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The Cloud as Science Fiction: William Gibson, Twitter, Google, and Zero History

I recently had the good luck to interview William Gibson about his new book, Zero History, in which the social networking site Twitter plays a role as a plot point. Here's what Gibson had to say about the origins of this part of his novel:

You've become a very prolific user of Twitter with your account @greatdismal and the site even makes an appearance as a plot element in Zero History. What is it about Twitter that appeals to you?

Nothing prior to Twitter in the way of social media had attracted me. I've had a lot of fun over the past decade quite anonymously on various listservs and Internet fora, sometimes for years on end: just being Bill, just being some random guy who has an opinion about something or some knowledge to offer on some witheringly esoteric subject. So I knew the pleasure of that. But MySpace and Facebook just looked overstructured and Disneylanded -- much too much of a prepackaged experience.

When a friend of mine joined Twitter, I thought, "Oh, this sounds dreadful," and I thought I'd join it for a laugh, so I could make fun of it later. To my great surprise, I found it nicely understructured. And very fastand a year later, there I am.

I also find it effortlessthat may be because the way I use it is largely content-free, but it's actually been a very nice experience. I would miss it if it disappeared; I would miss the company of people I've gotten used to having around in a virtual way.

What I'd miss most about Twitter is its astonishing power as an aggregator of novelty. It does in a few hours what one hundred professionally produced magazines could scarcely do in a month, skimming the world's weirdest, most wonderful things and depositing it on your desktop to be snacked on.

Having boasted for years at watching less television than any North American male my age, I may unfortunately have found my television.

How did Twitter wind up in the new novel?

The conceit is that each novel is set in the year in which most of it was written, and I got Milgrim on Twitter a few weeks after getting on Twitter myself.

The disparaging reference to television suggests some discomfort with his Twitter usage, despite the good things his new appendage brings him. (Intriguingly, io9 recently reported there will even be a Twitter-only component to the novel, using the accounts mentioned in Zero History, @gaydolphin1 and @gaydolphin2. In the future, as everyone knows, all novels will be tweeted.)

As Gibson notes elsewhere in our interview, as well as in his well-linked, deeply ambivalent op-ed about Google earlier this month, these technologies are radically changing our lives in ways that neither all good nor all bad -- and that, indeed, we may not yet be capable of processing fully. He writes of Google:

Jeremy Benthams Panopticon prison design is a perennial metaphor in discussions of digital surveillance and data mining, but it doesnt really suit an entity like Google. Benthams all-seeing eye looks down from a central viewpoint, the gaze of a Victorian warder. In Google, we are at once the surveilled and the individual retinal cells of the surveillant, however many millions of us, constantly if unconsciously participatory. We are part of a post-geographical, post-national super-state, one that handily says no to China. Or yes, depending on profit considerations and strategy. But we do not participate in Google on that level. Were citizens, but without rights.

Or, more simply:

We have yet to take Googles measure. Weve seen nothing like it before, and we already perceive much of our world through it. We would all very much like to be sagely and reliably advised by our own private genie; we would like the genie to make the world more transparent, more easily navigable. Google does that for us: it makes everything in the world accessible to everyone, and everyone accessible to the world. But we see everyone looking in, and blame Google.

What Gibson suggests here is the radical novelty -- the science fictionality -- of our new digital world; in theorizing Google and Twitter we are necessarily pushed towards the language of fantastic, towards superintelligent post-national coral reefs and private genies that frighteningly watch us with our own eyes. To borrow another Gibson quote I like, "the sort of thing we used to think in science fiction has colonized the rest of our reality"; it is, as he says, now up to us to figure out just what we're going to be doing about it.


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