Here’s Johnny (Mnemonic) - Memory as Commodity, Technology as Subjugation of Nature

2009 April 15
by Zachary McCune

A short story from William Gibson’s pre-Neuromancer work, “Johnny Mnemonic” now appears as a test run for sprawl cyberpunk. Its setting- a dystopian, hyper-corporate America- is the same late capitalistic sprawl that readers will find in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Its characters are also familiar: Molly Millions is the same Molly we find haunting all of Gibson’s sprawl novels, and our villains, the Yakuza, are also a figment of things to come.

But “Johnny Mnemonic” is also a very different piece of science fiction than the “classic Gibson.” Stylistically, it is written from the first person, thereotically allowing the reader to see Johnny more intimately, but in fact Gibson seems to keep the same technical distance so familiar from his sprawl work in even his employment of the first person. Like the data Johnny is carrying, the reader is boxed off somewhere in Johnny’s head, but unable to really penetrate his thoughts. The reader is remote and personal to Johnny at the same time. What he says about his own technological function (that of storing data in his physical memory without having access to it) can thus be applied to both his own technology and his relationship to the reader: “The program. I had no idea what it contained. I only sing the song, with zero comprehension” (Burning Chrome 18).

“Sing the song” is of course an allusion to act of the bard or the poet of ancient literature. Homer, the author associated with the Odyssey, sang the epic poem, and whoever wrote Beowulf likewise performed it orally. In fact, the poetic invocation of epic poetry (such as the Odyssey or the Aeneid) always begins with “sing in me muse…” Along these lines, one might consider Johnny as a instrument in his own narrative, the voice of the diegesis but an individual without access to changing the story. This is complimented by Gibson’s use of a limited first person writing style.

Johnny also gives readers a way to relate to the Sprawl. Historically, this short story is among the first sketches we have of the Sprawl and I think that this gives this short story a special status in developing a conception of what it will become. Characteristics of the sprawl, such as its violence, its redefinition of gender & race, and its interest in the commodities of a late (late) capitalism, are evident throughout the text.

Violence is perhaps the single most palpable quality of the text, and is suggested to be a necessity of the cyberpunk setting (the sprawl) rather than an excess. In fact, we first encounter Johnny at a desperate cross-roads between his own vulnerability to violence and his own ability to produce it. Desperation, another quality of this opening action, is also revealed by the text to be an overarching characteristic rather than a limited experience. In Gibson’s cyberpunk, everyone lives in a state of persistent desperation, yet becuase of the feelings persistents the characters become jaded about crisis ultimately characterizing the entire zeitgeist as some of sort of anxious indifference.  And this is where Johnny (our protagonist) really operates.

For a late 20th century/early 21st century reader, the fact that our protagonist has sold out his memory to the highest bidder seems to be some sort of capitalist transgression. Even if “contemporary society” has exploitated the body in capitalism (blood donations, organ transplants, prostitution) the commodification of the mind, and memory violates a whole spirit of liberalism and the idea of the independent, enlightened espoused by that philosophic school. The fact that nobody except Johnny seems to find it inappropriate that his mind has been commodified tells the reader something about this society of Gibsons: namely, that it has shifted its values and conceptions of the individual away from a recognizable set of contemporary norms. Even when Molly requires an explanation regarding Johnny’s memory-commodity, she treats it like some piece of technology she’s new to. The fact that this interface/technology is intractably coupled to a human being (as manifested by Johnny’s human biology) means little to Molly, or Raifi, or the Lo Teks, when we finally meet them.

For Molly, this really isn’t surprising. She knows a cyborgial dolphin addicted to heroin after all. This dolphin, “Jones,” seems to be a whole new transgression upon nature by Gibson’s cyberpunk civilization. Intentionally using a dolphin to create the whole affect of pity and concern attached by contemporary humanity to those animals in particular, Gibson seems to take joy in causing distress (through disgust) on the part of the reader. Jones is thus used to demonstrate:

  1. Cyberpunk civilization’s lack of respect for nature
  2. The indifference of cyberpunk humanity (as represented by Molly and Johnny) to the cyborg-ing of animals
  3. The pervasiveness of technology (its scope is such that it reclaims/subjugates) nature
  4. The rift in orienting personal values/ethics between the reader and the world he is reading about.

Of course, Jones is also the solution to Johnny’s problem. Given Johnny’s inability to access his own “soul” (which Enlightenment thinking locates in the mind), only turning to nature (as represnted by Jones) can allow a redemption of the human body. But this not a perfect man-redeemed-by-nature dynamic, because of course, Jones is not really nature anymore: he is a sort of techno-nature which has the wherewithal to redeem Johnny only because of its technological apparti and training. As Molly tells the reader, Jones was built by the Navy, for war. Is this then a suggestion that Johnny’s lifestyle can only be corrected by taking military action against it? Perhaps what we should really ask, is if Jones is meant to be some hideous parody of the American Military-Industrial complex, made into such a ravenous operation that it consumes and redefines the very role of nature to humanity? If nothing else, Jones is that which man has made from nature, but which is still differentiated. It has been programmed, and augmented with technology, but it is still distinctly other. Technology then is not a source of unity in Gibson’s early cyberpunk, but a site of division, subjugation, and employment in a hierachy.

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