All Tomorrow's Parties presents us with a fictional world "the-year-after-the-next-year" where (to quote Bob Dylan) "Everything is Broken." The process of social fragmentation here in Vancouver that Douglas Coupland laments in Hey Nostradamus! is become widespread in ATP: families, cities, states & provinces, countries and individual psyches are things of shards and tatters. However, Gibson's text presents an important paradox. The free market system which, in Gibson's fictional outlook, is the cause of this fragmentation is actually growing more unified, and that unification has spreading to the verge of global uniformity. The paradox in encoded in Gibson's plot, which is an eschatological race between the villain (explicitly a Bill Gates-type) and the rag-tag-band-of-heroes (Laney, Chevette, Fontaine, Rydell) to use a new product (a nano-fax machine) supplied ahead of demand - and thus without a known purpose) either for profit-without-end or for the Rapture.
Gibson's metaphysic in his cyberpunk novels -- and in his "idoru" trilogy-so-far (of which ATP is the third) is the evolution from the human (us) to post-human (part us & part not us.) The "non-us," of course, is information technology. In the fourties, Marvin Minsky of MIT famously said "in the future, if we're lucky machines will keep us as pets." That is the view of things behind Gibson's cyberpunk. The fragmentation in ATP will be made whole again by the blending of consciousness and IT. "Rei Toei" -- the Idoru -- becomes a cybernetic Messiah, emerging in transcendent form simultaneously from every 7-Eleven-type store around the globe. And here in the non-fiction realm, even if Minsky's remark sounds extremist to us, it is difficult to avoid the thought that some significant change will result from our now near-constant exposure to IT.
How long have you been looking at a screen so far today ..... ?
Gibson's metaphysic, then, in All Tomorrow's Parties is Creative Evolution: an idea best associated with Henri Bergson (1859-1941), a philosopher who, in my view, lacks proper appreciation - whether or not one acccepts his thesis. Creative Evolution, generally speaking, is the assumption that evolution is always an advance: that hardships, although bad news for some or many individuals, creates in the long run improvement for the species - such as the human race. Bergson gave us the term elan vital -- or vital force -- to describe the existence of an immaterial life force that expresses itself in organic matter. This idea is, in my observation, the unconscious assumption behind most people's thoughts on evolution - of all levels of education. It's earlier term - Social Darwinism -- was nearly unchallenged. The interesting fact is that it is non-Darwinian. That is, Darwin's entire project was to try and establish that evolution is not a force for improvement, but one which can as easily eliminate as produce improvements. Peter J. Bowler is an indefatigable writer in defense of Darwin against all type of creative evolutionism.
So, William Gibson has given fictional form to this intellectual field: using ideas from emerging technologies to suggest a eudystopic IT path that the elan vital might take. As lecture will develop further, Gibson also invokes the concept of emergent properties to create his virtual reality: i.e. his fiction. As the property of wetness emergences from the combination of two independent components neither of which themselves have the property wetness, so in All Tonorrow's Parties the property of existence arises from those components which comprise Rei Toei -- the idoru.
I love fiction, and I love it for many reasons. And one of these is its ability to bring the fantastic closer to the real by making it plausible. As I suggested in lecture, it is not unreasonable to suggest that a computer-generated celebrity, run by an algorithm of market-tested qualities, with a good singing voice, appealing appearance and virtual fashions, has al least no less reality (in a meaningful sense of "reality") than a person, experienced by mass public entirely through media, marketed as a performer, who can neither sing, play an instrument nor dance.