimentation—i.e., doing epistemological inquiries. And, “Much debate in the field of Epistemology has focused on analyzing the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, belief, and justification. Professor Ken Goldberg of Berkeley UC notes that knowledge attained via distant and remote participation via the likes of web cams is defined as Telepistemology. The Robot In The Garden, Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet, edited by Ken Goldberg, Cambridge MIT Press 2000, pp 2-22.”
Twelve years after the publication of this still-futuristic book, Ken Goldberg was the one chosen to do a live conversation/interview with one of the premier CyberPunk writers of our time, William Gibson. Actually, this event was pitched as a kind of “meta-conversation”—anyone could submit questions in advance to this URL: http://opinion.berkeley.edu/gibson—and even tweet questions during the event.
William Gibson has a special connection to the Bay Area in that many years ago he “grokked” Survival Research Laboratories’ special joie-de-vivre and esprit, subsequently transmogrifying some of that ethos into the novel Mona Lisa Overdrive where he depicted an artist making large robotic sculptures, collaging them together out of purloined, scavenged metal parts and machinery in his junkyard (That artist would be Mark Pauline, SRL founder—www.srl.org). Gibson also was inspired by San Francisco’s Bay Bridge and the dark side of Silicon Valley’s cowboy entrepreneurialism to write his Bridge Trilogy—with many scenes set on a cobbled-together, Merzbau-like vast living emporium which has taken over (of course) the Bay Bridge—depicting it as a defunct automobile freeway overpass. Gibson was also (obviously) inspired by the San Francisco bike-messenger community of the ’80s-to-present. One of his most vivid characters is a female bike messenger. The Bridge novels include Virtual Light (’93), Idoru (’96) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (’99), now famous as a successful music festival focusing on retro reanimations of “classic” rock LPs.
There were plenty of questions to ask Mr Gibson. With the world’s banking & finance markets in free fall, and religious fanaticism on the uptake, the Internet continues to cannibalize the entirety of the world’s culture. Copyright be damned. Give everything away FOR FREE, and ultimately ruin the “information economy” (as Bruce Sterling predicted China would do back in 1998, in his prophetic masterpiece Distraction). There were a lot of questions to throw at Messieurs Gibson and Goldberg; so many, in fact, that only a small percentage were able to be mentioned.
In a kind of gordian-knot-cutting straight to the most pressing paradigm of now, Ken Goldberg asked William Gibson for his “take” on Twitter, FaceBook and the way the Internet has changed our lives. Here are a few of Mr. Gibson’s responses: “Facebook reminds me of a mall, while Twitter feels like the street.” “Usually the things that people think are really weird are not so weird to me.” “In the future there will be no unaugmented reality.” “I’m always curious about what criminals and artists will do with any new technology.” “News cycles today last as long as it takes to click the REFRESH button.” “Fashion is a code humans wear for others to decode, like language made flesh.”
William Gibson in person is part of an American lineage of geek- or nerd-heroes with glasses—think Clark Kent, Buddy Holly, Mark Pauline, but tall, gangly and slightly stoop-shouldered. When he walks, he leans forward, befitting his futuristic mind-set. Over the past decades, whenever we had glimpsed him, he had worn all black—but with black-and-white Converse tennis shoes. This evening of September 4, 2012 he wore a dark blue shirt, brown pants, brightly-striped socks with black-and-white tennis shoes—maybe not Converse but perhaps some esoteric Japanese brand. As quoted above, he reminded us that clothing is CODE, and the spectator’s job is to DECODE it. During the book signing afterward he wore an obliquely-trendy dark-brown Patagonia-style [no logo visible] down sweater (actually, was that from Uniqlo?) —no doubt very useful in the colder Canadian climate of Vancouver, B.C., where he resides with his wife (they raised a daughter, now 29, and a son).
We liked the way he almost-diffidently ambled onstage following the more confident strides of the blond, bespectacled Ken Goldberg, and were surprised by how high his voice is, and how slowly (and carefully?) he crafted his responses, often for seemingly the most “universal” encompassment. The territory of words presents numerous dangers, and it is so easy to fall into the verbal equivalent of a tiger trap. And thanks to the contemporary miracle of digital recording technology (everything under the sun can be converted into zeros and ones, then decoded back into analog formats decipherable by human eyes and ears), everyone on Planet Earth can hear the William Gibson-Ken Goldberg conversation, for free via the Internet. Here it is, for your listening edification: Full link to web page: http://www.3200stories.org/blog/2012/09/10/william-gibson-live-from-kanbar-hall/
– full video version plus 1,000-word version of the above at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/v-vale/mirror-mirror-on-the-wall_b_1881370.html …