November 13, 2019

"Looking around lately, I am reminded less often of Gibson’s cyberpunk future than of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastical past, less of technology and cybernetics than of magic and apocalypse."

"The internet doesn’t seem to be turning us into sophisticated cyborgs so much as crude medieval peasants entranced by an ever-present realm of spirits and captive to distant autocratic landlords. What if we aren’t being accelerated into a cyberpunk future so much as thrown into some fantastical premodern past? In my own daily life, I already engage constantly with magical forces both sinister and benevolent. I scry through crystal my enemies’ movements from afar. (That is, I hate-follow people on Instagram.) I read stories about cursed symbols so powerful they render incommunicative anyone who gazes upon them. (That is, Unicode glyphs that crash your iPhone.) I refuse to write the names of mythical foes for fear of bidding them to my presence, the way proto-Germanic tribespeople used the euphemistic term brown for 'bear' to avoid summoning one. (That is, I intentionally obfuscate words like Gamergate when writing them on Twitter.) I perform superstitious rituals to win the approval of demons. (That is, well, daemons, the autonomous background programs on which modern computing is built.)... Stuck in a preliterate fugue, ruled by simonists and nepotists, captive to feudal lords, surrounded by magic and ritual — is it any wonder we turn to a teenage visionary [Greta Thunberg] to save us from the coming apocalypse?"

From "In 2029, the Internet Will Make Us Act Like Medieval Peasants" by Max Read (in New York Magazine).

Simonists, eh? Hint: They're in the 8th Circle of Hell. Looks like this:

40 comments:

Char Char Binks said...

This is what we wanted.

Lucid-Ideas said...

Oh FFS, it really isn't that hard and it really isn't that mysterious. It's only that large numbers of people really don't want to do any work (not even hard work) to understand the primary fundamentals of how the technology works.

I would also remind people that approximately 95% of the population also doesn't even know how the internal combustion engine in their car works...a technology over 100 years old now. Why? Because they don't care.

But one thing should be pointed out when it comes to the internet. Did you know that it doesn't work without electricity? True story. Another shocker, most of the data being transmitted is still being transmitted by cables before it gets transmitted as a signal. I mean...what if and I'm just spitballing here...someone were to cut these electrical or data lines with like a pair of scissors or something. DUH DUH DUH!!!

Earnest Prole said...

Twitter has turned us into a stupid mob.

Temujin said...

That could be the worst bit of writing I've ever spent a minute or two to try to get through. My eyes hurt.

Nonapod said...

There was a time, not long ago, when most people thought that the rise of the internet (and later social media) would bring us all closer together. We were heading to a wonderous future where open, unfettered communication would illuminate the truth, eliminate confusion, and terminate misunderstandings whose roots were in a lack of information. It would be the end of information gatekeeping, the end of lies, the end of false narratives being promulgated.

Only now do people begin to realize how naive those predictions really were.

It turns out that human beings are really bad and dealing with information that goes against their established views. Rather than accepting truths that contradict their presumptions about reality, they will instead attempt to remake reality in order to fit their view.

In hindsight, maybe this should have been obvious.

Lurker21 said...

Very ... uh ... imaginative.

Isn't it what Marshall McLuhan was driving at 50 years ago? The global village?

He wasn't that hostile to it, and as a convert to Catholicism, he probably wouldn't appreciate dissing the Middle Ages.

Unknown said...

There's a whole subgenre of SF where future societies live in the ruins of a technical civilization with no idea how the (nigh-indestructible) tech works.

Van Vogt's "Empire of the Atom" setting comes to mind immediately (best read in the Baen edition that collects the original stories, not the "fixup" novel version) as does Gillman's The Rebel Of Rhada.

Lucid-Ideas said...

Btw, I'm sure some of you have either seen or heard about that big Greta mural in SF. Did you hear that they're having to divert police resources and put up security cameras already to keep it from being vandalized?

All of this so that they can protect this 'Putinesque' visage of this usurped false savior child looking down on them is disgust. The idea that even in SF there are people so disgusted they're willing to 'tag' this trash does give me some hope. Not much but a little.

Lewis Wetzel said...

So much neuroses and drama!
I do email & a messaging app. I have a Facebook account, but I only use it to contact friends & make an occasional joke.
Social media is opt-in. Don't opt-in if you don't like it.

Unknown said...

Coming at it from the other side, is the SF subgenre where medieval humans (or aliens) first come into contact with high tech civilization, and procede, successfully, to stick the aliens with swords. One of the best here is Anderson's The High Crusade.

rehajm said...

Even their view of Hell is too romantic. Woody Allen's Hell is more like it...Harry goes to Hell.

Rabel said...

Is this about the Hobbit that just announced a run for President?

No? Well as long as there are plenty of hot elven women in the future, I'm good.

The cyberpunk girls always looked kind of smelly to me.

J Scott said...

Gibson's cyberpunk future was dystopian. And yes, "digital feudalism" was exactly what Gibson writes about.

Unknown said...

For empowering cyberpunk, see John Brunner's Shockwave Rider. He passed all too soon..

(Not that he couldn't do gloomy!)

stlcdr said...

Smart phones don't make you smart.

Robert Edick said...

Another good short read with relevance for today is "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster.

Lance said...

Max Read hasn't read William Gibson very carefully. Gibson's main characters represent a tiny minority of the population. For the remaining inhabitants of Gibson's future, technology IS magic, just as Read describes.

Unknown said...

Now if you want gloomy worse-than-smartphone futures check out Thrilling Wonder Stories February 1950 issue, and search for all caps "SPECTATOR SPORT" to read John D. (Travis McGee) McDonald's "Spectator Sport". Gave me the willies when I was 12 worse than any other story I ever read.

Bilwick said...

Well, "liberals" should prefer the Tolkien world, since so many of their beliefs are based on magical thinking.

Clyde said...

"teenage visionary"? :eyeroll:

Jeff said...

The vast majority of people in Gibson's novels do nothing but hook up to various simulations and spend all their time experiencing the life of their chosen character in the sim. Entirely passive. Kinda like surfing the net.
Only a small number of people matter in the novels. The vast majority do not.

Jeff said...

So I just repeated what Lance said. I should really read all the comments before jumping in. Sorry.

Unknown said...

the SF subgenre where medieval humans (or aliens) first come into contact with high tech civilization, and procede, successfully, to stick the aliens with swords

I thought it was Mac Powerbooks, not swords, but close enough.

rcocean said...

I thought the internet would free us from the shackles of the gatekeepers and the Corporate death-grip on our culture and politics. I thought it would be freedom. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Little did i know that people would WANT to herd themselves into the Facebook/Youtube/Google corral and see and hear only what the new Internet Overlords wanted them to hear.

Rick.T. said...

Elon Musk says holding a smart phone already makes us cyborg 1.0. Improve the interface and the upload/download speeds in the next few years and we are there.

Phidippus said...

Are visitors to Hell allowed to tickle the toes of the damned or is contact with the inmates forbidden?

That cat on the right looks sorely tempted. Temptation is where it all starts, you know.

buwaya said...

"the SF subgenre where medieval humans (or aliens) first come into contact with high tech civilization, and procede, successfully, to stick the aliens with swords"

It wasn't a genre really, it was just a short novel by Poul Anderson - "The High Crusade"

buwaya said...

Van Vogt's "Empire of the Atom"

Mixed quality there. The first part where Van Vogt hewed closer to Robert Graves is actually quite good, a wild take on future history and better Van Vogt than is usual. Later it breaks down.

Don't bother with the sequel, "The Wizard of Lynn", unless you are a fan and will read anything.

Birkel said...

But Hillary lost in 2016 so dystopia pushed a decade or more into the future.

Unknown said...

It wasn't a genre really, it was just a short novel by Poul Anderson - "The High Crusade"

There are a few other entries that come to mind. P. K. Lentz's "Scythian Dawn" series for instance, and David Drake's Ranks Of Bronze.

If you haven't seen this site, it has a (claimed) complete listing of Van Vogt's work with downloadable ebook versions for almost everything (legal or no? It's in apparently in France so nobody here is likely to mess with it..). Notably it does *not* have the Empire of the Atom stories, which the site owner considers silly (and in print recently enough that they might be prolematic). As I said however, I find the complete stories as published recently by Baen under the title Transgalactic (iirc) superior to the novelized versions which eventually became the fixups The Empire of the Atom and The Wizard of Linn: Lots of cogent pity observations on life along with some of the wildest VV weirdness (ie: being able to reach inside a miniature of *our* universe..).

Ken B said...

That was the most enjoyable article I have read in weeks.

narciso said...

how accurate was Gibson anyways, oculus, which is the practical application of virtual reality, will likely only have a niche audience, he predicted a cold war with the soviets probably continuing into the latter half of the 21st century,

Ken B said...

Ernest Prole is right.

We need a new word, and I am creating it: mobling. The plural of mobling is mob.

Ken B said...

Fascinating how many here did not get the irony. Clyde for instance.

Marc said...

I don't know if I will read any of the short stories or novels, but Ray's synopses and commentary at Prospero's Isle on the Van Vogt oeuvre are themselves entertaining.

An average-bloke kind of guy enters a mysterious gun-shop that has suddenly appeared in town (and which no one else has actually been able to enter) and finds himself in the midst of a civil war seven thousand years into the future. And that is just for starters-- colossal energy forces and time swings also come into play.
There is a curiously modern-American feel to the central motif of gun-shops as a refuge against the tyrannical tendencies of central bureaucracies: the omnipresent slogan that we are introduced to on the first page is « THE RIGHT TO BUY WEAPONS IS THE RIGHT TO BE FREE ». The civil-war theme that is central to the [The Seesaw, 1941] story is a recurrent one in much of van Vogt’s later (not always very successful, moreover) work.

Nichevo said...


Very ... uh ... imaginative.

Isn't it what Marshall McLuhan was driving at 50 years ago? The global village?

He wasn't that hostile to it, and as a convert to Catholicism, he probably wouldn't appreciate dissing the Middle Ages.

At contraire, McLuhan (a devout Catholic as you say) saw the media future, and he thought it a vision of Hell.

narciso said...

as usual they missed the point they were trying to make, the internet was a renaissance, that broke away from the feudal media/govt combine, that has prevailed since the 70s, now with google yahoo and twitter, serving as gatekeepers, we are returning to that global structure, the metaphor is guttenberg, breaking the church monopoly on publishing,

Lurker21 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lurker21 said...


Nichevo said...

At contraire, McLuhan (a devout Catholic as you say) saw the media future, and he thought it a vision of Hell.


You're right that McLuhan wasn't the unqualified enthusiast for new technology that many people thought him to be in the Sixties. He said in interviews that he hated the developments that he described.

But my recollection is that he didn't write that way in his books. He wasn't writing Luddite jeremiads or screeds against technology. He was trying to be more objective, analytical and descriptive.

And his work did touch off a great enthusiasm for new media and new technologies. Was that wholly something of the public's own that people read into his books, or was there something in his works that they were picking up on, maybe some ambivalence that he was unaware of (or was aware of but wouldn't admit publicly)?

Maybe his enthusiasm for his own ideas was read by others as enthusiasm for what was happening in society. Maybe his mind or faith went one way and his emotions the other. Maybe he hated the new age but recognized that the old was already gone. Maybe he was toying with his public in the books or in the interviewers.

It's possible that, in McLuhan's generation, an old school British or Canadian or Catholic convert could write in absolute horror of what modernity was bringing but be read by the public as an enthusiast for those changes, because his values weren't those of the larger public. It's possible, that like many intellectuals he was intrigued by and even a little bit attracted to the abyss or apocalypse that he feared and deplored. It's even possible that as a Catholic, the notion that the age of Gutenberg (and Luther) had come to an end wasn't entirely unattractive to him, though it meant the end of all that he had come to believe in and live by.

I don't know. I wasn't inside his head and can't pull him out from behind a poster, like in the movie. But I would say that he was a complicated guy. Not the enthusiast for new technologies and new media that many believe he was, but also not as much of a naysayer as he might have wanted people to believe.

Nichevo said...

But my recollection is that he didn't write that way in his books. He wasn't writing Luddite jeremiads or screeds against technology. He was trying to be more objective, analytical and descriptive.


Agreed-nothing to add to your fine post.