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(Digitally) Representing Friendship (CPB)

October 26, 2009

Yesterday, while reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer I couldn’t stop thinking about friendship. The first reason was that six of us–my friends and I–were in the same room, reading the same novel, embodying all the standard tropes of liberal humanist friendship: food and drink at the table, shared laughter, lively conversation, books in abundance, and evidence of correspondence on the hearth and fridge. Didn’t Emerson and Thoreau do the same? More and Erasmus? Berry and Abbey? (Haraway and Cayenne?)

But while one part of me wants to tell you about my friendship–the joyous and singular affective bonds that I share with specific others–another part of me bears down to stop the telling (“Telling ruins it!” it cries, “Certain things cannot be shared with all”). Particularly horrifying is the idea of bringing these bonds under the lens of the blogosphere, stranger’s eyes accessing what lives in my heart. Intruding on what is necessarily exclusive.

The second reason I was struck by friendship was that it seemed to be at issue in the novel. Like other languages around love, appeals to friendship often perform friendship as much as they identify it. Thus, in Free Side, Case attempts to persuade Cath and Bruce to drive him across the asteroid in the middle of the night: “Because we’re friends, right? Aren’t we?” he says, and they seem willing to accept the responsibility of this affective appeal (and the privilege of befriending a “gangster”) enough to accommodate him (145). That is, even though their dealer/buyer relationship seems largely transactional, “friendship” acts as a potent and persuasive signifier.

The real trouble comes when the novel’s A.I. attempt to befriend humans in order to have similar persuasive power. The debate about a machine’s ability to think has faded to the background as Gibson ups the ante: How do computer programs befriend humans?

Wintermute seems to have Wintermute’s appearance as an avatar-friend is disturbing to every protagonist and lethal, in the case of Armitage. On the one hand, Wintermute needs a body to appear and reason with humans, a fact to delight N. Katharine Hayles. Disembodied ringing telephones are freaky. A face is not.  (See this Atwood interview for more on faces and technology).  On the other hand, Wintermute needs the body and face with the right affective bonds in order to appeal affectively to Case, Molly, and Armitage. “This set isn’t easy for me to maintain,” says he says as Jules Dean, “I was hoping to speak through [Linda Lee], but I’m generating all this out of your memories, and the emotional charge. . . . Well, it’s very tricky” (119). The trickiness is Wintermute’s digitally approximating a friendship that he does not have and gaining access to a social leverage he has not earned. He certainly has the form right: friendship as humans understand it, thrives on both bodies and memory.

But what of the friendship between Case and Dix, when (digital) body and memory aren’t enough to fully conjure a friend? Dix’s name–“The Flatline”–is a constant reminder of his death, his non-being, but yet he is and is one of the most memorable characters. There seems to be another boundary here–the potential for play? for change? for flesh? Like Wintermute, Dix’s body is digital, but eerily so. Case repeatedly shudders at his mechanical laugh, its lack of emotion revealing his digital identity like a fallen mask. Dix has several catchphrases just as human friends might, but since he is a “construct,” Case seems more sensitive to them: “You know you repeat yourself” ().  Paradoxically, Dix employs his friendship with Case and Wintermute not to more firmly embed his consciousness and memory but to remove it.

In an age when Aristotle’s dictum “My friends, there are no friends” comes up on Google as a quote from Coco Chanel, when many humans have more friends on facebook than we do in our immediate surroundings, and when computer programs affect their friendliest of faces, friendship and its digital representations are not leaving us anytime soon.

One Comment leave one →
  1. kmckimps permalink
    October 31, 2009 1:56 am

    Interesting. Also, the characters that try to press friendship (Case in the scene you mentioned) and Wintermute don’t seem able to succeed at gaining it with their audience. Almost as if friendship is a non-entity, something formed by not trying to.

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