When I saw a recent piece about success implanting a worm’s brain into a Lego robot, I immediately thought of William Gibson’s most recent novel, The Peripheral. Placed simultaneously in the near future and another one 70 years further away, characters traverse the time gap dropping into low-fi or high-fi versions of that Lego robot.
I’ve always enjoyed Gibson’s obvious interest in the ironies that emerge when physical bodies blend into virtual realities. Gibson’s brand of virtual reality is never disengaged from a suffering body. A common complaint among characters in The Peripheral, and his earlier novel Pattern Recognition, is jet lag. One of the many clever conceits in The Peripheral is that traveling back or forward in time, to another point on the space/time continuum, can only be done in real time, in different time zones, in a persistent world ticking its way to different versions of the future.
In Gibson’s cyberpunk extrapolations, technologies that seem miraculous in our present moment always reflect the inconvenient limits of human capacity. In the distant future of The Peripheral, the supercomputer that allows the wealthiest hobbyists to fiddle with people’s real lives in the past is of unknown provenance. No one seems to know how it works or who created it, though everyone presumes it’s Chinese.
Likewise no one knows how an extremely powerful predictive algorithm that aids police in preventing crimes works – apparently because it’s self-taught and no one kept track of its accumulation of datasets. When “the Aunties,” as the system is called, makes a prediction, it has the taint of mindless unscientific human gossip. It’s the gut instinct gone hyperdigital.
Not surprisingly, in both futures in The Peripheral, an intense surveillance and encryption arms race rages on. No matter where you may be virtually embodied – in an iPad attached to a Segue, or to a hyperreal biological robot – extraordinary levels of omnipresence and invisibility are both possible, and impossible, as global armies of hackers constantly one up one another.
After our brains can be uploaded, how will we choose to be embodied? More importantly, what on earth will we wear?
I was so happy to see that Gibson’s abiding interest in fashion is on full display in The Peripheral. Like Cayce, the heroine in Pattern Recognition, Gibson seems to have a hypersensitivity to the complex material dynamics of fashion, including textiles, patterns, silhouette, logos and the underlying messages within. Our dearly departed Alexander McQueen would no doubt relish the sepulchral quality of this luxurious outfit:
She was enfolded, or encased, depending, in a Napoleonic greatcoat apparently rendered in soot- stained white marble. When she was still, it looked like sculpted stone. When she moved, it flowed like silk.
This character, Ash, also uses the surface of her body to articulate her politics – including her lifelong mourning for all the species lost to radical climate change. I suspect I’m not the only one who would go see the film version of this book just to see her skittish tattoos of extinct species scrambling across her body (they often hide under her fabulous clothes when strangers enter the room).
Gibson seems to be a huge fan of the artisanal, which occupies a special place in the age of mechanical reproduction, as Benjamin would put it. But in the high-tech future of simulacra that Gibson imagines, anything “handmade” has an even more profound, other-worldly value. In the more distant future of The Peripheral, exquisite clothes made by real human hands are extraordinarily decadent because machines, and peripherals inhabited by humans, perform such meticulous work.
Who knows, but perhaps Gibson’s suggesting that a lucrative market awaits those ingenious Italian and French embroiderers and beaders who often worry that their trade will disappear in an era of mechanization and fast fashion. Regardless, I have to agree with Gibson’s general sentiment that material objects, especially fragile human bodies, are bound to acquire an even more highly charged status in a future where brains can be uploaded to all manner of machines.