William Gibson on the Future

Source: Paris Review, Summer 2011

The strongest impacts of an emergent technology are always unanticipated. You can’t know what people are going to do until they get their hands on it and start using it on a daily basis, using it to make a buck and u­sing it for criminal purposes and all the different things that people do.

We’re increasingly aware that our society is driven by these unpredictable uses we find for the products of our imagination.

Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their landscape

There’s an idea in the science-fiction community called steam-engine time, which is what people call it when suddenly twenty or thirty different writers produce stories about the same idea. It’s called steam-engine time ­because nobody knows why the steam engine happened when it did.

Ptolemy demonstrated the mechanics of the steam engine, and there was nothing technically stopping the Romans from building big steam engines. They had little toy steam engines, and they had enough metalworking skill to build big steam tractors. It just never occurred to them to do it. When I came up with my cyberspace idea, I thought, I bet it’s steam-engine time for this one, because I can’t be the only person noticing these various things.

And I wasn’t. I was just the first person who put it together in that particular way, and I had a logo for it, I had my neologism.

I take it for granted that social change is driven primarily by emergent technologies, and probably always has been. No one legislates techno­logies into emergence—it actually seems to be quite a random thing.

INTERVIEWER

What is “pattern recognition”?

GIBSON

It is the thing we do that other species on the planet are largely incapable of doing. It’s how we infer everything. If you’re in the woods and a rock comes flying from somewhere in your direction, you assume that someone has thrown a rock at you. Other animals don’t seem capable of that. The fear leverage in the game of terrorism depends on faulty pattern recognition. After all, terrorist acts are rare and tend to kill fewer people than, say, automobile accidents or drugs and alcohol.

 

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