Favourite books series: Neuromancer

In 1984, William Gibson’s Neuromancer became the defining novel of the emerging cyberpunk genre. It also gave the world one of science fiction’s most often quoted, referenced and spoofed opening sentences:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Set in a dystopian, technologically advanced, darkly urban future, Neuromancer was one of the earliest works of fiction to portray an edgy world of cyber criminals, virtual realities of globally networked data and neural computer implants. It introduced the term “cyberspace” into popular use.

Yet, like all futuristic science fiction, it was not really about the future but about its own time.

In the early 1980s, personal computers were beginning their ingress into regular people’s homes, running basic book-keeping programs and low-res games. Sharing information over a globally interconnected network of computers was still a decade away for the average user, though government and financial institutions have been sending data using packet switch networks since the 60′s.

Rapid technological change was happening just far enough on the margins of everyday lives to be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. To the techie types and to many readers of science fiction, the implications of this were mind-blowing and cool. Also cool was black leather and mirror shades.

And so the novel sets the scene for the technologically advanced seedy future underworld by comparing the sky above the Sprawl megapolis to the static noise of analogue television. The current generation of kids reading Neuromancer for the first time is most likely to interpret this to mean that the sky was a bright flat expanse of blue. The next generation may be confused by the “dead channel” reference: does that mean its content hasn’t been updated for a while? The evocative impact of “television” itself will lose all semblance to a pertinent metaphor for the latest technology invading our homes, and will instead become part of the lore of a quaint society that had no control over the timing, structure and content of its own entertainment.

It is unfairly limiting to talk about this novel (or any other novel) in terms of its opening sentence alone, though that sentence may highlight its groundbreaking prescience at the same time as rooting it in its own technological era. No matter. This mosaic is about that sentence.

The Sprawl urban landscape mosaic

It grew around the sky the color of television tuned to a dead channel. Around that sky, I wanted to give just a hint of the Sprawl – the urban metropolis stretching along most of the east coast of US from Boston to Atlanta.

I struggled with this mosaic and laid it aside for a long time after filling in the sky. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what the Sprawl should look like.

Now that I finally forced myself to finish it, I am much happier with the result than I ever thought possible. The Sprawl looks like an 80′s idea of a futuristic city. It looks like a low-res graphic on the coolest gaming console you wish you owned. As visions of the future interpreted in an archaic medium of mosaic go, it looks just right.

Fragments of books: The Rational Optimist

The Rational OptimistI don’t want to give you the impression that I only read books with “optimist” in the title, but this was another great one that I wanted to share.

For me, the appeal of books that take an optimistic stance on humanity’s current conditions and future prospects is in the suggestions of positive directions to take. The benefit of learning about the promising options available – rather than the ways in which we are messing things up – is encapsulated in this statement from The Rational Optimist: “If you teach children that things can only get worse, they will do less to make it untrue.”

In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley presents a compelling argument for the role of specialization and trade in enabling the evolution of technology and the remarkable increases in human prosperity. He demonstrates how vast improvements in living standards over the ages and across the globe can only be expected to continue, as long as commerce and innovation remain unrestricted.

Presenting the reader with a historical overview – from the Stone Age to the 21st century – of the state of technology, prosperity, morals, health, and the environment, The Rational Optimist shows how in every age innovation and technological progress resulted in finding solutions to problems that previous generations thought insurmountable, and in improving the quality of life of a great number of people along the way.

Remaining optimistic even about such tough issues as the future economic prosperity of African nations and the potential outcomes of climate change, Matt Ridley argues that slowing economic progress today in order to mitigate probable future harm would be detrimental to humanity’s prospects, and that letting innovation and economic growth take their course is the only means to ensure continuing decreases in human misery, famine and ecological degradation.

The Rational Optimist‘s narrative style is slightly more academic than is typical of many popular science books today, and dry rather than humorous. Matt Ridley presents his arguments persuasively, forcefully, often sternly. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating, stunningly insightful read, vitally relevant to an understanding of the dynamics of technological evolution and human prosperity, and I highly recommend it.

Fragments of books: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future

To understand how much I enjoyed Mark Stevenson‘s An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, the first thing you need to know is that after I borrowed it from the library and read it, I went out and bought a copy and read it again just four months later. In my life as an unstoppable devourer of literature, this was a first. Usually a couple of years pass before I re-read even the most beloved of books, since my reading lists are so long that they give birth to baby-reading lists who in turn have baby-readings lists of their own in the time that it takes me to get through them.

Cover art for Optimist's Tour of the Future

Of all the cool things described in this book, there is not one word about jetpacks. Why they put one on the cover, I might never know.

However, a few aspects of An Optimist’s Tour proved completely irresistible and demanded an immediate re-read.

First, the number of new scientific ideas and emergent technologies that are described, accessibly and engagingly in this book, is incredible. Did you know there are several different research groups who’ve successfully created genetically engineered bacteria that consume waste CO2 and excrete fuel, such as diesel or ethanol? Or that an AI has learned not only how to derive new scientific laws, given a bunch of raw data, but also how to explain the meaning of the results it found to its creators?

None of the ideas in the book are hypothetical. In the course of writing it, Mark Stevenson visited (a very impressive roster of) research labs and startups that have conducted successful experiments with and built working prototypes of some mind-blowing technologies. From flexible solar film printed quickly and cheaply in big rolls on a former photographic printer, to nano-coating which can protect anything from clothes to monuments from weathering and dirt, the stuff of science fiction is being made manifest  today in laboratories around the world.

The second aspect that makes An Optimist’s Tour of the Future such an enjoyable read, is how damned optimistic it is. In startling contrast to most books dealing with the subject of the near future, this one maintains an unwaveringly positive outlook about the success of and the possibilities offered by these nascent technologies. Lucidly and rationally, (but often excitedly, because it’s going to be so bloody cool when it ramps up and really gets going), Stevenson explains the potential of each technology to transform the lives of individuals, societies, and the planet for the better.

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