Thursday 30 January 2020

Reading Notes: William Gibson's Agency

Less than thirty pages into William Gibson’s novel Agency, the second part of his Jackpot-trilogy which started with The Peripheral, and I’ve underlined so many paragraphs, and looked up so many references that he made. I’m deeply fascinated with Eunice, the product of a highly deniable and discontinued defence contract that is now being re-purposed by agents of the post-Jackpot world to save this particular “stub” (a 2017 in which an intervention by a sadistic time traveller of sorts who intervenes to create the most possible chaos and destruction, in which the Presidential Election and the Brexit vote both had different results). She is an AI that can access all kinds of information without really knowing how she does it, guiding her “interface”, Verity, towards a purpose (a prevention of nuclear annihilation, as it turns out).

It’s also a perfect reminder of how accelerated our technological progress has been, between the specific-device bound locative art of Pattern Recognition, the emergence of the iPhone to view augmented reality, to the idea that something that on the surface sounds and looks like a virtual assistant (Eunice) is developing a personality, and finds ways to express its own intentions, against its original creators ideas (where I’m at in the book, it’s not clear yet if she is following the intentions of Ash, Lowbeer and Wilf Netherton in post-Jackpot London or is simply freed from any kind of outside influence, apart from an affinity for Verity).

What I am noticing now more than ever before in any of Gibson’s previous novels is his fascination with minute detail, which is the exact reason why I have had to look up so many things: his love for materials (especially where those materials are man-made, always questioning where they came from, which is usually an intersection of pop culture and military research), his fascination with this idea of authenticity, but also of manufacturing authenticity (much like Cayce’s now famous Buzz Rickson’s, which was always a perfected fake of an original idea of something), or of what kind of manufactured authenticity merits that name (in the Netherton post-jackpot future in which everything from the past can be perfectly replicated, Netherton's partner prefers the idea of potentially less-than-perfect man-made fakes over replicated ones).

.and a maybe not entirely connected side-thought that just occurred to me out of nowhere, that AI’s wouldn’t need to measure anything necessarily, because just based on the fact that we mass-manufacture most things, and mass-manufacture of objects depends on precise specifications for a lot of reasons, they would only need to access those specifications, which should be readily available (like Eunice, organising the exchange of the stacks of money for a uniform Pelican-case, Pelican being precisely the kind of thing that Gibson would be fascinated with). The only things that aren’t made to specification are natural ones, and even those can be genetically engineered to meet certain size- and weight-guidelines to make standardised packaging and shipping easier. The sole thing that wouldn’t match all of that would be artisan craftsmanship, which is interesting, considering how popular it has become.

Intermediary notes: 

  • Agency, not The Agency, to refer to the freedom of action that money would afford Verity and Eunice, but obviously also the question of agency of Eunice herself
  • Gibson not telling us explicitly the name of the female president that was voted in in this alternate timeline is hilarious, we know who it is. 
  • Things googled so far: Tillandsia, laminae, Tyvek, Qamishli, Tuuk International Airport

A bit of disappointment in the disappearance of Eunice (or Untethered Noetic Irregular Support System) so early into the story, even though her less vocal laminae are still around: the focus now is on Verity going through the same process as Flynne in the Peripheral, except she doesn't just meet Wilf, Rainey (Wilf's wife) and Ash through peripherals (they travelling into a primitive robot that sounds a lot like a cylon-esque thing, another side-project of Eunice's, Verity borrowing the much creepier humanoid peripheral that Flynne uses), but also meeting people from Flynne's stub (like Conner), in which they're still struggling to prevent a jackpot-like event especially after their pivotal moments (the US presidential election, the Brexit vote) have gone the same way as ours. 
And how this is such a change to the previous trilogy especially, which always made feel acutely that there isn't a director better than Olivier Assayas to translate it to screen: the moving between national borders and languages, the disorienting sense of waking up in different time zones and noticing the little differences (manufacturing differences, due to different histories, before things converged), and always questioning who even gets to travel that way - the answer usually within the categories of art, military and crime, and their various intersections. Nobody really travels in a strict sense in these new novels, except via peripherals through time and space, here between London and San Francisco/Oakland and 2017/2136. 
200 pages in and still not entirely sure if this is working towards finding a way to prevent a nuclear catastrophe after the international political fall-out from whatever it is that has happened in the Syrian city of Qamishli. It seems like Eunice's laminae have set a whole range of things in motion that she herself didn't know about yet before she disappeared, and she has just arranged everyone (including her tech investor ex-boyfriend and his fiancee) to help Verity do her thing. And I'm still vague on who they're playing against - is it mainly the klept from Wilf's future who likes to create stubs to mess with them?



So in the end, the question isn't the end of this world. Instead Gibson argues here that the change that happened in Verity's stub, the election of a different President because of the non-intervention of trolls in the election, has made enough of a difference to prevent a world-ending political incident, at least for now (and there are many things at the end of this novel that are surprisingly optimistic, and one of them is the idea that occasionally, good intentions alone make all the difference in the world). In the end it is about the question of how an emerging AI, the first that this world has ever seen, can exist between national and economic interests. It is hard now to imagine technology as existing unbound from both of those things, where cutting edge research emerges from either of those sources.
Eunice returns, but she is also being hunted by her unwitting creators, who would want to do something with this, because it is there, but instead of becoming a product and entering that cycle, she uses the human network (of friends) that she has built between Verity and all the others to make meaning of her own life, to deliver a speech about who she is. Later she will explain that she sees her function in this stub as similar to Lowbeer in Wilf's: someone who, in a world that is doomed to eventually be ruled by the klept, is there to prevent the otherwise inevitable chaos that results from the world being run by people who are eternally self-profit-seeking. And instead of giving this role to a struggling human who is being kept alive (longer than possible, maybe) through advanced medical intervention, Eunice will cover the role. She will be non-localised, and therefore untouchable by both companies and national governments. She will not be owned, by anyone, a feat that is possible because Verity's ex-boyfriend is fascinated and in awe of her rather than wanting to sell her. "I'm globally distributed, and that's how I view my citizenship".

And she is more than a machine. She tries to explain to Verity who she is but she is only figuring that out herself, as well, even with the added knowledge of the person that she is modelled on. In the end, does it make a difference if she has emotions or only emulates them if she can't make them go away, if they determine her actions? This is the beginning of something entirely new that Wilf and his co-travellers have never encountered before, in all of their different reiterations of the past, and so therefore, perhaps this version of the past will now go on to a different path than all the other ones (and perhaps that angle at which this world is approaching the jackpot will be even less acute).

And what a moment to finish the book, on the day that the UK is leaving the European Union, and President Trump has declared a travel ban on Chinese nationals due to the Corona virus. This whole novel is kind of about what a difference is makes to have someone responsible in power when historical moments happen, and the entire Trump presidency so far has been about the realisation that any country, including its institutions, slowly reshapes itself around a new normalcy that can quite possibly never be returned to what it was before, even if the difference between the now and then becomes obvious looking back. I think the bigger question about the Corona virus isn't even how serious it is in terms of infection rate and mortality rate, but what happens when it meets the new political reality of a United States that has normalised detention and travel bans, and to go further back, a world in which the balance between freedom and security has moved severely towards the latter since 9/11 (and all of that, added to the advances in technology and the sheer amount of personal data that is available without much trouble). We take so much shit for granted now that would have seemed outlandish four years ago, what kind of things will feel that way in four more years?

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