Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Boundaries, Authority, Hindsight, and Neuromancer

The connections between what we know as the Internet and what William Gibson referred to as "cyberspace" in Neuromancer can lead to the illusion that his work preempted the World Wide Web. This illusion falls apart in a couple of ways. First, our Internet and Gibson's cyberspace function in completely different ways while still existing for similar purposes. Even through programs/games/interfaces that require us to create an avatar with which to explore and experience things, our online experiences cannot threaten us mortally (barring extreme negligence or carelessness) as they can in Neuromancer; Case experiences brain death three times throughout his forays into cyberspace dealing with the AI Wintermute. Second, the monitoring and regulation of our Internet is completely different than that of cyberspace, at least so far as we see in the text.

As we follow Case and the people with whom he comes to work, we follow clearly illegal online activities, but we do not see much in terms of a criminal justice system to handle these issues. Obviously there is the Turing Squad, but they are rarely ever seen throughout the course of the text and appear to have a very limited focus: the regulation and restriction of artificial intelligences. While they seem capable of addressing or punishing non-AI related cybercrime, we never see them actually do this. Case does not reference the risk of running into Turings unless he's doing something related to Wintermute. In his previous dealings as a console cowboy, the only consequences he notes are those he suffered in Memphis at the hands of his employers. Even when he does finally get picked up by Turing agents, they're swiftly taken out by Wintermute.

Part of the reason this seems so strange is that Gibson does not address how the Turings operate or how they are organized, which couple possibly be symptomatic of the unstable geopolitical state of Gibson's world. As we learn through Armitage/Corto's backstory, there was a war during which most of the technology that Case benefits from was developed, which seems to have greatly diminished superpowers like the United States. While there are still security forces, they appear to lack the authority or powers of an actually police force and struggle to suppress the actions of groups like the Moderns or the crimelords that mangled Case's nervous system in Memphis. This is one of the ways that Gibson's vision works differently than our reality. Our Internet, while largely unregulated and certainly lacking true AIs, appears to be subject to higher surveillance and scrutiny than Gibson's cyberspace. Through legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and proposed yet failed monitoring like SOPA and CISPA, the United States government has sought to regulate e-commerce and e-communications. The Turings are the only agency we see that has any direct jurisdiction in cyberspace, but it is vague and in the case of Wintermute/Marie-France's plot it is ineffective.

It is possible that this perspective on the role/lack of cyberjustice in Neuromancer is illusory, in that it is heavily skewed by Case's perspective. Practically everything Case does and everyone Case associates with operates outside of any semblance of law. They also shift locations so frequently that it is difficult to say which laws they would actually be subject to, especially in this world that has been reshaped by another war.  Case acknowledges that he has killed, but never seems to acknowledge an authority that would punish him aside from the Turings. This is perhaps indicative of the punk side of cyberpunk, the bucking of authority in favor of anarchy. Perhaps we don't hear about these things because Case really doesn't care to even think of them unless they can possibly interfere with his ability to jack in. This, in a way, actually does reflect an aspect of contemporary internet culture. While Congress continues to propose legislation to monitor and regulate the Internet and the social media therein, hackers and pirates continue to manipulate the technology for their own uses and goals.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

One-Sided Progressive Projections and Pon Farr: Hierarchical Gender Role Speculation

In her essay on the culture and work of slash fiction, Constance Penley analyzes the slasher's depictions of the relationship between Captain James T. Kirk and Commander Spock of the orginal Star Trek series. She  suggests that this specific relationship is used so frequently because it presents readers with a radical reformation of gender roles; Kirk and Spock, as male friends and distinguished officers in the Star Fleet, experience equality that fans of the series apparently believe cannot exist in a heterosexual relationship. Penley says, "Where there is mutuality of gender there is, at least in theory, a degree of equal interchange and individuality that is often automatically negated in the conventional [heterosexual] marital union."

Penley elaborates upon this idea by suggesting that slasher fans of the series, themselves mostly heterosexual,  believe that male gender roles could feasibly change between the 1960s and the twenty-third century to the point that Kirk and Spock could be in a sexual relationship without it affecting their status as officers or friends. Indeed, there are hints toward this sort of relationship between them in episodes like "Amok Time," in which Kirk refuses to reprimand Spock for his moments of passionate insubordination brought about by his impending state of Pon Farr. At the end of the episode, Spock shouts with excitement at the realization that Kirk has not died and admits that his interest in his "wife" on Vulcan completely disappeared with the thought of losing Kirk.

This situation is particularly odd in terms of the gender dynamic that Penley describes. While Kirk and Spock take on masculine roles in the episode "Amok Time," Spock explicitly states that he is "not a man." While he means that he is not a human, that his Vulcan nature makes him essentially different than a human, the choice of the word "man" is striking. He seems to suggest, in his moment of impassioned weakness, that he is not a man compared to Kirk, as though their relationship is in that moment more hierarchical than at other times. If for only a moment, Kirk and Spock fall into a sort of heteronormative relationship with a slash twist. I feel that this highlights a logical break in the thinking of the slasher fans as posited by Penley: if masculine gender roles could shift to such a degree in 300 years, why could feminine roles and heterosexual relationships not evolve in a similar manner? This seems like a particular odd idea to ignore in this context, given that Star Trek emerged in the same decade as the feminist movement that fostered writers like Le Guin and Tiptree and that the roles of women in society and relationships was already in the midst of unprecedented changes.