Talking Pictures: Wired's Kevin Kelly Plugs Into Johnny Mnemonic
I'm late. Twenty-six minutes worth. The movie has started by the time I get to the theater. Making my way down the center aisle, I peer through the dark. Somewhere out in that crowd is author Kevin Kelly, but damned if I know where. Up on the screen, Keanu Reeves is scuffling with thugs in a pitch-black alley, trying to avoid having his head hacked off. In any other movie, I think ruefully, there would be some occasional flash of big-screen luminescence, a daytime scene, something to throw some light (literally) over the audience. But this is Johnny Mnemonic-cyberspace cinema-where all the action takes place at night on poorly bulbed streets or inside a computer, and the only bursts of light are those from high-tech laser guns. I give up looking for Kelly and sit down to watch the film. Johnny is based on a short story by William Gibson, the visionary writer who coined the term cyberspace and gave birth to a new storytelling genre: the cyber-noir thriller. Johnny, typical of Gibson's work, is set in a run-down, high-tech, low-prospect future where the population is dying of a weird industrial virus and daredevil couriers (Reeves is one) carry uploads of data in their wet-wired brains. I liked it. "I liked it, too" admits Kelly, when we finally meet up after the show. "I enjoy movies where I am immersed into an alternative world. There was enough forethought and design to convince you that, 'Yeah! The future could be like that.'" "Was this a future that appeals to you?" I ask. "No!" he says. Kelly is the executive editor at Wired, the magazine that has become monthly scripture to savvy members of the growing computer culture. A former editor of the Whole Earth Review, which helped to mainstream the use of personal computers, Kelly also co-created The Well, a Cyberspace chat-world that has become a model for services of its kind. He is the author of Out of Control -- The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. Just issued in paperback, it is a marvelously entertaining, eye-opening exploration of what computer technology is capable of, and the probable effects of that technology on our lives. "It strikes me," I suggest to Kelly, over coffee and cheesecake, "that of all science-fiction genres, this whole cyber-view of the future is especially, um, dark." Why, I ask, is there such a proliferation of ugly, violent visions of the future? Where are the optimistic, upbeat stories of a warm, safe cyber-utopia? Kelly shrugs. "Unfortunately, I don't think our culture is in any mood to believe in utopias right now," he muses. "There is a complete shortage of optimistic visions of the future. "Actually, Wired has been accused of being too optimistic. And I do think there is a psychological need for optimism. It's well established that if you remove hope from an environment, such as in the inner cities, then the human soul collapses. Hope is very much a part of the human condition. It's necessary for survival." He takes a bite of cake, pausing a moment to think this through. "But you know," he continues, "the real message in these cyber-noir films is not so much that the future is awful, but that there is no advance without some corresponding setback. There is a cost to everything. I think that's a valid point. The other point is that the future will not arrive, as Gibson himself has said it, 'evenly distributed.' The future is not going to be all brand new. There is going to be all the old stuff with something new on top." Pulling some examples from our movie, Kelly creates a list. "There were high-tech laser weapons and crossbows. High-speed planes and elevators running on motors. Bio-implants and homeless people. Virtual Reality and TV remote controls. "The old and the new coincide -- and that's the pattern. "Our early vision, in the Industrial Revolution, was that the new technology would supersede the old. We now know that was wrong. What we've seen is the new technology overlapping, like an onion layer, on the old technology. The old never goes away." He pauses and then adds with an amused look, "You know, I think you can expect the future to be, possibly, even stranger than in Gibson. I think it would be interesting to watch this movie in another 30 years, to see how closely it matches what's actually happening. I think the major reaction would be, 'Boy! They never imagined XXX.' "And I think the other reaction would be, 'Wow! That sure was depressing. Aren't we glad things didn't turn out like that!"