Tags: gibson

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Mirrorworld

Over on the Failed Architecture site, there’s a piece about Kevin Lynch’s 1960 book The Image Of The City. It’s kind of fun to look back at a work like that, from today’s vantage point of ubiquitous GPS and smartphones with maps that bestow God-like wayfinding. How much did Lynch—or any other futurist from the past—get right about our present?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Lynch invented the term ‘imageability’ to describe the degree to which the urban environment can be perceived as a clear and coherent mental image. Reshaping the city is one way to increase imageability. But what if the cognitive map were complemented by some external device? Lynch proposed that this too could strengthen the mental image and effectively support navigation.

Past visions of the future can be a lot of fun. Matt Novak’s Paleofuture blog is testament to that. Present visions of the future are rarely as enjoyable. But every so often, one comes along…

Kevin Kelly has a new piece in Wired magazine about Augmented Reality. He suggests we don’t call it AR. Sounds good to me. Instead, he proposes we use David Gelernter’s term “the mirrorworld”.

I like it! I feel like the term won’t age well, but that’s not the point. The term “cyberspace” hasn’t aged well either—it sounds positively retro now—but Gibson’s term served its purpose in prompting discussing and spurring excitement. I feel like Kelly’s “mirrorworld” could do the same.

Incidentally, the mirrorworld has already made an appearance in the William Gibson book Spook Country in the form of locative art:

Locative art, a melding of global positioning technology to virtual reality, is the new wrinkle in Gibson’s matrix. One locative artist, for example, plants a virtual image of F. Scott Fitzgerald dying at the very spot where, in fact, he had his Hollywood heart attack, and does the same for River Phoenix and his fatal overdose.

Yup, that sounds like the mirrorworld:

Time is a dimension in the mirror­world that can be adjusted. Unlike the real world, but very much like the world of software apps, you will be able to scroll back.

Now look, normally I’m wary to the point of cynicism when it comes to breathless evocations of fantastical futures extropolated from a barely functioning technology of today, but damn, if Kevin Kelly’s enthusiasm isn’t infectious! He invokes Borges. He acknowledges the challenges. But mostly he pumps up the excitement by baldly stating possible outcomes as though they are inevitabilities:

We will hyperlink objects into a network of the physical, just as the web hyperlinked words, producing marvelous benefits and new products.

When he really gets going, we enter into some next-level science-fictional domains:

The mirrorworld will be a world governed by light rays zipping around, coming into cameras, leaving displays, entering eyes, a never-­ending stream of photons painting forms that we walk through and visible ghosts that we touch. The laws of light will govern what is possible.

And then we get sentences like this:

History will be a verb.

I kind of love it. I mean, I’m sure we’ll look back on it one day and laugh, shaking our heads at its naivety, but for right now, it’s kind of refreshing to read something so unabashedly hopeful and so wildly optimistic.

Fact eats fiction

In need of an entertaining read, I recently picked up the book Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith (of Gorky Park fame). I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated.

I’m not a huge fan of crime fiction, although I have read plenty of Hammett and Chandler in my time. But there was something about Cruz-Smith’s book that I found very appealing.

Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.

The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.

Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.

Truly, as William Gibson said:

The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.

The cyberpunkish quality of Wolves Eat Dogs prompted to go back and revisit some of Gibson’s work. I re-read Virtual Light (possibly the only science-fiction to name check Brighton’s pier).

It’s interesting charting the inverse relationship of Gibson’s projected timelines with his dates of publication. Neuromancer, his first novel, is set in a relatively far future. His newest novel, the equally superb Pattern Recognition, is set in the present. At this rate, he’ll end up writing historical fiction. Mind you, he’ll have a tough time competing with Neal Stephenson in that genre.

Vitual Light was originally published in 1993. It’s especially interesting to read again now because the story is set in a projected future of California in 2005. I had to smile at this descriptive passage in chapter eleven (emphasis mine):

Allied’s best-looking thing on two wheels, no contest whatever, DuPree was six-two of ebon electricity poured over a frame of such elegance and strength that Chevette imagined his bones as polished metal, triple-chromed, a quicksilver armature. Like those old movies with that big guy, the one who went into politics, after he’d got the meat ripped off him.

Who could have predicted that “that big guy” would be governor of the state in 2005?

Truth really is stranger than fiction.