Freedom and Restraint: Gibson's and Dreyfus' Outlook on Cyberspace and Online Culture
William Gibson offers an escape from the real world through the cyberspace that he created in Neuromancer. And it’s quite literally a transition from the real world. In Gibson’s cyberpunk novel, Case regains his connection with the cyberspace world after a technological surgery is performed on him in order to carry out a task back in the “Matrix,” or virtual reality database. In Hubert Dreyfus’ On The Internet, the embodiment into the technology is a representation of one’s self into an online environment. But while the people that Dreyfus describes are restrained, the characters in Neuromancer are free-willed and self-aware when they are embodied in cyberspace.
At its basic level, Neuromancer is about Case attempting to re-engage with cyberspace and the information it puts forth. Case is introduced as someone who stole something virtually from his past employers, so had his nervous system damaged, which prevents him from carrying out his role as a hacker into computer networks in order to steal information. But Case is granted the chance to receive a surgery to allow him to reconnect with cyberspace with the caveat that he must perform a task for Armitage. In the passage that his surgery is performed, Gibson presents this is a positive thing for him – that cyberspace space social communication is valuable:
And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Easter Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.
And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distance fingers caressing the deck, tears of releasing streaking his face. (52)
Clearly, the integration of a human into the electronic world is seen as a positive thing. But Case has suffered from a sense of disconnectedness, which Dreyfus examines because people don’t have to experience risk or commit. “Someone seeking serious commitments and the last meaning they promise could enter the virtual world, but such a seeker would have to resist what is most seductive about the virtual world, viz., the promise of freedom from finitude” (Dreyfus 105). Case does not develop any legitimate relationships outside of Molly, who he essentially forges with in order to complete Armitage’s task. So the virtual world provides a relationship with Molly, although his freedom is compromised.
In Dreyfus’ On The Internet, he discusses the consequences and impact of virtual embodiment, specifically in the case of Second Life. One can draw comparisons between the cyberspace world of that in Neuromancer and that of Second Life, which launches individuals into a different world. In this computer-generated world, users can create a new identity that becomes a part of this shared space. Individuals yearn to become connected to others through a large network. But through the different methods of today and in Neuromancer, that tends to force people into a less human way. For instance, in Second Life, people create avatars to represent themselves, which they can choose to develop in whatever way they choose. They can be a stripper even if, in real life, they are a CEO at a major corporation. They use that persona to interact with other people’s characters that they’ve developed. Dreyfus notes that this can lead to a sense of disconnectedness to the real world as they create a dependency of the game.
Online discourse is becoming increasingly popular, with more programs that allow for interaction every year. But the ambivalence less restrained but somewhat controlled conditions presents an ambivalent status of characters. When Case asks Molly why she continues to work for Armitage, she says, “I’m an easy make. Anybody any good at what they do, that’s what they are, right? You gotta jack, I gotta tussle” (Gibson 50). So while Molly is free and conscious of her embodiment, Dreyfus argues that those online today are not.