‘I jack in and I’m not here’ said Case.
William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984) opens up a valuable perspective on the importance of retaining a sense of embodied presence, despite alluring visions of complete sensory immersion in virtual worlds in science fiction literature and film. It is important that this valuable perspective on embodiment is not lost, at a time when immersion in virtual worlds has the potential to become ubiquitous. Indeed, it is important to question what may happen when immersion in virtual reality appears to be comparable, or even preferable to life in the flesh. Moreover, Gibson’s novel also invites us to imagine if embodied presence will be rendered insignificant when artificial intelligence systems inhabit and communicate with people via virtual worlds.
There is a particularly memorable moment in Neuromancer when the main protagonist Case refers to immersion in virtual reality. What is striking is that Case begins with a reference to subjective awareness – ‘I jack in’. Yet his subjectivity is suddenly destabilised by the statement ‘I’m not here’. Case’s statement is intriguing because it raises questions about embodiment, consciousness and spatial location. Indeed Case suggests that the body can be situated in a particular location whilst the mind is elsewhere, immersed in an alternative computer-generated world. Indeed, Case’s proclamation evokes the philosophical work of René Descartes (1985), during the seventeenth century, in which the mind and body are regarded as separate and distinct.
The back-story of Neuromancer is that Case’s former employer administered a toxin into his body which prevents him from becoming immersed in virtual reality. Gibson vividly conveys Case’s sense of frustration and craving for immersion in virtual reality in the following way:
He’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there (1986:11).
As the novel progresses, Case is recruited by a mysterious figure named Armitage to carry out a cyberspace ‘run’ – a hacking operation. As part of the recruitment package Armitage arranges for Case to have treatment which will remove the toxin from his nervous system, so he can once again immerse himself in virtual reality. Despite the pain that Case experiences after having the toxin removed the first thing he wants to do upon regaining consciousness after surgery is to ‘jack into’ cyberspace to access virtual worlds. Despite this eagerness, Case’s desire for immersion is not satisfied immediately because he must wait a further eight days before ‘jacking in’. When Case finally ‘jacks in’ he experiences a physical and emotional response: ‘tears of release streak his face’ (1986:69), which suggests that there is an interconnection between conscious awareness, emotions, the physical body and the immersive experience.
At the end of Neuromancer it seems that Case achieves some sort of acceptance of his physical, embodied existence. Case is no longer the rookie hacker who longs for immersion virtual reality. Alone in a hotel room, he throws a shuriken (a pointed star weapon) to a computer screen and proclaims ‘I don’t need you’ (1986:317). In this respect Case’s actions could be interpreted as a sign that he no longer craves immersion in virtual reality and is more embedded and fully embodied in his spatio-temporal surroundings.
Neuromancer also features a character called Dixie Flatline, an artificial intelligence which is based on the consciousness of a former hacker McCoy Pauley. After a particularly intense experience of immersion in virtual reality, McCoy Pauley flatlined and was reconstructed as a personality construct through computer code. Gibson’s novel indicates that the personality construct is not some technological ideal. For Dixie Flatline tells Case that it wants to be terminated, un-plugged, after it has served its purpose on a hacking mission. It is unclear if Dixie Flatline includes memories of McCoy Pauley’s embodiment. Indeed the reader is left wondering if Dixie Flatline is a recording of memories, or a reconstruction of a person’s skills. Furthermore, commenting on Neuromancer, Tyler Stevens remarks that ‘more often than not the novel denies that these digital copies of people, ghosts in the machines, are real like we’re real’ (1996:416).
In the 1990s Timothy Leary envisaged a situation in which virtual reality technology would develop so that a hierarchy of tactile experiences would emerge. In Leary’s (1994) scenario we would reserve our embodied interactions for our most valued relationships, whilst the majority of our social interaction would be mediated via virtual environments. Nevertheless even if such virtual environments became technologically possible there could still be something missing from them, such as the physical sense of presence and touch. For embodied co-presence offers a much wider sensory bandwidth than virtual environments since it involves the sense of smell, bodily secretions and tactile contact. Indeed, holding, embracing and touching another person is one of our basic human pleasures and is a way of forming bonds of trust.
From a contemporary perspective, it is interesting to reflect on the period in which Neuromancer was published. During this period commercially available virtual reality technologies and computer-games were just emerging. During those early days, immersion in virtual reality was a novelty; it was an extraordinary experience which was only accessible in particular locations, at theme parks and games arcades. In the twenty-first century however, it is possible to be perpetually enmeshed within digital networks and virtual worlds through the habitual use of mobile digital devices. Commenting on the significance of contemporary technology, British scientist, Baroness Susan Greenfield asserts that the digital is ‘…a parallel world where you can be on the move in the real world, yet always hooked into an alternative time and place’ (2014, p.1).
In closing this ship’s archive, it is important to underscore the significance of Neuromancer since the novel cautions against becoming lost in fantasies of immersion in virtual worlds. For despite his initial enchantment with immersion in computer-generated worlds, Case comes to realise the importance of real-world experiences. It is imperative to retain this sense of embodied presence, even as human beings migrate to the stars, to inhabit other worlds. For as the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger (1962; 1966) indicates a sense of being-in-the-world or dwelling is closely aligned to physical presence and a sense of care for the spaces we inhabit.
Descartes, R. The philosophical writings of Descartes.Translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. London: Grafton, 1986.
Greenfield, Susan. Mind Changes: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Mark On Our Brains. London: Penguin Random House, 2014.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.
Melanie Chan completed a PhD on Representations of Virtual Reality in 2007. She is now Senior Lecturer on the BA (Hons) Media, Communication Cultures programme at Leeds Beckett University.
Her research interests include virtual reality, mobile media and digital culture. She has also published a monograph “Virtual Reality: Representations in Contemporary Media (Bloomsbury, 2014)” and ‘Environmentalism and The Animated Landscape in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke’ as part of the edited collection The Animated Landscape (Bloomsbury, 2015). Other published work includes the chapter ‘Place, Play and Privacy: Exploring Location-Based Applications and Spatial Experience’ In Digital Futures and the City of Today (Intellect, 2016).