I have just sat down within a meter of the literary futurist giant, William Gibson, and listened to him speak about the nature of the future and our entanglement with technology. There were some other people present of course, a large audience for one thing, including other luminaries and folk of note on the panel but I confess I had not really heard of them.
Cory Doctorow, Mark Stephenson and Diane Coyle were on the panel of ‘Who Owns the Story of the Future’, a British Library discussion on the nature of the story we are telling ourselves as we create our view of the future. I had travelled swiftly and decisively to London for the event for one reason only, however, and that was the presence of William Gisbson.
Luckily I had a seat right at the front and as all the panelists arrived and sat down, Mr Gibson was opposite me so I was able to observe his mannerism directly; the plain but weighted cool that surrounded him, the individual items of unique origin like the urban shoulder bag or khaki converse trainers, his stooped and unhurried gait.
As the discussion began and circulated, the other panelists were quick to answer, chiming in with intelligent and witty observations. Mark Stephenson, speaking with well oiled phrases and naturally eloquent monologues in response to the hosts direction. He named dropped the best institutes in science and technology and talked of his optimism in the technology horizon. Diane Coyle speaking directly with facts and insight, managing to make economics interesting. Cory Doctorow’s booming, jocular style – having to raise his voice over laughter from a pithy witticism, quick to speak and throw out ideas. In this time each had their say, bantering back and forth, and Gibson had been silent. When the question finally came to him for an answer the room fell quiet. Even the panellists hushed and looked intent, awaiting his reply.
When he spoke it was in a quiet and slow slur, mixing the drawl of the US with the amiability of Canada and filtered through the deliberate measure of his age. He was also incredibly jet lagged and so he admitted that it was all cosmic, perhaps not a true reflection of his real self or his persona but everyone hung on his every word nonetheless. Every time he came to speak the room would fall to intense focus and once he had finished, with a humble shrug or dismissive gesture, the room would remain in deep reflection for a moment longer.
It was clear that he was held in very high regard by all present. In that sense I feel like the rush, the departure from a comfortable routine was worthwhile. Not only for bringing home the treasures of a video, a picture and his signature but for the chance to be there in the room.
Of course, only moments beyond that adventure and I can hardly remember a single thing that was said, all these moments that were vitally important at the time have since washed away. No doubt they will seep into my subconscious and reappear in the coming weeks, in dreams or discussions.
One of his phrases, conjured up improvisationally but also immediately seeming like an age old meme, was “Tweeted in stone.” Thus, I must turn to the social networks to try and recreate the message, much as Gibson describes the work of future archaeologists.
He first spoke of how impossible it is to guess the future because of the immense complexity and absurdity. He described how, if in 1981 when he first began writing he had take a pitch to a publisher which described the year of 2011 as it is, then he would have been thrown out. I paraphrase…
“It is the year 2011 and everyone is connected invisibly by tiny computers they carry around and can access a vast store of information whenever they wish, Soviet Russia is no more, terrorists have flown planes into the Twin Towers and destroyed them, causing America to wage war in the Middle East, a virulent disease targeting the human immune system has ravaged the world… by the time I had mentioned two of these plot points the publisher would have said I had bitten off more than I can chew and by the time I reached the end of the list they would have called security – but that would have only been the start of it.”
He spoke of the old giants of science fiction as ‘The Uncles’, and I am sure he invented that phrase on the spot, yet I am also sure that Heinlein, Asimov and their ilk will henceforth be known by that title. Discussing Heinlein’s Future History.
“The uncles got it wrong. That was amazing to me to think that they could be wrong. The work was old by the time they reached me… No one saw the internal combustion engine as the possible cause for destruction of our species on the planet. But who knew… ‘Who knew’ could be the motto for our species.”
In discussing the aspects of cynicism, positivity or the difference between dystopia and utopia.
“I was always saddened that my work was considered to be set in a dystopia. At the time there would have been untold numbers of people who would have gladly been transported to that setting because they would have been better off. You can’t appreciate how positive a place the present is now unless you had been through the 50′s to the 80′s where people were living with the possible threat of predictable and horrible annihilation at any moment. This seems like an ideal future in comparison.”
When the chair person opened questions to the audience I thought about all the questions could’ve asked. All would have been as pretentious and meaningless as the ones asked by rest of the room. Everyone was desperately conscious of not babbling, of appearing lucid and cogent and framing their ideas eloquently as the panellist. These questions were interesting, though some did go on too long, but were just starting points for the panel to expand on.
Some plucky fellow avoided the roaming microphone by simply speaking out, his deep voice compelling a question. You could tell the panel were a little nervous of him but answered all the same. The question involved whether we were ‘rendering’ before creating something with our future. He meant that in a computing reference, to complete any processing of the information before moving on. The panel thought it was a reference to fixing a wall. I imagined the boiling down of fat. It reveals how difficult it is to find a common language in an area where no one can know anything for certain. If anyone could imagine it, it would be this group of people.
At the closing of the event, in speaking of the narrative of the future that we have, Mr Gibson summarised as follows.
“What stories do we have now? Zombie Apocalypse? Geek Rapture? I like to think we would would be somewhere between the two.”
Then a round of well earned applause for the panel and the doors were flung wide to allow the audience to leave. Not me. I had one hand on a copy of Neuromancer and a pen secreted in hand. As every else seemed to be too cool to gawp in awe at their literary heroes I simply cut straight up to William Gibson and said “Excuse me, sir. Would you mind signing your book?”. I always revert to Bertie Wooster mode in times of awe.
“Well I’m not sure” he said hesitantly glancing at the large crowd that hadn’t seemed to catch on to the idea yet, “you might end up starting something.” But he signed the book all the same, with a smile to boot.
Ok, Mr Gibson. Good advice. I’m off to start something. After all, that’s the way of the future.