Hubert Dreyfus’s On the Internet heavily deals with the concept of embodiment. To Dreyfus, embodiment requires the presence of the physical self because a virtual world contains “…no real risk. Thus, no courage is required and no thrill and satisfaction can be experienced”(Dreyfus, 95). He also mentions the consequences of not being physically present, stating that “…focal occasions require a shared mood and the sense that all who are present are present are sharing that mood.”(108). However William Gibson’s Neuromancer contradicts this description of embodiment, as his virtual world not only contains real-life consequences, but allows both greater human connections and a viable and necessary alternative to the real world.
One important way in which Dreyfus’s negative conceptualization of virtual embodiment is counteracted is through the event that drives the entire novel – Case stealing from his employer. Although it is not mentioned explicitly, Gibson highly implies that the nature of this theft was virtual in nature and when “[Case] kept something for himself and tried to move it through a fence in Amsterdam”(Gibson, 5), he was punished for stealing virtual data, having his nervous system poisoned and preventing him from accessing the matrix. This, in turn, leads to Case’s drug addiction and frantic search for a way to restart his career.
The act of stealing in a virtual environment leads to horrific mutilation in the real world for Case, and in contrast to Dreyfus’s description of real-world embodiment as shared experiences and moods, this cutoff matrix makes it even more difficult for him to connect to others and live a fulfilling life. Not once in the beginning pages of the novel is he depicted to have any kind of a relationship with anyone other than Linda Lee, who has been brutally murdered, and all of his acquaintances are weapons dealers or black clinic associates. He has to avoid people, as many of them are out to kill him, as revealed in his conversation with Deane. The real world, in vast contradiction to Dreyfus’s claims, leads to complete and utter unfulfillment for Case and almost ruins his life.
In contrast, once he meets Molly and loses his drug addiction, Case is given an opportunity to directly connect with her to once again enter the virtual world. He literally shares a body with her in the process, allowing him access to a form of empathy impossible in the real world due to separation of individuals. He can experience her interactions, her senses, and her physical self, even though he cannot hear her private thoughts. The process itself creates a new kind of interaction that amounts to the fusion of embodiment between two people. It allows Case a deeper connection with Molly, allowing them to eventually complete their task and steal Pauley’s memory. Gibson describes the matrix as “…a drastic simplification of the human sensorium, at least in terms of presentation, but simstim itself…as a gratuitous multiplication of flesh input”(55). But while this flesh input may not allow for a literal fused consciousness, it allows the two to understand each other better and forge a kind of empathetic fused embodiment that allows them to complete Armitage’s task.
Additionally, it is worth mentioning that one of the reasons virtual connections seem to be so much stronger than physical ones is because the real world has become exceedingly gaudy, cheap, and fake. Case observes that “[an] elevator, like Cheap Hotel, was an afterthought, lashed to the building with bamboo and epoxy”(19). In this futuristic society, frugality has become accepted, with the deterioration of everything in sight being an everyday occurrence for its inhabitants. People have become neglectful of their surroundings, implying a kind of indifference towards their own existence and society.
They respond to this overwhelming shoddiness and neglect by creating a virtual world, which can exist as a positive alternative to their sad reality. In their new world, human potential is limitless. People can embody each other and their surroundings, directly experience how others feel, create virtual surroundings, and use all of these to add meaning to their own lives that does not exist in the real world. This scenario contradicts Dreyfus’s accusation that the virtual embodiment is riskless and lacks true human connection.
Gibson’s presentation of the concept of embodiment provides an important contrast to critics like Dreyfus who claim that a virtual world cannot provide the benefits of reality, however Neuromancer’s depiction is not simply one of benefits, but one of alternatives. In an increasingly-more-decrepit and materialistic world, cyberspace allows the characters an alternative that is both viable and necessary.