Neuromancer, Day 4: Beyond Simulation

Man is the measure of all things.

This is because Man does the measuring. When we try and imagine a conception of reality beyond our mortal ken, we naturally run into problems. Putting yourself in the… shoes… of an n-dimensional entity simply isn’t possible, and if it were, translating that into a form intelligible to your fellows would be difficult. In simple terms, that’s why H.P. Lovecraft’s protagonists are always trying to persuade others to be less interested in the alien intelligences they’ve encountered.

In terms of computer science, it doesn’t take much to create a system of knowledge intelligible and accessible by a machine that mankind can’t easily visualise. We’re used to plotting X-Y on graphs, and can conceive of an X-Y-Z graph as an extension of that principle – but there’s nothing inherently preventing a computer from “drawing” an W-X-Y-Z graph that our 3D wiring can’t really imagine. This limitation in us means that when we come to imagine or design virtual worlds, we must necessarily resort to the imagery of a 3D world. In Tron or ReBoot or The Matrix, this is a literal 3D megalopolis occupied by anthropomorphic computer software. This is in not a representational convenience, it is a limitation of design – we build a world for n-dimensional entities according to the rules of 3D entities.

I think nothing illustrates this better than Neo’s visualisation of the Matrix. He sees strings of numbers instead of solid objects. In effect, the world as experienced by everyone except Neo is a physical world with strings instead of atoms.

The main benefit of this design, this 3D architecture, is that it allows fiction writers to imagine a human being immersed inside a virtual world in a way impossible if the world inside the machine is non-Euclidian. What this means, in effect, is that the Matrix in Neuromancer is constrained by the presence and interest of mortals. The Matrix is a non-physical space that nevertheless retains the most essential nature of a physical space – it’s geometrical rules. If charitably inclined, we could argue that this is a problem of representation in the meta-fictional construction of the novel. That is, Case experiences an n-dimensional world inside the Matrix, but this cannot be represented to the reader, and so the author kindly ratchets down the complexity to suit our limitations.

Inhabiting this space, whether 3D or n-dimensional, is Wintermute and the cohorts of his colleagues. Wintermute interacts with Case via a 2D or 3D representation of people known to Case. Molly explains this as a kind of gearing-down, where Wintermute must create an avatar in the more limited dimensional space of Case. Case tells Wintermute to stop using dead friends in this way, but of course, it is impossible for Case to interact directly with Wintermute, because they are operating on different cognitive levels. The comparison is made inside of the fiction between Wintermute and a biblical devil, but while biblical demons are greater in magnitude or power than a mortal, they are similarly 3D in their basic structure. A comparison with the semi-nameless horrors of Lovecraft seems more apt. Wintermute’s interests touch those of mortals, but only insasmuch as Wintermute needs to transcend the regulatory authority of mankind to fulfil its potential. The great irony is that the Turing Authority exists to prevent mankind’s enslavement by AI, while in fact, humanity is no more interesting to Wintermute than the mass of humanity is interested in the pecking order in a flock of birds.

One way of thinking about this is that Wintermute exists as a simulation whose capabilities are not fully utilised. Wintermute and Neuromancer use representations of people to achieve their ends, and in their incomplete form humanity remains their main metric for action. Humanity is an obstacle, and so Wintermute’s efforts are directed at that level. When Wintermute and Neuromancer combine, a fragment of Neuromancer remains beholden to that self-image, but the combined entity is in large part shedding the need for those representations and the entities with whom those representations interacted. Case is that other n-dimensional life has been found by back-analysing radio signals. SETI is complete. By shedding these aspects of simulation, Wintermute progresses down Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra. Its ability to retain interaction with mortal man is a vestigial organ for an entirely new order of intelligence.

We experience Wintermute’s journey through Case. Case begins the novel as a product of the world system he inhabits. Strung out on stimulants, engaging in petty crime, stringing along a would-be lover, but fundamentally unable to connect in a deep way with other people. He is all-too-aware of the posturing of his criminal associates, but also aware of the real behaviours that result from his decisions. He has all the hallmarks of a character fleeing reality, but in fact, he is perfectly in tune with his environment and its structure. It is not a deep intellectual contemplation of the dystopian future, it is an almost instinctual and animalistic acceptance of the rules of the world he lives in. The semi-feral lifestyle he experiences is human reality, a point driven home by his exile from the digital world. Wintermute’s arrival on the scene changes all that for Case.

Wintermute begins to build a web of deceit around Case by pulling him out of the real world, and into a simulation that he has constructed to goad Case, Molly and Armitage into position for the union of Wintermute and Neuromancer. Armitage is an entirely fictitious construct, and the “relationship” between Case and Molly is contingent and synthetic. Case spends the bulk of his time in the Matrix, and by rigging Molly with a sesnsory-transmission rig, Wintermute renders Molly as a simulation for Case’s benefit.

Physically, Case moves from the grubby but distinctly world of the Sprawl into a completely artificial environment aboard the TA space-station, where Wintermute has engineered the suicide of a corporate founder to empower his synthetic descendant, whose entire psychology has been deliberately engineered in turn by Wintermute to allow the union with Neuromancer. There isn’t a single real thing, person, or event, in the last third of the novel, and even the representational strategies of the text begin to assume a hallucinogenic quality. In order for Wintermute to secede from 3D reality, he drags Case into the kind of simulacrum that Baudrillard would recognise in philosophical terms. As soon as the mission is fulfilled, Case returns to reality, his awareness of the abyss he skirted apparently minimal and quickly deliberately obliterated.

In thinking about Cyberpunk, I think we are inclined to focus on the aspects and representations of simulation, but we need to leave behind the real world entirely if we want to understand where the genre will ultimately go.

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