Science fiction frequently portrays a dystopian reality to demonstrate the faults and failings in human nature or in human societies. Technology becomes an extension of human nature, enabling people to abuse or exploit. In William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, the author offers a bleak portrayal of the ways human beings use technology. Humans interface with technology in a way that obliterates their ability to relate to one another or experience emotions like compassion and empathy. The protagonist Henry Case is an exception, which is why the audience can relate to the ways he tries to subvert the system. A matrix supersedes human collective consciousness, and artificially intelligent systems can even stave off death. In the world of the Neuromancer, individual human beings can even upload their own personal memories and experiences to preserve them. In Neuromancer, Gibson’s shows that because human beings create technology, all outgrowths of technology are essentially outgrowths of human nature.
Even Case, who has been extricated from the matrix, has relied on drugs—which are essentially medical technologies—to enhance his human experience. Yet Case no longer uses drugs, and does not have access to the same technological interface that connects all of the other individuals in his world. Because of his lack of dependency on technology, Case is the most human character in the novel. Case also has the most antagonistic relationship with technology of anyone in the book. Even when Case does demonstrate a desire to act with ethical integrity, though, it becomes clear that the rest of humanity has simply surrendered itself to their base human desires including greed and egoism. Technology becomes merely an extension of human nature, allowing individuals and groups to conduct terrorist activities and to control the lives of others. Several elements of technology are disturbingly similar to those already in existence, making Neuromancer seem shockingly real. For example, terrorists do use hacking and other cyber-attacks as weapons to achieve their overarching political objectives.
Much of what Gibson describes is the darker side of human nature, but simultaneously shows how people are well aware of their ethical limitations. Human nature tends towards chaotic and egotistical interactions, which is why the artificial intelligence systems have been constructed to prevent becoming overly powerful. The problem is that they are still created by human beings, causing their inherent design to be flawed. There are no benevolent or beneficent systems in Neuromancer’s reality. Case needs to resort to criminal activity just to survive. In some cases, technologies are literally physical extensions of human beings, as with the use of highly advanced prosthetics. The prosthetics and other technological enhancements are designed to improve human life but in most cases fail to achieve that objective; no character in Neuromancer is fulfilled or happy. Human beings have used military technologies as a means of social control throughout history, and in Gibson’s world are using artificial intelligence to achieve similar goals (Latham, 1993). Technology has no volition of its own; even artificial intelligence systems were designed by human beings and therefore bear their unique stamp and deleterious characteristics. The protagonist Case is firmly entrenched in the criminal underworld. His own unenhanced behaviors illustrate the fact that technology is an extension of human desires, and that technology does not take on a life of its own.
In spite of the fact that the central message of Neuromancer is that technology serves as extensions of human nature, Gibson also shows that the human-technology interface in turn dramatically alters human society. In the world of Neuromancer, social norms and values have been shifted to reflect the realities of physical and psychological enhancements. Individuals think and act in ways that are ironically self-seeking, in spite of the potentially unifying effects presented by the matrix. The matrix fails to assist in the evolution of a more collaborative humanity, not because it is the fault of technology but because of the flaws in human nature. Case is the case in point: he is driven by opportunism and self-interest. He is not a bad person, but one who has been influenced heavily by the values, norms, and ideals of a dystopian universe. The novel opens with Case’s admission that he committed the “classic mistake, the one he’d sworn he’d never make,” which was simply to steal from his employer (Kindle Edition). Stealing is an act of opportunism and self-interest. The punishment for his mistake is to be bereft of the opportunity for technological enhancements, but Case still finds ways to manipulate and participate in criminal activities to get by. Case’s relationship with Molly is also reflective of the inherently selfish side of human nature, as even their work together cannot overcome their social conditioning.
The relationship between human beings and technology is not dichotomous in the least; Gibson portrays a world practically devoid of nature, one in which no person ever truly questions the efficacy of the enhancements. While Gibson uses imagery and metaphors from the natural world to describe the scenes in Chiba, even the food the people eat has been technologically modified and thus would be unrecognizable to anyone who did not directly participate in that reality. The human-technology interface is strikingly realistic because of the fact that human beings already do rely heavily on pharmaceuticals and plastic surgeries, already do use technologies to enhance global food security, and especially have come to rely on technologies for all business transactions. Gibson shows readers a world in which human beings go far beyond mere dependency on technology, to a reality in which human consciousness can be uploaded to a hardware interface, thus blurring the distinction between a man and a machine. This is a world in which “people imitate machines, and machines imitate people,” (Grant, 1990. p. 41). Gibson opts to set Neuromancer in Japan partly because of the Japanese embrace of robotics and other technologies that use artificial intelligence. Making a commentary on the potential dangers of sacrificing human nature for machine-based existence, Gibson fails to show readers how they might achieve a more harmonious relationship with technology—one that enhances or improves life.
Gibson shows that human beings do attempt to place some safeguards or limitations on the unbridled growth of technology, as with the Turing Code that prevents artificial intelligence systems from uncontrollable growth. The Turing Code is in place to prevent human beings from indulging in their basic instincts, in the same way that standard laws against theft and murder remain on the books. If human nature were essentially good, then laws would be unnecessary; regulations and social controls are needed to provide a modicum of ethical behavior and moral standards. Yet human nature is selfish and cyberspace is “unregulable,” making it so that people will break the rules if it means gaining something personally (Lemley, 2003, p. 521). People do not view laws or regulations as the means by which to participate in the construction of a better society, but simply obstacles that must be overcome in order to pursue one’s personal desires. If human beings were given access to the types of advanced technologies that exist in Chiba, then it is more likely than not that the same results would happen: murders and assaults would continue to take place, and so too would system sabotage and other larger-scale terrorist activities. The events that take place in Neuromancer could just as well occur without the aid of technology because technology is just an extension of human nature.
Gibson’s dismal portrayal of human nature does not deter technological advancement, but does encourage self-awareness about how technology can be harnessed for the greater good of humanity. Neuromancer presents a world in which the relationship between human beings and technology is direct and seamless; technology becomes integrated with the human body, central nervous system, and even conscious awareness to the point where organic matter is no longer necessary to sustain human life.
Gibson, W. (1988). Neuromancer. New York: Berkeley [Kindle Edition].
Grant, G. (1990). Transcendence through Detournement in William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” (La transcendance par le détournement dans “Neuromancer” de William Gibson). Science Fiction Studies 17(1): 41-49.
Latham, R. (1993). Review: cyberpunk = Gibson = “Neuromancer.” Science Fiction Studies 20(2): 266-272.
Lemley, M.A. (2003). Place and cyberspace. 91 Calif. L. Rev. 521 (2003)
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