I don't like William Gibson's Op-Ed piece on Google in today's New York Times
merely because, barely a week after I went all Jeremy Bentham Panopticonic on
the cat bin lady, he writes that "Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon prison design is a
perennial metaphor in discussions of digital surveillance and data mining, but
it doesn't really suit an entity like Google." Even though it's kind of a
put-down (perennial!), still, great minds think almost alike, right?
Nor am I content just to revel in the crispness of his prose:
Google is a distributed entity, a two-way membrane, a game-changing tool on the
order of the equally handy flint hand ax, with which we chop our way through the
very densest thickets of information.
That's some nice work. It doesn't matter what the format is, tweet, Op-Ed column
or novel; the man knows what he is about with the English language. (Seriously,
Gibson tweets like a cyborg-Mozart. He's unstoppable!)
But we knew that already. No, what I like most about Gibson's column is how he
manages to plumb, in his consideration of Google, depths that are equal parts
menacing and cool, just as he does in his novels, including his newest offering,
"Zero History," arriving momentarily at a bookstore or e-reader near you.
The cyberspace of "Neuromancer," Gibson's first novel, established the template.
When Case jacked into his Ono-Sendai deck and merged his consciousness with the
data flow, the adventure seemed simultaneously hip and dangerous, cool and
So is Google -- that handy flint ax and instrument of collaborative
surveillance. Google knows too much about us, while helping us find out whatever
it is we want to know. The two functions, of course, are complementary. You
don't get the enlightenment without giving up some privacy. Few writers are
better situated to explore this cyber-generated paradox than Gibson.
In his newest novel, Gibson continues his career-long flight from cyberspace
into something more or less analogous to the present day. Malign Japanese
transnational corporations have been replaced by the military-industrial-fashion
complex. (Cool, yet scary, just like Google.) Denim jeans push the plot harder
than silicon wizardry. But the sensibility is the same, even if cyberspace
jockies have been replaced by ex-punk rock singers with a nose for street-level
haute couture. It's a good read.
But even as abreast of the zeitgeist, or ahead of it, as Gibson usually
operates, Google is moving more quickly than even a well-timed Op-Ed column in
the New York Times can manage. Just yesterday, my Twitter feed was alive with
discussion of a new feature for Google's Gmail, Priority Inbox. Currently in
elite beta testing, Priority Inbox is supposed to be able to float the really
"important" e-mails to the top of your queue, while dropping down the mailing
list flame wars, office gossip and other extraneous bullshit that clogs up our
e-mail pipes every day.
Of course, to do this, Gmail has to figure out even more about us than it
already knows. Who are the correspondents we judge more deserving of our
attention, et cetera? The trade-off is obvious. The give and take between
utility and panopticonic omniscience is as exquisitely illustrated by Priority
Inbox as anything Gibson name-checks.
And I want it, even as I bristle at the idea that Google can figure out what my
priorities are without my help. Given the track record of the past decade, I'm
trusting Google to deliver on its promises. Just as I trust Gibson to keep
writing excellent novels.
Only difference, with Gibson, there's no downside.