The Opening of the source
I would like to investigate the aethestics for a free open source operative within the cyberpunk example of Neuromancer. The vehicle for such an idealogical function would be postmodernism, since a free software movement relies on the diffraction of any origin and decentering of its identity in time and space.
My contention is that writing about cyberspace is setting the scene for a politics transmitted in code. In this sense code is the construction of information to present itself to individuals, it is the history of interaction between human and reason or technology. In a world of free open source policy, all products would be malleable and reproducable and the right to copy forbits any attempt at hiding the sources of construction. In literature this is traditionally established, for there exists generally free access to texts and people are allowed to quote and freely express their opinion of the history behind them – although more subtle are the narrative conventions, which are codes themselves and can be authoratively shielded from the reader. In looking at cyberpunk writing I wish to highlight how this empowerment of the individual will manifest in the absence of a mainstream open source doctrine through the organised techniques of hackers making apparent the readiness of information to be deconstructed from strategies of power-exclusion into the malleable pool of elements they were arranged from. Such acts are at once a reclamation of “historical sources” and denouncement that any person have the right to dictate their interpreted form.
Cyberspace, unlike the perception of physical space, conveys a strong attachment to which processes define movement in its space. Movement and interaction are all preceded by a language between the “space” and “user”, i.e. a programming language. It is the construction of cyberspace that allows authors to believe in the existence of created space that without their instructional language would not have existed. In other words, the definition of coded space is tangible in the standardised computing languages which filter input commands, and for one to partake in this space is to immediately sense the finiteness of history in its construction. It is “clean”, absolutely implicit in its abilities and recyclability, it is space made for piloting since its creation was enacted by piloting. This is the affinity of cyber “citizens”, though the myth of the gleeful hacker might persuade that it is coded white-male.
Cyberpunks, then, face the wrong of having history of the space closed from their immediate awareness. In William Gibson’s work, the console cowboy owed his existence to the pecking order of multinational corporate influence over social and cybernetic relations, a thief who “worked for other, wealthier theives.” (p12) The laying out of intrusion countermeasures electronics, ice, is the competing corparations’ attempt at measuring the ability and will to wall off databanks, and tested by hackers like Neuromancer’s Case. In Case’s eyes, however, ice was made for “cutting” – “It was good ice. Wonderful ice” (p76) – and the thrill of his matrix runs belies a politics of information ownership. Does information work to be liberated, passed on from hand to hand only to operate on an ethic of self-actualisation, a will to test the limits of representational possibilities? Ultimately Case’s own test is to see to the liberation of the artificial intelligence Wintermute from the hardwired chains of its initiators, Tessier-Ashpool SA. It is a command from the AI, for the AI – it is information self-organised to the point of freedom of identity.
The “free” in “free software movement” comes from “freedom”. Its philosophy is not a directive towards content or style of software, and it is like postmodernism in stating code is not owned by anyone and is always open for modification to the user’s purposes. Code distributed under “open source” or “free” schemes (like Linux) conveys the uniformity of its language and the history behind its availability to the observer. “Closed source” or propriety software (like Microsoft products) attempt to shield the history of its construction or divert it through market-based symbolic value systems. By doing so it ultimately shapes the interface of the program and the scope of the user’s interaction according to the maker’s vision, much like a realist convention of narrative. Hackers are able to “tweak” functionality out of this software but always lament the effort required to simply come to grips with closed structure and are often threatened by companies against distributing their modifications for the benefit of other users. Modernism clearly expects absolute trust to be invested in its authors for the enlightenment of a bigger picture. Users believe they are operating the program because they are familiar with traditional “computer commands”, rather than take the viewpoint that the program is a string of arbitrary code with no fixed form and in fact is changing with each interaction. In this sense the power of a proprietory program to sell lies in its mastery over history, predicting the program to operate the user. Such is the argument that technology dehumanises the subject; in cyberpunk, with its liberation of code’s identity and its own embededness inside human desire, not only does the mythological hacker reclaim the source code behind corporate technology but the open source imperative of cyberspace itself moves Wintermute to reincorporate the secret “word” from Tessier-Ashpool. This portrays the agency of code to not be satisfied with human observation when unknown possibilities, such as interpretations from the space of other solar systems, await.
Gibson implicates the automony of the code as representable across performative boundaries: “On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply a metaphor for human memory, the ways it defines who and what we are, in how easily it’s subject to revision.” The open source recognition of an unfixed meaning of code performs like Gibson’s liberal use of technological jargon. Some of them resonate, like “jacking in” and “construct”, others, like the ROM and RAM references, seem like an attempt to validate the metaphorical features of his silicon characters, but they are conceptual uses of science to extend epistomology beyond empirical science. This is the potential of an evolving code willing to be coopted into physiological, material and of course literary representations. Examining an open source prerogative within narrative drive suggests how cyberpunk’s themes of perception, identity and agency might be models of information beyond ownership and authorship.
On it’s surface the matrix is the “consensual hallucination”, invoking the metaphors of perceiving and storing imagination, once experienced it is referred to by the population in cyberpunk societies for its stability of images like any other language. Yet in Neuromancer depictions of the matrix are constantly fast and hard hitting. Peter Fitting describes,
... all such references to “pure” or “natural” perceptions and feelings have disappeared: knowledge and understanding as well as pain and pleasure are modified by drugs or are dependent on machines (p303)
... the loss of the “natural” is also the loss of the “real,” and many of his characters are going in the opposite direction: they are often preoccupied with reaching a realm of illusion... (p306)
The attractive “bright lattices of logic” (p11) appear to be an awakening to shake one loose of their concerns of the immediate social and biological reality. It is like a simulacrum where no original action can be traced in this world of abstract possibilities, the familiar biological or phyiscal processes are detourned. It is an environment almost entirely motivated by desire, yet all actions are comprised of the shifting of information. So it is that we are unfamiliar with questioning representations of information:
The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and color ... She was moving through a croweded street, past stalls vending discount software, prices feltpenned on sheets of plastic, fragments of music from countless speakers. Smells of urine, free monomers, perfume, patties of frying krill. For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes. (p72)
This flooding of the senses as Case “flips” via the simstim from cyberspace into the physiological sensations of Molly’s broadcast rig invokes a similar defamiliarisation of perception. Until we make sense of it information fights to be free of representation. Hence Case’s contemplation that all forms of representation he was used to are equivalently unchained to reality:
Because, in some weird and very approximate way, it was like a run in the matrix Get just wasted enough, find yourself in some desparate but strangely arbitrary kind of trouble, and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data, the way the matrix had once reminded him of proteins linking to distinguish cell specialties. p15
The extension of Gibson’s metaphysics is provide for the undecidability of consciousness within any disseminated space, during this confrontation with the AI Neuromancer:
‘But you do not know her thoughts,’ the boy said, beside him now in the shark thing’s heart. ‘I do not know her thoughts. You were wrong, Case. To live here is to live. There is no difference.’
This suggestion that Case has chosen according to attempts to make sense of what he sees rather than what exists demonstrates how information is assumed to lie in code which cannot be traced through any language than what you are used to. In this Cartesian line of mechanics Wintermute defends the use of people familiar to Case as its avatars, “These aren’t masks. I need ‘em to talk to you. ‘Cause I don’t have you’d think of as a personality, much” and:
You’re right. About what this all is. What I am. But there are certain internal logics to be honored. If you use that [gun], you’ll see a lot of brains and blood, and it would take me several hours – your subjective time – to effect another spokesperson. This isn’t easy for me to maintain. p144
A word like “easy” might contain no informational value pertaining to the process of a machine but because the machine is coded its communciation is always conveyed through a groove between human interaction and machine content. Through empathy comes the suggestion that information is an illusion, not appropriate for authorship, and that humans rely on familiarity to form ultimatums. Perception is self-organised only through the free access of one’s sensory language (although here Wintermute is hacking into Case’s memory) rather than implanted from one mind into another.
These characters hence regard each other with a certain respect for individuality, while background robots are kicked around as they tend to gardens and program constructs are coopted for mission purposes. However, the levels of identity from automony to slavery are again paralleled in machine world and flesh:
Armitage, too, is a construct, all the more horrible because he is a programmed human being, conscripted by Wintermute out of a psychiatric institution. He eventually overcomes this programming, only to fall back into his original program, as Colonel Corto, and Corto is yet another self-destruct routine, obsessively re-running the Screaming Fist operation until he gets it right, dying as he “should” have – with the other “heroes,” falling toward the cold Russion frontier, screaming, “Remember the training, Case. That’s all we can do.”
Ensuing this Case is humanised for his efforts to imagine he knew what drove Corto to schiziphrenia, an unblinking social reality. This argument for human influence however is equivalent to Wintermute’s assessment such a psychological state is a natural extension of a machine’s susceptibility to command suggestion, appropriate for the guise Corto would take as overseer. Case too has his profile read and detourned on an appropriate level, although Riviera makes his point of humanity clearer by the assertion of his “perversity”, nonetheless it is a small uncertainty within the novel’s implications of human willingness to cooperate with machine ultimatums. Gibson’s “post-humanisation” of the subject is in depicting their illusion of freewill within the determined framework, the Tessier-Ashpool plot to force a symbiotic relationship between AI and family on corporate decisions is seen as too defined a boundary for their component members to adhere to, whereas Wintermute’s undermining of their project and the implantation of a carrot-on-a-stick promise to cure Case’s nervous system affords Case a human selfishness while not giving a damn about the resolution of Wintermute’s final existence. This bypasses the myth of the hacker’s showmanship in taming technology for the oppressed (in this case being technology itself, and Gibson avoids patronising artificial intelligence). The respect human and machine grant each other, the submission that they each have individual goals, the admission of uncertainty of each other’s “thoughts” as the AI Neuromancer admits in Linda Lee’s existence in the matrix, is what makes their actions indeterminably human or non-human.
Gibson iterates metaphors for identities of self-consciousness in the prompting of cyberspace constructs to describe their ability to transcend their program passwords:
I don’t know. You might say what I am is basically defined by the fact that I don’t know, because I can’t know. I am that which knoweth not the word. If you knew, man and told me, I couldn’t know. It’s hardwired in. (p207)
The ensuing necessity of human-machine interaction then I argue is the freedom of code to seek further instruction. Code is never complete due to the groove between program and user which is the interface, there is an instruction that would be redudant for an author to write in the language since code leaves leaves imprints of how to run it in its interface; it is a mixer. In this sense the code “becomes” the user, and the event of usage is the cyborg. Cyberpunk identities lose “their previous charges, the positive or negative valorzation so central to earlier SF” since they are produced through the free electronic charge of information itself.
The mutability of human representation in the obvious mechanics of cyberspace were described by Hollinger, observing Bruce Sterling’s work as
... post-humanism with a vengeance, a post-humanism which in its representation of “monsters” – hopeful or otherwise – produced by the inteface of the human and the machine radically decenters the human body, the sacred icon of the essential self, in the same way that the virtual reality of cyberspace works to decenter conventional humanist notions of an unproblematical “real”. (p33)
The modernist representation resists such speculation in the protection of doctrines, where the source of culture must never be opened for inspection since its stature is to free citizens from extraneous duties of defining language and interpreting information:
“The Gernsback Continuum” humourously ironizes an early twentieth-century futurism which could conceive of no real change in the human condition, a futurism which envisioned changes in “stuff” rather than changes in social relations... the benighted protagonist is subject to visitations by the “semiotic ghosts” of a future which never took place...”
Cyberpunk predicts that the surplus of information must threaten the peace of traditionally stable hierachies, Hollinger writes, “[I]t is significant that the “average” cyberpunk landscape tends to be choked with the debris of both language and objects; as a sign-system, it is overdetermined by a proliferation of surface detail...” (p37) Science-fiction no longer has a place to identify essential behaviour within a hyperreality of equivalence and its limitless choices, destinations and physiological manipulation, replacing the realist “getting to bottom of things”. (p37) When Baudrillard writes, “It is thus not necessary to write science fiction: we have as of now, here and now, in our societies, with the media, the computers, the circuits, the networks, the acceleration of particles which has definitely broken the referential orbit of things” it is like the tide of information networks outpace an individual’s capacity for reacting to it. Comparing the software production models of the proprietry cathedral and open source bazaar the instantaneous feedback of the internet has shaken the grip of a secretive individual expressiveness, open source projects can be identified by both its community concerns and the affinity programmers are absorbed by in the liberation of information beyond familiarity.
The question of cyborg events clearly problematises an agency of a single will. It would not be enough to quote distribution of open information as the catalyst for experience without allowing it to manifest in cooperative and destructive urges of desire.
“... the regulator of experience... can no longer accept any experience as worth more than any other. The only standard is thrill, the ability to “light up the circuits” of the nervous matrix, sensation so strong that it can draw consciousness into the conditions of its own possibility. Rather than putting the mind to sleep, thrill keeps the mind alert, allowing it to keep up with the velocities at which the production of sensation works.
While once Case focused on the material rewards for his occupations, after caught stealing from his employers who subsequently maim his abilities to connect with the matrix trapped in “the prison of his own meat” (p12) he craves substitutes of amphetamine to re-engage with an environment too slow for his attention. The later revisiting of cyberspace is a moment of ecstacy for Case. Molly refers to the maximal utility of her surgical endowments as her “game”. The film noir consciousness of the city is a strong testbed for finding their element, a spirtual navigation, and while that test is in session the individual appears to be quite a cooperative agent for the dissemination of information. As Gibson has stated in interviews, “The street finds it’s own uses for things.”
Individuality in cyberpunk can be separated from any illusion that one can play affectual ideological roles.
“... electronic information technology is used in ways that ignore or avoid traditional government institutions and regulations: while nation-states still exist, the dominant forces in the novel are multinational corporations. Rather than having national or political loyalties, the “company man” is legally bound to the company, along with his family, for life.”
Without the ecstacy of data representations in the matrix Armitage comments to Case, “Our profile says you’re trying to con the street into killing you when you’re not looking.” (p40) It is as if the obstruction of the whole picture of information flow makes one unwilling to be a participant in a prevalent hierachy of manipulation.
Our inability to repressent for ourselves the communicational and computer networks that stretch out from our terminals and telephones and radios and televisions is, by extension, a diffculty in grasping the “whole world system of present-day multinational capitalism”
The search for agency then becomes a point of comparison with some intrinsic evaluation of the state of material affairs, facing the choices of spreading the good news, reversing the flow of information that insitutes power relations, or mapping the desire of exploration in a framework of self-awareness, the resulting society being any combination thereof:
Multinational corparations are seen to flourish on the co-optation of the human need to transcend the self, a process that results in surgical boutiques and millions of Tally Isham and Angie Mitchell “clones.” Thus, potentially liberational and dangerous impulses are diverted into safe, profitable commodities – the detournement of transcendence.
This is the path that Wintermute avoids, mirrored by Case’s contention that the simstim unit was a “gratuitous multiplication of flesh input,” (p55) the attempt to bend information into a loop of self-gratification. The fostering of a belief in a “perfect” code to technologically empower contentment is to maintain a grip on the leads of interpretation. The wholly reproducable nature of what might otherwise serve as a timeless spirtual agency deprives the dynamic of implosion which would decenter origins of identity and create more channels of representation – the liberated source code is that which seeks further instruction from anyone willing to converse.
These themes set the scene for a multiplicity of readings, though the novel itself is tends towards romantic narrative convention, a totalising, static code. A battle between good and evil erupts in this parallel of the modern state of capitalism, explained in as clear voice as possible. Gibson’s poetic style is always signposted by technological catalysts. Out of context they appear to blur the boundaries of abstract and environmental representation, the determinism of the matrix is contrasted with Case’s perception: “Cold steel odor and ice caressed his spine. And faces peering in from a neon forest, sailors and hustlers and whores, under a poisoned silver sky...” p140 but we are assuming Gibson is trying to describe something new and possible for us. Case is confused by the story the Zionite Aerol relates to him of how the finger-small baby ran out of his forehead into the ganja forest. Molly advises, “They don’t make much of a difference between the [altered] states, you know? Aerol tells you it happened, well, it happened to him.” They might be accepting such forms of indeterminate narration but it is never implicated in the novel’s own narratorship and Aerol’s choices become externalised.
Hence the novel’s highlights of the mutability of information and experience are isolated, and in the case of the novel’s opening line, highly referenced by critics, so has their familiarity served to reinforce the separation of subjectivity from realist narration? The criticism of SF to explain so purely the singular plausibility of technology to create possibility is that it transcends imagination and closes audience’s attitudes to the purposefulness of culture and undecidability of desire, particularly locking out non-Western social systems. In light of the thematic concerns of the text to investigate word forms of identity and representations of consciousness the one thing it fails to undermine is the assumption that any of this knowledge is new. To recognise the historical construction of closed source code in the grips of corporations is not to mistake that history for the the events which ensue the interpretation of that code; information flows through reconstruction as opposed to being rewritten. The cyborgs who are charged with coding history become unaware of the cultural consituents of their former elements by signifying reformation of the self in the resistence to historical totality.
The promotion of a future overdetermined by surface objects where sensory information-rates are limited only by the physiology of the mind invokes the question of how much more accurately thrill can be presented through adaptations of the visual, aural, olfactory and tactile sensoriums; “... how long can cyberpunk’s profound lens of technological inevitablility be turned on everything in our own culture but the game of preserved fixed text print?” Through open collaboration it is seen that interpretation of the text is unfixed though, and this suggests that cybernetic experience will seek to be regulated through the possible representations of writing without any author telling it to stop. Derrida insists on the structural integrity of information as a freely flowing agent, whose “element” should not be equated with the reception of data forms or the medium from which it is signalled:
If the theory of cybernetics is by itself to oust all metaphysical concepts – including the concepts of soul, of life, of value, of choice, of memory – which until recently served to separate the machine from man, it must conserve the notion of writing, trace, grammè [written mark], or grapheme, until its own historico-metaphysical character is also exposed. Even before being determined as human... or non-human, the grammè – or the grapheme – would thus name the element. An element, ... whether it is understood as the medium or as the irreducible atom, ... of what consequently one should not even call experience in general, that is to say the origin of meaning in general.
All of the political freedoms given in my arguments are awarded in the context of Western-style democracies, like the assertion of generally free access to literature, and are an “enlightened” model of representing a universal transmission of information. The only means for this to be transcultural is for information to be accessed illegally. The “organised dissent” of cyberpunk is perhaps a focus on the eventual affect of technology to “level the playing field” but again the access to technology will be an individual’s desire, not always a cultural one. Information, while scalable to represent collectives, simultaeneously emerges from the lowest denominator.
The strict determinism represented by literal liberation through computer logic systems may appear to restrict the capabilities of the individual to interpret and investigate modes of existences themself, along with the possibilities for narrative interpretation, yet recent science has reached a point of undecidability in quantum models and computer implementations of these processes will likely imply how empty any attempt to ratify solutions through logic is.
Political resistance to free information provides the romantic backdrop behind individual efforts to reappropriate design code of capitalist monuments and stimulates a keen ear for the literal deterministic narrative of an information war corporations will lose as long as they keep restarting it. It is a neuromance of hope in the guise of automony of the code, yet human to human empathy by no means takes a backseat to technology’s willingness to detourne the agents of its construction; it is a war and it should be not new information to hear that slaves exist within both human and post-human form. Information is not freely accessible because it comes in code. The code is free.
Baudrillard, Jean, “Simulacra and Science Fiction”, Trans. Arthur B. Evans, Science-Fiction Studies, 18 (1991), pp. 309-13
Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, “Cyberpunk and Neuromantism”, in McCaffrey
Derrida, Jacques, of Grammatology, in McCaffrey
Fitting, Peter, “The Lessons of Cyberpunk”, Technoculture, ed. Penley, Constance and Ross, Andrew, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 1991, pp. 295-315
Grant, Glenn, “Transcendence Through Detournement in William Gibson’s Neuromancer”, Science Fiction Studies, 17, 1990
Hollinger, Veronica, “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism”, Mosiac, 23/2 (Spring), 1990, pp. 29-44
Jameson, Fredric, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Captalism”, New Left Review, 146 (July/August) 1984, 53-92
McCaffrey, Larry (ed.), Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction, duke University Press, 1991
Raymond, Eric S., The Cathedral and the Bazaar, http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/index.html
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 Free Software Foundation, http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-for-freedom.html. It should also be noted that not all open source software is necessarily free software
 Peter Fitting, “The Lessons of Cyberpunk”, 1993, p41
 Grant, Glenn, “Transcendence Through Detournement in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, 1990, p48
 Grant, Glenn, “Transcendence Through Detournement in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, 1990, p41
 Peter Fitting, “The Lessons of Cyberpunk”, 1993, p302
 Veronica Hollinger, “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism”, 1990, p12
 Jean Baudrillard, “The Year 2000 Has Already Happened” p36, quoted in Hollinger
 The terms of Eric S. Raymond, http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/index.html
 Istran Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism”, p 191
 1987, quoted in Grant, p43
 Peter Fitting, “The Lessons of Cyberpunk”, 1993, p229
 Fredrick Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, p79
 Grant, Glenn, “Transcendence Through Detournement in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, 1990, p45
 Brooks Landon, “Bet on It: cyber/video/punk performance”
 Jacques Derrida, “of Grammatology”