William Gibson’s Idoru and Blogging

I want to add one more thought about blogging before I get started. In my Inaugural Post I asked, “Why join this societal wave of exhibitionism?” and mentioned the relation of technology to surveillance, voyeurism, privacy and exhibitionism. Every time I think about these issues, a character from William Gibson’s 1996 novel Idoru comes to mind.

Before I delve into the main point, I want to say that I think William Gibson is a genius. In his first novel, Neuromancer (1984), the hit that launched the cyberpunk genre, he came up with the term cyberspace. In case you passed over that parenthetical date too quickly, let me point out that he came up with the idea of cyberspace in 1984: before there was either the Internet or virtual reality.

Yes, I am aware that Tron came out in 1982, but Tron is about a man who is sucked into a little, tiny world inside of a computer were the programs are personified (e.g. the vilan, “Master Control”) and forced to fight high-tech gladiatorial games in sexy spandex body suits. This of course will never happen and is merely a technological variant of The Fantastic Voyage, The Wizard of Oz or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Yes, there are some silly parts of Neuromancer: the space Rastafarians are hardly the heady stuff of Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. However, a total emersion interface to a simulated world spread over a network of computers is freaking visionary. Unlike Tron, which set people’s understanding of computers back a decade, Neuromancer is the future.

What is most relevant to blogging is his vision of celebrity and media that make up the ideological backdrop of Idoru. The novel is set in the not-too-distant future where mass media has continued to throw its net wider and wider, where, as Andy Warhol said in what must be the most accurate prediction ever made, “everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” Murderers are famous, the parents of their victims are famous, college students fake kidnappings to get on television, unaccomplished debutantes are famous for nothing other than ostentation, people become famous when sex tapes “accidentally” find there way on to the Internet, people elbow their way onto television for opportunities to boast about things that previously one wouldn’t even want one’s neighbors to know. Actually, I am talking about the present, but imagine this trend married to the myriad of widely affordable media production and distribution technologies chased out twenty years into the future. With thousands of television channels to fill up and with everyone’s vanity site on the Internet and with no gatekeepers, fame will devolve to the masses. Gibson has one of his characters describe it thus:

“Nobody’s really famous anymore, Laney. Have you noticed that?…I mean really famous. There’s not much fame left, not in the old sense. Not enough to go around…We learned to print money off this stuff,” she said. “Coin of our realm. Now we’ve printed too much; even the audience knows. It shows in the ratings…Except,” she said… “when we decide to destroy one.” (6-7)

Gibson spends the opening chapters of the book describing how derelict protagonist Colin Laney lost his previous job as a “researcher” at a tabloid news show called Slitscan. In this future, like our present, an increasing proportion of people’s transactions are being passively recorded in corporate databases. And also as in our present, some companies exist solely to purchase information, correlate disparate pieces in useful ways and sell it to those who might put it to some (usually pernicious) use. In this novel, Slitscan had a questionable relationship with such a data agglomeration corporation called DatAmerica and Laney’s job was to troll through the data trails left by celebrities looking for the “nodal points” — the confluences of data — that indicated something gossip-worthy for the show to report.

Laney was not, he was careful to point out, a voyeur. He had a peculiar knack with data collection architectures, and a medically documented concentration deficit that he could toggle, under certain conditions, into a state of pathological hyperfocus…he was an intuitive fisher of patterns of information: of the sort of signature a particular individual inadvertently created in the net as he or she went about the mundane yet endlessly multiplex business of life in a digital society. (30-31)

Laney was fired when, while researching the mistress of a celebrity, it became clear to him from her data trail that she intended to commit suicide and he tried unsuccessfully to intervene. Here Laney checks back with his mark after returning from a vacation:

The nodal point was different now, though he had no language to describe the change. He sifted the countless fragments that had clustered around Alison Shires in his absence, feeling for the source of his earlier conviction. He called up the music that she’d accessed while he’d been in Mexico, playing each song in the order of her selection. He found her choices had grown more life-affirming; she’d moved to a new provider, Upful Groupvine, whose relentlessly positive product was the musical equivalent of the Good News Channel.

Cross-indexing her charges against the records of her credit-provider and its credit retailers, he produced a list of everything she’d purchased in the past week. Six-pack, blades, Tokkai carton opener. Did she own a Tokkai carton opener? But then he remembered Kathy’s advice, that this was the part of research most prone to produce serious transference, the point at which the researcher’s intimacy with the subject could lead to loss of perspective. “It’s often easiest for us to identify at the retail level, Laney. We are a shopping species. Find yourself buying a different brand of frozen peas because the subject, watch out.” (66-67)

Before excerpting a passage where Gibson describes the future of gossip journalism, let me remind you that this is Gibson’s view from 1996, when MTV’s The Real World was only in its 4th season, the O.J. Simpson trial was just over, Monica Lexinsky’s blue dress was stain-free and Survivor was still four years off:

Slitscan was descended from “reality” programming and the network tabloids of the late twentieth century, but it resembled them no more than some large, swift, bipedal carnivore resembled its sluggish, shallow-dwelling ancestors. Slitscan was the mature form, supporting fully global franchises. Slitscan’s revenues had paid for entire satellites and built the building he worked in in Burbank.

Slitscan was a show so popular that it had evolved into something akin to the old idea of a network. It was flanked and buffered by spinoffs and peripherals, each designed to shunt the viewer back to the crucial core, the familiar and reliably bloody alter that one of Laney’s Mexican co-workers called Smoking Mirror.

It was impossible to work at Slitscan without a sense of participating in history, or else what Kathy Torrance would argue had replaced history. Slitscan itself, Laney suspected, might be one of those larger nodal points he sometimes found himself trying to imagine, an informational peculiarity opening into some unthinkably deeper structure.

In his quest for lesser nodal points, the sort that Kathy sent him into DatAmerica to locate, Laney had already affected the course of municipal elections, the market in patent gene futures, abortion laws in the state of New Jersey, and the spin on an ecstatic pro-euthanasia movement (or suicide cult, depending) called Cease Upon the Midnight, not to mention the lives and careers of several dozen celebrities of various kinds.

Not always for the worst, either, in terms of what the show’s subjects might have wished for themselves. Kathy’s segment on the Dukes of Nuke ‘Em, exposing the band’s exclusive predilection for Iraqi fetal tissue, had sent their subsequent release instant platinum (and had resulted in show-trials and public hangings in Baghdad, but he supposed life was hard there to begin with). (50-52)

Of course, something like Slitscan — or the Jerry Springer Show, Cops, E True Hollywood Story, Average Joe or The Fifth Wheel in our time — could not exist were it not for the sadistic voyeurism of the masses. I select this passage as much to satisfying my own snickering elitism as to illustrate the lust for other people’s misery that comprises our current and future television viewing audience:

…Slitscan’s audience…is best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, Laney, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections. (35-36)

Of course one can already see aspects of this world coming into being. Corporations are harvesting, agglomerating and correlating information at a frightening and increasing rate — but that is for another post. What I am thinking about here is the voyeuristic and micro-celebrity aspects of our quickening information age. I have a friend who reads several people’s blogs on an occasional basis, some of whom he has never even met. Of one that he hasn’t met, he maintains that this blogger is teetering on the brink of an infidelity with a coworker against his current girlfriend — an infidelity, the imminence of which he himself is not yet aware! My friend keeps returning to this blog awaiting the climactic post as if it were a soap opera.

There you have it: micro-celebrity, sadistic voyeurism, a readable data trail from which one might extrapolate future behavior with a minimal amount of theory. Admittedly, my friend is following an intentional data trail rather than a passive one, but the small difference between this situation and that of Gibson’s Laney anticipating the suicide is striking.

I don’t absolve myself of any of this. I loved the show Trauma: Real Life in the ER, which is about as sadistic of a voyeurism as you’ll find. I did say in the “Inaugural Post” that I consider this a “deeply improprietious endeavor.” I am, however, aware of the context in which I embark upon this effort.