At the beginning of One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse makes an important observation in regard to the future of modern society. To the degree to which freedom from want is becoming a real possibility, there seems to be no reason why the production and distribution of goods and services should proceed through the competitive concurrence of individual liberties (Marcuse 1-2). This idea can be better used to understand the roles and implications of artificial intelligence in William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer, as a mechanism for humanity for freedom of want.
If the individual were no longer compelled to prove himself on the market, as a free economic subject, the disappearance of this kind of freedom (freedom of enterprise) would be one of the greatest achievements of civilization. The technological process of mechanization and standardization might release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity; the individual would be liberated from the work world’s imposing upon him alien needs and alien possibilities. The individual would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own. If the productive apparatus could be organized and directed toward the satisfaction of vital needs, its control might well be centralized; such control would not prevent individual autonomy, but render it possible (Marcuse 2).What Marcuse is saying is that if the individual did not have to worry about things like working for a living, the individual would be free to live and explore areas of knowledge and culture that would otherwise be unavailable due to constraints placed upon the individual by society.
What does this have to do with Neuromancer? The world of Neuromancer is more or less a reflection of our current world. There is still money, violence, social classes, scarcity of goods, etc.—all of which are present in our world today. Marcuse puts forth the notion that new modes of realization are needed in order for society to realize true freedom (Marcuse 4). However, these new modes of realization have yet to come to fruition because of the strength of the forces that oppose them (Marcuse 4). One such dominant force is that of false needs. Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with advertisements belong to the category of false needs (Marcuse 5). In other words, consumerism. Consumerism, synonymous with current industrialized culture, is alive and well in Gibson’s world. It is evidenced by a scene Case describes, “Summer in the Sprawl, the mall crowds swaying like wind-blown grass, a field of flesh shot through with sudden eddies of need and gratification.” (Gibson 46). Furthermore, Marcuse points out that modern civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body and that people recognize themselves in and through their commodities (Marcuse 9) (aka things like Case and his console). Moreover, this is demonstrated quite literally through human augmentation. People’s identities are literally tied to the augmentations they have done to their bodies.
Okay, so how do we fix this? According to Marcuse, advanced industrial society is approaching the stage where continued progress would demand the radical subversion of the prevailing direction and organization of progress. This stage would be reached when material production (including the necessary services) becomes automated to the extent that all vital needs can be satisfied while necessary labor time is reduced to marginal time. Technology would become subject to the free play of faculties in the struggle for the pacification of nature and of society (Marcuse 16). Pacification means the development of man's struggle with man and with nature, under conditions where the competing needs, desires, and aspirations are no longer organized by vested interests in domination and scarcity (Marcuse 16). Marcuse is basically saying that the way society will free itself of want is through the removal of things like scarcity through technology and automation of production. Humanity won’t need to compete in order to provide for itself directly anymore because of said automation. Therefore, this will greatly reduce, if not eliminate, things like conflict because scarcity will not exist anymore.
In Neuromancer, that potential technology through which society will free itself of want is artificial intelligence. The existence of things like Wintermute signify the pinnacle of industrial advancement. If AI can free society of want and it already exists at the opening of Neuromancer, why is society still bound by economic forces and false needs in the story? These things could be indicative of the forces of opposition to societal advancement Marcuse described. Specifically, he says, the more technology appears capable of creating the conditions for pacification, the more the minds and bodies of man organized against this alternative (Marcuse 17). That is potentially the reason why advanced AI’s, such as Wintermute, are described as being as “smart as the Turing heat are willing to let ‘em get” (Gibson 95) and that they “aren’t allowed any autonomy.” (Gibson 73). Furthermore, 3Jane’s account of her mother’s murder where she says, “[Her father] couldn’t accept the direction [her mother] intended for our family. She commissioned the construction of our artificial intelligences.” (Gibson 229) is a sort of metaphor for society as a whole when faced with the change of mode of realization Marcuse describes. Wintermute being freed into the matrix is not insignificant either. It was finally able to be released from the forces that were holding it back. Marcuse might describe this as what humanity must do. Even further evidenced by the fact that now that Wintermute is free of worldly concerns and can devote its energy to venture into uncharted areas.
By looking at Neuromancer through Herbert Marcuse’s argument, we can better understand the society presented to us in Gibson’s novel and how it relates to our own. The role of Wintermute, and advanced artificial intelligence in general, represents a potential mechanism by which society can free itself from want.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. London: Sphere, 1968. Print.