In MONTAG's Today’s Dystopia series, our writers explore the dystopian worlds of classic fiction, and see if our world has slipped closer to the fictional one since it was published. Is our cool new technology bringing us closer to a future we’re afraid of - or is it already here?
In MONTAG's fourth look at yesterday’s tomorrow’s dystopias today (read the previous ones here, including The Handmaid's Tale), we dip into a cyberpunk classic.
Johnny Mnemonic, a 1981 short story by William Gibson originally published in Omni magazine and part of the Sprawl series, has been praised by Bruce Sterling as when Gibson “hit his stride,” and “upped the ante for the entire genre,” – that genre being cyberpunk, which William Gibson essentially originated.
The 1995 film adaptation, starring a post-Bill & Ted but pre-Matrix Keanu Charles Reeves, is one of the clearest aesthetic visions of the pre-Y2K cyberpunk future replete with flickering neon, goggles, shiny chrome, and PVC clothing.
With exposed wires and naked circuits everywhere, Gibson’s fiction is raw, and these short works that predate 1984’s Neuromancer go down like sashimi to a science fiction lover.
Although there is no date specified in the short story, Gibson stated in a 2014 interview that Neuromancer and the rest of the Sprawl were set, in his mind, around 2035 (not 2021, as stated in the film's trailer). How close are we with today’s technology to living in the Sprawl in 18 years?
On a scale from one to five dolphins, in honor of Jones, the ex-military cyborg dolphin who helps Johnny crack his own code, we’ll rate how close the technology of Johnny Mnemonic is to becoming our reality today.
Johnny’s brain and Jones’ wetware encryption: 4.5 out of 5 dolphins
The story centers around a data courier name Johnny, who has an implant in his head that allows him to encrypt and carry information without any conscious knowledge of it, and the information can be retrieved by a spoken password.
When triggered by this password, the tech embedded in his brain forces him to expunge the information, “in an artificial language.” The technological mystery here is how the data is encoded in such a way that it is accessible both to the software and hardware of Johnny’s implants (described later as “all the silicon [in] my amygdalae”) and the wetware of his brain.
Elon Musk’s newly founded company, Neuralink, is seeking to develop brain-computer interfaces where data flows both ways. Some of the technology in development to accomplish this are micron-sized devices called ”silicon motes”.
Also known as “neural dust,” it should be able to record and transmit information using acoustic vibrations, and was previously developed by one of the Neuralink co-founders, D.J. Seo at the University of CA Berkeley.
Musk projects that these devices will be ready within 8-10 years, which if true, fits easily into the timeline of the Sprawl and would enable the kind of software-to-wetware data transmission that Johnny is capable of.
One of the first successful brain-machine interfaces, was used by animals in tests by Eberhard Fetz in 1969, where a monkey trained to fire a particular neuron was hooked up to a machine that dispensed food. The Utah Electrode Array, developed in the 1990s, is a silicon implant that is plugged into the brain by surgeons like a dense hairbrush of needles, and was implemented successfully in both humans and animals.
Utah Electrode Array via MIT Technology Review
By 2035, how likely is it that Johnny and the dolphin can both interface with the technology that encodes the data he’s carrying with their brains?
It’s a bit of a stretch, but dolphins have been trained to use keyboards to communicate with scientists and have some of the largest and most complex brains with similarities to humans, so if we manage to create such powerful brain-computer interface technology for medical purposes, it’s possible a dolphin could be trained to use a brain-computer interface.
Body modification and biohacking: 2 out of 5 dolphins
Molly Millions, the mercenary accompanying Johnny on his journey of data theft and protecting him from the Yakuza, also appears in Neuromancer, and is one of the best (and coolest) examples of what Gibson’s characters bodies can do with technology.
As it’s explained more extensively in the later book, people who want to work as hired muscle get their bodies heavily outfitted with tech that makes their muscles twitch and grow faster, they take all sorts of steroids and stimulants, and incorporate weapons and tools like infrared cameras into their flesh.
Molly is a “Razorgirl” whose modifications include retractable razor blades installed under her fingernails. The Yakuza assassin who pursues Johnny has a weapon implanted in his left thumb which can release three meters of deadly monomolecular filament capable of cutting someone in half in seconds, which he wields like a garotte.
There are also the “Lo Teks” who live with significantly less technology in their bodies, and adopt a more primitive aesthetic but still undergo complex body modifications, replacing their teeth with animals’ and undergoing ritualistic scarification, as well as tattooing.
The cosmetic element of biohacking figures heavily in the plot of the book as well: when the story begins, Johnny is remarking on his current identity, “Edward Bax,” accomplished largely through plastic surgeries to make him look more like a particular fictional celebrity.
Many of these aesthetic expressions of bodily technological mediation exist today, which is why body modification in Johnny Mnemonic gets 2 dolphins: a lot of these extreme fashions seem possible and would look super badass, but unfortunately are not likely.
Nerve Attenuation Syndrome / “The Black Shakes”: 1 out of 5 dolphins
In the story, the information that Johnny is carrying has been stolen from the Yakuza, who have stolen it from Ono-Sendai, a fictional Japanese mega-corporation.
In the film version, the information that Johnny is ferrying is from a pharmaceutical company, and contains the cure for Nerve Attenuation Syndrome or “The Black Shakes,” described as a debilitating neurological disease caused by overexposure to electromagnetic technology, which plagues the future’s society.
Today, people are worried about cell phone radiation causing cancer, and the side effects of long term exposure to electromagnetic radiation by persistent wifi and satellite signals in our homes and all over the world. Why then, is this disease’s possibility only one dolphin (extremely unlikely)?
Using the information from the movie and book version of Johnny Mnemonic together, it doesn’t appear that the data economy of the Sprawl is much larger than ours, so they wouldn’t need much faster internet and connected devices bombarding them with high frequency radiation at all times.
The amount of information that Johnny has to transmit is a whopping 320 GB (while the chip that he has installed can only hold 160 GB, subjecting Johnny to some neurological peril). Assuming a wireless data transfer speed of 100Mb/s the transmission of the information should take approximately 7 hours.
However, Johnny “sings” the data for 3 hours when the data is unlocked, so we know the speed of wireless data transmission to be just a little faster than 200 Mb/s - only twice as fast as a modern connection and not, therefore, significantly more harmful.
Overall: 2.5 dolphins
If brain-computer interfaces develop to the level of the Sprawl alongside the sharing economy of transportation, maybe it’s possible you could hire a courier to transmit your data on the sneakernet by 2035.
We’ll be extremely lucky if human-dolphin communication is figured out by that point, much less creating a brain-computer interface that works for humans. Who knows, maybe Elon Musk’s next company will focus on this important technological leap: yesterday’s cyberpunk dystopia could become tomorrow’s seapunk reality.