Twenty years, or even a decade ago, could we have predicted the rise in influence of our digital presence on our physical and social world? In the 80’s and 90’s, computer technology was still basically treated like magic by Hollywood, which painted the casual understanding of the public. So, who then could have predicted the influence of the collective unconscious of the virtual communities that exist now?
Apparently, novelist William Gibson could.
Gibson’s Idoru imagined the social (media) world as we are living with almost impossible accuracy. William Gibson essentially created the genre now known as cyberpunk, and while Idoru is nowhere near as expansive as his other works like Neuromancer, it presents a view of Internet-based social influence that makes this book worth a revisit despite its first publication nearly 20 years ago.
Idoru is the story of Colin Laney, a man whose ability to track nodal points, or convergent patterns of data, makes him a popular consultant, but also puts his life in danger. He’s hired to do work in the entertainment business, where famous rockstar Rez is madly in love with an Idoru, Rei, an entirely synthetic Japanese pop star. The organization has recruited Laney to monitor Rez to ensure that his intent to marry the AI construct is not the manipulation of a potentially dangerous third party.
Idoru is also the story of Chia Pet McKenzie, a teenage girl on the same mission, sent to Tokyo by the Seattle chapter of the Lo/Rez fan club. Chia becomes embroiled with the Russian mafia and a plot to smuggle nanotechnology, and, left without the aid of the Tokyo fan club, must seek the help of an apathetic otaku who belongs to a monastic hacker conclave known as Walled City.
As the novel comes to a head, the union between Rez and Rei seems to be wholly their own doing, but it doesn’t stop the present danger for Laney and Chia, nor the ripples of influence that their unique relationship has on the entire Net.
Gibson’s novel is a lush vision and readers are fully immersed in the postmodern cybernetic sprawl from the get-go. The virtual worlds that he creates within Idoru are intricately detailed. Unlike the goggles that Chia uses to jack into the Net, we get to plug right into the system.
The butterfly effect is in full swing as the actions of any character or construct ripple across these virtual realms to create points of convergence, and the ability to wield such influence is an indication of power in Idoru. One of the things I love most about a novel is when an author is able to present several lines of interest and draw them all together by the end, much like Laney’s nodal points, which Gibson accomplishes.
Idoru is a little corporate dystopia, a little action, and a little rock and roll, which is a great recipe for cyberpunk at its finest.
Not So Much
Idoru is also somewhat of a letdown after Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy. It prides style over substance, placing a higher priority on the crafting a detailed world than on telling an engaging story. The power of digital influence or even actual mafia dudes with guns fail to instill real fear and are ultimately negligible dangers. Because of this, the climax felt like rushing headlong off a cliff only to find out there were only a few feet to fall. Buildup, buildup, and then “oh” and a head nod when it turns out there is no succinct punch line. There didn’t seem to be any gravity to the danger that characters faced; the threat wasn’t overcome so much as it was dissolved.
I wouldn’t recommend Idoru as anyone’s first Gibson novel, although it is a worthy eventual read once a reader has established familiarity with his recurring themes. What Idoru does best is present a postmodern vision and beg a few important questions about influence and the Net.
How Soon is Now?
As relevant as Idoru‘s questions were in 1996 with the mere emergence of the Internet, the age of social media has dawned and it is fascinating to me to see the compatibility of Gibson’s vision with the actual and virtual realities we face today. Art reflects life, which in turn reflects art, creating a continuous funhouse mirror of influence. But our online lives have the same presence and pressure as our offline lives.
I credit the influence of social media sites with changing the tide of public opinion on many social and political issues. It’s not just the spread of information with the Internet, but a dissolution of privacy, which means the spread of influence and social pressure. For instance, without Facebook and Twitter, I’m not sure that the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or the federal recognition of same-sex marriage rights would have come about yet.
While we have not yet reached the point of physically jacking into the Internet like Chia does using her goggles and her custom tribal laptop computer, the ability to access the web on portable devices makes it a constant physical presence in our life. The integration has already taken place.
Where do our virtual worlds exist? The story of gamers so sucked into MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) like World of Warcraft that they begin to disappear from real life are not just urban legends. The novel’s Walled City, a conclave of hackers and otaku that have given up corporeal presence to focus on a digital one, is accurately reflected in those with “online gaming addictions” and Japan’s hikikomori youth crisis. People who meet in MMORPGs like WoW and Everquest have even gotten married (in real life and within the game). To say that these digital worlds do not carry over into ours would be silly, but one could even go further and say that, like in Idoru, the virtual worlds are one in the same with our physical world. Because of their social nature, they are not just a game, or even an extension of our corporeal life, but a part of it.
Idoru also explores the physical enacting of digital vigilantism. In Idoru, we see Chia acting as an agent of the Lo/Rez fan club. This is a fan club that meets in a virtual room of the Net, similar to the digital communities of our day and age, but their strong emotions for rocker Rez are put into motion in the physical world.
Sharing and influence have given an avenue of power to Anonymous and WikiLeaks, who work towards the removal and exposure of government actions. Don’t forget the internet vigilantism. Redditors, and members of Digg, and 4chan message boards have banded together internationally to find and punish the perpetrators of moral crimes such as animal and child abuse. I’m not sure whether or not they can be considered champions of justice. They are as clandestine as they are wide-reaching and their methods include public shaming and extreme levels of harassment. But in the digital age, it is impossible to ever completely hide.
Another interesting point of discussion is how digital influence is wielded. What the organization that hires Laney fears the most is that the Rez/Rei union would create a widespread effect throughout the world that they would be helpless to control and unable to use.
Today the tracking of social influence is all-important to big business, from the use of social media to gain customers and trust to the sudden rush to track SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Websites like Klout have become necessary to track personal, digital, and social media influence because it is necessary to understand and use digital power in real life professional and social functions.
Gibson’s novel suggests the goal of mega-corporations will become to analyze and utilize Internet influence as a currency. In our future, individuals like Laney really could be hired to track nodal points. Social scores could affect college admissions and housing loans, just as they have begun to affect jobs now.
From its publication in 1996, Gibson’s Idoru has looked to our future and predicted evolutions of internet culture that have become real.
“Laney’s node-spotter function is some sort of metaphor for whatever it is that I actually do. There are bits of the literal future right here, right now, if you know how to look for them. Although I can’t tell you how; it’s a non-rational process.”
—William Gibson, August 1999.
What works of science fiction do you find most prophetic? Post a comment here or on our Facebook page!