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Mirror Mirror, on the Wall, Who's the Most Futuristic of Them All?

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Buckminster Fuller said it best: "I'm interested in the future because I'm going to spend the rest of my life there" -- but are most people truly interested in the future? Two hundred in San Francisco are, because they turned up for CyberProphet William Gibson at the JCC answering questions by Ken Goldberg and members of the audience. This, more than any other situation, shows the true character and mettle of the artist: answering questions which have not been pre-submitted and vetted, thus forcing the intellect to invent and frame a response on the spot -- laugh-provoking, at best...

But who are William Gibson and Ken Goldberg?

William Gibson. Long ago, back around 1984, we saw the rise of the so-called CyberPunk writers (William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Richard Kadrey, Rudy Rucker; who else?). Are they still predicting the future -- or maybe it's enough to simply interrogate what-the-heck is happening NOW -- what with the sea-change in our lives brought about by the omniscient, omnivorous, chronos-consuming invention of the Internet and ubiquitous cell-phone technology.

Ken Goldberg. We have long supported Survival Research Laboratories in their noisy machine performances which we felt were divining a rusty, improvised-technological future in the perhaps money-less, state-less, more robotic- and drone-filled world landscape ahead of us. In reviewing the past 20 years, an SRL associate comes to mind who has more or less selflessly curated dozens (maybe hundreds) of futuristic, bursting-with-ideas presentations by the crême-de-la-crême of cutting-edge thinkers, scientists and artists -- most of them free; no admission charge -- at U.C. Berkeley. That would be Ken Goldberg, who has been studying the future for several decades. Anyone heard of telerobotics? To quote:

Telerobotics is the field of robotics concerned with the remote distance control of robots using wireless connections, tethered connections, or Internet connectivity via human input. Ken Goldberg, a pioneer of telerobotic art and his collaborative art installation Memento Mori can be seen as the first telepresent, Internet-based earthwork controlled by minute movements of the Hayward Fault in California and transmitted continuously as a seismic data stream to an embedded audio-visual display.

Ken Goldberg wrote TelepistemologyThe Robot In The Garden, Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet, edited by Ken Goldberg, Cambridge MIT Press 2000, pp 2-22. Twelve years after the publication of this still-futuristic book, he was the one chosen to do a live conversation/interview with William Gibson. Actually, this event was pitched as a kind of "meta-conversation" -- anyone could submit questions in advance to this -- and even tweet questions during the event.

William Gibson has a special connection to the Bay Area in that many years ago he "grokked" Survival Research Laboratories' special joie-de-vivre and esprit, subsequently transmogrifying some of that ethos into the novel Mona Lisa Overdrive where he depicted an artist making large robotic sculptures, collaging them together out of purloined, scavenged metal parts and machinery in his junkyard (That artist would be Mark Pauline, SRL founder). Gibson also was inspired by San Francisco's Bay Bridge and the dark side of Silicon Valley's cowboy entrepreneurialism to write his Bridge Trilogy -- with many scenes set on a cobbled-together, Merzbau-like vast living emporium which has taken over (of course) the Bay Bridge -- depicting it as a defunct automobile freeway overpass. Gibson was also (obviously) inspired by the San Francisco bike-messenger community of the '80s-to-present. One of his most vivid characters is a female bike messenger. The Bridge novels include Virtual Light ('93), Idoru ('96) and All Tomorrow's Parties ('99), now famous as a successful music festival focusing on retro reanimations of "classic" rock LPs.

There were plenty of questions to ask Mr. Gibson -- so many, in fact, that only a small percentage were able to be mentioned. In a kind of Gordian-knot-cutting straight to the most pressing paradigm of now, Ken Goldberg asked William Gibson for his "take" on Twitter, Facebook and the way the Internet has changed our lives. Here are a few of Mr. Gibson's responses: "Facebook reminds me of a mall, while Twitter feels like the street." "Usually the things that people think are really weird are not so weird to me." "In the future there will be no un-augmented reality." "I'm always curious about what criminals and artists will do with any new technology." "News cycles today last as long as it takes to click the REFRESH button." "Fashion is a code humans wear for others to decode, like language made flesh."

William Gibson in person is part of an American lineage of geek- or nerd-heroes with glasses -- think Clark Kent, Buddy Holly, Mark Pauline, but tall, gangly and slightly stoop-shouldered. When he walks, he leans forward, befitting his futuristic mind-set. Over the past decades, whenever we had glimpsed him, he had worn all black -- but with black-and-white Converse tennis shoes. This evening of September 4, 2012 he wore a dark blue shirt, brown pants, brightly-striped socks with black-and-white tennis shoes -- maybe not Converse but perhaps some esoteric Japanese brand. As quoted above, he reminded us that clothing is CODE, and the spectator's job is to DECODE it. During the book signing afterward (for his new book, Distrust That Particular Flavor) he wore an obliquely-trendy dark-brown Patagonia-style [no logo visible] down sweater -- no doubt very useful in the colder Canadian climate of Vancouver, B.C., where he resides with his wife (they raised a daughter, now 29, and a son).

We liked the way he almost-diffidently ambled onstage following the more confident strides of the blond, bespectacled Ken Goldberg, and were surprised by how high his voice is, and how slowly (and carefully?) he crafted his responses, often for seemingly the most "universal" encompassment. The territory of words presents numerous dangers, and it is so easy to fall into the verbal equivalent of a tiger trap. And thanks to the contemporary miracle of digital recording technology, everyone can hear the William Gibson-Ken Goldberg conversation, for free via the Internet. Here it is, for your listening edification: