When it comes to envisioning the future, those individuals who are free to dream quite often make the most farsighted prophets. It is in the arena of science fiction that the original vocabulary of a new virtual, digitised urbanity is to be found. Moreover, it has quite often provided a much more accurate depiction of possible urban futures, with authors acting as ‘cyber-prophets’, when compared with the scientific and architectural establishment. Science fiction literature, in particular cyberpunk, throughout the twentieth century, has acted as a very real catalyst in the technological pursuits of the real world; new concrete scientific developments which are arriving ever more quickly on the heels of phantasmal science fiction.
Quite possibly the most frequently cited example of a fictional urban condition becoming increasingly relevant in the studies of contemporary society is that of the science fiction classic ‘Neuromancer’, by William Gibson. This seminal book was the novel that first coined the term ‘cyberspace’ back in 1984, as well as, rather prophetically, the concept of the arrival of a fully digitally-mediated society. The phrase ‘cyberspace’ was used to describe a virtual construct, within which exists a parallel virtual world of limitless potential, unrestricted by the limitations of the physical world. Cyberterrorism, genetic violence, cybernetic engineering and a dystopian world dominated by a singular digital virtual construct, controlled by a malevolent and mechanically ruthless artificial intelligence, potentially a logical evolution of our own contemporary military-industrial complex; the novel foresees a subjugated human future increasingly fused with, and ultimately controlled by, technology – a digital dystopia and one with the machine taking primacy over the human. The entire novel sees Gibson describe this new digital dystopia; a dystopia laced with veiled warnings concerning the current technological trajectories of the information age.
> Cyberspace: An Urban Reality
The concept of a globally connected virtual construct, a network that is totally ubiquitous and pervasive, and one which controls the future trajectories of that society is a frighteningly similar concept to the condition which pervades contemporary society. Visually, Gibson likens ‘the Matrix’ to the city, which is not unusual given that the city itself is a hive of information and communication infrastructures, and the centre of the vast majority of all human activity. Clearly, he perceived the human future as an urban one, within a domain dominated by an oppressive, highly complex, cybernetic network of sentient technological agents. All of these themes have understandably found renewed resonance in the study of today’s current social climate of pervasive digital networks.
Undoubtedly Gibson’s ‘Matrix’ construct bears a startling resemblance to our own internet construct, although admittedly with a much more militant and oppressive intensity. Perhaps the ‘Matrix’ is the logical result of the development of the contemporary internet, foremost of our global digital networks? This may seem somewhat fanciful but when one considers the fact that the internet’s humble origins began as a military experiment with strategic communications networks, perhaps society should take note of Gibson’s warnings and take care when steering the future evolution of our global virtual networks. As with all technological development, the results can be helpful or hazardous – an excellent example would be that of the internal combustion engine, which provided mobility, and relatively reliable, cheap mechanical power, but also produced congestion, pollution and of course, the car crash. The question for the urban planner is ultimately; will the increasing virtualisation of urban metabolisms be helpful or hazardous to the evolution of the city?