Zero History: a William Gibson weekend

On Friday evening I listened to writer William Gibson (@greatdismal) read the opening chapter of his new book, Zero History. Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park was packed for the reading. Gibson invented the word "cyberspace" in 1984 in his epic first novel, Neuromancer, and inspired the genre known as cyberpunk. He's also alleged to be responsible for one of nearly everyone's favorite quotes, "the future is already here- it's just not evenly distributed."

When asked why he'd shifted his focus from writing about a dystopian future to writing about the present and recent past, Gibson described his work as a "toolkit to interrogate a constantly changing present." He described Twitter as the greatest aggregator of novelty ever invented. Gibson characters move through a cosmopolitan landscape where the future arrives early and travels in style. They carry iPhones and MacBooks, they lock tweets to communicate in private, examine history via YouTube, do pricing research on eBay; they've come to expect a dose of augmented reality and tend to be nonplussed by mind-bending brand marketing experiments that evoke the urgent fervor of religion.

Zero History became available last week, and during the ramp-up to its release, I collected some interesting reads by and about Gibson. On September 1, he was on the op-ed page of the New York Times, with a piece called Google's Earth. A much discussed Wall Street Journal interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt a couple weeks earlier was the jumping off point for Gibson's reflection on Google: "a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products" that renders us citizens without rights in its "post-geographical, post-national super-state."

The following day, as if in response, The Economist published "The future of the internet: A virtual counter-revolution", and identified three global forces threatening to "renationalize" the open internet: government, big IT, and network owners (telcos, cable operators, et al) who want the power to tier traffic, control content, and wall gardens for safety, fun, and profit.

My own float down that filtered stream of extraordinary novelty (Twitter) turned up several other interesting and interrelated reads about the future, speculative and imminent. The word "cyberspace" has been around little more than 25 years, but cyborg (short for cybernetic organism) is twice that old, invoked first in September 1960 to describe "the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space."

To celebrate 50 years of cyborgs, there's an aptly named tumblr blog, 50 Posts About Cyborgs, curated by a guy named Tim Maly (@doingitwrong). At Quiet Babylon, he blogs about cyborgs and architecture, and related topics like the burden of augmented reality, and the cognitive load of overstimulating urban environments. His posts are full of interesting links and rich context for many of the themes that Gibson explores, not just in Zero History, but in its two predecessors, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country.

Another Quiet Babylon link led me to a website called, an online magazine focused on "the people, places, and projects bringing a shareable world to life." I read a story called "The Guy who worked for Money," about reputation management, media, and social capital in the not too distant future.

Another link led me to an article in The Atlantic by Kio Stark, a professor at NYU's ITP program, "Stranger Studies 101: Cities as Interaction Machines. Stranger Studies is a class about urban culture and technology design. Stark teaches her students the value of talking to strangers, as a way of studying the people they will be creating tools and experiences for.

Looping back to Gibson, there's an interesting interview in a zine called Viceland (thanks for the pointer @scottros). Interviewer Jesse Pearson asks what the title Zero History means. Gibson explains that it refers to one of the key characters. Milgrim is a recovering addict who's lived for years without a credit card or phone number: a blank slate -- a guy with "zero history." He's kind of like one of those children of the future Eric Schmidt envisions, who should perhaps be allowed to trade in an old identity and dinged reputation for a new name when they come of age. Zero history.

Floating past me on Twitter this Monday morning, retweeted from a Google Quotes of the day gadget: "Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories." From Arthur C. Clarke, another generation's fiction futurist. Soylent Google, anyone?