Saturday, July 07, 2007

Gibson made me want those 300,000BTUs

After my recent post where I blamed William Gibson on my mild obsession with post-industrial products, I feel the need to qualify this blame.

If being a futurist means condensing the present, extrapolating the result and then projecting the resulting mess outwards, Gibson did such a good job that, almost 25 years after Neuromancer, we're still relying on his idea of the future to explain the present. And part of the reason he had so much success was that, despite being one of the founding fathers of the concept of cyberspace, he spends the majority of the time writing about physical reality. He created a world where digital imagery sits as a thin coating over a substructure cobbled together with epoxy, wire and department-of-defense seconds. He spent most of his time examining what kind of people might live inside of this sub-structure.

Inherent to all of this is the idea that obsolete industrial equipment is the new raw material. What is lost in craft and detail is made up for in scale, complexity, and sheer power. This kind of junkyard, collage ideology appears again and again in his written work. In the short story Johnny Mnemonic, there is a shantytown cobbled together in the attic of a domed city, inhabited by people that call them selves "Lo-Tek." This phrase was undoubtedly borrowed by the architecture firm "Lot-ek", who have likewise absorbed the entire post-industrial aesthetic, down to the central irony that such raw solutions require, at times, very high technology.

Other examples in Gibson's work abound. In "Count Zero," you not only have high-rise housing projects with water-jet cutters, hydroponic agriculture and rooftop wind turbines, colonized and cut off from the grid, but also an assembly-line robot hacked and distorted into an automated artist, producing Cornell boxes from floating detritus. In the (horrifically named) Mona Lisa Overdrive there is a reclusive artist living in a Superfund site in the rust belt, creating robotic junkyard sculpture in an old warehouse (a reference to Survival Research Labs). His "Bridge Trilogy" centers around San Francisco's Bay Bride, taken over by the homeless as a suspended shantytown after a 9.0 earthquake. And, finally in Pattern Recognition, he has yet another techno-autistic artist, creating collaged videos with material dredged from the Internet.

These somewhat romantic junkyard notions of ad-hoc technology cut through a lot of the current obsessions of popular culture at an oblique angle, from "Loft-Style" suburban homes to mashups to laser-projected graffiti. A lot of this is simply styling even marketing created by and appealing to the generation that grew up with ubiquitous Japanese cartoon robots and misused corporate laser pointers. But it's also, in my opinion, the leading indicator of a general tendency in manufacturing; as production becomes more and more micro-scaled, cleaner, light-weight and rapid, we are beginning to treat steelyards and coal factories the way we used to treat the Parthenon and Stonehenge, as decaying, monolithic antiquities from a simpler and more powerful time. Even as the things around us are becoming polymers, carbon fibers, nanotubes, aerogels, we long for a nice hefty brick to throw through a plate glass window.

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