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The future of inequality William Gibson warned us about a world in which wealth buys immortality

Credit: Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images

April 18, 2019   4 mins

For our predictive texts series, we have asked our contributors to select a book which sheds eerily prescient light on our lives today. We weren’t after HG Wells or George Orwell, we wanted something less predictable. Here is the foresight so far.

To re-read Neuromancer is to experience a series of shocks. The first shock is about the passage of time. William Gibson’s novel was first published 35 years ago this July; I read it a few years later. Since then, I’ve aged but the book hasn’t; neither story nor setting have dated at all – a testament to Gibson’s almost eerie prescience.

If you’ve heard of Neuromancer, it’s probably as the book that imagined – and named – “cyberspace”; the book that described the connected world a generation before we moved our culture, commerce and conversation online. Gibson described, “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts” – at a time when few people had even a rudimentary computer in their home.

Case, his protagonist, is a hacker employed to steal secrets from corporations and governments, navigating a world made up of limitless data:

“Program a map to display frequency of data exchange, every thousand megabytes a single pixel on a very large screen. Manhattan and Atlanta burn solid white. Then they start to pulse, the rate of traffic threatening to overload your simulation. Your map is about to go nova. Cool it down. Up your scale. Each pixel a million megabytes. At a hundred million megabytes per second, you begin to make out certain blocks in midtown Manhattan…”

Again, remember that Neuromancer was published in 1984. While the projected numbers are out by several orders of magnitude, it is still a striking description of the big data world that would not come to pass for another three decades.

Yet re-reading the novel, I found that predicting the internet age and the dawn of big data was one of the less interesting feats Gibson pulls off. Neuromancer – and its sequels, Mona Lisa Overdrive and Burning Chrome – do so much more than that. It’s not really about technology, it’s about the way technology changes the way we live, the way we think and the way we feel when we inhabit two worlds – the real and the virtual. The real shock is how horribly familiar a world imagined in the early 1980s – by an author listening to Joy Division on his Sony Walkman – feels today.

Sleepless, restless, rootless: Gibson’s world is all too recognisable to anyone who’s ever spent too much time online, ever stared too long at a glowing screen instead of doing something that actually matters. For some, the means to connect to that other world becomes an integral part of them: Neuromancer is full of people who plug enhancements and memories straight into their brain via sockets installed on their skulls. Gibson called them “microsofts” (the company of that name was nowhere near famous when he was writing).

Even though Gibson completely missed the potential for mobile telephones (landlines survive in Neuromancer, along with paper-based money: no-one gets everything right), his conception of people outsourcing their memory and perceptions to a small piece of tech – kept close to the body at all times – feels as familiar as the phone that’s always in my pocket.

He also captures the spirit of a world where technology, travel and global corporate branding have homogenised culture and experience. Case travels from Japan to the US to Turkey and onwards, but everywhere feels the same. His trip through Istanbul – in a driverless car that narrates the journey for passengers, of course – could be any big city.

Celebrity too has gone global in the world of Neuromancer – in a way that feels strikingly contemporary. Tally Isham is a “simstim” celebrity – an icon whose fans experience her (subtly edited) life minute-by-minute in vivid technicolour. Long before the Kardashians were born or Snapchat was thought of, Gibson understood the limitless human hunger to see and feel the world through the lens of another, better, richer, prettier person. Just like today’s influencers, Isham doesn’t do anything meaningful – she just is.

To me, the most striking – and possibly unnerving – element of Neuromancer concerns the human body. A novel famous for the notion that human experience can be disconnected from flesh actually has a great deal to say – and predict – about human biology and how it can be changed.

In Case’s world, basic augmentation to change someone’s looks is routine: faces can be chosen like clothes off a rack, if you have the money. Muscles too: “joeboys” with enhanced physiques are the soldiers of crimelords, while omnipresent corporations – and wealthy individuals – mould and retain latter-day samurai, whose reflexes and skills are enhanced, and whose bodies sometimes have weapons installed. Meanwhile, Case’s sometime lover Molly has sunglass lenses grafted over her sockets, and retractable scalpel blades under her fingernails.

We’re not there yet, but the most advanced military forces of our day are paying growing attention to how the human body can be altered to make it more dangerous and more durable.

More interesting still is how, for those with the means, technology offers bodies that will last much, much longer than those of ordinary mortals. Neuromancer introduces Julius Dean, an importer and trafficker who is 135 years old, “his metabolism assiduously warped by a weekly fortune in serums and hormone…genetic surgeons reset the code of his DNA”. Another, even richer character is said to be 200 years old. In a world controlled by vastly wealthy corporations and their vastly wealthy owners, the 1% have realised that the ultimate treasure to amass is life itself.

If you’ve watched the Netflix series Altered Carbon, you’ve seen this idea taken to the next level, with the rich effectively achieving immortality. That show is based on a novel published in 2002, more than 20 years after Gibson began writing Neuromancer.

William Gibson has said that Neuromancer is set in about 2035. What could happen in the next 16 years to take us closer to his cyberpunk future?

Today, if you talk to scientists, doctors and even insurers, you can glimpse a near future where the extension of current trends in public health, wealth and medical technology combine to widen existing gaps in life expectancy, to the point where the rich live significantly longer, healthier lives than everyone else. Last month, official statistics showed that the rich are living longer, while life expectancy for the poorest is falling.

Wealth inequality may well be the defining issue of today’s politics and economics. Health inequality may be tomorrow’s challenge. If my prediction is right, remember that William Gibson’s Neuromancer gave us an early warning, all those years ago in 1984.

James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation


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