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The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibson's Neuromancer

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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 887-909 Much of William Gibson's novel Neuromancer is centered around cyberspace, or the matrix as it is alternatively called, the representational innovation for which his work has become famous. It is first defined for the reader via the narration of a children's educational program: "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the 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 . . ." (67). The concept of cyberspace is valuable as a narrative strategy because it is able to represent "unthinkable complexity," to gain a cognitive purchase upon the welter of data. It is a response to what Fredric Jameson has called "the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects" (Postmodernism 44). Pointing toward his troubled call for cognitive mapping, the spatial metaphor Jameson invokes here is richly suggestive; for, in trying to think the totality, the postmodern novelist encounters a more immediate problematic, which, as Jameson notes, operates as an analogue of the totality, and that is the metamorphosis of space itself. This metamorphosis "has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world." In this respect, we may see cyberspace as an attempt at a postmodern cartography; that is, as a representational strategy for domesticating what Jameson terms "postmodern hyperspace" (Postmodernism 44). Central to this enterprise is, as Gibson's reference to the "city lights" above suggests, a recognition of the change in, and thus a recodification of, contemporary urban experience. As Paul Patton notes, "Images of the city play a crucial role in accounts of the postmodern condition. As a matter of course, these accounts include as one of their essential moments a description of the experience of contemporary urban life" (112). Indeed, the individual's relationship with, and navigation of, metropolitan space has, as Raymond Williams argues, occupied a privileged position in the thematic hierarchy of literary materials since the Romantic era. In Williams's reading, the city always presents itself as a space of sublimity -- from the literal strangeness of crowds in Wordsworth to the impenetrable fogs of Dickens and the dark and dizzying streets of Conrad -- the metropolis is never completely knowable, and therefore the individual's relationship to it is always monadic and alienated, even as it revels in a certain vital exoticism produced by this estrangement. Literary attempts to tame the concrete jungle vary, but one worth noting in this context is, as Williams observes, "the new figure of the urban detective": The very name of Neuromancer's protagonist -- Case -- signposts an inheritance from this tradition of urban rationalism that Scott Bukatman, among others, has located as a specific relationship with "the alienated spatialities of Chandler" (142). Echoing Friedrich Engels's comments about Manchester crowds, Jameson proposes that the work of Raymond Chandler is subtended by a sense of spatial disjunction:
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibson's Neuromancer
Tony Myers
MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2001, pp. 887-909
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THE POSTMODERN IMAGINARY IN
WILLIAM GIBSON'S NEUROMANCER
Tony Myers
Much of William Gibson's novel Neuromancer is centered around
cyberspace, or the matrix as it is alternatively called, the representa-
tional innovation for which his work has become famous. It is first de-
fined for the reader via the narration of a children's educational pro-
gram: "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by bil-
lions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught
mathematical concepts . . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted
from the 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 . . ." (67). The concept
of cyberspace is valuable as a narrative strategy because it is able to
represent "unthinkable complexity," to gain a cognitive purchase upon
the welter of data. It is a response to what Fredric Jameson has called
"the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global
multinational and decentered communicational network in which we
find ourselves caught as individual subjects" (Postmodernism 44). Pointing
toward his troubled call for cognitive mapping, the spatial metaphor
Jameson invokes here is richly suggestive; for, in trying to think the total-
ity, the postmodern novelist encounters a more immediate problematic,
which, as Jameson notes, operates as an analogue of the totality, and that
is the metamorphosis of space itself. This metamorphosis "has finally
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibson’s Neuromancer
888
succeeded in transcending the capacities of the human body to locate
itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively
to map its position in a mappable external world."1
In this respect, we may see cyberspace as an attempt at a
postmodern cartography; that is, as a representational strategy for do-
mesticating what Jameson terms "postmodern hyperspace"
(Postmodernism 44). Central to this enterprise is, as Gibson's reference
to the "city lights" above suggests, a recognition of the change in, and
thus a recodification of, contemporary urban experience. As Paul Patton
notes, "Images of the city play a crucial role in accounts of the postmodern
condition. As a matter of course, these accounts include as one of their
essential moments a description of the experience of contemporary
urban life" (112). Indeed, the individual's relationship with, and navigation
of, metropolitan space has, as Raymond Williams argues, occupied a privi-
leged position in the thematic hierarchy of literary materials since the
Romantic era. In Williams's reading, the city always presents itself as a
space of sublimity—from the literal strangeness of crowds in Wordsworth
to the impenetrable fogs of Dickens and the dark and dizzying streets of
Conrad—the metropolis is never completely knowable, and therefore
the individual's relationship to it is always monadic and alienated, even as
it revels in a certain vital exoticism produced by this estrangement. Lit-
erary attempts to tame the concrete jungle vary, but one worth noting
in this context is, as Williams observes, "the new figure of the urban
detective":
In Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories there is a recurrent
image of the penetration by an isolated rational intelligence of
a dark area of crime which is to be found in the otherwise
(for specific physical reasons, as in the London fogs, but also
for social reasons, in that teeming, mazelike, often alien area)
impenetrable city. This figure has persisted in the urban "pri-
vate eye" (as it happens, an exact idiom for the basic position
in consciousness) in cities without the fogs. (42)
The very name of Neuromancer's protagonist—Case—signposts an in-
heritance from this tradition of urban rationalism that Scott Bukatman,
among others, has located as a specific relationship with "the alienated
spatialities of Chandler" (142). Echoing Friedrich Engels's comments about
Myers 889
Manchester crowds, Jameson proposes that the work of Raymond Chan-
dler is subtended by a sense of spatial disjunction:
[T]he form of Chandler's books reflects an initial American
separation of people from each other, their need to be linked
by some external force (in this case the detective) if they are
ever to be fitted together as parts of the same picture puzzle.
And this separation is projected out onto space itself: no mat-
ter how crowded the street in question, the various solitudes
never really merge into a collective experience, there is al-
ways distance between them. Each dingy office is separated
from the next; each room in the rooming house from the one
next to it; each dwelling from the pavement beyond it. This is
why the most characteristic leitmotif of Chandler's books is
the figure standing, looking out of one world, peering vaguely
or attentively across into another. ("On Raymond Chandler"
131)
We may note a certain equivocation in the social status of detec-
tives, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe, which stems from an
involvement with marginalized activities and characters (opium and
femmes fatales, for example) that is seemingly at odds with a more re-
spectable pursuit of justice and the law. This can be seen as the expres-
sion of an affinity with, and therefore of an ability to negotiate, just those
urban spaces that are occluded from the "normal" social gaze. If we plot
this affinity as a trajectory, then its logical end-point might well be found
in a character like Case who, being a thief, is, in every sense of the word,
streetwise.
In Neuromancer, as Claire Sponsler avers, "although the dominant
culture always looms in the backgroundin the multinational corpora-
tions (the Maas-Biolabs and Hosakas) as well as in the form of a few
powerful individuals (the Tessier-Ashpools and Josef Vireks of the world)
the surface attention is all on the counterculture, from orbiting
Rastafarians to punk street gangs to mincome Project voodoo worship-
ers" (629). For Case the "outlaw zones" (Gibson, Neuromancer 19) that
provide the topography of Neuromancer are readily navigable, throwing up
certain understandable patterns as long as you know what you are look-
ing for, such as in this description of the apparently aleatory mobilities of
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibsons Neuromancer
890
the street mob: "Groups of sailors up from the port, tense solitary tour-
ists hunting pleasures no guidebook listed, Sprawl heavies showing off
grafts and implants, and a dozen distinct species of hustler, all swarming
the street in an intricate dance of desire and commerce" (1819). The
taxonomic specificity of the expert gaze here obviates the unknown
terror of the urban crowd and replaces it with cognizance of an other-
wise invisible concatenation of distinct purposes that unite in the collec-
tive experience of "desire and commerce." We may note then that, as
with Jameson's Chandler, the metropolitan populace's "need to be linked
by some external force" is fulfilled by what, following Williams, we may
term the "private eye" of Case. At one level, this example of Case's all-
knowing gaze operates as a rehearsal of the larger problematic of point
of view in the novel and in the postmodern generally; for, as Bukatman
observes of the latter, there has "arisen a new and boundless urbanism,
one that escapes the power of vision through its very dispersal" (122
23).
We may take this "boundless urbanism" to register both a geo-
graphical and a metaphorical metropolitan incontinence. The former finds
its instantiation in the topography of Neuromancer, where Case's home-
town, "the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis," is suitably indexed, for a
city overflowing the measure, by the sobriquet "the Sprawl" (57). The
sheer material expansiveness of the metropolis, which in Neuromancer
extends even into the extra-terrestrial orbit of Freeside, the space-sta-
tion town that is "brothel and banking nexus, pleasure dome and free
port, border town and spa" (125), is matched in another sense by the
ubiquity of urban experience. It is this that Jameson has in mind when he
remarks upon the complementary "disappearance of Nature":
Where the world system today tends toward one enormous
urban system [. . .] the very conception of the city itself and
the classically urban loses its significance and no longer seems
to offer any precisely delimited objects of study, any specifi-
cally differentiated realities. Rather, the urban becomes the
social in general, and both of them constitute and lose them-
selves in a global that is not really their opposite either (as it
was in the older dispensation) but something like their outer
reach, their prolongation into a new kind of infinity. (Seeds
2829)
Myers 891
We may perhaps discern in this global imperative of the urban the broad
outline of a dynamic that finds one of its most instructive delineations in
Jacques Lacan's concept of the imaginary. Specifically, it is what Lacan
means in referring to the imaginary "vertigo of the domination of space"
(28). For the city, like the ego, pursues its other in "Nature" only insofar
as it then subsumes that difference within the identity of itself. As Teresa
Brennan points out: "The ego [. . .] is opposed to the history of anything
different from itself. It is interested in difference only in so far as every-
thing different from it provides it with a mirror for itself. In this respect,
it will reduce all difference to sameness" (37). If "difference" is continu-
ally being chewed up and swallowed in the territorializing maw of the
ego, then this, as Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen reflects, makes of its world a
space "strangely petrified and static, a sort of immense museum peopled
with immobile 'statues,' and 'images' of stone, and hieratic forms" (59).2
We can find something of this unregeneracy in the character of
the postmodern city, for, as Sharon Zukin contends, "Despite local varia-
tions, [. . .] the major influence on urban form derives from the interna-
tionalization of investment, production and consumption. In socio-spa-
tial terms [. . .] internationalization is associated with the concentration
of investment, the decentralization of production, and the standardiza-
tion of consumption" (436). Zukin cites McDonald's and Benetton as
examples of this standardization and notes that "[t]heir shops are ubiq-
uitous in cities around the world," and therefore help to make those
cities over in the image of each other (436). Such a process, however,
occasions a problematic definition of otherness, for if urbanicity has
achieved such a ubiquity that even the most bucolic of backwoodsmen
can simultaneously assume the position of streetwise urbanite, how can
urban experience be characterized with any sense of singularity? For
Jameson the answer to this question can be found in the global sweep of
representation. Instead of drawing upon national images of provincial
and rural boredom to counterpoint and thus characterize the excite-
ment of the city, he argues that this contrast is preserved, "but simply
transferred to a different kind of social reality, namely the Second World
city and the social realities of a nonmarket or planned economy" (Seeds
2930). As adductions for his argument Jameson calls upon the now
classic images of "meager shelves of consumer goods in empty centrals
from which the points of light of advertising are absent, streets from
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibsons Neuromancer
892
which small stores and shops are missing, [and the] standardization of
clothing fashion (as most emblematically in Maoist China)" (30).
In Neuromancer, Turkey occupies the position of other in capitalism's
cultural imaginary; it is, the narrative assures us, "a sluggish country"
(108). Such sluggishness is due, in no small part, to the antiquated tech-
nologies still operating in Turkey: a Citroen sedan is only "a primitive
hydrogen-cell conversion" (108), "the left hand of John the Baptist" is
merely kept "inside this brass hand thing" rather than "in a support vat"
(116), and even "the written word still enjoy[s] a certain prestige here"
(108). More tellingly, however, it is the superannuated architecture, with
its "crazy walls of patchwork wooden tenements" (107) and "soot-stained
sheets of plastic and green-painted ironwork out of the age of steam"
(112), that provides the most pressing sense of otherness. It is, the nar-
rator comments, "an old place, too old" (113). Indeed, without the seclu-
sion of a "dome," the Finn, who traffics in stolen goods, feels "agorapho-
bic" (108), and it is only upon entering the bazaar that he is "comforted
by the crowd density and the sense of enclosure" (112). The irony of this
architecture is that it constitutes a kind of return to origins, for as Jameson
points out, postmodern buildings "which are open emporia in which one
finds food markets, theaters, bookstores, and all kind of other special-
ized services, run together in a fashion that surely derives ultimately and
historically from the great open-air markets or bazaars of the East and
of precapitalist modes of production" (Seeds 15657).
What is striking about this observation and its relation to the rep-
resentation of Turkish space in Neuromancer is how it articulates the
dynamic of capitalism's cultural imaginary. If the Finn feels "comfortable"
in a bazaar, it is because his indigenous topography has already subsumed
that archaic spatial form within itself. The otherness of Turkey here is
thus merely a property of its separation from the other spatial and tech-
nological forms that constitute the postmodern in its unity.3 Indeed, for
Jameson, the form of cyberpunk develops from "the evaporation of a
certain Otherness" (Seeds 151). Such a process of "evaporation" per-
haps finds its most salient expression in an economy of enclosure or
fortressing.4 An example of this is, of course, the bazaar, which stands as
such an emblematic postmodern form because of "the sense of enclo-
sure" (112) it affords. This sense of envelopment proceeds from what
Jameson terms "a logic specific to Imaginary space, whose dominant
Myers 893
category proves to be the opposition of container and contained" and
"the fundamental relationship of inside to outside" (Ideologies 86). With-
out explicitly making the connection himself, Jameson has, in later publi-
cations, linked these relationships to both postmodern architecture and
science fiction in general. Of the former he notes that it is subject to
what he designates "the Blade Runner syndrome" in which "the interfusion
of crowds of people among a high technological bazaar with its multitu-
dinous nodal points, all of it sealed into an inside without an outside, . . .
thereby intensifies the formerly urban to the point of becoming the
unmappable system of late capitalism itself" (Seeds 157). Of the latter,
Jameson proposes that "all SF of the more 'classical' type is 'about' con-
tainment, closure, the dialectic of inside and outside" ("Science Fiction"
58). Above and beyond the spaces we have already been looking at, then,
it is perhaps not fortuitous that the mise en scène of much of Neuromancer
is cyberspace or, more pertinently, the matrix, a word that finds its ety-
mology in "womb"the paradigmatic topos of container and contained.
In this respect, of course, the name of Case himself is a not insignificant
reference to such a spatial formation.
There is, then, a contradiction at work in the postmodern me-
tropolis. It is, in its boundlessness, what Jameson terms a "total space"
(Postmodernism 40); it is also, in its replication at the micro-level, a total-
izing space, one whose very boundedness aspires to "some new cat-
egory of closure" (39). This "imploded urbanism" (126), as Bukatman
describes it, may be more readily understood by reference to Jameson's
celebrated analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel. Jameson detects a certain
modality of hermeticism at work in the overtly discreet construction of
the entrances to the Bonaventure, which serve to seal its occupants into
the total space of the hotel: "[I]deally the minicity of Portman's
Bonaventure ought not to have entrances at all, since the entryway is
always the seam that links the building to the rest of the city that sur-
rounds it: for it does not wish to be part of the city, but rather its equiva-
lent and its replacement or substitute. That is obviously not possible,
whence the downplaying of the entrance to its bare minimum"
(Postmodernism 4041). We can find a similar thematic at work in the
architecture of Neuromancer, for example in Cheap Hotel, where "the
courtyard that served the place as some combination of lobby and lawn"
(30) is located on some unspecified level above the fifth floor; or in
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibsons Neuromancer
894
Straylight where "the entrance to the elevator had been concealed be-
side the stairs to the corridor" (299).
In a second moment the difficulty of locating an entrance to
postmodern buildings is joined by an active repulsion in the form of the
building's very materiality, which in the case of the Bonaventure is its
"great glass reflective skin":
[T]he glass skin repels the city outside, a repulsion for which
we have analogies in those reflector sunglasses which make it
impossible for your interlocutor to see your own eyes and
thereby achieve a certain aggressivity toward and power over
the Other. In a similar way, the glass skin achieves a peculiar
and placeless dissociation of the Bonaventure from its
neighbourhood: it is not even an exterior, inasmuch as when
you seek to look at the hotel's outer walls you cannot see the
hotel itself but only the distorted images of everything that
surrounds it. (Postmodernism 42)
As Bukatman argues, "The new monument is no longer the substantial-
ity of the building, but the depthless surface of the screen. This is a trans-
formation literalized in Blade Runner by the proliferation of walls which
are screens, sites of projection now rather than inhabitation" (32). The
city, in other words, maintains an extimate relation with itself; it is, to
recall Borch-Jacobsen's memorable phrase "ex-posing itself, exactly as
the eye can see itself only by exorbiting itself in a mirror" (52).
The move from the opacity of walls, with all their connotations of
density, solidity and substantiality, to the reflectiveness of screens is real-
ized as something of a leitmotif in Neuromancer. Indeed, according to
Gibson, mirror/silver is clearly the color of the future. For example, the
Jarre is "walled with mirrors" (14), the Sense/Net building is "mirror-
sheathed" (80), the Chinese virus program has "black mirrors" on its
flanks "reflecting faint distant lights that [bear] no relationship to the
matrix around it" (216), boots are "sheathed in bright Mexican silver"
(4), "the beach [is] silver-gray" (281) and even the aftershave has a "me-
tallic edge" (111). It is little wonder, then, that with so many reflective
surfaces, one of the paradigmatic topoi of Neuromancer is the mise-en-
abyme. For example, when Molly, who has "twin mirrors" of "empty quick-
silver" for the lenses of her sunglasses(42), meets Terzibashjain, similarly
Myers 895
attired with "silver glasses" (36), the reflections cause them to make, as
he points out, "the tunel infinity, mirror into mirror"(109). This is equally
a problem at the level of built space, for example, in Freeside: "The glass
wall of the balcony clicked in with its view of Desiderata, but the street
scene blurred, twisted, became the interior of the Jarre de Thé, Chiba,
empty, red neon replicated to scratched infinity in the mirrored walls"
(172). Traditional architectural notions of exteriority and interiority are
thus suspended in this new reflective space. People and buildings are
absented from their actual place by projection, only to return in the
phenomenologically vertiginous non-space of the mise-en-abyme in which
location is never fixed. It is a problem compounded by the autotelic
spatiality of postmodern interiors, that total space which, like the Villa
Straylight,the labyrinthine house on Freeside, "is a body grown in upon
itself" (206) and which replicates its traditional exterior within itself in
the connotative form of street lights and road signs and, most obviously,
plants which for Case on Freeside are "too cute, too entirely and defini-
tively treelike" (154).
Whilst, on one level, there is something uncanny about this envi-
ronment, something too unfamiliarly familiar, where even the random
forms of nature itself betray a degree of calibration in the "too cleverly
irregular slopes of sweet green grass" (154), we may also take this as an
instance, at another level, of the larger problematic of coordination that
is so pointedly emblematized in the mise-en-abyme. For Bukatman, "[t]he
new urban space is directionlesscoordinates are literally valueless when
all directions lead to more of the same" (126). Such a sublime topogra-
phy is precisely what is adumbrated in Neuromancer. On Freeside, for
example, "[i]f you turned right, off Desiderata, and followed Jules Verne
far enough, you'd find yourself approaching Desiderata from the left"
(180). Molly sums up the problem with admirable terseness when she
points out to Case that "[t]he perspective's a bitch":
They were standing in a broad street that seemed to be the
floor of a deep slot or canyon, its either end concealed by
subtle angles in the shops and buildings that formed its walls.
[. . .] There was a brilliant slash of white somewhere above
them, too bright, and the recorded blue of a Cannes sky. He
knew that sunlight was pumped in with a Lado-Acheson sys-
tem whose two-millimeter armature ran the length of the
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibsons Neuromancer
896
spindle, that they generated a rotating library of sky effects
around it, that if the sky were turned off, he'd stare up past
the armature of light to the curves of lakes, rooftops of casi-
nos, other streetsBut it made no sense to his body. (148)
If this metropolitan simulacrum, in which even the sky can be "turned
off," makes no sense to Case's body it is because, as Jameson declares,
"[w]e do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new
hyperspace [. . . ,] in part because our perceptual habits were formed in
that older kind of space I have called the space of high modernism"
(Postmodernism 3839). Absented from itself, this imaginary space finds
its most succinct and troubling definition in Mona Lisa Overdrive when
one of the characters recalls the fundamental lesson of the new geogra-
phy: "There's no there, there" (55).5
What strikes the reader about this concatenation of spatial motifs
is how the logic of the topographical content in Neuromancer finds its
expression in the form of the novel itself. We may note, for example,
how the postmodern building's impediments to entry and its rebarbative
exterior are realized formally by the novel's opening, as it were, in me-
dias res. Furthermore, the reader's difficulty in coordinating her/himself
in the reading space of Neuromancer is exacerbated by the genuinely
forbidding nomenclature and technical innovations it portrays. The novel
is, in effect, a total space that repels the cyberspace ingénue. As Bukatman
observes, its difficulty rehearses a certain elitism, for "[n]ot everyone
can read Neuromancer; its neologisms alienate the uninitiated reader"
(152). Such assertions beg the question of how one joins the privileged
ranks of the initiates. In this respect we may profitably attend to the
construction of metaphors in the text, which replicate at the level of the
sentence the topeme we have already identified as the mise-en-abyme.
Nowhere is this metaphorical incest more clearly expressed than in
cyberspace itself, operating as both vehicle and tenor of a series of
tropological substitutions that ultimately dissolve the very saliency of
such distinctions. For example, early on in the novel, the narrative re-
counts Case's experience of being followed in the street:
[I]n some weird and very approximate way, it was like a run in
the matrix. Get just wasted enough, find yourself in some desper-
ate but strangely arbitrary kind of trouble, and it was possible
Myers 897
to see Ninsei as field of data, the way the matrix had once
reminded him of proteins linking to cell specialities. Then you
could throw yourself into a high speed drift and skid, totally
engaged but set apart from it all, all around you the dance of
biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of
the black market . . . .(26)
The macro- and microscopic are conflated here in a process of equiva-
lence that finds being chased through the city comparable to program-
ming a computer, the content of which is subsequently compared to the
metropolis itself and that, in turn, to bio-chemical systems in the body,
which is then an image of bodies themselves, and, finally, an analogy of
cyberspace data. Similarly, in the penultimate run of the novel, Case's
sensory experience is described as "receding, as the cityscape recedes:
city as Chiba, as the ranked data of Tessier-Ashpool SA, as the roads and
crossroads scribed on the face of a microchip, the sweat-stained pattern
on a folded, knotted scarf" (310). What is disclosed by this collocation of
images is how, throughout Neuromancer, the metropolis is troped by
cyberspace, and vice versa, in a series of substitutions that finds each
element operating as the deep structure and regulatory frame of the
other. In other words, we can understand cyberspace by reference to
the city and we can understand the city by reference to cyberspace.
It will be unsurprising, then, to learn that the work of dedifferentia-
tion can also be detected in the generic form of the novel itself. Apart
from the chronotope of science fiction, to which, as Gibson admits,
Neuromancer stands in something of an antagonistic relationship, the whole
novel finds its matrix in various pulp fictions, including those of the cow-
boy-frontier, spy, private detective, and gangster genres, as well as in a
more specific relationship to Thomas Pynchon. Such mongrelization ex-
tends through Neuromancer down to the primacy of the neologism itself,
which is, perhaps, most clearly represented in the compound
"cyberspace."6 We are, then, in a sense returned to the issue of coordi-
nation, for, in its aggregation of forms, Neuromancer fails to afford a single
generic point, other than itself, from which to establish its meaning. For
Jameson this is symptomatic of a wider problem:
From the generic standpoint, what interests us here is the
way in which the former genres (thrillers, spy films, social
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibsons Neuromancer
898
exposés, science fiction, and so on) now conflate in a move-
ment that re-enacts the dedifferentiation of the social levels,
and by way of their own allegorization: so that the new post-
generic genre [works] are allegories of each other, and of the
impossible representation of the social totality itself. (Geopo-
litical Aesthetic 5)
The irony of reading the form of Neuromancer as a symptom of the
impossibility of negotiating the overdetermined social spaces of late capi-
talism is that cyberspace represents an attempt to overcome just such
an impossibility in the first place. Indeed, it is, as we shall see, the su-
preme example of a machinery of de-differentiation.
This feature of the novel proceeds in large measure from the fact
that Neuromancer's primary register is a visual one, a characteristic that
finds a particular resonance in the fact that it is also a "visionary" text.
As the suffix "-mancer" suggests (from the Greek manteia, meaning "sooth-
saying"), the novel proclaims its divinatory project from the title on-
wards, one that shows Gibson sketching an intuitively suasive portrait of
the near future. Part of the suasiveness of this account lies in the con-
tent-level detail he has picked up from postmodernity and recast, like
geomantic earth, within another configuration that is, nevertheless, rec-
ognizably cognate with our own period. Features, such as the company
names and the hegemony of Japanese-American culture, right up to the
obsession with the technologization of nature itself, are granted a sanc-
tion of plausibility from the reader precisely because they are exten-
sions of existing practices. Indeed, anticipation in its own right is just
such a practice, if not the dominant one of late capitalism, as the neces-
sity of accelerating turnover time has occasioned a wholesale discount-
ing of the future into the present. This, in turn, has spawned a mass
expectancy industry concerned with forecasting and forging market
trends, and using, more often than not, the very computer technology
that forms the subject matter of Neuromancer.
Speculation is also a defining characteristic of the imaginary mode.
As Lacan comments, "The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust
is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation" (4), for the anaclitic
child prefigures in an image the full development of its motor-nervous
system and thus achieves a kind of self-mastery. Such a child, in other
words, is something of a neuro (nerves)mancer (of the future). In terms
Myers 899
strikingly akin to these, Marshall McLuhan has famously written of
humanity's progress toward self-mastery by way of the annihilation of
space-time: "After three thousand years of explosion, by means of frag-
mentary and mechanical technologies, the Western World is imploding.
During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today,
after more than a century of electronic technology, we have extended
our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both
space and time as far as our planet is concerned" (34).7 In this image of
the extension of our central nervous system we can witness the prob-
lems of the imaginary amplified to global proportions. Once again the
task of self-mastery is imperiled by its own success, exposing itself to
the Kantian jeopardy of a boundless subjectivity that is pure self and that
thereby fails to secure its own objective conditions of existence. In this
respect, the "consensual hallucination" of cyberspace can be understood
as a kind of collective solipsism in which the aspirations of bourgeois
individualism are given free reign and end up being strangled on the
leash. For Terry Eagleton these temporal and spatial projections are of a
piece with each other:
The fantasy of total technological omnipotence conceals a
nightmare; in appropriating Nature you risk eradicating it, ap-
propriating nothing but your own acts of consciousness. There
is a similar problem with predictability, which in surrendering
phenomena into the hands of the sociological priests threat-
ens to abolish history. Predictive science founds the great pro-
gressive narratives of middle-class history, but by the same
stroke offers to undermine them, converting all diachrony to
a secret synchrony. (Ideology 74)
The tension that Eagleton alights upon here between the diachronic and
the synchronic is endemic to all anticipatory projects and, as such, it
enables us to read them in two seemingly contradictory ways.
While conceding with Eagleton that the imaginary mode fosters a
secret synchronization, I maintain that it equally expedites a form of
diachronization by affording the nascent subject the possibility of
narrativization. The anticipation of the mirrored infant enables it to im-
pute to its current position a teleology it would otherwise lack, "deci-
sively project[ing]," as Lacan remarks, "the formation of the individual
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibsons Neuromancer
900
into history" (4). We may understand this to mean resituating our own
present as cause rather than effect, which is to say as "history." For
Jameson, this is the generic function of science fiction, which, in present-
ing us with its possible futures, thereby "transform[s] our own present
into the determinate past of something yet to come. It is this present
moment [. . .] that upon our return from the imaginary constructs of SF
is offered to us in the form of some future world's remote past, as if
posthumous and as though collectively remembered" (Jameson, "Progress
Versus Utopia" 152). In Neuromancer it may be argued that this historicizing
process offers itself up more clearly in the guise of redemption, or at
least (given the dystopian qualities of Gibson's near future) the cool
comforts of survival after the mutually assured destruction of the Cold
War, which was threatening to heat up at the time of the novel's produc-
tion.
In the light of this, as Steven Connor notes, anticipation has come
to acquire a regenerative potency as a narrative strategy: "If one form of
the novel of history is concerned with investigating the new relations to
the past required by the dramatic changes of the late twentieth century,
another form is concerned with the possibility of narrating a future, and
with the assailed potential of narrative as such in a world in which abso-
lute finality and closure, which had hitherto been available to human life
through narratives, now threatened to bring to an end the narrative of
human history" (199200).
There is a sense in which the speculative novel does run the risk of
effecting closure upon the narrative of history, and, as Eagleton points
out above, of smuggling in synchrony under the assumption of diachrony.
For, like the narcissistic infant captivated by its own image, there is a
danger of imagining the future in terms of the present and thereby of
forming a closed circuit of representation. Neuromancer's all too persua-
sive future would seem to attest to this predicament, but in doing so it
also bears testament to a collective enfeeblement of the utopian imagi-
nation. We are so thoroughly immersed in the here-and-now, that we
are, as it were, inured to the future as much as we are inoculated against
the past. For Jameson, science fiction's function is to disclose this limited
horizon, because in "setting forth for the unknown, [it] finds itself irre-
vocably mired in the all-too-familiar, and thereby becomes unexpectedly
transformed into a contemplation of our own absolute limits" ("Progress
Myers 901
Versus Utopia" 153). The limits of the postmodern imaginary are always
those of the "self"." One of the more notable expressions of this pre-
dicament is, for Eagleton, the triumphal pronouncements of the end of
historypronouncements that he takes to task in a suitably speculative
register:
It is not out of the question that, in the apparent absence of
any "other" to the prevailing system, any utopic space beyond
it, some of the more desperate theoreticians of the day might
come to find the other of the system in itself. They might, in
other words, come to project utopia onto what we actually
have, finding in, say, the mobilities and transgressions of the
capitalist order, the hedonism and pluralities of the market-
place, the circulation of intensities in media and disco, a free-
dom and fulfilment which the more puritanical politicos among
us still grimly defer to some ever-receding future. They might
fold the future into the present and thus bring history slither-
ing abruptly to a halt. (Illusions 1819)
One of the more curious manifestations of the temporal folds that have
been produced by Neuromancer is its effects on the development of tech-
nology. The novel's central innovation is, for example, discussed as if it
were actually in existence, as Julian Stallabrass points out: "[C]yberspace
as a technological development has a strange status, not only because it
has not been realized, but also because it is a concept that has its origins
in fiction, particularly in the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson" (5). So
persuasive is Gibson's vision that the first virtual reality machine was
named after cyberspace, British Telecom are developing a "neuro-cam-
era" under the label "Soul Catcher" (from the title of Chapter 37 in
Mona Lisa Overdrive), and Timothy Leary (self-proclaimed virtual tech-
nology guru before his death) described Gibson as the author of the
"underlying myth, the core legend, of the next stage of human evolution"
(Woolley 3637).8 The new machines of virtuality are, in other words, in
an analogous position relative to Neuromancer, as the imaginary infant is
to the image in the mirror.
The enfeeblement of the utopic faculty may itself be read as a
symptom of the encroachment of immediacy upon the postmodern sub-
ject. The geographies of enclosure, which are already at work in the
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibsons Neuromancer
902
contemporary metropolis, are emblematic of this condition, and it is
one that, as Jameson remarks, threatens the very practice of
symptomology in the first place: "The new space that emerges involves
the suppression of distance (in the sense of Benjamin's aura) and the
relentless saturation of any remaining voids and empty places, to the
point where the postmodern body [. . .] is now exposed to a perceptual
barrage of immediacy from which all sheltering layers and intervening
mediations have been removed" (Postmodernism 41213). Such a "sup-
pression of distance," of course, is precisely the organizing principle of
cyberspace, whose topeme is, as we have already noted, the container.
Indeed, according to Gibson, cyberspace as a concept was intended to
suggest: "the point at which media [flow] together and surround us. It's
the ultimate extension of the exclusion of daily life. With cyberspace as
I describe it you can literally wrap yourself in media and not have to see
what's really going on around you" (qtd. in Woolley 122).
We may read this statement as an acknowledgement of the func-
tion of cyberspace as an imaginary resolution of the real problems of
coordination that have been identified as so perplexing to the postmodern
subject. For Bukatman this is a reason for celebration, because, in its
"open acknowledgement of the supersession of individual bodily experi-
ence" (149), cyberspace offsets the impoverishment of the self with a
kind of cognitive compensation: "[C]yberspace certainly hyperbolizes
the space of the city, projecting the metroscape into an exaggerated
representation that accentuates its bodiless vertigo, but it permits the
existence of a powerful and controlling gaze" (150). The power of this
gaze lies in its ability to unify and thereby domesticate the city's hetero-
geneous spatial practices. In this respect, we might concede that it is
cyberspace, and not Case, that assumes the mantle of the "private eye"
which for Raymond Williams is the emblem of urban rationalism.
Nowhere is the status of the cyberspace subject more clearly real-
ized as what Bukatman terms a "pure gaze" (151) than in the climactic
run of the novel when Case employs a program called Kuang to hack
into an Artificial Intelligence: "The Kuang program spurted from a tar-
nished cloud. Case's consciousness divided like beads of mercury, arcing
above an endless beach the color of the dark silver clouds. His vision
was spherical, as though a single retina lined the inner surface of a globe
that contained all things, if all things could be counted" (304). Perhaps
Myers 903
the most significant part of this astounding image is the subjunctive mood
of the last clause and its qualification of the totalizing claim made in the
previous statement. The one "thing" that cannot be counted in this sce-
nario is, of course, Case himself, reduced as he is to the status of a pure
gaze. For ˇ
Ziˇzek this situation is exemplary of both the fantasy-gaze and,
in a final irony for a postmodern text, the Cartesian cogito:
Cogito designates [the] very point at which the "I" loses its
support in the symbolic network of tradition and thus, in a
sense which is far from metaphorical, ceases to exist. And the
crucial point is that this pure cogito corresponds perfectly to
the fantasy-gaze: in it, I find myself reduced to a non-existent
gaze, i.e., after losing all my effective predicates, I am nothing
but a gaze paradoxically entitled to observe the world in which
I do not exist (like, say, the fantasy of parental coitus where I
am reduced to a gaze which observes my own conception,
prior to my actual existence, or the fantasy of witnessing my
own funeral). (Tarrying 64)
In this respect, cyberspace, we might say, is a computerized cogito; a fan-
tasy construct in which the "I" is absorbed by the "eye" and the subject
is reduced to observing reality from behind his/her retina. Looking at
everything from all sides, the cyberspace gaze embodies what Miran
Boˇzoviˇc describes as "the unbearable experience of the absolute point
of view" (166).9 Such an experience remains, however, an ideological
one, because of the manner in which, as Stallabrass argues, "[a] number
of old bourgeois dreams are encompassed in the promise of this tech-
nology: to survey the world from one's living room, to grasp the totality
of all data within a single frame, and to recapture a unified knowledge
and experience" (4). Stallabrass here reminds us that if cyberspace serves
as a kind of cognitive map of the city (that is as a way of representing and
reordering the relationship between the subject and the metropolis), then
this is merely a level of mediation; it is, to recall Jameson, a "representa-
tional shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more
difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentred
global network of the third stage of capital itself" (Postmodernism 38).
We may understand this assertion more clearly by reference to
one of the most graphic descriptions of cyberspace in Neuromancer:
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibsons Neuromancer
904
Program a map to display frequency of data exchange, every
thousand megabytes a single pixel on a very large screen.
Manhattan and Atlanta burn solid white. Then they start to
pulse, the rate of traffic threatening to overload your simula-
tion. Your map is about to go nova. Cool it down. Up your
scale. Each pixel a million megabytes. At a hundred million
megabytes per second, you begin to make out certain blocks
in midtown Manhattan, outlines of hundred-year-old indus-
trial parks ringing the old core of Atlanta . . . . (57)
Like capital itself, all qualities are transmuted into quantities here,
recalibrated as a universal form of data and thus domesticated within "a
single frame." The recodification of data as absolutes, what Stallabrass
affirms as "its transformation into readily understood visual forms" (8),
is what finally betrays the imaginary provenance of cyberspace. At the
time of Neuromancer's production, that is before 1984, computers were
still essentially a literary technology, documenting data in terms of fig-
ures and words. On Gibson's screens, however, data is represented pic-
torially and, as such, it represents a retreat from the differential values of
the symbolic into the absolutism of the imaginary. For Stallabrass this
amounts to a utopian gesture: "Such quantitative modes of thought pre-
suppose an identity between concept and object, word and thing, and
privilege mathematical logic as alone capable of grasping the essence of
things. The invention of cyberspace is, then, the attempt to create a world
where to perceive is the same as to understand, where 'objects' are
entirely adequate to their concepts, and are even, through their demate-
rialization, identical with them" (31). What such a space ultimately repre-
sents, however, is a world without lack, a "Shangri-da" we might say, in
which the constitutive insufficiency of the symbolic is fatally replenished
by the transparency of the image. Lacking any point of mediation, repre-
sentation thus collapses back into reality and the subject disappears from
the signifying chain, finally failing to enjoy the ostensive paradise that it
has dreamt about for so long. For it is lack, this challenge to the empire
of the self, that indexes and expedites the constitution of subjectivity in
the first place. As Ernesto Laclau argues, "I am a subject precisely because
I cannot be an absolute consciousness, because something constitutively
alien confronts me" (21).
Myers 905
The realization of Gibson's cyberspace, then, has devastating ef-
fects. In trying to concatenate the relationships between the individual
and the totality, cyberspace subjects the latter to the imaginary dynamic
of the former. The operations of this dynamic result in the subjectification
of the totality, and both it and the individual subject merge into an abso-
lute. The consequence of this is that, lacking any point of opacity in the
signifying chain, the subject also disappears. All that is left is the existing
symbolic network, a kind of imaginary symbolic, petrified and no longer
subject to change. Of course, this fact has a deeply ideological force. For
if we accept that cyberspace functions as a form of cognitive mapping, it
does so only insofar as it fixes the relationship between the individual
and the totality of late capitalism in a permanent embrace. The imbrica-
tion of Case and the technologies of the matrix may be said to repre-
sent something of this outcome, one in which subjectivity is reduced to
a function of the system in a manner reminiscent of the most pessimistic
critiques of capitalism. Indeed, at one level, the novel seeks to elaborate
just this recuperation of Case to a socially acceptable status. Whilst he
starts Neuromancer as "just another hustler, trying to make it through"
(11), he ends it by having his criminal record erased, undergoing a "com-
plete flush out" (134) of his blood, and being in possession of a valid
passport, as well as a large sum of legal money. Such a fairy-tale ending
represents nothing more than the inscription of Case within the social
imaginary of late capitalism. He becomes, quite literally (in the last image
of the novel), part of the system. What remains to be seen is whether
the cyber-technologies that scientists are developing in line with those
of Neuromancer produce the same effects. If they do, of course, then like
the human population in the film The Matrix (which is also a minor alle-
gory on the same theme), we will never know.
Notes
1. Of all Jameson's analyses of postmodernity his comments on space have
been subject to the most trenchant critiques. On Jameson's conception
of cognitive mapping, Doreen Massey, for example, remarks that "while
space is posed as unrepresentable, time is thereby, at least implicitly and
at those moments, counterposed as the comforting security of a story it is
possible to tell. This of course clearly reflects a notion of the difference
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibsons Neuromancer
906
between time and space in which time has a coherence and logic to its
telling, while space does not" (83). Echoing this point, Steve Pile suspects
"that the lack of dynamism in Jameson's model stems from his underlying
sense of space as being a passive backdrop to social relationships" (247).
Similarly, Sean Homer finds that '[d]espite [Jameson's] ostensible inten-
tions, space has once more become defined negatively in relation to time'
(145). While it is undoubtedly true that Jameson proposes a certain level
of difficulty in coordinating oneself in postmodern space, it by no means
follows that this is an implicit valorization of time. Indeed, as he states
explicitly in Postmodernism, there is no easy way to separate the two cat-
egories and what he therefore means by the "spatial turn" of
postmodernism is the distinction "between two forms of interrelation-
ship between time and space rather than between those two inseparable
categories themselves" (154). Jameson's critique of postmodern space is
thus bound to a critique of a postmodern temporality that "has forgotten
how to think historically" (ix). In the light of this, we may understand
Jameson's call for cognitive mapping as an attempt to produce a form of
representation that is able to articulate the relationship between the indi-
vidual and the general, the particular and the universal, as they are medi-
ated by the socio-economic and cultural productions of both space and
time. It is an attempt, in other words, to think the totality, and therefore
its "representational failure" does not stand for a willful castigation of
space; indeed, as Jameson points out, "once you knew what 'cognitive
mapping' was driving at, you were to dismiss all figures of maps and map-
ping from your mind and try to imagine something else" (Postmodernism
409).
2. Perhaps the most salient manifestation of such inertia can be found in the
form of the computer. For Jameson, "this new machine" does not, unlike
"the older machinery of the locomotive or the airplane, represent mo-
tion," rather it "can only be represented in motion" (Postmodernism 45).
This is exactly how Neuromancer portrays the new technology, often by
recourse to the kinetic idiom of older machinery, such as, for example,
when Case has "the strange impression of being in the pilot's seat in a
small plane." Speed, under such conditions, is merely experienced as "the
sensation of speed," thereby giving rise to the paradoxically "worrying
impression of solid fluidity" (302) that troubles Case on one of his runs.
3. Neuromancer, however, does hint that Turkey will soon succumb to the
capitalist imaginary and the homogenization of space. Perhaps the most
obvious example of this is the hotel where the protagonists stay here:
"Their room might have been the one in Chiba where he'd first seen
Armitage. He went to the window, in the morning, almost expecting to
see Tokyo Bay" (108).
Myers 907
4. Lacan notes that "the formation of the I is symbolized in dreams by a
fortress, or a stadiumits inner area and enclosure, surrounded by marshes
and rubbish tips, dividing it into two opposed fields of contest" (5).
5. A lesson first learned, of course, by Gertrude Stein who described Oak-
land in the same terms.
6. Gibson's explanation of the incipience of "cyberspace" is suitably inflected
within the indeterminate rubric of irony: "Assembled word cyberspace
from small and readily available components of language. Neologic spasm:
the primal act of pop poetics. Preceded any concept whatever. Slick and
hollowawaiting received meaning" (qtd. in Stallabrass 5). What, of course,
is not ironic about this description is how it attests to the value of the
signifier in the market place. It is perhaps only the plasticity of
"postmodernism" that can compare in this respect for sheer marketing
success.
7. McLuhan's triumphalism is poignantly undercut some twenty years later
by Jameson's befuddlement: "The newer architecture thereforelike many
of the other cultural products I have evoked [. . .] stands as something
like an imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our
body to some new, yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, di-
mensions" (Postmodernism 39). Of course, just as Jameson was making this
plea, Gibson was refining his own response to this crisis in the form of the
reticulated networks of cyberspace, which, in one of its definitions, is "ac-
tually a drastic simplification of the human sensorium" (Mona Lisa 71).
8. Gibson has registered his unease at this proclivity for epochal astrology,
stating that "I sometimes get the feeling that technical people who like my
work miss several layers of irony" (qtd. in Woolley37). Critics of cyberspace
technology tend, like Mark Slouka, to be alarmed by it because it helps to
accentuate "our growing separation from reality" (1). For ˇ
Ziˇzek, however,
this alarm merely indexes an over-proximity to the "secret" of reality,
which is its very virtuality:
[T]he experience of virtual reality should [. . .] make us sensitive
to how the "reality" with which we were dealing always-already
was virtualized. The most elementary procedure of symbolic iden-
tification, identification with an Ego Ideal, involves [. . .] an identifi-
cation with a virtual image: the place in the Big Other from which
I see myself in the form in which I find myself likeable (the defini-
tion of Ego Ideal) is by definition virtual. Is not virtuality, therefore,
the trademark of every, even the most elementary, ideological iden-
tification? When I see myself as a "democrat," a "communist," an
The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibsons Neuromancer
908
"American," a "Christian," and so on, what I see is not directly
"me": I identify with a virtual place in the discourse. And in so far
as such an identification is constitutive of a community, every com-
munity is also stricto sensu always-already virtual. (Indivisible 194)
9. It is unbearable because, as ˇ
Ziˇzek notes elsewhere, "self-consciousness is
the very opposite of self-transparency: I am aware of myself only insofar
as outside of me a place exists where the truth about me is articulated"
(Tarrying 67). The "absolute point of view," in other words, occasions the
disappearance of the subject. In this respect, ˇ
Ziˇzek argues that
what brings about the "loss of reality" in cyberspace is not its
emptiness (the fact that it is lacking with respect to the fullness of
the real presence) but, on the contrary, its very excessive fullness
(the potential abolition of the dimension of symbolic virtuality). Is
not one of the possible reactions to the excessive filling-in of the
voids of cyberspace therefore informational anorexia, the desper-
ate refusal to accept information, in so far as it occludes the pres-
ence of the Real? (Plague 155)
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... The concept of cyberspace comes from the 1990s and the writing of William Gibson (Myers, 2001). The idea, succinctly expressed, is that the immersive and interconnected nature of electronic networks, gives them spatial dimensions, i.e. they become 'real' , as represented, for example in and by the Matrix films. ...
... The concept of cyberspace comes from the 1990s and the writing of William Gibson (Myers, 2001). The idea, succinctly expressed, is that the immersive and interconnected nature of electronic networks, gives them spatial dimensions, i.e. they become 'real' , as represented, for example in and by the Matrix films. ...
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What is nowhere? Is it a non-place that has been created by the disappearance of distinct identities in the spread of standardised, global capitalism? Or has it come about as a result of colonialisation and the separation of indigenous cultures from their lands, and their replacement with vacuous, colonised, globalised non-places? This article suggests that ‘nowhere’, which was satirically entitled, ‘Erewhon’ by Samuel Butler due to the inverted action of machines, is still being created today, but by the combined forces of financial capitalism, digital colonialisation (e.g. Facebook or Twitter) and the present-day global curriculum, and its concomitant teaching and learning methods. Even though the present day curriculum refers to place, for example, in geographical studies, this referencing in no way establishes a connection with or to this place for the cohort. Rather, the present day curriculum precisely and systematically evacuates any possibility of connective-affective-synthesis (i.e. a curriculum that is enacted and felt), and at the same time provides false and illusionary utopias, such as an ideal global democracy based on international money flows. These actions in the establishment of ‘nowheres’ through learning shall be explored in this article by attention to tropes connected to contemporary educational practice and the philosophy of education.
... What appears bewildering is understood through the things that he uses to explain place. The entire place of the novel unfolds and makes sense once one understands the technology and objects Gibson uses to create place within the narrative (for further reading see Batty, 1997a;Concannon, 1998;Myers, 2001). The world in the book is not far removed from the world we find ourselves in today: an environment often dominated and defined by computational devices. ...
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