The Cyberspace we Forgot | Neuromancer

The fingerprints of Neuromancer, William Gibson’s seminal 1984 novel, can be seen all over contemporary pop culture. It popularised the terms “cyberspace” and “matrix,” and became a cornerstone of cyberpunk culture, influencing work ranging from The Matrix to Deus Ex. It’s even been argued that it catalysed, through its image of cyberspace, the advent of the internet itself. While dated at points (the computers of the mid-21st century are bulky, angular things, and an AI shows off its immense power by making a line of pay phones ring), it continues to be an influential and widely read classic.

The same cannot be said for Neuromancer’s game adaptation, which was developed by Interplay—creators of Fallout, among others—after they acquired the rights from, of all people, Neuromancer superfan and LSD champion Timothy Leary. Released for a variety of home computers in 1988, an eon ago in the gaming industry, it was well received as a game with a rich plot and “convincing” electronic world, but has long since lapsed into obscurity. Today it’s all but forgotten abandonware, and can be played in an Internet Archive that in no way resembles the virtual spaces the game itself portrays. In short, it appears to have no cultural resonance to show for its efforts.

As a game, Neuromancer is dated and unforgiving, with progress mostly coming from clunky and tedious trial and error. Its story is borderline fanfiction, as you name a character who just happens to resemble the novel’s down on his luck hacker anti-hero, and unravel a mystery that leads you to confront the titular AI. But in its portrayal of cyberspace—shortly before the world wide web was invented, and long before it became a household service—it remains intriguing. It’s a window into an era when the impact of computers on the world had not yet been fully realised, and when their potential seemed infinite. The Amigas, Apple IIs and Commodore 64s that ran Neuromancer wouldn’t have been able to read this. But the game showed their owners a world where computers could do so much more.

If Neuromancer’s cyberspace is an overwhelmingly complex city, it’s also a desolate and intensely personal one

In one of the novel’s most famous passages, Gibson describes cyberspace as “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.” Cyberspace, in Gibson’s world, is not something you experience by merely sitting at a desk. As the game’s manual patiently explains to players new to the concept, cyberspace is accessed by “jacking in,” by physically connecting your brain to a computer and witnessing, as the book called it, “A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”

The game’s developers were challenged with portraying this futuristic nonspace while still creating an accessible and interesting game, and all with computers that were barely a step up from a calculator and a potent imagination. The end result is surreal, abstract, and lonely. It’s a virtual world that’s simultaneously leagues beyond our internet, yet stunted and impractical, a world where you can bank online before doing battle with an artificial intelligence yet won’t let you run a simple search query and forces you to “physically” move between one virtual location and the next. It’s cyberspace as envisioned by a world that didn’t yet have the computing power to experience it for real, a virtual 2058 that would look archaic before the turn of the millennium.

Neuromancer’s manual encourages you to think of cyberspace as a city. The “streets” are the lines on a grid that stretches into infinity, a grid occupied by “bases” that represent stashes of information maintained by businesses, governments and private entities. These, the manual informs us, are the buildings of this non-city. You can keep “driving” by them, or you can try to get a look inside. It’s all an abstraction, of course. The city is an image generated inside your brain, because without the visualisation, “cyberspace would be a complex sea of information that humans would never be able to understand.” The game presents us a way of looking at a world that is impossibly overwhelming to humanity, well before the overwhelming nature of its true form would be realised. Or, as the manual puts it, “The cyberspace grid represents information in its purest form.”

A window into an era when the impact of computers on the world had not yet been fully realised

If Neuromancer’s cyberspace is an overwhelmingly complex city, it’s also a desolate and intensely personal one. We never meet any of the “billions of legitimate operators.” It’s a city crammed full of corporate secrets, hidden hacking “softwarez” and furtive communications between other “cyberspace cowboys” that you discover by wandering alone along the gridlines. Cyberspace is serious, and there are no cat videos, porn sites and rambling social media posts about the mundane lives of your friends to keep you company while you conduct your business.

That, appropriately, fits the theme of Gibson’s work. We can reasonably predict what technology will be invented, but we can’t even begin to imagine all of the ways that it will be co-opted by the masses. No one, in 1984 or ‘88, could have guessed that the secrets of the elite would take a backseat to a cartoon frog co-opted to spew racist messages and clips of people flipping water bottles. Neuromancer’s noir tone would be hard to maintain if the protagonist kept taking breaks to watch cat videos and view the vacation photos of his acquaintances. Neuromancer both underestimated and was incapable of portraying the true vastness and complexity of the sea.

To get into the city’s buildings, we’re told, we need to first get past the “security guards.” Those guards represent the brunt of Neuromancer’s cyberspace interactions. Information is everywhere but always locked away behind passwords, “ICE” security or carefully controlled artificial intelligences that can fry a cowboy’s brain. It’s an infinite but perpetually closed off world where information warfare can be literal (hacking through security involves what are effectively magical battles where the “spells” are software routines with fanciful names), and where everyone from NASA to the World Chess Confederation will happily allow an AI to kill you over the internet if you try to steal their secrets. And cyberspace is full of secrets if you’re willing to look, which is what drives the game forward. There’s always the feeling that a tantalising piece of new information is waiting for you if you search just a little more. It’s the same feeling that often drives our use of the internet, although we don’t have to do battle for the right to refresh Reddit in the middle of the night in search of novelty.

Neuromancer presents that more mundane version of the internet as well, in a system of monochromatic bulletin boards and databases. This is closer to the internet we know today or, more accurately, closer to the internet we would have known in the early ‘90s. Advanced equipment is needed to move beyond text-based surfing and into the city, as if there were special apps that could project impossible images into your brain. You’re initially locked out of cyberspace, stuck in the low-tech meat world until you can hack your way to more money and better tech. Cyberspace is Neuromancer’s big reveal to a player who doesn’t know what to expect. Entering it for the first time is like getting VIP access to reality.

the feeling that a tantalising piece of new information is waiting for you if you search just a little more

And so, despite its oddities, the game is ultimately an odd but fitting mirror to our “real” cyberspace, which everyone uses but only some understand intimately. People can spend all day on social media but have no sense of how and why hackers operate, nor any inkling of the oddities and illegal goods that can be found on the darknet. Organisations like Neuromancer’s Panther Moderns, a loose collective of technically proficient nihilists who appear in both the book and game and have a “penchant for random acts of surreal violence,” presaged groups like Anonymous in function if not form. Real-life hackers may not be hanging out in bars and trading stories about the times they nearly flatlined trying to steal technology from a Japanese mega-corporation, but they are out there, doing their thing while you renew your car insurance.

Neuromancer’s manual was right to describe cyberspace as a city. We all exist in it, though some of us are residents while others are just passing through. Most people occupy it legally, but there’s always sketchy activity going on just beneath the surface. Your actions can get you in trouble, legal or otherwise, or maybe you’ll just be minding your own business when the trouble comes to you. It’s constantly evolving and growing, forever offering new sights. It can feel lonely at times, despite the countless people. And it is sprawling.

But perhaps Neuromancer’s most fitting legacy is its obscurity. Technology evolves at a breakneck pace in Gibson’s world. Today’s cutting edge tech is tomorrow’s junk, fit only for obsessive hobbyists or the scrap heap. And nowhere is that more true than in gaming and internet culture. Games made decades ago look like artifacts from a distant civilisation, and when cyberspace is portrayed in modern games it tends towards the mundane. If we look to games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or Prey a virtual world isn’t projected into your brain so you can do deadly battle with AI for the right to access state secrets—you find someone’s password written on a post-it note and use it to read their email.

“The Matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” Gibson’s novel tells us. Indeed, Gibson’s work was inspired by his observation of people engrossed in arcade games even more primitive than Neuromancer. Games beget fictional cyberspace, which beget a game that portrayed its “bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colourless void.” And in a story about the surreality of cyberspace and the rapid, endless evolution of technology, real technological evolution has made us forget how mysterious our dreams of the future used to be.

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Mark Hill


Mark Hill is an editor, columnist and interviewer for Cracked. He has also contributed to the Atlantic, Vice, the Daily Dot, and Kill Screen.