2023 ASAP-14 Proposal: “Is the future already dated? Streaming and Fugitive Temporalities in William Gibson’s The Peripheral”

This is my abstract proposal for the 2023 conference of The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, titled “Arts of Fugitivity,” occurring in Seattle WA on 4-7 October 2023.

A 2019 New Yorker profile William Gibson acknowledged that he had to rewrite the ending of his novel Agency several times due to the outcome of the 2016 election and Trump’s nuclear standoff with North Korea. Gibson’s attempt to forecast a dystopian future had been superseded by our own present dystopia that had become too real. Amazon also released a streaming adaptation of Gibson’s previous novel The Peripheral in 2022. The narrative of the streaming series departed in such significant ways from Gibson’s original novel that it caused many fans to call it a “stub,” a word from the novel referring to one of many alternate histories stored on a computer server in China. The central scenario of the two novels features the communication between these alternate histories through digital interfaces and computer peripherals: technologies that process algorithms in radically different ways than human beings experience time. Calling such processes “fugitive temporalities,” I suggest that Gibson is diagnosing the temporal politics of our current era only too well. As media archaeologists like Siegfried Zielinski and Wolfgang Ernst put it, we exist in a series of asynchronous temporal frameworks mediated by our devices, our internet networks, and our cultural politics. In fact, Gibson’s novel so powerfully describes these infrastructures that it may already render itself dated as a result.

Burton Fisher (Jack Reynor) speaks to Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz) in The Peripheral.

The streaming series introduces us to VR headsets, 3d printers, and the ubiquity of gamification; none of which point to significant technological innovation beyond minor design tweaks to existing devices. During my first read of Gibson’s 2014 novel, I was particularly struck by his description of the “wheelie-boy:” a proto-peripheral device consisting of an iPad mounted to a set of wheels. I’d just seen a 2016-episode of The Good Wife, in which a lawyer uses a telepresence robot to participate remotely in a meeting with the firm’s partners. And after COVID-19 forced people onto Zoom in one of the largest remote working experiments ever conducted, the cognitive estrangement offered by Gibson’s “wheelie-boy” seems almost quaint.

Yet the scenario of the novel also defamiliarizes our present. On the level of narrative as and as a transmedia experience, The Peripheral destabilizes how we understand the role of history and time in narrative as well as the link between media, data, and the Real. This piece will show how the streaming show’s depiction of these events questions what it means for science fiction to be realistic, particularly given the processing algorithms of streaming media — like file compression and data transmission.

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