Distrust That Particular Flavor — William Gibson

As with most essay collections, the ones in Distrust That Particular Flavor are uneven: a few feel like period pieces that’ve outlived their period, but most maintain their vitality (Gibson admits as much in the introduction). Gibson knows about the expiration date of predictions and commentary, and having this feature built into his essays makes them endure better. It’s a useful form of admitting a potential weakness and thus nullifying it. In the place of dubious predictions, Gibson makes predictions about not being able to predict and how we should respond:

I found the material of the actual twenty-first century richer, stranger, more multiplex, than any imaginary twenty-first century could ever have been. And it it could be unpacked with the toolkit of science fiction. I don’t really see how it can be unpacked otherwise, as so much of it is so utterly akin to science fiction, complete with a workaday level of cognitive dissonance we now take utterly for granted.

I’d like to know what that last sentence means: what’s a “workaday level of cognitive dissonance,” as opposed to a high or low level? How do we take it for granted now, in a way w didn’t before? I’d like clarification, but I have some idea of what he means: that things are going to look very different in a couple years, in a way that we can’t predict now. His own novels offer an example of this: in Pattern Recognition, published in 2003, Cayce Pollard is part of a loose collaborative of “footage” fetishists, who hunt down a series of mysterious videos and debate what, if anything, they mean (as so many people do on so many Internet forums: the chatter too often means nothing, as I’ve discovered since starting to read about photography). By 2005, YouTube comes along as the de facto repository of all non-pornographic things video. The “material of the actual twenty-first century” changes from 2003 to 2012. What remains is the weirdness.

In writing and in ideas, though Gibson is less weird and easier to follow here than in his recent fiction. There are transitions, titles, short descriptions in italicized blue at the back of each essay, where the contemporary-ish, 2011 Gibson comments on his earlier work. He gets to grade himself on what he’s gotten right and what he hasn’t. He’s self-aware, about both his faults and his mode of work:

A book exists at the intersection of the author’s subconscious and the reader’s response. An author’s career exists in the same way. A writer worries away at a jumble of thoughts, building them into a device that communicates, but the writer doesn’t know what’s been communicated until it’s possible to see it communicated.

After thirty years, a writer looks back and sees a career of a certain shape, entirely unanticipated.

It’s a mysterious business, the writing of fiction, and I thank you all for making it possible.

Comments like this, on the nature of the book and of writing, are peppered in Distrust That Particular Flavor. Technology changes but writing remains, though we again get the idea of fundamental unpredictability (“the writer doesn’t know what’s being communicated”), which is the hallmark of our time and perhaps the hallmark of life since the Industrial Revolution. It’s the kind of life that science fiction prepares us for, even when the science fiction is wrong about the particulars. It still gets the temperament right. Hence science fiction as a toolkit for the present and future—and, to some extent, as a toolkit for the past. One could view the past as a series of social disruptions abetted and enabled by technology that creates winners and losers in the struggle or cooperation for resources, sex, power:

Much of history has been, often to an unrecognized degree, technologically driven. From the extinction of North America’s mega-fauna to the current geopolitical significance of the Middle East, technology has driven change. [. . .] Very seldom do nations legislate the emergence of new technology.

The Internet, an unprecedented driver of change, was a complete accident, and that seems more often the way of things. The Internet is the result of the unlikely marriage of a DARPA project and the nascent industry of desktop computing. Had nations better understood the potential of the Internet, I suspect they might well have strangled it in its cradle. Emergent technology is, by its very nature, out of control, and leads to unpredictable outcomes.

The first step is recognition, which is part of the work Gibson is doing. Nations also might not “legislate the emergence of new technology,” but they do create more or less favorable conditions to the emergence of technology. Economic historians, general historians, and others have been trying to figure out why the Industrial Revolution emerged from England when it did, as opposed to emerging somewhere else or sometime else. I find the Roman example most tantalizing: they appear to have missed the printing press and gunpowder as two major pre-conditions, since the printing press allows the rapid dissemination of ideas and gunpowder, if used correctly, lowers of the cost of defense against barbarians.

I find the idea of history being “technologically driven” intriguing: technology has enabled progressively large agglomerations of humans, whether in what we now call “countries” or “corporations,” to act in concert. The endgame isn’t obvious and probably never will be, unless we manage to destroy ourselves. We can only watch, participate in, or ignore the show. Most people do the latter, to the extent they can.

I use a fountain pen and notebook and so identify with this:

Mechanical watches are so brilliantly unnecessary.
Any Swatch or Casio keeps better time, and high-end contemporary Swiss watches are priced like small cars. But mechanical watches partake of what my friend John Clute calls the Tamagotchi Gesture. They’re pointless in a peculiarly needful way; they’re comforting precisely because they require tending.

Much of life, especially cultural life, beyond food, shelter, and sex might be categorized as “brilliantly unnecessary;” it’s awfully hard to delineate where the necessary ends and superfluous begins—as the Soviet Union discovered. To me, haute couture is stupidly unnecessary, but a lot of fashion designers would call fountain pens the same. Necessity changes. Pleasure varies by person. Being able to keep “better time” isn’t the sole purpose of a watch, which itself is increasingly an affectation, given the ubiquity of computers with clocks embedded (we sometimes call these computers “cell phones”). We want to tend. Maybe we need to. Maybe tending is part of what makes us who we are, part of what makes us different from the people who like hanging out with their friends, watching TV, and shopping. Gibson also mentions that his relationship or lack thereof to TV also relates to him as a writer:

I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.

Notice that word, “may,” weakening his comment, but not fatally. TV is the mostly invisible vampire of time, and it’s only when people like Gibson, or Clay Shirky, point to it as such that we think about it. Doing almost anything other than watching TV with the time most people spend watching it means you’re going to learn a lot more, if you’re doing something even marginally active (this is Shirky’s point about the coming “cognitive surplus” enabled by the Internet). Gibson did something different than most people his generation, which is why we now know who he is, and why his thoughts go deeper. Like this, variations of which I’ve read before but that still resonate:

Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.

They’re less frightening because they have intentionality instead of randomness, and random is really scary to many people, who prefer to see causality where none or little exists. Instead, we have all these large systems with numerous nodes and inherently unpredictability in the changes and interactions between the nodes; one can see this from a very small to a very large scale.

This is easier to perceive in the abstract, as stated here, than in the concrete, as seen in life. So we get stories, often in “nonfiction” form, about good and evil and malevolent consciousnesses, often wrapped up in political narratives, that don’t really capture reality. The weirdness of reality, to return to term I used above. Reality is hard to capture, and perhaps that science fiction toolkit gives us a method of doing so better than many others. Certainly better than a lot of the newspaper story toolkits, or literary theory toolkits, to name two I’m familiar with (and probably better than religious toolkits, too).

I’m keeping the book; given that I’ve become progressively less inclined to keep books I can’t imagine re-reading, this is a serious endorsement of Distrust That Particular Flavor. I wish Gibson wrote more nonfiction—at least, I wish he did if he could maintain the impressive quality he does here.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Links: William Gibson, publishing (self and legacy), teaching, boring playgrounds « The Story's Story

  2. Pingback: Lost technologies, Seveneves, and The Secret of Our Success « The Story's Story

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