Sci-fi and the future of tech

Literary heavyweight William Gibson weighs in during ConU’s Thinking Out Loud

Close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine a time before recorded music was available: no flipping through iTunes to hear your favourite artist’s new track, no searching on YouTube for the oldie that’s been stuck in your head all day—a time when technology was significantly different than it is today.

William Gibson invited audience members to do just that during Thursday’s session of Concordia’s Thinking Out Loud conversation series. Gibson, an American-Canadian science fiction novelist, joined Concordia communication studies professor Fenwick McKelvey for “Digital Life, Digital Identity — A Conversation About the Internet, Fiction and the Future” moderated by Erin Anderssen of The Globe and Mail.

“One of the most mysterious things about technology is the way in which we lose the previous mode of existence,” said Gibson. As a celebrated speculative fiction novelist, he’s used to imagining new technologies and presenting them in naturalistic prose. In 1982 he coined the term “cyberspace.” His works—ranging from short stories to novels and trilogies—have highly influenced the world of science fiction writing., and he was one of the founders of the cyberpunk genre.

They discussed the ever-changing popularity of technology and how it’s impossible to determine what will become the next big thing. Not only do developers not know exactly what technologies will catch on, but the way in which different groups in society use technology will also differ. Gibson suggested a poor man and a rich man might use technology very differently.

“How do you, from moment to moment, distinguish when are we being active participants and when are we being couch potatoes?” Asked Gibson. “It seems to me that the distinction is blurred in some weird way.”

While the role of technology is not always clear, it can be helpful in particular circumstances. Gibson recounted his experience assisting people across the world via social media during the March 2011 earthquake in Japan. Gibson, among others, was able to tweet links to information Japanese citizens couldn’t connect with since the natural disaster had destroyed certain networks.

Gibson predicts our current separation between self-identity and digital personas will fade for people as we move into the future. “I think they’ll find the way in which we made that distinction very, very peculiar and they’ll try very hard to understand it,” he said. “We experience now what, in the future, will be regarded as a remarkable degree of isolation.”

As a science fiction writer, Gibson is an expert in creating visions for the future. “There are bits and pieces of possible futures walking all around here, but we won’t necessarily notice them,” he said. He looks for the ones that “have legs,” seeking to balance contemporary perceptions of miraculous new technology “in a way that allows the reader the illusion of experiencing the character’s complete boredom with that technology.”

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