Digital Reality

In three separate instances that I’ve tallied so far, Neuromancer describes ways for a person to be assimilated by a technology. These are characters that give up independence or humanity in order to be controlled by a machine. The author William Gibson has come up with some ingenious ways of conceiving this. Here are three: The dictatorial artificial intelligence Wintermute, the product simstim, and, in a poetic way, the fate of one of the characters who was too good to be allowed to die.

First, Wintermute. Simply a codename for an artificial intelligence that roams across the landscape of the novel like a poltergeist, Wintermute impact on the storyline thus far is only insinuated. But one of these insinuations is brilliant. Fifteen years before The Matrix, the lead characters in Neuromancer speculate that their boss, a shadowy fellow named Armitage, is actually a rebuilt army colonel who was found by the AI in a hospital and reinvisioned as the embodiment of the AI Wintermute’s plots. Armitage is described as more of a machine than a man.

“Sits and stares at the wall, man. Then something clicks and he goes into high gear and wheels for Wintermute.”

A second  way characters sacrifice human independence is with simstim. This is a portmanteau of simulation and stimulation. The idea is to simulate being another person and feeling the stimuli of sight and feeling and emotion that this person feels. It is popular, in the novel, for characters to “jack in” to celebrities and feel like they are, in fact, someone famous. This concept, and all its ontological implications, is picked up in the film Being John Malkovitch.

A final way that the person falls victim to the machine is in the story of the Dixie Flatliner. Dixie was a famous hacker who was so talented that when his physical body died, his memory was preserved digitally, on data disc ROM. The lead roles in Neuromancer spend the first section of the novel stealing this disc, which when activated still believes it is a person and not a digital replica. When Flatliner does come to realize he is no longer human but just a digital record of himself, he compares it to having frostbite all over. He cannot feel anything about being dead and that is what irks him. In his words: “What bothers me is, nothing does.” His plea to Case and the other hackers is simple, attaining a sort of peace:

“This scam of yours, when it’s over, you erase this goddam thing.”

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