The Spectacle of Disintegration: Lessons from a Peripheral Utopia
By Paul Graham RavenOctober 27, 2014
The Peripheral by William Gibson
IF YOU ALREADY know one thing about The Peripheral, it’s that William Gibson’s new novel sees him go back to the future. And not to just one future, but two — although one of those futures is the future of the other future, if you see what I mean.
Let’s start closest to home: the nearer of the two futures is set in a rural county in what I take to be Alabama. Temporally, it’s not too distant from the present we inhabit at time of writing; a decade down the line in technological terms, perhaps, maybe 15 years at most. The country serves as a figure for the implied economic decline of the wider US, and by implication the world: the local economy consists of a handful of big-barn retail outlets, fast-food franchises, and 3D print-shops coming a distant and meagre second to the “builders”, who don’t build homes but bootleg pharmacologicals. Our viewpoint here is Flynne, a sometime waitress turned freelance player of games; sometimes wealthy men pay Flynne (and others like her) to control one of their units or soldiers in massively multiplayer games, hiring in her expertise to supplement their lack and take the prize money, some of which makes it back to Flynne. Not much of it, you get the impression, but better than nothing, and — so far as Flynne’s concerned — better than the alternatives.
There’s been a war somewhere in the Far East between the reader’s time and these character’s, which is where Flynne’s brother Burton and some of his buddies saw action, and paid the usual prices for their survival. There’s clearly still an internet, though not much is left in the way of what we more properly call the Web. There’s only one state-sanctioned social network (“Badger”), and anything remotely technological, like 3D printing, is watched over from a far by the unblinking eye of Homes — Homeland Security, to their faces. But even out in the boonies, a person like Flynne can get her hands on a powerful flexible phone on which to do her gaming, so long as she doesn’t mind buying illegal bootlegs fabbed off by her friend Macon; Burton and company also use their phones to pilot a collection of ostensibly domestic drones. Flynne’s world is a backwater, where news of the wider world rarely filters down, and rarely bodes well when it does. There’s not much going on, in every sense of the phrase. At least not on the surface, anyway.
The further future, on the other hand, is another seven decades on from Flynne’s, somewhere just around the turn of the next century, perhaps. (We get few exact dates, but we do get a fairly clear statement of the gap.) In this world, a post-climate-change London is studded with nanotech-powered buildings that suck carbon from the skies, newly be-ribboned with its once-lost rivers, now deculverted and covered with glass, and lit by turbines sucking energy from the flow. Virtual reality and telepresence have developed to the point where one’s phone is a neural implant, operated largely by thought and a bit of dexterous tonguework, where one can overlay video feeds and filters on one’s own vision, and through which one can — for the right price — slip into physical avatar bodies of almost any kind, from the crudely but powerfully robotic, from bioengineered animatronic oddities like “drop bears” to nigh-perfect biological reproductions of human beings lacking only a mind of their own, that they might better accommodate the mind of another. It’s a world where people can walk through walls, conjure destruction and healing from thin air with a mere gesture, and see and hear anything and everything they want to, if they’ve the right connections. It’s a world where nigh-magical technology is finally beating back climate change.
Seen from Flynne’s point of vantage, though, the bad news is that 80% of the human population of the planet died off in the interim, during a global holocaust of heavy weather, socioeconomic collapse, and multiple drug-resistant pandemics which is referred to obliquely by the survivors as “the jackpot”, when they refer to it at all.
Gibson links these two futures by deploying a classic science-fictional trope, but with a cyberpunk’s twist. A two-way wormhole connects the two times, but this is no handwavium stargate through which characters, materiel, and maguffins might pass as they choose; it’s strictly data only, albeit with plentiful bandwidth. It is through this connection that Burton has been providing drone-operator services for clients unknown, believing himself to be beta-testing some experimental games platform for a company called Milagros Coldiron, out of Colombia. Burton takes a few evenings off, handing over drone-op duties to his sister Flynne, but without telling his employers. Flynne spends a few evenings dogfighting little paparazzi bugs in what she assumes to be some sci-fi gameworld’s version of London, until she witnesses what will later be confirmed as an act of murder-by-nanoassembler (or disassembler, rather).
Our viewpoint character in the further future is Wilf Netherton, a publicist (or professional liar, by his own admission) working for Daedra, a celebrity-cum-performance-artist with whom he has a brief fling mere days before the dramatic failure of her latest high-profile media event, leaving him not just unemployed but caught up in the wheels of a much larger game with far higher stakes. Fortunately he’s acquainted with Lev, the black sheep son of a powerful Russian klept, who has a Bigendian interest in the acquiring of novelties; it was Lev who first got into “stubs”, which is how continua enthusiasts like himself refer to the pasts which they access remotely and illicitly, through protocols they claim to neither understand or control, via a mysterious (and satisfyingly unexplained) server somewhere in China. And it was Wilf that gifted the novelty of Burton’s services as drone-operator to Daedra, though, thus leading Flynne to witness the assassination and triggering a back-lot conflict which plays out as a techno-economic proxy war fought between two largely unseen powers using a past reality as gameboard, with its inhabitants acting as pawns.
It’s not as complex as it might sound, really; you’ll be no more confused than the characters, at any rate (which is the whole point, after all). Besides that wormhole plot engine, The Peripheral is standard Gibson, in the older and more positive sense of the term “standard” – suggesting a benchmark of quality, certainly, but also that trustworthy familiarity of form that accrues to any consistently reliable brand. But this depiction of two connected futures instead of just one is unique in Gibson’s work thus far, and it might prove of interest to see what this new strategy allows him to say about futurity itself.
In modern English usage, we’re most likely to deploy the word peripheral as a common noun, in reference to any type of accessory device or gadget which attaches to another device in order to control or be controlled by it. This is the sense in which it is the name given by the further future to the physical avatars through which they sometimes experience their world, but for them peripheral – or peri – covers everything from a crude manipulator robot to the almost superhuman beings created for the wealthy to wear, in replica of famous or not-so-famous beauties or athletes. They are all essentially dumb matter, technological appendages existing only to be controlled by cloud AI routines, or the telepresent mind of whosoever should choose to rent or own them. They are not slaves, unless you regard algorithms as having personhood; they are not persons. They are drones – or rather, they are one possible end-point for the evolution of the things we now call drones.
The less frequent usage is the adjectival: the peripheral is that which is located at or near the periphery. The peripheral are the marginalized, then, the people on the edge and at the edges — people like Flynne and her brother and friends, trapped in a dead pocket of a moribund economy in a world that, from what little of it we get to see, is spiralling rapidly toward the jackpot from the other temporal side. Their only economic viability lies in pioneering the role of the peripherals of the further future: being paid by people wealthy enough to gamble on multiplayer wargames, but too time-poor to train themselves to win. Flynne’s brother Burton doubles down on this figuration, in that he was a member of Haptic Recon One — “first in, last out” — an elite Marines unit who were wired up with remote-controlled augmentations for stealthy missions and close-quarters mayhem. Burton and his fellow Haptics were peripherals for the powerful, meat-machine appendages designed to do the dirty work of death and dying. Unlike the peripherals of the further future, however, they possessed minds and personhood. Rather inconvenient for everyone involved, but especially so for them.
Gibson traces out the conflation and merging of these two meanings clearly, as when Flynne recalls someone having said that Burton himself “had been a sort of drone” when he was in the Corp. In doing so, Gibson gestures toward the lacuna that sours what might otherwise be a utopian-seeming future: the peripheral have been supplanted by peripherals. This isn’t strictly true, of course, because when there’s no one at the periphery, the periphery moves inwards. As an incurable malcontent, Wilf is something of a peripheral in his world; so is Ash, Lev’s technical fixer, who is among a post-Goth subculture who quite literally wear their generational guilt over the destruction of the majority of Earth’s living species like Victorian widow’s weeds — albeit with the decidedly less Victorian addition of fully animated tattoos of said extinct species. Elsewhere, the barely glimpsed posthuman “neoprimitives” have tried to make themselves socially peripheral through elective mutations, living backward lifestyles out in the places that didn’t manage to make London’s transition. But there are no people on the edge in the further future; once they stopped being useful or interesting, the peripheral disappeared from view and expired. Now machines fill their roles.
In The Spectacle of Disintegration, McKenzie Wark deploys the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre — the now-famous vortex of plastic crap a-swirl at the centre of the ocean — as a figure for what he calls the disintegrating spectacle, “in which the spectator gets to watch the withering away of the old order, ground down to near-nothingness by its own steady divergence from any apprehension of itself”, resulting in a state (and perhaps also a State) which, as Wark quotes Guy Debord as saying, “can no longer be led strategically.” The Gyre also appears near the beginning of The Peripheral, as the stage for Daedra’s disastrous intervention, but here it has been populated by refusenik neoprimitives granted the rights to the “land” in exchange for cleaning the water column, the detritus from which they have used to construct baroque plastic ghost-cities.
Later, Wark cites Spook Country as evidence that Gibson “intuits something central [...] to Situationist experience, if not its theory: that the spectacle of appearances has another side.” The dominant logic of the spectacle is that that which is good appears, and that which appears is good; Gibson realises that “that which is concealed is better. And for no other reason than that it is concealed.” As Hubertus Bigend from Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy – supposedly the son of a minor Situationist, remember — understands, “the secret is to the spectacle as art once was to culture. The secret is not the truth of the spectacle, it is the aesthetic form of the spectacle.”
We can follow this line of logic through to the further future of The Peripheral, where the disintegrating spectacle’s triumph is total. This is a world where entire past realities, and all the lives they contain, are just colonialist game environments, “a wealthy obsessive’s hobby set”; where the entirety of Cheapside is a designated cosplay zone devoted to a nostalgic Victoriana; where what Flynne still just about thinks of as reality television long ago “merged with politics. Then with performance art.” The path to just such a future stretches forward from our feet, and likely passes through a nearer future much like Flynne’s — one that continues a spectacular trajectory of erasure and normalization, of the exchanging of the peripheral for peripherals, the replacement of people with robots. And it’s not technology alone that has wrought this transformation — at least, not only technology in the limited sense of new inventions, devices, and materials. On the contrary, the jackpot was as much wrought by the inadequacies of the technologies of politics and economics, as by any inadequacy or misdirection of more strictly technical innovations — although those two causes are starting to look rather intimately related, even now. The disintegrating spectacle spins on.
So The Peripheral would make for grim prophecy, were it not for Gibson’s steadfast refusal of the sci-fi prophet’s mantle and his insistence that, if a science fiction is “about” anything, it is about the time in which it is written, rather than the time in which it is set. This refusal of the aspirational utopian mode stands in sharp contrast to the recent Neal Stephenson-helmed Project Hieroglyph (reviewed on LARB here), an attempt to resurrect and update the innovation-loving modality of Golden Age science fiction on the assumption that a lack of inspirational stories for scientists and engineers is the main reason we don’t yet have moon bases and flying cars. Stephenson’s refusal to accept an ever-more-diverse range of smartphone apps as indicative of progress is to be celebrated, but his hope that unfeasibly tall skyscrapers might be indicative of progress instead, less so; “progress” is among the most suspect of metanarratives, but the solutionist’s utopia can still only be realized through the building of novel material things.
Utopia and dystopia are always subjective evaluations, and they represent the ends of a spectrum rather than a Manichean dichotomy; they’re qualitative terms with which we categorize narratives of futurity, of which science fiction novels represent only one medium among many. However, it increasingly feels like these rich literary terms are being reduced to the equivalent of up-vote and down-vote buttons for futures — which would at least be in keeping with the seemingly relentless drive to enshrine Pareto-optimality as the governing principle of every human decision-making process, I suppose. If the most profound critique of a future we can muster is a statement as to whether we’d approve of it or not, the high-art gameshow-ification of politics as depicted in The Peripheral is presumably a fait accompli.
The technological utopia is out of fashion; the people have learned of late, to borrow a phrase from Gibson, to distrust that particular flavor, as it has come to be associated with the empty calories of investor-storytime in Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Meanwhile, the technological or post-climate-change dystopia reigns supreme in popular entertainment, and the backlash against panoptic capital continues unabated, if sporadically. Technologists wring their hands, like Doc Frankenstein spying the twinkle of flames on pitchfork tines down by the drawbridge; all they wanted was to build us a better world, and this is how we repay them?
And so the complex question of futurity thus becomes redrawn as a binary: either technology will save us, or technology will destroy us. The truth is that technology is as much a part of what we are as language — indeed, language was arguably the first true technology. And the Enlightenment assumption that we are somehow separate from our technologies is at the root of our failure to understand and manage their societal consequences. We have internalized the binary logic of our paradigmatic machines; we have mistaken our maps for the territory, our models for the system, time and time again. Adrift in the disintegrating spectacle, we mistake narratives of futurity for something akin to an advertisement: would you buy this, or not? Swipe left for yes, right for no.
It’s an understandable category error, really, given that the majority of the utopian and dystopian narratives of futurity to which we are exposed are exactly advertisements (or political manifestos, assuming you recognise that distinction). But we can read more carefully than that; take The Peripheral’s further future, for example. I like to think (or is it hope?) that only an oligarch could see it as a utopia, but it would be a mistake to categorize it as purely dystopian on that basis, not least because it achieves something that science fiction (let alone any other literary form) achieves rarely, if ever: namely, it portrays climate change not only as potentially world-ending, as a real and present existential risk, but also, crucially, as something survivable. And not mere species survival, either, with declining hominids scratching out a life among the ruins, but civilizational survival — a near-extinction event that nonetheless forces humankind to level-up its technological prowess at a ferocious pace and come out of the bottleneck better equipped than ever before. This is much rarer than you might think; when climate change appears in novels and movies as a genuine concern, it appears as a battle lost, or one in the losing. But here, technology has triumphed over the environment, and the further future has won — but only at the cost of most of its humans, and most of its humanity. It’s a bizarre post-disaster roadside picnic for the staggeringly rich, finally free of the burdensome plebian masses, like a spectacular fin-de-siecle cyberpunk remix of Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time, or some prematurely decadent precursor of Iain M. Banks’s The Culture which never managed to make it out of the gravity well. So it’s a victory, perhaps, but a rather pyrrhic one (unless you’re the aforementioned oligarch, or course): survival is achievable, but at what cost?
Due to its relative immediacy (and, sad to say, its plausibility), The Peripheral’s nearer future is easily seen as a stand-in for, not to mention extrapolation of, the dystopia that many of us currently find ourselves inhabiting, and as such we identify with the challenge facing Flynne and her friends, as they attempt to steer away from the strange attractor of the jackpot by diffusing new ideas and technologies passed back to them from beyond it. For them, the further future is neither utopia or dystopia, but encouragement and caution at once — encouragement, because they’ve seen that the downward spiral might be survived, and caution, because they’ve seen the cost of getting it wrong, up close and personal. They know that technology may be necessary for a better futurity, but that technology will never be sufficient for it.
And, who knows — perhaps we might learn to face our own further future with a similar wisdom, mindful that while technology might ultimately fix our environment, it can never fix our relationships with that environment, or with one other, or indeed with technology itself. Gibson reminds us that, if we would have our futurity wear a human face, we must forever refuse the masque of the disintegrating spectacle.
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