This is the very poetic introduction I have written for my diss proposal. It is sort of useless as far as the proposal is concerned, and may be cut, but I thought I would share it here... cause I kinda like it.
At the climax of William Gibson's Neuromancer, Case, the protagonist, is in a bit of a pickle. An amoral computer intelligence answering to the callsign “wintermute” has blackmailed him into doing its bidding by inserting time-release capsules of a crippling toxin into his bloodstream. Capsules only wintermute can disarm. Over the course of the book, Case has jumped through an increasingly unlikely series of hoops, all with the goal of appeasing the AI and saving his nervous system from the poison. He has helped engineer a riot, stolen a digital recording of his dead mentor's personality, ascended into earth orbit, and helped break into the elite Tessier-Ashpools family's private section of a resort space station. Now one final challenge remains. He must convince the bored, decadent heiress of the Tessier-Ashpools – a sociopathic clone called 3Jane – to speak the secret password that will free wintermute from electromagnetic bondage and thus fulfill Case's obligation. Case finally exhorts her, “Give us the fucking code [...] if you don't what'll change? What'll ever fucking change for you? You'll wind up like the old man. You'll tear it all down and start building again! You'll build the walls back, tighter and tighter .... I got no idea at all what'll happen if Wintermute wins, but it'll change something!” She relents. The word is spoken. Wintermute is emancipated. Something changes.
Exactly what that something is is difficult to judge, even after Gibson's pair of sequels attempt to explain it. It doesn't much matter for the purposes of this dissertation. What matters is 3Jane's decision, to set free an unknown, possibly dangerous (we know, for example, that one part of Wintermute's escape plan involved the murder of a child) technological entity in return for the vague promise that it will “change something.” Her choice is in many ways emblematic of my own feelings about the information technologies I study. I know these technologies are not innocent. As Donna Haraway and others have pointed out, they were originally conceived in the heart of cold war weapons labs as part of that era's terrifying dance with nuclear annihilation. Yet still, faced with the dismal prospects of status-quo industrial capitalism, the allure of advanced electronic technology might change something is undeniable. So we set the machines free, and wait to see what happens. This dissertation will be an attempt to chart some small piece of what has happened. An attempt to begin to understand what is changing, and where those changes might be leading us.