Getting Started with Neuromancer

As we begin to explore the ways that Gibson’s Neuromancer reflects some of the interrelations between technology, identity-formation, and modes of meaning-making, it’s helpful to have a good understanding of the technologies that were prevalent at the time the novel was written in 1984. While all science fiction is by nature speculative about future possibilities and thus cannot be said to depend entirely upon the present, every text arises within specific social, economic, political, and (yes) technological contexts. Every trajectory or possibility sketched out is somehow bound up with or related to present concerns, whether these are expressed and grappled with in the text or repressed through fantasy or escape.

So how do we develop a technological context for understanding Neuromancer? With the distinctions that Katherine Hayles makes in her essay between hyper attention and deep attention, we have one example of how we might think about the impacts of digital technology on our most basic, even minute-to-minute, patterns of thought.  Another example depends on our having some basic ideas about the technologies that were widely available to readers in their practical lives at the time the novel was written.  Even though the invention of the internet (click here to see a brief video) extends back (at least) several decades from the publication of Ong’s essay and Gibson’s novel, it is probably more helpful to account for the adoption rates of technologies in individual households. As this 2012 article from The Atlantic points out, we often confuse the invention of a device with its widespread use and impact.

Both of these infographs provide helpful reminders of just how long it took for communication technologies like color television (1972), computers (1996), and the internet (2001) to break the 50 percent adoption rate (in US households; we’ll discuss another important related topic, the global “digital divide”, starting next week):



Nevertheless, Gibson inhabited a world of multinational corporations, mainframe computers, and ever-multiplying stores of financial data, as well one in which marketing campaigns increasingly offered the personal computer as a labor-saving cure-all for everyone, as we see in this 1979 Apple ad that compares the Apple computer with the Ford Model T:

Henry Ford Apple Ad (1979)

Then, too, we might consider the popularity of 1980s video game arcades, an influence that we see not only in Case’s recollection of how he met Linda Lee–“…her face bathed in restless laser light, features reduced to a code: her cheekbones flaring scarlet as Wizard’s Castle burned, forehead drenched with azure when Munich fell to the Tank War, mouth touched with hot gold as a gliding cursor struck sparks from the wall of a skyscraper canyon” (8)–but also in one of the best descriptions we have in the novel of the matrix, and of cyberspace, two terms that Gibson coins in this novel: “The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,’ said the voice-over, ‘in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.’ On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. ‘Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…” (51).

These are only some first suggestions regarding the interpretive lenses you might bring to bear on the novel, with more to come this week and next.  This weekend, I’ll post the first short video lecture on the novel and on some ideas about how to perform close reading, as well as the blog prompt for this week’s assignment. Until then, get as much careful reading done as you can, and enjoy.




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