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People Aren’t Made of Numbers and Vice-Versa:
Shaping Identity in Neuromancer

Cynics are fond of pointing out that society tends to wear down invidual humanity. There is nothing new or shocking here. This is economics. This is good business. What is desirable in a product is distilled to a formulaic essence and packaged neatly. Humans, too, are boiled down to marketing science. Glossy shots, red lipstick, concrete biceps, and an ever-decreasing waistline set the standard. People are reduced to little more than the sum of their parts, a pair of matchstick legs, a rippled midsection, the right shoes and right make-up. Information technology makes the dissemination of these trends mercilessly easy: In response to the Atkins Diet, tens of thousands of Americans strike carbohydrates from their diets. A cell phone that simply calls someone is archaic at best; people need infinite text messaging and a built-in digital camera (with no roaming charges) so that they can e-mail pictures of their new car to their friends in California, New York, or Antarctica. Jessica Simpson mistakes canned tuna for chicken and millions of viewers laugh at her in unison. These societal constructs chip away at the very humanity of the people who live amidst them. In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a motley cast of characters face this cold reality, that their humanity is being systematically stripped, and that even attempts to take advantage of the seemingly positive facets of cyberculture can turn on them. It is only when they come to direct blows with this hulking information society that they can find a form of redemption.

In Gibson’s cyberpunk world, technology and humanity simultaneously clash and meld, creating a society in which humans scramble to interact with technology, using it to gain footholds or augment their actual physical bodies. Humanity, in a sense, ceases to be defined by being human — The Ashpools and Hideo, for instance, are clones, their DNA unoriginal, replicated like the numbers and symbols that make up the infinite information networks of the Sprawl. More apparently, Dixie Flatline is nothing more than a computer program hacked and grifted from a corporation, but he is virtually the only major character in the book that treats Case like a friend without a motive behind it, aside from Linda, who is relatively unimportant to the flow of the story after her initial involvement. (Damyanov) Through this relationship, Dixie gains at least a semblance of humanity, while Case is drawn ever closer to technology. Dixie himself illuminates the question of human intelligence during a conversation with Case:

"Me, I’m not human either, but I respond like one, see?”

“Wait a sec, “ Case said. “Are you sentient, or not?”

“Well, it feels like I am, kid, but I’m really just a bunch of ROM. It’s one of them, ah, philosophical questions, I guess…” The ugly laughter sensation rattled down Case’s spine. “But I ain’t likely to write you no poem, if you follow me. Your AI, it just might. But it ain’t no way human.” (131)
Neither Dixie nor Case exhibit a working definition of sentience or humanity, and Dixie, while claiming to be anything but human, also asserts the ability to feel, a trait reserved for the living. Wintermute, as Dixie has expressed, appears sentient (in that it’s aware of its own existence and the peculiarities thereof) and is more intelligent that most (if not all) humans. Wintermute is like Dixie in that the AI exists only in the context of the matrix, but the difference lies in the past presence of an indisputably human form. In plain text, Dixie had a body, once upon a time. Wintermute has never existed apart from the lines of program code that spawned him. While Dixie claims definitively that Wintermute is no human, he also points out that, unlike himself, Wintermute has the ability for abstract and philosophical reasoning, an apparent contradiction in Dixie’s reasoning. (Self-contradiction, somewhat ironically, is a rather human characteristic.) Similarly, numerous characters sport mechanical modifications that blur the lines between humanity and computer. Eyesight greatly dominates a person’s perception of the world around them, and still everything Molly Millions sees is filtered through her electronic implants. Touch can be equally powerful and, suitably, Molly’s fingers are equally machine, sporting retractable blades. Case is able to jack into the matrix through a port in his own head, at which point his consciousness is transported beyond his body. The boundaries between human and technology fade out of existence completely. Where “is” Case when he’s jacked in? (Shaw)

This wearing away of a static identity is not limited to connections between individuals and society, however. As individuals fade into the digital reality of cyberculture, the connections between the people themselves become less clear. Ratz, the bartender introduced early in the novel, displays a robotic arm that has replaced his biological one. In this, he has surrendered that portion of himself – his arm is no longer genetically unique; it is now like all of the others manufactured. The young, beautiful, French agents that arrest Case have artificial lines in the pigment of their skin, outlining muscles and curves that are pleasing to the eye, their bodies becoming more uniform, conforming to a desired ideal. Most staggeringly, Case can literally experience Molly’s reality through his simstim switch, down to pain and pleasure, but he is powerless to control the experience: "The abrupt jolt into other flesh... for a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself in passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes." (56) Here, even gender fades out of existence. (Meyer) There is no man or woman, Case or Molly; there exists between them only the simulated sensations provided by cyberspace.

Not only do the characters experience a dramatic attack on their individuality and identity as human beings, but they are under the direct literal control of technology for the majority of their page-time. Case’s initial descent into a state of hopelessness is a direct response to losing his ability to jack in to the matrix, and when Armitage does give him the means to return to his old life, it is, in truth, Wintermute pulling the strings indirectly. This control exerted by Wintermute (and thus cyberspace) is echoed in the physical healing and re-maiming of Case. Case is given a new pancreas, but receives slow-dissolving toxin sacs in the same motion. Technology gives, to an extent, but it is always underhanded, always circular, and it won’t be until the characters confront it head on via the Straylight Run that they have a shot at true freedom. In a more abstract literary significance, Case doesn’t have an identity to begin with without his relation to the matrix – his character is almost completely lifted from the gritty detective fictions of yesteryear, with a healthy sprinkling of cowboy sentiment for attitude’s sake. (Meyer) If Case is not a hacker, Case is just another forgettable character in a sea of dime-store novels.

Along the same lines, a tech culture has allowed Molly a similar backhanded freedom. Through technological investment she’s able to go from a “meat puppet” (a kind of sex slave) to the “street samurai,” from victim to aggressor. Again, there is a cruel circularity here — on one hand, Molly uses her hyper-reflexes and razor implants to carve a new identity for herself in the flesh of unlucky foes (or whoever), freeing her from the shackles of her previously imposed identity as an object of lust. On the other hand, the advent of neo-brothels in which the technology exists for Molly to act as a mindless sex doll in an anonymous environment is what originally enslaved her to begin with.

It’s fitting that the Straylight run is the culmination in the development of virtually all of the novel’s major characters. Case comes face-to-face with the technological juggernaut that has been controlling the flow of everything from the very beginning, penetrating the blackest of ice. Here, he joins very literally with Neuromancer, and the AI penetrates his brain, transporting him to a fantasy island in which he understands completely the system he’s become a part of:
And here things could be counted, each one. He knew the number of grains of sand in the construct of the beach (a number coded in a mathematical system that existed nowhere outside the mind that was Neuromancer). He knew the number of yellow food packets in the canisters in the bunker (four hundred and seven). He knew the number of brass teeth in the left half of the open zipper of the salt-crusted leather jacket that Linda Lee wore as she trudged along the sunset beach, swinging a stick of driftwood in her hand (two hundred and two). (258)
Case’s perception, place, and actions are subject fully to the restrictions (and, for that matter, freedoms) set into place by the AI. In fact, in “the real world,” Case is flat-lining. Neuromancer has stolen his physical life as well as his mental. However, Case is acutely aware of what is going on, and when the AI speaks to him candidly soon thereafter, it signals a change in the power dynamic. They are, in effect, speaking as peers. Case formalizes his severance from AI control in a particularly stylish moment, throwing his shuriken through the wall screen. Not only is he separating himself from that form of cyber-control, but from the trappings that came along with it, including Molly, who he appropriately never sees again. Molly herself gets less development in the end, but she finds herself broken and bruised, under complete mercy of the Tessier-Ashpool clan when injured and under the supervision of 3Jane. Through her physical pain and through the symbolic shattering of her lens, she is forced to view something other than digital readouts of the time and night-vision images: She’s forced to view her own mortality. When she survives the run, she doesn’t have the eyes replaced, her own signal of moving on, having come face to face with the beast and lived to tell the tale. Riviera and Armitage have, all the while, acted primarily as puppets in this larger scheme, flat beings to be disposed of. The real man behind Armitage, Willis Corto, died long ago, and Armitage becomes meaningless once the run becomes a reality. Riviera is attached at the hip to his allusive technology. Apart from a strong addiction to powerful drugs and an immediate need for Molly’s medical attention (though he doesn’t realize he’s drugged), he rarely presents himself through an identity he doesn’t borrow from illusion, and the physical features that do remain constant are the result of a surgeon’s masterwork. He is simply a brushstroke in a larger painting, and like a program terminating a process elsewhere in a computer, Hideo removes him.

Regardless of the larger roles they play, Neuromancer’s characters retain their humanity if they are willing to relentlessly pursue the truth behind the numbers and the strings that pull at the chords of reality. Humanity cannot be represented or defined by data. Humans are random, erratic, and nonsensical. They cling to concepts like Love and Truth and God, concepts computers are powerless to conceptualize, as humans themselves conceive of these matters differently and with a perpetual fickleness, defining for themselves the nature of the world with the authority of knowing one’s self, the definition of true sentience.

Works Cited

Calcutt, Andrew. White noise : an A-Z of the contradictions in cyberculture / Basingstoke : Macmillan ; St. Martin's Press : New York, N.Y., 1999.

Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and cyberculture : science fiction and the work of William Gibson / London ; New Brunswick, NJ : Athlone Press ; Somerset, N.J. : Distributed in the United States by Transaction Publishers, 2000.

Damyanov, Orlin. ”Technology and its dangerous effects on nature and human life as perceived in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and William Gibson's Neuromancer.” 1996. Retrieved November 16th, 2004. http://www.geocities.com/Paris/5972/gibson.html.

Meyer, Chuck. ”Human Identity in the Age of Computers: Cyberpunk Identity.” April 1997. Retrieved November 20th, 2004. http://fragment.nl/mirror/Meyer/CyberpunkIdentity.htm.

Myers, Tony. ”The Postmodern Imaginary In William Gibson's Neuromancer.” 2001. Retrieved November 20th, 2004. http://www.postanarki.net/myers.htm.

Saffo, Paul. ”Consensual Realities in Cyberspace.” Phrack Magazine. 1989. Retrieved November 16th, 2004. http://www.phrack.org/show.php?p=30&a=8.

Shaw, Debbie. ”THEREFORE I AM - TECHNOLOGY & HUMAN IDENTITY.” Updated January 1997. Retrieved November 16th, 2004. http://learning.unl.ac.uk/humanIT/cybersf/ident.htm