Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Metaphysics of "All Tomorrow's Parties"

William Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties will seem very confusing and, quite likely, somewhat disorientating to readers who don't know its metaphysical background or the intellectual concerns that animate it. Today's lecture began outlining a framework for understanding how and why Gibson treats these matters in his fiction.

All Tomorrow's Parties presents us with a fictional world "the-year-after-the-next-year" where (to quote Bob Dylan) "Everything is Broken." The process of social fragmentation here in Vancouver that Douglas Coupland laments in Hey Nostradamus! is become widespread in ATP: families, cities, states & provinces, countries and individual psyches are things of shards and tatters. However, Gibson's text presents an important paradox. The free market system which, in Gibson's fictional outlook, is the cause of this fragmentation is actually growing more unified, and that unification has spreading to the verge of global uniformity. The paradox in encoded in Gibson's plot, which is an eschatological race between the villain (explicitly a Bill Gates-type) and the rag-tag-band-of-heroes (Laney, Chevette, Fontaine, Rydell) to use a new product (a nano-fax machine) supplied ahead of demand - and thus without a known purpose) either for profit-without-end or for the Rapture.

Gibson's metaphysic in his cyberpunk novels -- and in his "idoru" trilogy-so-far (of which ATP is the third) is the evolution from the human (us) to post-human (part us & part not us.) The "non-us," of course, is information technology. In the fourties, Marvin Minsky of MIT famously said "in the future, if we're lucky machines will keep us as pets." That is the view of things behind Gibson's cyberpunk. The fragmentation in ATP will be made whole again by the blending of consciousness and IT. "Rei Toei" -- the Idoru -- becomes a cybernetic Messiah, emerging in transcendent form simultaneously from every 7-Eleven-type store around the globe. And here in the non-fiction realm, even if Minsky's remark sounds extremist to us, it is difficult to avoid the thought that some significant change will result from our now near-constant exposure to IT.

How long have you been looking at a screen so far today ..... ?

Gibson's metaphysic, then, in All Tomorrow's Parties is Creative Evolution: an idea best associated with Henri Bergson (1859-1941), a philosopher who, in my view, lacks proper appreciation - whether or not one acccepts his thesis. Creative Evolution, generally speaking, is the assumption that evolution is always an advance: that hardships, although bad news for some or many individuals, creates in the long run improvement for the species - such as the human race. Bergson gave us the term elan vital -- or vital force -- to describe the existence of an immaterial life force that expresses itself in organic matter. This idea is, in my observation, the unconscious assumption behind most people's thoughts on evolution - of all levels of education. It's earlier term - Social Darwinism -- was nearly unchallenged. The interesting fact is that it is non-Darwinian. That is, Darwin's entire project was to try and establish that evolution is not a force for improvement, but one which can as easily eliminate as produce improvements. Peter J. Bowler is an indefatigable writer in defense of Darwin against all type of creative evolutionism.

So, William Gibson has given fictional form to this intellectual field: using ideas from emerging technologies to suggest a eudystopic IT path that the elan vital might take. As lecture will develop further, Gibson also invokes the concept of emergent properties to create his virtual reality: i.e. his fiction. As the property of wetness emergences from the combination of two independent components neither of which themselves have the property wetness, so in All Tonorrow's Parties the property of existence arises from those components which comprise Rei Toei -- the idoru.

I love fiction, and I love it for many reasons. And one of these is its ability to bring the fantastic closer to the real by making it plausible. As I suggested in lecture, it is not unreasonable to suggest that a computer-generated celebrity, run by an algorithm of market-tested qualities, with a good singing voice, appealing appearance and virtual fashions, has al least no less reality (in a meaningful sense of "reality") than a person, experienced by mass public entirely through media, marketed as a performer, who can neither sing, play an instrument nor dance.


chewie's grandson said...

i think you are wrong to quote the man from mit who said that humans will be enslaved by robots of the future who would take us as pets if luck permits
you must understand that robots or virtual reality or whatever associated with IT is nothing more than some function humans use for the efficient procession of commerce

i believe it is impossible to create AI from pure code, in doing so you would need to have a brain that matches the human one, and that to outcompete the human one would need to be smarter, even today nobody can accurately measure the capacity of the human mind to a quantitative precision, something like 60 thousand terabytes would probably still be insufficient, i heard couple of years ago they made a robot that would be able to learn human things through interaction with the researchers, until today i have heard nothing about its development(probably scrapped)

the only thing that is even close to enslavery by technology is the modern trend of kids being enslaved by internet cafes and online gaming, and that stuff has no consciousness of its own

in the end the only that would enslave humans is probably humans, or rather, the video companies that hook the kids up to their games so there revenue become endless----

unless of course something totally out of whack happens the next day

but that's highly unlikely

Dr. Stephen Ogden said...

Uhhmm ... do you mean that you disagree with Marvin Minsky, or that I'm wrong to put All Tomorrow's Parties in a post-human lineage?

chewbaca said...

i think both, no offense intended, just personal opinion, because all tomorrow's parties isn't really post-human or isn't exactly that far removed or that exaggerated from today's world, the prevalence of virtual reality can be greatly seen in today's world, chat rooms, online games, sims, i even heard there is a company that let's you do "naughty things online"---virtual reality is definitely not that post-human, and about fragmentation, the poor people and the rich people, that is definitely evident as well, we readily differentiate the rich and poor zones of the city we live in, no problem there, the homeless in east hastings many think they should stay there, and overtime we have come to perceive that region as indicative of their socio-economic status, about idols(and i think idoru is japanese for idol), there are people who worship theirs, despite how unreal they are as is said in lecture,

so i don't think its post human at all nor is it really an "exaggeration of the current state of affairs"

Dr. Stephen Ogden said...

Well, I think that William Gibson will be disappointed to learn that after he has written a book about the world's first post-human ("Rei Toei"), he is not cedited with having written a book about the post-human ;--)
Also, from today's lecture "Cyborg" = post-human.

jubejube said...

well i mean rei toei is post human, part human, part digital, existing yet not physical(in the sense that there is no bio component)

just that besides this, there weren't that many exaggerations in the book to say that the whole thing is a worsened or heightened state of current affair,

the only thing i could think of exaggerating is rei toei, giving the internet a consciousness of its own and the interactive digital columns which are pretty much a more propagated form of CITY TV's SPEAKERS CORNERS

Dr. Stephen Ogden said...

Well, we agree that in Rei Toei -- and therefore any number of beings like her -- we are in the post-human. The future in play, as presented in lecture, for "All Tomorrow's Partiesi" s 'the day after tomorrow'. Thus you and I seem on the same page to me.

jubejube said...

ok then!
hoorah! no irony intended

Anonymous said...

Okay here we go!
I was wondering why William Gibson chose San Francisco as a city with a broken bridge? Why not Vancouver?

Dr. Stephen Ogden said...

Good question: my interpretation is that san Francisco is a famous place of two cities - Oakland/San Fran -- joined but separated, by water. Thus the bridge (the Bay Bridge, not the Golden Gate Bridge) is an illustrative interstice between them.
Plausible? I think so!