The Sydney Morning Herald


Week commencing Friday, November 22, 1991

It's the Wild West of computerland where hackers want to set information free. SHANE DANIELSEN REPORTS on a new film about the war in cyberspace.


There are no tanks in the streets, no flags being torn down or barricades stormed. - Yet we are at this very moment deep in the midst of a revolution, a series of small, lonely battles being waged on computer terminals the world over - and it's the subject of Marianne Trench's Cyberpunk, a fascinating documentary from the US that is showing at the Valhalla Cinema in Glebe.

The American science fiction writer William Gibson is regarded as the unofficial prophet of the cyberpunk movement. In his 1982 novel Neuromancer and a collection of short stories (Burning Chrome) he effectively mapped out the then still unknown terrain of what he termed "cyberspace": an artificial, consensual environment located within the real of the computer.

Since the Gibson has seen his books sell in the millions, and the term "cyberpunk" (initially used by critics to describe his vivid, hard edged prose) become common parlance. Most importantly, technology has advanced at a staggering rate, in the process turning his speculations into (virtual) reality.

"The effect", admits Gibson, "is very strange when you realize that your fiction has affected people who are in a position to actually change the course of technology you're describing and that they take your work very, very seriously - even though you know you just made it all up. That's a pretty weird feeling. The only equivalent I can imagine to that is the feeling that John le Carre (the doyen of espionage fiction) must have had when he realized that intelligence operatives around the world had adopted the terminology of his novels.

Gibson sees virtual reality ( the creation of a computer-generated simulated environment) as an "inevitable growing together of different strands of technology. The individual ingredients were all out there. People just hadn't thought of them all together in any particular relationship. It's basically the union of your television set and your computer and everything else, producing something that at first seem incredibly new, but is in fact not quite as revolutionary as it seems to be."

The word "revolutionary" seems entirely appropriate; most of the computer addicts interviewed in Cyberpunk freely admit they want to use the technology as a means to fulfill their own (mostly anarchistic) political agendas. "Well, technology is what you make of it", says Gibson mildly. "And you can never know exactly what people are going to do with it. For example, look at the cellular telephone: It's become a tool for the urban drug dealer - something which would never have occurred to the designers of that device. Yet it occurred almost immediately to an entire marginal subculture. I'm almost always more interested in the rogue uses of popular technology."

The film includes an unsettling interview with a young man who goes by the nom de guerre of Michael Synergy, a self styled prince of hackers. Synergy claims to have the power to topple massive multi-national computer systems, and likens the scale of his potential influence to that of the US Defense Department. "Sounds like pure megalomania to me", laughs Gibson. "And yet, what he is doing is actually quite interesting. In saying how powerful he is, he's actually planting a program of his own. That's a piece of information which will spread and will make him more powerful still. But I would be very surprised if any individual computer enthusiast was that powerful." Not TODAY. In the documentary computer hackers rally around a single cry: "Information wants to be free!" That is there should be no such thing as a closed or private computer system.

It's a concept fraught with dangers and benefits alike - yet Gibson views the situation with quiet equanimity. "Right now", he says, "I think of Cyberspace like Wyoming in 1860. At the moment there are a few crazed loners out there, and a few lawmen - but the railroad is definitely coming in, and it's going to be civilized in a few years. I think in a few years hackers will have this mythology around them like Billy the Kid and people will talk about the wild days when you could do whatever you liked on the computer lines. That's why I believe that the really important changes over the next decade or so will be the legislation of cyberspace, imposing the kind of control the governments will be able to impose in an information society. I think we'll soon end up with a fully computerized police force, for example."

According to some (like Dr. Timothy Leary who makes a brief, touchingly befuddled appearance in the film) virtual reality could eventually replace hallucinogens as a means of escaping the real world. But Gibson demurs. "I would be more concerned", he says, "with the idea that television has already replaced the ordinary world for the majority of people. And, to me, the real negative potential of virtual reality would be it's use as a kind of "super-TV"; at it's very worst it could almost be like freebasing (a method of drug taking) television."

The film also makes mention of so-called smart drugs: the synthetic designer drugs fashionable in urban America, and said by their adherents to aid memory and the capacity for logical, intuitive thought. "Let me put it this way", says Gibson. "I haven't yet anyone who's taken them whose intelligence seemed to be dramatically enhanced. But even here, in the "Just Say No" decade, I still have to pose the question: if there were a drug that would increase your intelligence, could you really afford to not take it??

It's impossible to predict the long-term effects of the information revolution. That things will change, that is certain - but how much and how soon? Gibson himself - a self confessed technological illiterate - can offer no answers. "Even if we could suddenly halt the progress of information technology at it's present level, and have a 100-year moratorium on its development, I think at the end of that time we'd still be arguing about what this technology has done to us. I mean, I don't think at this point, that we even really understand what the advent of television has done to us.

"The image of Pandora's box is somewhat misleading", he says. It's less a box than it is a sort of punctured pressure canister, and the stuff is leaking out in everybody's life - whether you like it nor not."